NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Worsening state economic conditions combined with a Republican takeover of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature have led to increasing speculation that Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen might want to bolt for Washington.
But that would first require a job offer from president-elect Barack Obama.
For his part, Bredesen says he would listen to any offer, but that he's not actively seeking a spot in the Obama administration.
"Look, if the president-elect of the United States calls and says he wants to talk to you, you're going to go talk to him," Bredesen told reporters last week. "But I don't expect that to happen."
Bredesen, 64, did not endorse Obama until after he had clinched the Democratic nomination. Tennessee Democrats overwhelmingly voted for Obama's rival Hillary Clinton in the February primary, so some Bredesen supporters argue that the non-endorsement of Clinton was a sort signal of support for Obama while the nomination fight was raging.
But Obama never put serious resources into Tennessee, and his overwhelming loss to Republican John McCain in rural parts of the state helped the GOP pick up seven seats to control both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in 140 years.
Bredesen said he supported Obama's decision to skip Tennessee in favor of states where he had a better chance of winning, and Bredesen stumped for Obama in Ohio for a couple of days in August.
Bredesen was mentioned by some political pundits as a potential vice presidential candidate, but the governor told reporters he was never contacted by the Obama campaign or asked to provide any vetting information.
The governor said he's had monthly conversations with Obama since the summer, and said he respects the Illinois senator for his intellect.
"The first time I ever met with him we talked at length about health care, and he probably asked me more good questions about health care than any political figure I've ever talked with," Bredesen said.
Bredesen founded a health care company in 1980 and built it into the country's second largest HMO before selling his stake in HealthAmerica in 1987.
Bredesen's first term was dominated by the funding crisis at TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program. Escalating costs led Bredesen to cut 170,000 adults from the program and reduce benefits for thousands of others, a process he has described as "painful."
"I have never been through anything like that in my life," Bredesen said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "I didn't run for office to tell people that they no longer have health care."
While those cuts didn't hurt Bredesen's re-election bid, they could come back to haunt him if he were to come under consideration for a health-related job in the Obama administration.
Also, the state-subsidized Cover Tennessee health care plan for low-income workers that Bredesen launched in 2006 is far less ambitious than some of the more sweeping health insurance plans proposed during the presidential campaign.
Bredesen grew up in a single-parent, working-class home in Shortsville, N.Y., went to Harvard on an academic scholarship and earned a degree in physics. He amassed a fortune estimated at between $100 million and $250 million before turning his attention to politics.
Bredesen said he is ready to work with legislative Republicans to tackle a spending shortfall that could reach $800 million by the time the budget year ends in June.
"We are at a time which I actually perversely enjoy," he said. "We have all these financial challenges and I love working in that environment," he said.
Bredesen, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in 2010, declined to speculate on which federal job he would agree to take if it were offered.
"What I expect to do is continue on as governor here for two more years, and decide what I'm going to do after that," he said.
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