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VOL. 130 | NO. 103 | Thursday, May 28, 2015

Stockard

Sam Stockard

Ramsey Uses ‘System’ to Reshape State’s Political Landscape

SAM STOCKARD | Nashville Correspondent

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Senate Speaker and Lieutenant Gov. Ron Ramsey laughs at the notion he’s changed since being elected to the Legislature 23 years ago, that he’s lost touch with the common man or become “arrogant” as lieutenant governor of Tennessee.

“I’m riding down the road in a pickup truck, chewing tobacco with my baseball cap on, getting ready to unload a hay tedder. I’ve not changed the slightest bit,” says Ramsey, his voice rising to make a point in an interview from rural Blountville in Upper East Tennessee.

Ron Ramsey
Lieutenant Governor, State of Tennessee

Home: Blountville, Sullivan County

Education: East Tennessee State University, degree in industrial technology, 1978

Career: Ron Ramsey and Associates real estate and auction company, member of Tennessee Auctioneer Hall of Fame, 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from Bristol Chamber of Commerce

Church: Elizabeth Chapel United Methodist Church, Sunday school teacher

Political career: Elected in 1992 to Tennessee House of Representatives from First District of Sullivan County, served two terms; elected to state Senate in 1996 from Fourth Senate District; elected by Senate as speaker in 2007; 2011 named to Board of Directors of National Conference of State Legislators; 2013 named by GOPAC to Legislative Leaders Advisory Board; former Republican majority leader and chairman of Senate Republican Caucus, former chairman of Senate Environment Committee.

Family: Wife Sindy, three daughters, four grandchildren

“I’ve become a little more powerful since I’ve become lieutenant governor. I guess they resent that. But, again, you’re always going to have your detractors in politics.

“So what else are they going to say? He’s a great guy? No. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Five years after failing in a gubernatorial bid, Ramsey, 59, is clearly comfortable as Senate speaker, strolling the Legislative Plaza in cowboy boots, reeling off answers to reporters’ questions, cracking jokes to Republican groups and running Senate sessions.

He engineered a narrow victory in 2007 over longtime Democratic Senate Speaker John Wilder, with the help of former Democratic Sen. Rosalind Kurita, to become the first Republican leader of the upper chamber since Reconstruction.

Owner of Ramsey and Associates real estate and auction business, Ramsey says he used the same salesmanship that serves him at home to spread a conservative political philosophy throughout Tennessee, raise money and elect more Republican candidates and garner a 28-5 advantage in the Senate and a 73-26 edge in the House after decades of Democratic control.

Truly good friends

Since Ramsey took the post eight years ago, Democratic opponents in his home base of Sullivan County say he’s gotten the big head. Others say he’s the most powerful person in Tennessee, especially as far as passing legislation: If he wants to make something happen, it happens.

With supermajorities in both chambers, Ramsey certainly holds the upper hand. Only a constitutional majority vote of the Legislature is needed to override a veto.

“Well, the way our system is set up, of course, anything the governor wants has to come through the Legislature. And so I think that is natural that that would happen, and we have a relatively weak veto,” Ramsey says.

“But I’m gonna tell you, I could not have a better relationship with anybody in the world than I do with Bill Haslam.”

Ramsey contends the key is working out legislation before it reaches the point of veto. Gov. Bill Haslam says he and Ramsey “truly are good friends” and agree on issues “the vast majority of the time.”

“And when we’re not, we have the kind of relationship where at the first of this session, he [Ramsey] says, ‘Hey, here’s where I am on some things. It’s not where you are.’ We talked about it. That’s the kind of relationship you want where people are up front with you about where they are and why they’re there,” Haslam says.

Democratic state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who served with Ramsey in the House during their early years, says he has a good relationship with the lieutenant governor despite their political differences.

Whereas the late Senate Speaker Wilder was known to “let the Senate be the Senate,” Ramsey “has his ship under control,” Fitzhugh says.

“Certainly, he has more power in the General Assembly than this governor does,” Fitzhugh adds. “He has a more outward, powerful personality.”

Fitzhugh, a strong supporter of the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan for those caught in a gap between TennCare and the Affordable Care Act, says he believes Ramsey “was open” to the proposal.

During a special session Haslam called in early February, however, the House held up the plan. Fitzhugh says he believes Ramsey got tired of being “hung out there so long.”

Ramsey, who says he leaned away from Insure Tennessee, says an agreement was made early for the House to act first. But three days in, representatives had taken no action.

“And so I thought we can’t just wait around on them,” he says. “So that’s the reason we ended up taking the vote.” The plan failed in a Senate Health Committee.

Haslam says he’s still trying to answer Ramsey’s questions about Insure Tennessee.

Not the governor

State Sen. Jim Tracy, who roomed with Ramsey in Nashville for eight years and chairs the House Transportation Committee, says the lieutenant remains the same person he was when he asked him to run for office in 2004.

“When you’re in a leadership position, sometimes you’re going to have to make tough calls. And when you do that, sometimes you’re going to ruffle some feathers,” Tracy says.

Yet Tracy says Ramsey isn’t the real governor of Tennessee.

“I do think Ron is a very strong leader, as far as in the General Assembly. … When you’re speaker of the Senate, you have the ability to move legislation, the ability to get things done, and I think he has the ability to do that,” explains Tracy.

Ramsey’s ability to raise money, and to distribute it to candidates at various levels across the state, has helped further his conservative agenda.

(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

“I do think he’s a pretty powerful person dealing with state matters. But the governor is the governor, and the governor has different powers than the speaker of the Senate and the lieutenant governor.”

Former Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson calls Ramsey a “fairly transactional kind of guy,” a person who knows what he wants and doesn’t mind “cutting deals” as long as he doesn’t compromise his position.

During his eight years in the Senate, Finney says Ramsey was “transparent in that regard” and made it clear where he stood on an issue and “what the parameters of the argument” would be.

The Senate isn’t in danger of losing votes in the middle if it follows Ramsey’s lead and moves further right politically, Finney contends.

“If there’s anything you can say about the Senate Republicans, they’ve been remarkably disciplined over the last few years. I think that’s why his stock in the Legislature has been so high,” Finney points out.

“On any given issue, when the speaker of the Senate says this is where we’re going or this is not where we’re going, then for the most part, people believe that to be the case.”

That gives him a considerable amount of leverage, according to Finney, and the group of Ramsey and Sens. Mark Norris, Bo Watson and Randy McNally is usually in lockstep, making it much easier for the Senate speaker to get 17 votes for passage or defeat.

Yet even with supermajorities in both chambers, Republicans still run into some disagreement, Finney says, noting legislation allowing vouchers for low-income students failed again.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says Ramsey knew he never had the votes to pass Insure Tennessee, thus didn’t bring it to the floor and force the entire Senate to take a vote.

“I think, whether or not you like his politics, he has been an effective speaker,” says Syler, former chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

In a speech this session to a Republican group, Ramsey called himself a “right-wing conservative” but says that was a “tongue-in-cheek comment” made because people “aggravate” him about the characterization.

“But am I very pro-Second Amendment? Am I very anti-abortion? Am I for low taxes and less government and all that? Yes.

“At the same time, I think anybody who knows me would say I’m pretty pragmatic and I try to figure out what the solutions are, too,” Ramsey adds.

“I don’t know how you define a right-wing Republican, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m about an 8.5.”

Sullivan County Democratic view

Political foes say Ramsey’s unwillingness to back Insure Tennessee is just one example of how he puts too much emphasis on party politics.

“He’s just forgotten where he came from. It’s just party, party, party. If you’re not a Republican, you’re nothing. He forgot about the people,” says John McKamey, a Democrat who ran against Ramsey for state Senate in 2004 and sought the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2014.

The retired educator and former Sullivan County mayor says he’s known Ramsey all his life.

“He was always a very likable person. After he got elected, he seemed to change. He was just a common man and cared about common people, was born in the middle class, and it just seems like now he cares more about party than he does people,” McKamey adds.

Thousands of people in Sullivan County and the rest of Senate District 4 would benefit from Insure Tennessee, McKamey says, adding the injection of more than $2 billion into the state economy from the federal government would bolster hospitals and local governments, enabling them to reap more sales tax revenue and avoid raising property taxes.

“He brags about turning Tennessee. And, of course, he did have a lot to do with it. They had a lot of money from some of these super-rich people in the state, and not only in the state but out of state,” McKamey adds.

“They had the money to do it. They went out and recruited people to run for the Senate and the House, and they paid the bill.”

Bruce Dotson, chairman of the Sullivan County Democratic Party, is no fan of Ramsey, either. Though he’s had little contact with the lieutenant governor, Dotson says people think Ramsey is “arrogant” and has let his position “go to his head.”

“He seems to be more focused on the money that is in the campaigns, the money that can be accumulated through the political structure than he is on helping the people, particularly poor people and the working poor in particular,” Dotson notes.

Dotson contends Ramsey opposed improvements to worker’s compensation laws and increases to the minimum wage, in addition to Insure Tennessee, which would help more than 8,000 people in Sullivan County alone.

But Wiley Webb, owner of Earl Webb Real Estate in Sullivan County and someone who has known Ramsey for 35 years, largely through business dealings, says Ramsey is a down-to-earth guy.

“We haven’t seen the arrogance, and some people don’t understand the demands on his time,” Webb says.

In Upper East Tennessee, most think “he’s doing a good job,” Webb says. People wish he had more influence in industrial development recruiting, Webb adds, but Ramsey has played a role in major retail developments and a hospital merger key to the Tri-Cities area.

Making money work

It’s no secret Ramsey is a master fundraiser, either, and former Sen. Finney points out Republican Caucus events are costing $10,000 at the top end these days compared to just $1,000 five years ago.

“I think that’s due in large part to him being able to marshal those resources. You look at the fact he started out in the minority party in the House, and by the time he gets to be speaker of the Senate, he’s figured out how to put the money together for not just himself but to get people elected,” Finney says.

Ramsey, who finished third in the Republican primary for governor in 2010, had $1.3 million in his gubernatorial war chest in October that year.

He began making contributions to Republicans statewide, including Sen. Joey Hensley, Sen. Mae Beavers, Rep. Sheila Butt, former Sen. Stacey Campfield, Sen. Bill Ketron, Rep. Mike Sparks, Rep. Billy Spivey, Rep. Tim Wirgau, Rep. David Alexander, Rep. Jeremy Faison, Sen. Ferrell Haile and many more.

Ramsey’s financial report of receipts and expenditures over the last few years is chock full of organizations from political action committees and business groups across the state and from outside of the state, as well as individuals.

From BlueCross BlueShield of TN PAC’s $5,750 to the General Motors TN PAC’s $1,500, Ramsey brought in $88,350 in late 2014, putting his war chest at $191,103.

His political action committee, RAAMPAC, totaled $143,600 in receipts in the latter half of 2014 and boasted an ending fund balance of $210,486.

Tennessee Parents & Teachers Putting Students First, a pro-voucher and charter school group based in Sacramento, Calif., gave RAAMPAC $10,000, and StudentsFirst in Washington, D.C. gave $50,000, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Among those giving several thousands of dollars to RAAMPAC in the last year, reports show, are Sen. Dolores Gresham, chair of the Senate Education Committee, the PAC of Sen. Mark Green, vice chair of Senate Commerce and Labor, Sen. Rusty Crowe, chair of Senate Health and Welfare, Sen. McNally, chair of Senate Finance, the PAC of Sen. Jack Johnson, chair of Senate Commerce and Labor, Sen. Bo Watson, vice chair of Senate Finance and Senate Health and Welfare.

Ramsey, however, says he doesn’t require Senate committee chair holders to contribute to RAAMPAC. The Republican Caucus needed the money three years ago because the Legislature had six open seats and he asked every member to help raise money for elections.

Those chair holders who do contribute to his PAC do it “purely out of choice,” Ramsey says, “because they understand if it wasn’t for RAAMPAC we may have a majority but we would not have the numbers we have in the state Senate.

“There’s no doubt about that, and they understand that. They understand the only way they can stay chairman is make sure we keep our majority. So, yes, they believe in me. They believe in the cause and give, but there’s no requirement whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t tell you who has and who hasn’t.”

Jack Young, chairman of the Sullivan County Republican Party and a Bristol City Councilman, received campaign funds from Ramsey in a non-partisan race.

“Name recognition takes money, and it takes hard work, and if you have enough money, you can make the money get some additional tools or some additional people to help you work that,” Young says.

Young concedes Ramsey receives money from numerous in-state and out-of-state organizations, but that merely shows those groups want to make an impact on legislative decisions.

“I believe he does have those core values to say this is what’s right,” and if an organization invested in Ramsey or RAAMPAC went awry, Young believes the money would be returned.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable defends Ramsey’s personality and his fundraising.

“What some people may mistakenly refer to as heavy-handed is straight forward. I think Ron’s always been clear in his direction,” says Venable, a Republican colleague of Ramsey’s early in his House tenure.

Ramsey cut his teeth on “really tough issues” and has been “unabashedly” pro-life during his legislative career. He made the right move when he ran for Senate in the mid-’90s because he took on some tough issues in the House.

When it comes to raising money, “Lord no, he doesn’t put too much emphasis on it,” Venable says.

“You only have to be a member of the General Assembly with a certain political philosophy with 36 of 99 members of the House to understand how important it is who governs. And I think he has been dedicated to that principle since he’s been there.”

Finding and funding good candidates and sending out a message is a necessity in the political world, Venable notes.

“When he was a candidate for governor, he was a good fundraiser, he just ran up against a better fundraiser,” Venable says. “But I think his activities have resulted in significant majorities, obviously, for his party and my party in Nashville.

“I guess it just depends on which side of the aisle you’re on whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing.”

State Rep. Ryan Haynes, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, calls Ramsey “an extraordinary public servant,” a hard worker with a positive outlook as well as a “gregarious” person.

Though he considers Ramsey to be “very influential,” Haynes says he can’t answer whether he wields more power than the governor, noting “those two individuals are not the type of people who try to display more power than somebody else. I think it’s important to recognize that the reality of the situation is it’s two co-equal branches of government. I think both respect that principle.”

What is more clear is Ramsey’s impact on the growth of the Republican Party in Tennessee, Haynes says, pointing out the lieutenant governor was trying to create a Republican majority in the Legislature long before others considered it possible.

“A man who takes the Senate Republicans from minority status to five gain is obviously somebody who cares deeply about the Republican Party and its road to success,” Haynes explains.

But even though he started traveling to Nashville in 1992 as a state representative from the First District of Sullivan County and was a catalyst in a Republican supermajority takeover of both houses, the Senate leader is in heaven at home with wife of 35 years, Sindy, whether playing with his four grandchildren or working hay for cattle.

During legislative sessions, he says he finds it increasingly difficult to uproot and drive to Nashville on Monday mornings. He says he’s done with gubernatorial bids and will decide next March whether to seek another four-year Senate term.

“I remember one of the newly elected representatives asking me if I looked forward today to going to session on Mondays as I did in the past. I told him I never looked forward to leaving Blountville, to be honest with you,” Ramsey says.

“That’s why I like to think I’m well grounded, because of that. My family means everything to me, and politics is something that God has given me a chance to do, but it’s not my life. It’s not.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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