Cook: What does it mean to be a Tennessee Republican?

Cook: What does it mean to be a Tennessee Republican?

August 28th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

What does it mean to be a Republican in Tennessee?

With the Republicans already controlling 85 out of the 132 available seats in the General Assembly - and potentially more after this fall's election - this question may be better asked with the future tense:

What will it mean to be a Republican in Tennessee?

Will Tennesseans get more of Gov. Bill Haslam's education reform? Or more of the guns-everywhere, "Don't Say Gay" agenda?

Consider this timeline, beginning in June 2012, when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded our state's "commitment to leading the nation in education reform."

A few weeks later, county Republican parties across Tennessee began openly criticizing their own Republican governor for hiring a Muslim woman and not firing openly gay employees.

A few weeks after that, Debra Maggart, chairwoman of the House Republican caucus, was defeated in the Aug. 2 primaries - by another Republican - after Maggart had fought certain pro-gun legislation. (The National Rifle Association spent at least $75,000 to defeat Maggart.)

So, which is it?

I put the question to Bo Watson, Senate pro tempore and a Republican from Hixson, over coffee last week at Chattz, the Market Street coffeehouse. Watson is well-respected within government and outside of it; during our 90-minute conversation, he was articulate, open to divergent opinions, referring to the Second Amendment one moment, and the poet Robert Frost in the next.

It's unfair - and illogical - Watson said, trying to corral every Republican idea in one unifying statement. The divide between urban and rural Republicans can be pretty wide in this state. For some, guns matter. For others, not so much.

"Approx. 6% of total time spent on handgun issues," he texted me later in the day.

In June 2009, Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher totaled up the number of minutes House and Senate members spent on the floor (from February to May) discussing major gun bills. In the House: 4 hours and 55 minutes, or 6 percent, out of 74 hours. In the Senate: 58 minutes, or 2 percent of the total floor time.

Watson said the media crafts public perception that legislative discussion is dominated by guns-and-gays social issues. As compared to the House - where social issues often emerge - legislators in the Senate, he said, are more interested in crafting larger-issue legislation: education, employment, health care.

"We spend a whole lot more time contemplating these issues," he said.

He spoke for a long time about education, mainly the Complete College Act of 2010: Universities are funded based on "performance-based" graduation rates, not student enrollment, he said.

"No other state is doing this," he said.

He called the classroom teacher "the most important person in the room," and decried the lack of respect we - as citizens, and governments - afford them.

I challenged him: a heavy emphasis on standardized testing sends the exact opposite micromanaging message. He didn't disagree.

Bringing in more businesses depends on whether our education system can provide qualified scholars and workers. With more business comes more funding and jobs. For Watson, it all hinges on education.

Here's to education in Nashville, and all of Tennessee.

Tuesday's online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP