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VOL. 130 | NO. 11 | Friday, January 16, 2015

The Other Fellow

Book on Baker examines state’s changing political scene

By Bill Dries

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Long before his death last year, former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee was aware that other Republicans, including those who worked in his groundbreaking campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, believed it was no longer possible for a political moderate like him to get elected in Tennessee.

Attorney Bill Haltom is the author of “The Other Fellow May Be Right: The Civility of Howard Baker,” a book about the late former U.S. senator.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Probably win the general election, but not get past the primary.

Bill Haltom, the Memphis attorney who recently wrote a book about Baker’s conciliatory political philosophy and talked with him numerous times about it, said Baker had a simple explanation for the change.

“He said, ‘When I was in politics, people were willing to follow,’ which is harder these days. People have their own agendas,” Haltom said.

Haltom’s book, “The Other Fellow May Be Right: The Civility of Howard Baker,” comes at a time when Republicans have a supermajority in each chamber of the Tennessee Legislature, the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of the state’s nine congressional seats.

The first part of the title is Baker’s frequently given advice on considering what those on the other side of the aisle have to say and advice that was in turn given to him by other Republicans, including his father-in-law, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.

Baker’s election to the U.S. House and then the U.S. Senate were Republican landmarks in the 1960s when Tennessee was part of the solidly Democratic South. It was made possible, in part, by the remaking of the Republican Party in Shelby County starting in the mid-1960s.

“He would never have been elected without a lot of Democratic support,” Haltom said. “In that era, of the 95 counties in Tennessee, in over a third they didn’t even have Republican primaries.”

But in some ways, the radically different circumstances of the state’s partisan politics – a red state since Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush took Vice President Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee in 2000 – have made Baker’s philosophy relevant on different terms.

“It’s very difficult for Gov. (Bill) Haslam to have such a huge majority,” Haltom said this week as the Tennessee Legislature returned to session in the capital and Haslam was counting votes within the Republican supermajority for his proposed Medicaid expansion. “Sometimes that’s harder to work with.”

“I think the book has a relevant message for both Democrats and Republicans about the need to forge coalitions and work together in Washington and in Nashville and at the local level as well.”

–Bill Haltom

Haslam, who had Baker’s support, has acknowledged the challenges numerous times since his election in 2010. But he’s been quick to add that he would rather govern with the legislative majorities than without them.

Former governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who just won re-election to another six-year term in November, is among those who were influenced and mentored by Baker and involved in his early runs for the U.S. Senate.

He is the last of the group still running for office. Regarded as a “moderate,” Alexander hasn’t used that term for a while when talking about his conservatism.

Baker died during Alexander’s re-election effort and was listed as honorary campaign co-chairman.

Alexander said during the campaign that the party has changed dramatically and is more conservative as well as more successful.

He notes that Baker was elected in 1966 with 150,000 voters in the Republican primary. Last year, 660,000 Tennesseans voted in the Republican Senate primary that Alexander won, which included tea party challenger and state Rep. Joe Carr, who later refused to endorse Alexander in the general election.

“It’s larger. It’s more conservative,” Alexander said after the primary but before the general election in which he beat Democratic nominee Gordon Ball. “The Tennesseans who were head of Democrats for Alexander in Dyer County in 1978 are chairmen of the Republican Party today. And that’s true throughout rural West Tennessee.”

The Democrats that Haltom points to as essential to Baker’s door-opening victory in the 1960s remained Democrats – conservative Democrats – after that race. Today, Alexander argues those conservatives are no longer Democrats.

However, in countywide races, local Republican Party leaders have been quick to admit that their success – winning and holding every countywide partisan office except two – has been because of the crossover appeal of Republican nominees among Memphis Democrats.

Haltom believes the state’s voters still trend moderate even with more conservative voters or more vocal conservative voters. He cites the similarities between Haslam and Haslam’s Democratic predecessor as governor.

“Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam, they are both businesspeople,” he said. “Historically that’s been the way Tennessee has been. I think the parties have a lot more in common than maybe they want to acknowledge.”

And at least for now, it doesn’t appear office holders in either party are ready to acknowledge much common ground.

“I think the book has a relevant message for both Democrats and Republicans about the need to forge coalitions and work together in Washington and in Nashville and at the local level as well,” Haltom said. “It’s a coalition that I think could still happen. But somebody’s got to have the courage to go out there and say the other fellow could be right.”

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