New job injects Claude Ramsey into 'pressure cooker'

New job injects Claude Ramsey into 'pressure cooker'

January 18th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

RAMSEY RECORD

Deputy to the governor for Gov. Bill Haslam

Hamilton County mayor from 1994 until January 2011

County assessor of property from 1980 to 1994

Hamilton County commissioner from 1978 to 1980

Delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1977

Tennessee state legislator from 1972 to 1976

Strawberry farmer in Harrison

NASHVILLE -- As the second most powerful man in Tennessee's executive branch, one of Claude Ramsey's new jobs is sometimes being the bad guy, the one who puts his foot down and says "No," often to people who don't want to hear it.

"I'm familiar with that role," says the former Hamilton County mayor.

Indeed. With a 39-year career in politics, one-time strawberry farmer Ramsey has held no less than five political offices during a career that began in 1972 as a Republican state House member and ended locally last week as Hamilton County's mayor.

The Harrison native now has embarked on career No. 6 -- deputy and chief of staff to Gov. Bill Haslam, 52, who was sworn in Saturday as Tennessee's 49th governor.

While he's now on a statewide stage, rather than one centered in Hamilton County, Ramsey is familiar with the setup.

"I understand how the process works," he said. "There'll be a learning process where I learn all the players who are here now and they get to know me and we develop those relationships. And that's something we're starting to work on."

But the job also injects Ramsey into a "pressure cooker" role with enormous responsibilities, huge demands and constant deadlines, say two men who have held the job or ones similar to it.

The position "requires some experience in telling people 'no.' You know, it's a job, frankly, where you're tasked frequently with some of the more unpleasant conversations," said Dave Cooley, who served as deputy and chief of staff from 2003 through 2006 to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, whom Haslam replaced.

That can involve calling a commissioner of a department on the carpet or even firing someone, Cooley said.

On the positive side, Cooley said, it puts the deputy to the governor in a "wonderful place" to "be a part of molding policy and helping craft the culture of the administration."

Cooley, who knows Ramsey, said the former mayor is "beautifully positioned" for his role "with his experience and his disposition."

Over the years, Ramsey has served as a state House member, a delegate to the 1977 state Constitutional Convention, a Hamilton County commissioner, 14 years as county property assessor and 16 years as mayor.

It's that experience that made Ramsey an attractive choice to Haslam, who as mayor of Knoxville understood the trials, tribulations and triumphs that Ramsey experienced as county mayor. The two further bonded during an economic trip to China that Bredesen organized in 2007.

Staff File Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey participates in a county commission meeting at the courthouse.

Staff File Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free...

Ramsey was on Haslam's short list for the deputy slot from the start, said Tom Ingram, who headed Haslam's transition staff and served as the campaign's general consultant.

Ramsey is "ideally suited" to the post, said Ingram, who knows something about the job, having served as deputy to the governor and chief of staff for Republican Lamar Alexander in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

When he was a deputy to Alexander, Ingram recalled, he learned a great deal from "some old sages who were around me."

"Claude is an old sage," Ingram said. "He's not going to see anything that's new. He's not going to see anything that surprises him. He's unflappable. He's decisive. He's tough."

Serving as the governor's deputy is "very much a pressure cooker," Ingram said, noting that, among other things, "you are the hammer."

"Lamar and I had an understanding that if it was good news he delivered it. If it was bad news, I did," Ingram said.

Known as someone with a wry sense of humor and an ability to get along with most people, Ramsey said last week in an interview prior to Haslam's taking office that things had been "going pretty good. It's been hectic, as you might imagine."

After being named Haslam's deputy on Dec. 3, Ramsey, who was elected to a fifth term as mayor in August, continued to serve as Hamilton County's chief executive through last Tuesday. He wanted to be present for Volkswagen's unveiling in Detroit of the new Volkswagen Passat that the company is building in Chattanooga.

One of Ramsey's largest coups as county mayor was the courtship and landing of the new Volkswagen auto assembly plant at Enterprise South industrial park, a site he championed for years.

"What's been interesting is being an outgoing mayor and having to start up a new administration as deputy to the governor and the chief of staff," Ramsey said. "When you combine all of that, it's been a plateful."

He doesn't know if the job "will get any easier," he said, "but we'll be able to focus a little closer."

"Absolutely excited" about the job as deputy to the governor, he noted that it is "an opportunity to work with Bill Haslam, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for."

Both are interested in education, economic development and working to make government run more efficiently, Ramsey said.

Asked to describe himself, Ramsey said he is "a person who likes to get things done. I like to see decisions made. I like to use common sense."

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who served on the Hamilton County Commission during part of the time Ramsey was mayor, called him a "very easy person to work with and really smart, too."

But Ramsey can also be tough, observed Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, who saw Ramsey come after him politically in his 2008 election after Cobb voted against a state school funding formula that Ramsey backed.

Ramsey "held a grudge for quite some time because he really put his heart and soul into" the formula change, Cobb said.

He and Ramsey since have reconciled, Cobb said.

"I have come to respect not only his demeanor and his attitude -- and I didn't like it at all at first -- but I think he's going to be an outstanding deputy to the governor," Cobb said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.


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