Sunday column: Haslam surprise packages under wraps until after assured reelection

If there’s anything surprising about our governor’s campaign for a second term, it’s that he is able — sometimes — to act as if the script had not already been written with an inevitably happy-for-Bill-Haslam ending.

Last weekend’s formal announcement that the governor will actually run again (surprised?) was not such an occasion. The scene, by most accounts, could be likened to an inauguration celebrating the conclusion of a journey as much as to the scripted ceremonial starting point.

Yes, the governor recalled, back when he ran for a first time the outcome was actually thought by some to be in doubt. He was diplomatic enough to refrain from saying that’s not the case in this go-around. But everybody knows it.

In the primary, Mark “Coonrippy” Brown is an intriguing fellow who may have a future in reality TV to follow his dancing and showering with state-seized raccoons on YouTube videos. But he and his fellow challengers in the Republican primary are not equal to the serious villain roles (from the Haslam perspective) played by either Ron Ramsey or Zach Wamp back in the first go-around.

In the 2010 general election, Haslam had a fairly credible Democratic villain in the form of Mike McWherter, son of an immensely popular former governor with broad policy knowledge if not his father’s inimitable political persona. But, as Haslam’s extraordinarily lopsided victory proved, Tennessee has become an overwhelmingly red state.

In this year’s sequel, the most credible of the aspiring Democratic opponents for Haslam is John McKamey, a former Sullivan County mayor who lost to Ramsey in a state Senate race several years ago. If McKamey can win the nomination, he still will not be the credibility equal of McWherter, who was wealthy enough to sink $1.5 million or so of his own money into the campaign. (The much-more-wealthy Haslam put $4 million of personal money and another $10 million of other people’s money into his “in doubt” effort.)

So Haslam wins another term. Everybody knows that.

Still, the governor has acted as if he is actually concerned about being re-elected.

First and foremost, Haslam has studiously avoided controversy. At the same time, he has successfully sought plenty of feel-good initiatives in two subsets.

One involves Republican business-friendly matters, as in cash incentives to businesses or abolishing the inheritance tax or tort reform. This pleases the GOP donor base, just as a concerned candidate would want in a primary, though Haslam doesn’t need the money. The other involves broad, bipartisan matters that make everybody happy, as in consensus anti-crime campaign and creating task forces to study anything folks are worried about. This was most recently illustrated in maneuvering to take $400 million from lottery reserves to pay for free “Tennessee Promise” college tuition. Haslam behaved just like a clever, concerned politician by scheduling an unprecedented seven “ceremonial signings” of Tennessee Promise across the state — in an election year, traveling at state expense — to promote himself and assure free media coverage in every corner of the state.

Our governor, then, is bending over backwards to create goodwill when it’s utterly unnecessary for political campaign purposes.

Why? Well, could be he’s just doing what comes naturally, likeable and innovative fellow that he is. Or it could be he’s getting ready to do some controversial things in his second term, as has every previous governor in his second term for the past 30 years or so, and needs a goodwill deposit to draw upon for those endeavors.

What will those endeavors be? A lot of the governor’s happily proclaimed but unfilled priorities — teacher pay raises, drug rehabilitation programs, etc. — cost money that isn’t there. Revenue enhancement, then, is a real possibility. Gas tax increase? Business tax reform to plug that big hole in franchise and excise tax revenue shortages? Medicaid expansion at last? Or maybe privatizing the entire state prison system as a means of saving money for those other priorities? Hints have been dropped. Who knows? He ain’t saying.

Gubernatorial controversy avoidance can safely be predicted until after the scripted re-election is completed. Then he’ll open the surprise packages.

Note: This is a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also appearing HERE.