When political people talk about Gov. Bill Haslam, the opening remark will often begin something along the lines of, “He’s a nice guy, but .”
The “but” will then be followed by some comment reflecting the individual’s perspective on the governor’s politics or an issue at hand. For example:
n “But he’s not a strong enough conservative.”
n “But he’s too beholden to his party’s right wing.”
n “But he doesn’t know anything about (fill-in-the-blank with the given issue, situation or person/people under discussion).”
Examples one and two, of course, are matters of opinion and conjecture. The third probably has often been factually correct from the perspective of someone who is knowledgeable about a given issue or situation.
Being a nice guy, Haslam himself has modestly acknowledged he does not know everything and faces a “learning curve.” But he is learning and, in that process, it seems that being a nice guy counts for a lot.
Last week, the nice-guy governor conceded that one of his big, bold initiatives of the year — repealing the law that sets a maximum average class size for schools under the theme of giving more flexibility to local school systems — was pretty much dead on arrival in Legislatorland.
He graciously conceded that a lot of people who know a lot about schools and politics thought this was a really bad idea, so he would abandon the notion. At least for now.
Haslam’s decision to abandon his crusade was preceded by a lot of “nice-guy-but” commentary. This came from people on varying perspectives in the education arena — school superintendents to rank-and-file teachers and the organizations that represent them.
One big but: He doesn’t understand that country commissioners, who control school budgets, will use this to avoid property tax increases by slashing the number of teaching positions in tight budget times. One calculation was that, statewide, 5,400 teaching positions could disappear.
The governor said he still hasn’t figured out how they did that calculating, but, well, he was politely throwing in the towel anyway.
Haslam’s retreat was followed by a lot of “nice-guy” commentary. House Speaker Beth Harwell perhaps provided a consensus comment when she said the governor’s cave-in was admirable and appreciated in that he, as a nice, non-confrontational guy, recognized this thing hadn’t really been thought through very well and was getting a lot of people unnecessarily stirred up and mad. (OK, that’s not exactly what the nice gal said, but maybe a reasonable paraphrasing.)
In his freshman year, Haslam had a very limited agenda in Legislatorland. With a couple of notable exceptions, he basically stood around, watched and went along (being a nice guy) with whatever legislators sent him. Then signed it into law. This year, he believes in better. In doing so, he has engaged interests other than the education establishment and would make significant changes.
Some of these seem presented on a “trust me” basis — fairly remarkable in an era when distrust of government appears high. And the success in passing the package may rest in part on being perceived as a nice guy.
Perhaps the best example is a bill that wipes out a bunch of current civil service protections for state employees. Trust me, says the governor, we’d never use that to institute a patronage system of hiring and firing.
We just want to hire the best employees and, when layoffs come, fire the ones least necessary for efficient operation of government.
In debate on the bill last week, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner went into “nice-guy-but” mode. Haslam, he said, is the best Republican governor in Tennessee history, maybe better than a couple of Democrats — but there were a couple of things really hard to accept on faith.
This more or less echoed the state employees association, whose spokesman emphasized the governor’s niceness despite misgivings about the legislation.
The governor’s folk said changes may, indeed, be made.
There followed a symbolic partisan vote in the subcommittee, but the losing Democrats didn’t really seem stirred up. The bill seems scripted for passage — maybe with a few modifications down the road, thanks to gubernatorial graciousness.
So maybe nice guys don’t always finish last.