Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, remembers Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen telling the story of how at a National Governors Association meeting someone said governors should have a meal with state legislators once every week or two.
“And Governor Bredesen said, ‘We’ve been doing that for decades,'” Ramsey said.
So it was interesting when reports surfaced Wednesday that Bredesen expressed his frustration at a breakfast with the Legislature’s leadership Wednesday morning about getting a budget deal done and reports of a potential compromise followed later the same day.
It’s not known exactly what was said in the breakfast or precisely how influential the governor was, but personal relationships among the governor and members of the General Assembly could certainly come into play on a potential budget deal.
Every Wednesday, Bredesen has a 7 a.m. breakfast with the speakers of the House and Senate, the two speakers pro tempore, majority leaders, minority leaders, caucus chairs and the two finance committee chairs from each house. The idea of the weekly breakfast is for those in the room to get to know each other on a personal basis, with the goal of making it easier to work together when serious business arises.
The major candidates in the current gubernatorial campaign were all asked — since it is bound to have crossed their minds — how well they thought their relationships might be with legislators if they get elected. Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter and the likely Democratic nominee, talked about it Wednesday. The question was posed a few days ago to the three major Republican candidates.
The value of personal relationships came up every time.
Ramsey was asked about the atmosphere in general at the breakfasts.
“Very little policy goes on in those breakfasts,” Ramsey said. “You’re much less likely to be uncivil to a colleague knowing you’re going to have breakfast with him on Wednesday morning.
“I do think it’s the reason we get along better. Governor Bredesen and I have gotten along very well. If we disagree, we disagree agreeably. We don’t throw stones. We don’t get carried away in the rhetoric. We know we’re going to see each other.”
Ramsey said the leadership breakfasts are a tradition that goes back as far as governors Ned McWherter and Lamar Alexander. Mike McWherter has memories of those times.
“I do remember my father participating in those breakfasts with Lamar,” said McWherter, whose father was speaker of the House before succeeding Alexander. “It was always beneficial to understand where everybody was coming from, that kind of casual event where you could sit down and really talk about what your priorities are and what the direction is.
“It’s a concept I would want to continue in my administration.”
McWherter said he remembered being 12 years old when his father went to the Legislature and he saw and respected the Legislature’s role. He recalled that in the 1970s the Republican Party made Ned McWherter an honorary minority leader because he had a bipartisan view and that his father was very proud of the certificate they gave him.
“He demonstrated to me over the years the best way to move Tennessee forward when he was speaker and as governor was to have bipartisan consensus,” McWherter said.
The recent budget debate has cut to the core of political principles. And these are not the best of times economically. Moreover, the next governor and General Assembly are likely to face even tougher budget decisions.
So what would those relationships be like? For his part, if he’s governor, Ramsey said, “I think it would be the best it’s ever been — since the Legislature existed.
“I guess Governor McWherter coming out of the House as speaker had a good relationship with the Legislature. It’s so important to know leaders of the House and Senate and be friends with them. I think that’s one reason I’d be the best governor.”
Ramsey is not the only candidate who feels that way. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican, sees parallels to that relationship and the one he has now in city government.
“One of the things I learned real quick as mayor is you don’t get anything done without City Council,” Haslam said. “So I spend a lot of time not just on the budget and kind of official things but a lot of going to lunch, coffee, etc., because I want to make certain when issues come up, that’s not the first time we’ve had a serious conversation.”
Government benefits from such an approach, Haslam says.
“In the end, a lot of things wind up being about relationships, not relationships over principle but a lot of times people understand that he really wants to get the best answer instead of getting to his answer,” Haslam said. “Then they’re more willing to sit down and work with you.”
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said he has strong support among current legislators but he said it presents a conflict for members at the moment because of Ramsey’s candidacy.
“I’m going to have a really good working relationship with the House and Senate and we’re going to have to be connected at the hip on why our budgets will do what they do and why our state is going to be the most competitive by coming at this from a more austere footprint,” Wamp said.
“We’re going to sort of be bonded together out of necessity.”
Wamp said the governor will need to adapt quickly.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do together,” Wamp said. “The transition is going to need to be quick, because of budget pressures we’re going to face beginning next January when the new governor is sworn in.”
Wamp also said he is prepared for the burden that comes with the role.
“We can’t blame Governor Bredesen. He won’t be there. We’ve got to set the agenda,” Wamp said.
“I will be able to work with whoever the House chooses as speaker and whoever the Senate chooses as their leader/lieutenant governor. But that’s up to them, not up to me. I’ll work with whoever the leadership is in the legislature in a very cooperative way.”