When it comes to bipartisanship, Tennessee politicians talk a good game. But in the ballot-box battle, they’re all about party.
Take, for instance, two-term Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. He has more in common with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean than just about any Republican in the state, much more than with Republican candidate Bill Lee.
On issues such as Medicaid expansion, the IMPROVE Act (gas tax), in-state tuition for DACA students and even guns, Haslam and Dean come down on the same side.
Dean, a former two-term Nashville mayor, has even compared himself to the widely popular Haslam, making a big deal in recently campaign ads out of favoring Medicaid expansion and pulling more than billion dollars annually from taxes Tennesseans pay on Obamacare. If anyone remembers, Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal was one of the major initiatives of his time in office, though it never made it to the House or Senate floor for debate.
The Democratic candidate also wants to take a kinder and gentler stance toward undocumented immigrant students brought here by their parents as small children. They grew up here, graduated from high school here, and Dean wants to help them be part of the state’s economy. Lee says stick with current law.
Yet Haslam stood with a large group of these students this year on the steps of the state Capitol – they’re called Dreamers or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – giving them hope for a chance at affordable college. The legislation failed miserably in a Republican-controlled House committee.
Haslam also supports keeping Tennessee’s system for conceal-carry permits intact and, on the school safety front, is more concerned with expanding school resource officer programs than arming teachers. Dean falls into a similar line of thought, while Lee would allow some teachers to go armed.
And, clearly separating them, Lee would sign a constitutional carry bill if the Legislature sent it to him.
Lee’s campaign says he believes “lawful gun ownership is at the core of our country’s foundational principles” and he has made clear he supports the Second Amendment. In that vein, the state should find ways to cuts costs of its permit system “so we are not turning a constitutional right into a costly privilege,” Lee says.
“As we reduce red tape, Bill does not believe we should increase age restrictions for firearms but does advocate for keeping background checks in place. Should the Legislature pass a law to allow permitless carry, he would sign it,” his campaign states.
Lee also says the state should do whatever it takes to protect children, including hiring more resource officers and retired military or arming teachers who are trained and vetted. He would go along with a ban on bump stocks, since it is consistent with current law.
Dean, on the other hand, favors keeping the state’s conceal-carry permit program intact and received a “Gun Sense Candidate” designation from Moms Demand Action, a group favoring sensible gun laws. It isn’t clear whether Lee filled out the group’s questionnaire.
“I am supportive of the Second Amendment, but I believe there are common-sense solutions we can work on to keep our communities safe,” Dean says in response to questions. “I think banning bump stocks, increasing the purchasing age for assault-style weapons to 21 and bolstering the state’s background check system are reasonable proposals. I am also strongly opposed to arming teachers. We need to provide our schools the resources they need to have trained law enforcement to protect our students.”
All of these similarities, yet when queried, Haslam tells reporters, “I’m clearly supporting Bill Lee (he’s already said so on TV) and think he’ll be a great governor and should be our next governor. I’ve worked closely with Mayor Dean while we were in office together. He’s a great person, a great friend, but, in my opinion, Bill Lee should be and will be the next governor of Tennessee.”
Spoken like a true chairman of the Republican Governors Association. We really didn’t expect him to say, “Bill Lee and I are about as far apart as you can get on some of the most important issues of my administration. But he’s going to teach every person in Tennessee how to weld so we’ll be able to handle the jobs of the future? Karl Dean, on the other hand, wants children to grow up in libraries, reading books. I’m sticking with the welder to make sure my Tennessee Promise students fill up the Colleges of Applied Technology.”
This isn’t exactly made up. Well, maybe it is.
But in his latest ad, Lee says, while holding a torch in a manufacturing building, “For way too long, we’ve told people ‘you’ve got to go to college, don’t go into the trades.’ At Lee Company, we’ve trained more than a thousand skilled tradesmen in the last 10 years. I don’t just talk about vocational training, we’ve actually done it.”
Granted, Tennessee made a huge mistake when high schools went away from vocational education, and welding is a great skill to learn if you’re going to work with metal all the time. But this ad gives the impression he wants every student in Tennessee who’s having a hard time with their books to drop out of college and put on a welder’s mask.
It also fails to note the Tennessee Promise, Haslam’s pride and joy, already provides tuition-free enrollment at Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, which are scattered across the state. It’s hard to figure out whether Lee’s going to build more TCATs in small towns or let the Lee Co. run vocational education.
Haslam is backing him no matter what, of course, because he has an R beside his name and because he’s a good guy and he probably will win the race. No self-respecting Republican would do anything differently.
Lee also holds a 13-point lead in an NBC-Marist poll and a 20-point lead in a Fox poll, meaning Dean has a long row to hoe.
Dean’s campaign manager Courtney Wheeler, issued this statement in response to the NBC-Marist poll: “We are not concerned at all by the results of recent polling. A Republican in Tennessee should have an automatic 20-point lead, and the fact that we have significantly chipped away at that with still two months to go shows us we are right where we need to be.
“You’ll remember Bill Lee himself was down 19 points just a week before the August primary. We are going to work hard every day to let Tennesseans know this election is a clear choice between common-sense, nonpartisan leadership and extremism.”
Because of that, Lee is going to keep it vanilla while Dean is going to keep hammering. But don’t expect Bill Haslam types to go to the D side, at least not publicly. They’d kick him out of the Republican Governors Association before he could leave the executive residence.
Back at the ranch
House Majority Leader Glen Casada, making a bid for the House Speaker position, came pretty darn close to sounding like he loves Democrats when he finally – at long last – announced his candidacy.
Sure, he denounced liberal policies and touted free-market principles in building a strong Tennessee economy and supermajorities in the House and Senate in a letter to fellow Republicans urging them to vote for him. But he also referenced a situation in which Republicans and Democrats “joined together across party lines” to deal with the failed TNReady testing program and protect teachers from being fired or reassigned because of low student scores.
In the very next paragraph, though, he keeps it real, “As your Speaker, I will not stop fighting until we have 99 Republican seats in the House.” Apparently, 74 is not enough.
While it would be difficult to find anyone much more conservative than Casada, he did vote for the IMPROVE Act and its gas-tax increases over three years. So did Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson, who is also seeking the speaker’s job.
But the third candidate, Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville, refused to give in and kept after the House to vote for what was dubbed the Hawk Plan, mainly the use of surplus money to fund hundreds of road projects.
Hawk lost that battle, and he’ll have a hard time beating Casada and Johnson, too. But at least he stuck with his guns to the bitter end, compared to Casada who wound up voting for the IMPROVE Act, along with 25 Democrats who helped it pass. Hey, maybe he does love bipartisanship after all.
Of course, if Casada can persuade inner-city Memphians to elect Republicans, he deserves to be the House Speaker. Something tells me, though, he won’t be able to stay in office long enough to accomplish that. More likely, either Memphis Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway or Rep. Karen Camper will become House Speaker before Casada makes it a clean sweep. Now that would be a party line worth mentioning.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.