Lack of experience may be bigger obstacle than Lee expected

Frank CagleFrank Talk

There is only one state office elected by all the people of Tennessee, and, oddly enough, it’s the job of running the place. As of Saturday we have Gov. Bill Lee, who has never held any public office. He follows two big-city mayors.

There are differences in being governor and being the mayor of Nashville, like Phil Bredesen, or being the mayor of Knoxville, like Bill Haslam. But it is an executive position that has a legislative (city council) branch. So it might seem that former mayors are most likely to be successful as governor, having had such an experience. But at present most of Tennessee is Red to the Roots, and all the big-city mayors are Democrats. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean found that you can’t win with just the big-city vote.

Yes, Bredesen was a Democrat. But in 2002 there was still a statewide Democratic Party, and the party controlled the legislature. Since then rural Democrats have gone the way of the dodo. (Anybody remember when Knox County had Democrats in the courthouse? County Executive Tommy Schumpert and County Clerk Mike Padgett, for instance?) The Super Majority of Republicans in the legislature resulted from Republicans holding their own and rural Democrats retiring and being replaced by Republicans.

Ned McWherter, another former governor, had been Speaker of the House and understood state government and how it works better than most anyone who has held the office. But despite the experience and the power of being Speaker, it is an insider job and mostly unknown to the voters. Speaker Beth Harwell had decades of state-government experience but came in fourth in the Republican primary. McWherter was a special case. He benefited from and got elected because the GOP went back to former Gov. Winfield Dunn as its candidate. Dunn was from Memphis, and he had angered East Tennessee voters when he opposed a medical school in the Tri-Cities. McWherter got the support of Republican Congressman Jimmy Quillen, who ran the political machine that controlled everything east of Knoxville. (The medical school is named after Quillen.)

With Lee, we will see how a governor with no political experience does. There will be a steep learning curve in dealing with the legislature and dealing with the state bureaucracy. We may discover that a candidate running on a platform of total ignorance about state government might be a bug and not a feature. And we may put to rest the old canard that someone can run state government like a business. It isn’t a business. Lee may discover that it is handy to be able to do politics. Haslam had much more success with the legislature after he brought in former Republican Leader Jim Henry as his deputy.

Politics isn’t just about elections. Politics is the art of building consensus in order to execute policy. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas might be; if you do not have the (political) skill to convince the public and the legislature to support you, your ideas will fail.

If Lee tries to run the government like a business and he has no political skills, he will find it tough going. Unless he hires people who have skills and listens to them.

Career Education: Gov. Bill Lee wants to emphasize career training – what we used to call vocational training – in high school. He might find a good place to start implementing a pilot program at Knox County’s Career Magnet Academy. It was good to see the school board vote to retain the program. It would also be a good thing if the local legislative delegation met with the governor and brought it to his attention.

Champion Returns: It’s good to see UT’s quarterback from its 1998 national championship team come home. Tee Martin, considered a top recruiter, is joining coach Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. Martin got a rousing round of applause when he was introduced at Thompson-Boling Arena during the UT-Alabama game over the weekend.





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