Sunday column: On Ramsey’s retirement

Tennessee’s lieutenant governors, who under our state constitution hold the position by virtue of being elected as speaker of the state Senate, have always been addressed simply as “governor” — certainly not “lieutenant” and generally not even “speaker” — except when formally presiding over Senate debate.

Ron Ramsey has not been as adamant about the label as his predecessor, the late John Wilder, but has embraced the inherent concept incorporated within the labeling — that the person holding that office is equal to the state’s chief executive in Tennessee’s power structure.

Ramsey, who announced his political retirement last week, did more to make that concept reality than anyone since the 1960s senatorial rebellion against the then-established tradition of letting the governor dictate who would be elected lieutenant governor.

Indeed, some folks contend that Ramsey has been more influential in controlling state policy in recent years than Gov. Bill Haslam, who defeated him in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. That’s an exaggeration, but there has been a steady trend toward assertion of legislative independence from the governor and dominance over the judicial branch of government during Ramey’s decade-long reign of Senate rule.

Ramsey has been on generally friendly terms with Haslam, bantering at times over such things as who has the greatest grandchildren. On politics and policy, Ramsey has engaged in far more collaboration with the governor than confrontation.

Still, when Ramsey has chosen to confront, he has often prevailed, perhaps most prominently in engineering defeat of Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal last year, but in a few less-noticed skirmishes as well. But the governor has won a few, too, usually thanks to the House Republicans, led by Speaker Beth Harwell, breaking ranks with Ramsey’s Senate Republicans.

The Senate supermajority, which achieved that status in substantial part because of Ramsey and his pioneering political action committee, is pretty much in lockstep with its speaker. While a staunch conservative with tea party inclinations, Ramsey has also been a moderating influence on occasion in cooling the passions of the extreme right wing.

RAAMPAC, one of the first “leadership PACs” in Tennessee, initially was an abbreviation for Republicans Achieving A Majority PAC. It has raised and spent millions to elect Republican legislators over the years.

Ramsey has been bold in political leadership and refreshingly candid in dealing with media types, far more so than Haslam or Harwell. The House speaker is eyeing a run for governor in 2016 and cautious about doing anything that could be used against her in a campaign and, more importantly, is dealing with House factions that are not in lockstep at all.

An example of the differences this year: Ramsey prodded Haslam to proceed with an increase in fuel taxes. The governor, after spending months promoting the general proposition, balked. Harwell dodged a position, basically, and happily endorsed waiting until next year.

Now, with Ramsey leaving, the governor will be without his help should he try a gas tax hike in 2017. That could be a problem for the cautious chief executive. It’s doubtful that the next Senate speaker, whoever that may be, will have the same mastery of influencing internal Senate politics.

So Haslam was doubtless speaking truth when he declared that he’ll miss the “smart and effective” Ramsey. Many others will, too, for different reasons. Even Senate Democrats, who have been treated individually with civility and respect by Ramsey even as he aggressively sought to destroy their party generally within the state, expressed regret at his retirement.

Ramsey became speaker in 2007, defeating Wilder in a Senate floor vote filled with partisan intrigue. The enigmatic Wilder, a nominal Democrat twice censured by his own party, held the position for 36 years, apparently longer than anyone has ever held a similar legislative power position anywhere in the U.S. Ramsey, an absolutely dedicated Republican, displayed a striking difference by leaving the scene after just 10 years.

Maybe he’s more like a couple of other former lieutenant governors, George Oliver Benton and Frank Gorrell, who became highly influential lobbyists after leaving office? If so, any prospective client would be wise to hire him.