Republicans in Tennessee have become so relaxed with the wind in their sails they have begun telling their secrets, in the form of old political war stories.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey was the keynote speaker Friday in Gallatin at a luncheon of the Sumner Republican Young Professionals, and after U.S. Rep. Diane Black first spilled the beans on bad boy Ramsey in one story, the lieutenant governor, twice noting there was some media presence in the room, went with it anyway. And it played well with his audience.
Ramsey eventually recapped Republican Party victories in the most recent legislative session, but the stories came first.
Like the time lawmakers were on a Republican retreat at a state park. Black, then a state senator and caucus chairman, detected that Ramsey, Sen. Bill Ketron, Sen. Jim Tracy and Matt King, a Ramsey aide at the time, were smoking cigars up on a deck — right after they had passed a law banning smoking in such public places.
Black, who now holds the congressional seat Democrat Bart Gordon had for 13 terms, said she could hear the commotion of Ramsey and the guys about two floors up, where they were staying at the retreat. She speculated that they were even throwing cigars off the balcony. The next morning, when the culprits had gotten in a car and headed home, Black checked out and called them.
She told them, “We’re in trouble. What did I tell you about throwing those cigars off the balcony?”
Black told Tracy, who then passed the phone to Ramsey, that the park brass wanted to fine them for the smoking. Ramsey, distraught, admitted he was more than willing to pay fines but was already dreading the media reaction. Black said she could hear Ramsey telling Ketron and King they were all in trouble. After a substantial amount of groaning by the guys, Black finally let them know she was teasing.
“It was a day I’ll never forget. She got us,” Ramsey said. “She got us good.”
Then there was the time Ramsey and the state party chair at the time, Bob Davis, tried to talk a reluctant Black into giving up a safe House seat to run in 2004 for the Senate — telling her a poll showing her in a match-up with incumbent Democrat Jo Ann Graves wasn’t bad — when it was.
“I told Bob, ‘We need to take a poll, and we’ll show her she can win,’” Ramsey said. “We took that poll. Folks, it was terrible. Jo Ann had 65 percent approval rating.
“Diane asked how the poll turned out. We said, ‘Wasn’t bad, wasn’t bad.’ She asked, ‘Do you think I’ll win?’ We said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’”
Black narrowly defeated Graves.
“When the election was over we showed her the poll. She said, ‘If I had known that, I wouldn’t have run.’” Ramsey said. “We said, ‘That’s the reason we didn’t show it to you.’”
Ramsey told the crowd Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t afraid to say when he just plain doesn’t know something, and Ramsey allowed that if it hadn’t been for the historic conservative wave of the 2010 election a lot of those Republican freshmen in the Legislature this year simply wouldn’t have been there in a normal year.
When Ramsey got around to the lawmaking accomplishments, he claimed one education reform measure that got virtually no notice will become a huge development.
Ramsey made a point to tell the luncheon crowd Friday how impressed he is with Haslam, whom he ran against in 2010.
“I want to tell you something, folks. Bill Haslam is the real deal,” Ramsey said. “He may not be as conservative as I am on certain issues. He is a good Christian man, a good family man. I’ve never heard him say one bad word about anything.
“In any kind of leadership, if you don’t know something, say you don’t know something. Just say I don’t know. Time after time after time, he came to us and said, ‘I’m new on the job, I don’t know this,’ and it worked out well every time.”
Ramsey described how at a caucus retreat at Haslam’s home after the election someone brought up the term “flag letter,” which is used when the administration wants to express its opposition to a bill in the legislature. Haslam asked, “‘What’s a flag letter?”
“I said, ‘This is going to be all right,’” Ramsey said.
Ramsey, now in his fifth year as speaker of the Senate, described how he used to have to walk down the hall to deal with Democrat Jimmy Naifeh when Naifeh was speaker of the House.
“I’ll have to say this. Never once did Jimmy Naifeh ever lie to me. But it was no fun, knowing whatever I said he was going to say the opposite for two years,” Ramsey said, before bringing up former House speaker Kent Williams, a Republican who struck a deal with Democrats that gave Williams the gavel.
“The next two years, I had to work with Kent Williams. … I’ll just skip that,” Ramsey said.
Then came the historic election of Beth Harwell as the state’s first female speaker of the House.
“What a breath of fresh air, to walk down that hall and go into Beth Harwell’s office and know I had somebody who was trying to reach the same goals I was trying to reach,” Ramsey said.
“Not only were we productive — and I think this may go down as one of the most productive General Assemblies in history — we were also efficient. Beth and I set a goal when we first came in to be out by Memorial Day. I got to spend the last two weeks at home. It was the first time I spent a week at home in May since 1998.”
Ramsey noted the state budget passing unanimously and a reduction in the state Hall income tax on interest and dividends for seniors. He said he eventually wants to eliminate the Hall tax completely for those over age 65.
“We balanced a budget, cut the budget and cut taxes. That is what a Republican majority can get you, folks,” Ramsey said.
He recounted education reforms, including Haslam’s decision to tackle the sacred cow of teacher tenure, the Legislature’s willingness to take on teachers’ collective bargaining, and he talked about the little noticed bill on “social promotion,” the practice of advancing students to the next grade although they’re not ready to move on.
“I don’t think it got the first ounce of media coverage,” Ramsey said. “A Democrat in Putnam County carried this bill. I didn’t know the bill existed until a week before it passed.
“Last year, 43,000 students received social promotions, passed on to the next grade whether they were ready or not. If a student can’t read at grade level when coming out of the third grade, they’re basically doomed for life. They’ll never catch up. Starting next year, there will be no more social promotion in the third grade.”
That Putnam County lawmaker is Sen. Charlotte Burks. Haslam has signed the bill, which goes into effect in the coming school year.
Ramsey rattled off approval of tort reform, the photo ID requirement for voting and the E-Verify system for hiring on the list of legislative accomplishments.
“Folks, we rocked and rolled this year,” he said.
Ramsey, a professional auctioneer, auctioned off a copy of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan, autographed by the Wisconsin Republican, with proceeds going to the the Sumner Republican Young Professionals. It sold for $150.