published Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Cook: What does it mean to be a Tennessee Republican?

What does it mean to be a Republican in Tennessee?

With the Republicans already controlling 85 out of the 132 available seats in the General Assembly — and potentially more after this fall’s election — this question may be better asked with the future tense:

What will it mean to be a Republican in Tennessee?

Will Tennesseans get more of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education reform? Or more of the guns-everywhere, “Don’t Say Gay” agenda?

Consider this timeline, beginning in June 2012, when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded our state’s “commitment to leading the nation in education reform.”

A few weeks later, county Republican parties across Tennessee began openly criticizing their own Republican governor for hiring a Muslim woman and not firing openly gay employees.

A few weeks after that, Debra Maggart, chairwoman of the House Republican caucus, was defeated in the Aug. 2 primaries — by another Republican — after Maggart had fought certain pro-gun legislation. (The National Rifle Association spent at least $75,000 to defeat Maggart.)

So, which is it?

I put the question to Bo Watson, Senate pro tempore and a Republican from Hixson, over coffee last week at Chattz, the Market Street coffeehouse. Watson is well-respected within government and outside of it; during our 90-minute conversation, he was articulate, open to divergent opinions, referring to the Second Amendment one moment, and the poet Robert Frost in the next.

It’s unfair — and illogical — Watson said, trying to corral every Republican idea in one unifying statement. The divide between urban and rural Republicans can be pretty wide in this state. For some, guns matter. For others, not so much.

“Approx. 6% of total time spent on handgun issues,” he texted me later in the day.

In June 2009, Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher totaled up the number of minutes House and Senate members spent on the floor (from February to May) discussing major gun bills. In the House: 4 hours and 55 minutes, or 6 percent, out of 74 hours. In the Senate: 58 minutes, or 2 percent of the total floor time.

Watson said the media crafts public perception that legislative discussion is dominated by guns-and-gays social issues. As compared to the House — where social issues often emerge — legislators in the Senate, he said, are more interested in crafting larger-issue legislation: education, employment, health care.

“We spend a whole lot more time contemplating these issues,” he said.

He spoke for a long time about education, mainly the Complete College Act of 2010: Universities are funded based on “performance-based” graduation rates, not student enrollment, he said.

“No other state is doing this,” he said.

He called the classroom teacher “the most important person in the room,” and decried the lack of respect we — as citizens, and governments — afford them.

I challenged him: a heavy emphasis on standardized testing sends the exact opposite micromanaging message. He didn’t disagree.

Bringing in more businesses depends on whether our education system can provide qualified scholars and workers. With more business comes more funding and jobs. For Watson, it all hinges on education.

Here’s to education in Nashville, and all of Tennessee.

Tuesday’s online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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aae1049 said...

Mr. Cook, you ask "What does it mean to be a Republican in Tennessee? With the Republicans already controlling 85 out of the 132 available seats in the General Assembly."


August 28, 2012 at 12:10 a.m.
Van said...

Since the Legislature rubber stamps NRA laws, is it surprising there's no floor debate? From that perspective, the lack of debate speaks volumes about who calls the shots up there. Hopefully, you will write more about your 90 minutes with Bo. What's his relationship with ALEC? Why does he dodge the Scenic Vistas Protection Act? Is he affiliated with Family Action Council? If the goal is providing well-heeled workers, why are they cutting higher ed and pre-K funding? How can you cut the legs out from the ed system and expect a good outcome?

August 28, 2012 at 9:20 a.m.
biofish said...

Could you make the plug for Chattz ANY more obvious? I take it they push you a free cup now and then? Another superior mark on your Journalism report card. First the sensitive gang-banger plea... now you're writing columns for coffee.

August 28, 2012 at 10:04 a.m.
jesse said...

It prob. means you been around long enough to remember Frank Clements, Ray Blanton,Ward Crutchfield And every other dem. from those eras!!

August 28, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
aae1049 said...

jesse, hehe good one. It is generational. Frank Clements and Ray Blanton same time, but Crutchfield power base was not significant until little later.

August 28, 2012 at 7:50 p.m.
jesse said...

aae! i knew that,i said "those eras"!

Throw in John Jay Hooker,Jake Butcher and all that bunch ,it don't take a rocket scientist to fig.out why the Dems. are dead in Tenn!!

Like Abe said about foolin all the folks!

August 30, 2012 at 10:22 a.m.
Rtazmann said...

After 2 terms with Bush Jr. you would think Republicans would have a game- plan,,,but doesn't..Romney will look out for his rich and nothing more... President Obama is where he is at because of Jr's spending and Wall Street,,,, nobody has seen jail bars yet..and everything Romney talks about was under Jr's watch so what plan can the Republicans have...but for the rich...The Republicans in Tn. does nothing for the people,,,,Wake-up people,,,for special interest groups they do.. Decades of nothing for the Country and State..

August 31, 2012 at 10:31 p.m.
Rtazmann said...

Dems may dead in Tn. but Republicans have given you decades of nothing and making you think it was something...Give me something to vote for besides dreams,,,and nothing.

August 31, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.
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