The Conservative Governor You've Probably Never Heard Of

You haven't seen a YouTube video of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam berating a constituent at a town hall meeting. You probably haven't watched him on Fox News. In fact, if you search the headlines for his name, you're just as likely to turn up coverage of his brother: Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Pictured: Bill Haslam speaks at an event at Stratford High School in Nashville where he told reporters that he has yet to take a formal position on a bill seeking to encourage horse slaughter facilities in Tennessee on March, 19, 2012. (Photo: AP Photo | Date: Mar. 19, 2012)
But while attracting scant national attention and eschewing the camera-friendly approach of most up-and-coming Republican governors, Bill Haslam has amassed one of the most extensive conservative governing records in the country.

He is, in short, the most important Republican governor you've never heard of. And as the National Governors Association gathers in Washington this week for its winter meeting, the national GOP may have something to learn from Tennessee.

Since his election in 2010, Haslam has overhauled the Tennessee civil service, stripped back teacher tenure, cut taxes, enacted tort reform and expanded charter schools. Add up the various items on his agenda, and it looks a lot like a version of the pro-growth platform Washington Republicans have been grasping for.

Haslam has done all that during his first term without triggering the kind of large-scale backlash that other aggressive Republican governors have encountered. There aren't tens of thousands of protesters, or even one irate MSNBC host, camped outside Haslam's window.

The 54-year-old Haslam, who recorded a 68 percent approval rating last month, disavows any interest in national office. Yet to friends and allies, Haslam's experience in Tennessee is at the very least a model for national Republicans groping around for ideas that appeal to the middle class.

A former Knoxville mayor from a prominent family -- his father founded Pilot Corp., the service station and convenience store chain -- Haslam says the national GOP is too bent on cutting back government and not focused enough on making government work.

Not that Haslam opposes budget cuts -- far from it -- but the Republican questions whether belt-tightening alone is enough to animate a political party.

He openly frets about his GOP-dominated Legislature's hard-right crusades, which have included legislation on the teaching of evolution and the supposed menace of Shariah law.

Not that Haslam has gone out of his way -- a la Jon Huntsman or Christie Whitman -- to deride ultra-conservative Republicans. More often, he has allowed their bills to become law without his signature, minimizing confrontation on the right as surely as he has on the left.

"I think what we've tried to do is focus on the bigger issues that people really care about, Haslam explained to POLITICO, ticking off job creation, balancing the budget and reforming education as his top priorities. "At the end of the day, I think the most conservative principle there is, is giving people a dollar worth of value for a dollar worth of tax paid. ... We [Republicans] haven't focused as much on giving great service for the taxes that you get."

For Haslam, that has meant steering a middle course in Tennessee between relatively weak, liberal-leaning interest groups -- like public labor unions -- and powerful Republican legislators who could override any veto with a simple majority. Haslam has expressed impatience with his party's flights of legislative fancy, most recently including a measure that would allow Tennesseans to bring guns on college campuses and into office parking lots.


SOURCE: ALEXANDER BURNS
Politico
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