VOL. 132 | NO. 193 | Thursday, September 28, 2017
View From the Hill
Haslam Less Clear Than Usual On Run for US Senate
By Sam Stockard
Gov. Bill Haslam usually gives an answer to every question, even if his subjects and verbs don’t agree. But when it comes to a potential run for the U.S. Senate, he stumbles.
In fact, his response was almost inaudible just a week before his pal U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said he wouldn’t seek another term at the end of 2018.
A second-term Republican, Haslam recently burnished his conservative credentials with an announcement the state of Tennessee will renew a work, college or service requirement for able-bodied people without kids who receive help buying groceries with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, an upgrade from the old food stamps.
Asked by reporters in his conference room why he didn’t take these steps in 2013 or 2014, Haslam says, “I guess you could argue we could have done it earlier. But when you hit record low unemployment three months in a row, it becomes time to look around and say, are we doing everything the right way? Again, it’s hard to justify a waiver when you look at where you are now.”
Queried about whether this is a preview of ambition to run for U.S. Senate, Haslam laughs and says, “We honestly think this is the right thing to do. Remember this is how the programs were designed. This is how the law’s supposed to work. So how do we, with a straight face, say, ‘Oh, there’s still extraordinary circumstances in Tennessee that demand a waiver.’ So absolutely not.”
But asked if he is ruling out a U.S. Senate run, he laughs again and mumbles, this time creating sounds with no subject, no verb, indeed, no understandable words.
Pardon, a reporter asks?
“I love my job,” he responds.
But it’s going to end in January 2019, one reminds him, which means he has only 17 months left in office.
“No way. Really?” he says.
He’ll be hanging on the wall of the State Capitol soon enough, at least his portrait will. But is his political legacy to end beside folks such as Phil Bredesen, Don Sundquist, Ned McWherter, Lamar Alexander and Ray Blanton? Well, maybe we should leave Blanton off the list.
Short of 60 years old and with Corker reeling, then announcing he is leaving the post, Haslam would be an obvious candidate for the position.
Haslam’s an extremely popular governor. Dare say he’s more popular than Corker. Even after leading a push to raise the gas tax this year to expedite road and bridge projects statewide (combined with cuts in several taxes), Haslam maintains strong standing among Tennesseans.
His reputation for bolstering higher education and job training to bring more employers to Tennessee will do more to build his resume than sticking it to the poor with a renewal of the work requirement to get $194 a month for food and the threat of legislation to prosecute people who sell their EBT cards for drugs and money.
The pending departure for Corker isn’t surprising, even though he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in early 2016 appeared to be a front-runner for Secretary of State, a job he didn’t get.
The Republican senator from Chattanooga couldn’t seem to figure out whether he’s in President Donald Trump’s corner or not.
In the aftermath of Trump’s dueling blame of white nationalists and counter-protestors for a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Corker questioned the president’s the “stability” and “competence” to lead the nation. Trump turned a miffed tweet saying Corker always asks him whether to run again.
The latest report showed Trump urging Corker to run for another term, possibly one reason Corker wants to get out. Regardless of whether Trump is kicking him to the curb, it opens a good opportunity for Corker to save face and enter a Tennessee gubernatorial run in a crowded field – a sort of swap between Corker and Haslam. He has plenty of time to qualify, and though Corker won’t be able to use a $6.5 million federal war chest, neither he nor Haslam will have trouble funding their own campaigns if necessary.
“When I ran for the Senate in 2006, I told people that I couldn’t imagine serving for more than two terms,” Corker says in a statement. “Understandably, as we have gained influence, that decision has become more difficult. But I have always been drawn to the citizen legislator model, and while I realize it is not for everyone, I believe with the kind of service I provide, it is the right one for me.
“I also believe the most important public service I have to offer our country could well occur over the next 15 months, and I want to be able to do that as thoughtfully and independently as I did the first 10 years and nine months of my Senate career.”
That almost sounds like code for, “We need someone in Washington to make sure Donald doesn’t hit the red button. But I’m not going down with the ship.”
Asked if he will be seeking Corker’s job, Haslam remains non-committal:
“Sen. Corker has served his city, our state and our country selflessly and with excellence. He has made a positive difference in the lives of every Tennessean, and every American.
“Bob has been a close friend for over 40 years. His leadership and wisdom in the Senate will be missed, but I have complete faith in his judgment and respect his decision. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
“Today, I simply offer the thanks of a grateful state to Bob and his wife Elizabeth and wish them every blessing in the years ahead.”
GIVING HASLAM AN OPENING
Meanwhile, look for Republican state Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville and Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County to run in Corker’s place. Their names pop up almost every time a vacancy appears.
If they do, look for them to split the tea party-type vote with Andy Ogles, leader of ultra-conservative Americans for Prosperity - Tennessee, which has made in-roads since he took charge in 2013.
Conservator benefactor Lee Beaman is setting up a federal SuperPAC to help put Ogles in office with a plan to raise $4 million in 13 months and give President Trump “an ally” in Congress.
“The president needs a Tennessee senator who will fight to secure our border, strengthen our national security capabilities, repeal and replace the failed Obamacare plan, and cut the taxes and regulations that are preventing businesses from putting America back to work and putting more money into the paychecks of their employees,” Beaman says in a statement.
Maybe Congress can shift all the money we save from prosecuting SNAP thieves into building that wall at the Mexican border. It might be enough to print out the paperwork for condemning one piece of Texas property.
Ogles might have helped defeat Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal two years ago, but he’ll have to garner a good deal more support among the state’s mainstream Republicans, who want to do more than drawn a swamp. He’ll be hard-pressed to beat Blackburn or Green, much less Haslam, leaving a path for the moderate governor to vault into the U.S. Senate.
Not to rule out Democratic Senate candidate James Mackler, but he faces a hard road with little name recognition. It wouldn’t be shocking, either, if one of Tennessee’s blue mayors were to run, Chattanooga’s Andy Berke, Knoxville’s Madeline Rogero or even Nashville’s Megan Barry, still a tough task in a red state.
While this is all getting sorted out, the governor might as well own up to the idea he wants the seat of his old friend Corker, who was mayor of Chattanooga (If not Corker, then Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2020). After eight years as the mayor of Knoxville and nearly eight as Tennessee governor, Haslam doesn’t need to muffle his words. As the crazy comedian Sam Kinison used to scream, “Just say it!”
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter for the Nashville Ledger. He can be reached at email@example.com.