NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was riding high. He swept all 95 counties in his re-election bid, then his peers picked him to be chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
But that momentum came to a crashing halt just days into a special legislative session he called in February, when lawmakers unceremoniously rejected Haslam's signature proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.
And Haslam bookended a tumultuous legislative session by reversing his previous opposition to a bill allowing handgun carry permit holders to be armed in all local parks, playgrounds and ball fields. Haslam in his previous role as Knoxville mayor had supported a ban on guns in city parks.
To House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, the governor's failure to veto the guns bill was an "an absolute failure of leadership." And the Ripley Democrat has urged Haslam to call repeated special sessions to force lawmakers to reconsider the Insure Tennessee proposal.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders saw little reason to fear retribution for working against the administration on the Medicaid expansion and gun measures, given Haslam's non-confrontational approach to governing. That has raised questions in the halls of the Legislative Plaza whether Haslam's is just too nice to exert his will with lawmakers. That's a charge that the governor is tired of hearing.
"I hear that all the time," the governor told reporters after Insure Tennessee failed in the special session. "But again, I think you're talking about inside-the-Capitol type stuff.
"At the end of the day we're going to work our hardest to find the very best answer and do everything we can to sell it," Haslam said.
But the governor was unable to sell the Insure Tennessee proposal with the very Republican legislative leaders he needed most. They included Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who refused to take up his normal role of sponsoring the governor's proposal, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, who remained noncommittal about the measure even as she tries to secure the backing of Haslam's supporters for a widely expected gubernatorial bid of her own in 2018.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin summed up his approach during a committee debate over another bill opposed by Haslam.
"I think we as legislators, we're an independent body, we stand above and beyond the judiciary and the executive," Casada told the committee. "If we want to do it, we do it. We are the people's elected representatives."
The Tennessee Constitution provides only a weak veto to the governor — the Legislature can vote to override with a simple majority vote in both chambers.
That means that governors must find other ways to coax and cajole lawmakers. In a way, Haslam's most notable character trait -- his friendliness and charm -- also serves as his greatest challenge when it comes to ratcheting up the pressure on recalcitrant lawmakers.
"He has to figure out how to use all the influence and power at his disposal at a way in which he's comfortable," said Haslam's former political adviser Tom Ingram.
"Different governors do it different ways — they've got some way of bearing down on the legislators," Ingram said. "Otherwise the Legislature will go to the point of least resistance. And that won't bode well for tough issues in a governor's agenda."
Asked this week how he could generate more sway with lawmakers, Haslam told reporters he hopes that they will be persuaded by the strength of his initiatives.
"At the end, you have to remember there's 132 people, all of whom are elected for their own reasons and feel like they should represent their district as they understand it," Haslam said. "And we're going to do our best to keep proposing good policy and see what we can do to get it passed."