NASHVILLE — As he nears the two-year anniversary of taking office, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he's done "what we've said we'd do," citing victories in controlling spending, cutting taxes and overhauling civil service and teacher tenure laws.
"We said we would attack issues that we thought were things people cared about and made a big difference," the governor told reporters last week. "So we've done that."
But while Haslam touts his record of getting things done, the Democrat who may challenge him in the 2014 election faults him for not always standing up to his fellow Republicans who run the General Assembly.
"Sometimes it doesn't appear to me he's taking the reins like someone with a 70 percent approval rating should, sometimes letting other factions of his party possibly sort of run the show," House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said last week.
"He could have been a little more decisive."
Fitzhugh cited the months Haslam spent deciding whether to implement a state health insurance exchange under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
The governor had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court or November elections would bring Republican victories leading to its repeal. When neither of those things happened, he announced in mid-December he would let the federal government run the online insurance market.
Haslam had acknowledged getting a state-run exchange through the Republican-controlled legislature would be tough. But he said his concern all along was how much flexibility the state would have.
He called his rejection a "business decision based on what is best for Tennesseans with the information we have now that we've pressed hard to receive from Washington."
He added, "If this were a political decision, it would've been easy, and I would've made it a long time ago."
Haslam still hasn't decided whether Tennessee will expand TennCare to as many as 330,000 low-income adults under the federal health care law. He has said he's weighing the pros and cons and likely will decide in the spring or later.
Hand on the reins
Haslam spokesman David Smith took issue with Fitz-hugh's assertion that Haslam has been indecisive.
"From the feedback the governor gets from traveling the state and listening to Tennesseans from Memphis to Mountain City, they appreciate his thoughtful leadership approach" on issues, Smith said in a statement.
In a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview this year, Haslam chuckled over Democrats, who last session accused him of grabbing power to gut civil service regulations and gain control over several boards and commissions.
"On one hand, I get accused of setting myself up to be the most powerful [governor] ever," he said. "And the other is, 'He's just this friendly guy who kind of goes along to get along.' So I'm like, which is it?"
Explaining his idea of the governor's duties, Haslam said, "I don't see my job as being the head of the legislature or even about managing the legislative process. I really do think it's about we're a $31 billion entity with 40,000 employees and trying to make that run better. That really is one of our key objectives."
Republican legislative leaders reject any idea the governor is less than decisive on some issues or that his greatest challenge is in his own party.
"They [Democrats] have been relegated to such a minority now that their only hope is trying to divide Republicans," House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, called Haslam a "deliberative" leader "who listens to many sides of an issue, which people respect."
Tennesseans like how Haslam is doing the job.
In a recent Vanderbilt University survey of 829 voters, 68 percent said he's doing a good job. Fifty-two percent approved the performance of the Republican-dominated legislature.
Out of step
Still, Haslam sometimes has been at odds with his own party, especially on social issues.
He used his first veto on legislation pushed by social conservatives banning Vanderbilt University's "all comers" policy.
Vanderbilt's policy required all student groups, including religious ones, to let any interested student join and run for office regardless of sexual orientation or religion.
The governor said while he disagreed with Vanderbilt's policy -- he tried unsuccessfully behind the scenes to persuade the school to drop it -- he didn't like the idea of government jumping into a private institution's affairs.
"I just have some strong misgivings about the state telling a private institution what to do," said Haslam, who once contemplated going to divinity school.
A future, more liberal legislature might want to intervene based on its point of view, he said. Conservatives wouldn't like that, he added.
"Do you want them [liberals] telling your private school what to do?" Haslam asked. "I think we should have the same respect ... even if we agree with the focus" of social conservatives' effort.
In his own legislation over the past two years, Haslam has not pushed bills that are near and dear to social conservatives.
"To me, it's a focus on what should the governor be doing that can really make a difference," Haslam said. "We did that if you look at our legislation this year."
On social questions, he said, "I don't know of a whole lot of hearts that have been changed through legislation."
Watson agreed, noting there are three equal branches of government, and one will sometimes have a "priority the other doesn't."
"Now does the governor have to beat on his bully pulpit every time he disagrees with a bill? ... I don't think this governor has to scream and yell in order to be successful," Watson said.
Earlier this year, Haslam refused to sign a Watson-sponsored bill that would protect public school teachers who discuss "weaknesses" in scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.
Critics charged it was an assault on science. Haslam said he didn't think the measure did much but could cause confusion.
The bill became law without his signature.
But, Watson said, "that's his prerogative."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...