Education NewsTracker

Big Apple-Bound Again

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will do double duty in New York early this week, working on job creation while also appearing at the NBC event called the Education Nation Summit.

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty and a small team from ECD will be along for the trip in an effort much like the jobs trek the governor made to California in early September.

“We’ve asked our ECD folks — Commissioner Hagerty and others — to put together three or four different groups of both site selection people and some existing businesses, so again we can continue to sell Tennessee,” Haslam said.

Hagerty said the New York trip will run Monday-Wednesday. Haslam is scheduled to appear at a Tennessee Downtown Partnership event Wednesday in Nashville at noon. First Lady Crissy Haslam is scheduled to join her husband at the education summit.

The NBC education event kicks off with a teachers’ town hall on Sunday and concludes with a session with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday. Haslam said he would be part of two panels at the summit, one on K-12 education and another on completing college.

Hagerty said the Tennessee contingent got a positive reception when it traveled to California and that the group will meet in New York with companies that have private equity investments in Tennessee as well as companies that have not made investments in the state yet.

Haslam and Hagerty have repeatedly said the state is interested in growing businesses that already exist in the state as well as those they would like to attract to Tennessee.

The education summit is expected to include governors Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; Nathan Deal of Georgia; Mary Fallin of Oklahoma; John Hickenlooper of Colorado; Paul LePage of Maine; Jack Markell of Delaware; Bob McDonnell of Virginia; Sean Parnell of Arkansas; and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Haslam is expected on Monday to participate in a discussion called “The State of Education: The Governor’s Perspective.” That session is expected to cover a variety of educational issues and include questions from teachers, principals, parents and students.

Haslam was invited to introduce President Barack Obama last Friday at the White House for the president’s announcement of a new approach to the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Obama is scheduled to give his third annual “Back To School” speech on Wednesday at a high school in Washington.

Education Health Care NewsTracker

Dems’ Jackson Day Dinner to Commemorate Gov. McWherter

Maybe they will begin calling them “McWherter Day” dinners.

The Tennessee Democratic Party has announced that its state Jackson Day dinner in Nashville will be Oct. 1 and will celebrate the life of Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, who died this year on April 4.

Respect for McWherter and his place in the state party’s history since his death seem only to have grown among the Democrats, who are beginning to portray him as one of their most revered historical figures.

In a message to Democrats on the party’s official website, state party chairman Chip Forrester says, “As we work together to rebuild Tennessee and restore the American Dream for our children, our families and communities, we would do well by the next generation in fighting for the same values Gov. McWherter fought for: fairness, dignity and responsibility — for all.”

McWherter’s memorial service in Nashville drew former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, as well as prominent Republicans, including three former Republican governors of the state and GOP icon former Sen. Howard Baker.

The Democratic Party’s website home page, in addition to a prominent announcement of the tribute, features photos of McWherter with figures as varied as Clinton, Gore, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who defeated McWherter’s son, Mike, in the gubernatorial race in 2010, took the highly unusual step in a campaign ad of referring to Ned McWherter and Bredesen, both Democrats, as among the state’s outstanding leaders.

Ned McWherter, from Dresden in Weakley County, was governor from 1987-95 after serving 14 years as speaker of the House. He was noted for his efforts at education reform, including a revamped funding mechanism for schools and annual school report cards in the state. McWherter also ushered in TennCare, a new system for Medicaid, which has since become a troubled, controversial experiment.

McWherter was honored with the unveiling of a statue on the town square in Dresden in October 2010.

The Democrats’ annual Jackson Day dinner is named for former President Andrew Jackson, considered one of the founders of the Democratic Party.


Larger than Life

Former President Bill Clinton probably summed up the way most people felt about Gov. Ned Ray McWherter in a memorial service Saturday at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville.

“Whenever I talked to him, he made me feel good,” Clinton said. “I was kind of excitable. He would calm me down. If I was low, he would lift me up.”

There were moments of laughter and moments of tears in the service, but above all there was an unmistakable swell of love for McWherter, who died on Monday at age 80.

The service Saturday drew a power-packed line-up of state dignitaries, but the message was on the compassion in the man who looked after people who lacked power or wealth or fame. A separate service is scheduled for Sunday in Dresden, McWherter’s hometown.

McWherter served Tennessee as governor 1987-95, and there were frequent references Saturday to his skillful days as speaker of the House for 14 years before becoming governor.

Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, who sat side-by-side during the service, each spoke of McWherter’s connection to ordinary people and his care for those who, like himself, came from humble beginnings in a rural part of the state. Descriptions of life in Weakley County were frequent throughout the ceremony.

The gathering of political dignitaries — past and present, Democratic and Republican — included Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, former U.S. Sens. Howard Baker, Jim Sasser and Harlan Mathews and former governors Phil Bredesen, Don Sundquist and Winfield Dunn.

McWherter was a Democrat, but on Saturday there was little mention of political parties.

Mike McWherter, his son, who was the Democratic nominee in the race last year against Haslam, gave a eulogy and began by picking up a gavel from a small table in front of the podium and banging it. He recalled how his father used to let him do that when he was speaker.

Gore picked up on the small-town theme quickly, noting that references to McWherter being born in tiny Palmersville instead should be described as “greater Palmersville.”

“That little community was something that shaped Ned profoundly,” Gore said. “He told stories about it all through his political campaigns. He said, ‘I played with a little white pig until I was 18. It was the only toy I had.’

“The Memphis Commercial Appeal said if that story wasn’t exactly true at least it was genuine.”

Gore made a point to mention the presence of legislators in the auditorium, including Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, who looked up to McWherter.

“There is a large family of people, especially in the Legislature — Speaker Naifeh and so many others — who really felt like family to Ned McWherter, and to all of you we are here in support of those ties and to honor what he meant to you and what you meant to him,” Gore said.

Clinton described how McWherter nudged Clinton and Gore to get together for the presidential ticket that won in 1992. Gore had just decided not to run for the White House.

Clinton recalled that McWherter said, “If Albert had run, he would have beat you. But you’re my neighbor, and I like you, and I will be for you.”

Clinton said McWherter told him, “I’m telling you, you would be a good team. He’s smarter than you are. He knows more about everything than you do, and your line of B.S. is better than his.”

Clinton also joked about his first impression of McWherter, who was as hefty physically as politically.

“I saw that body, and I thought, my God, the Grand Ole Opry’s got its very own Buddha,” Clinton said.

But Clinton quickly learned about McWherter’s political persuasiveness.

“The first time I met Ned Ray McWherter, after 30 seconds of that aw-shucks routine, I wanted to reach in my back pocket and make sure my billfold was still there. After a minute, I was ready to give him my billfold,” Clinton said.

Clinton called McWherter a “fabulous politician” and noted that McWherter had helped him carry Tennessee in presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 and supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she won the state’s primary. Clinton said that in his family McWherter could do no wrong.

The service included music from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Former McWherter aide Billy Stair spoke movingly about McWherter’s work and drew heavily from the unveiling of a statue of McWherter in Dresden last October. The program Saturday included remarks from former McWherter chief of staff David Gregory.

At times, especially before the service, the auditorium had much the feel of a family reunion.

“He saw politics as a profession with a purpose,” Gore said. “He wasn’t in it for some ideology or philosophy. He was in it to help the people who were in the kind of circumstances he was in when he was growing up.”

Clinton described McWherter out of friendship, not just as a political colleague.

“Above all, he was a friend,” Clinton said. “Above all, to the people of Tennessee he was a friend. We’re here laughing and wanting to cry because we know he was special. He was great because he didn’t think the Democrats were right all the time, and he knew Republicans couldn’t be wrong all the time.”

Clinton closed on a note of the season.

“I think God knew what he was doing when he called him home in the springtime,” Clinton said. “In the springtime, we’re all reminded of how beautiful our earth is and how great it smells and how one more time we’ve been invited to make a new beginning.

“I hope the young people of Tennessee will wind up making enough new beginnings, so we’ll have more Ned Ray McWherters. He graced us in a way few people have, not just because of all he did, but because he was our friend.”

Featured News

McWherter Outlived By Influence on Tennessee Politics

Ned Ray McWherter, whose work decades ago as Tennessee’s 46th governor reverberates in the halls of the State Capitol even today, died Monday at age 80.

McWherter served as governor from 1987-95 after serving 14 years as Tennessee Speaker of the House. He served two House terms representing Weakley County prior to his time as speaker. He died in a Nashville hospital where he was battling cancer.

McWherter’s work on education reform and his reshaping the state’s Medicaid system into TennCare have left more than lasting memories on the state. They are the basis of many of the issues the Tennessee General Assembly is working on now, 16 years after McWherter left office.

Both efforts were seen as innovative when they began. McWherter is still hailed as a champion of education reform with his foresight, a contrast to the more problematic revamp of the Medicaid system.

A statue of McWherter was unveiled at the courthouse in his hometown of Dresden in Weakley County last October to commemorate his 80th birthday. The day came at a time McWherter’s son, Michael Ray McWherter, was running for governor, attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps as the Democratic nominee.

Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, lost the election to Republican Bill Haslam, but Haslam, in one of the most unorthodox moves in state political history, used the image of Ned McWherter in his television advertising as an example of one of Tennessee’s great leaders, even as Haslam campaigned against the son.

Ned McWherter also leaves a daughter, Linda Ramsey. His wife, Bette Jean Beck McWherter, died in 1973.

Haslam issued a statement Monday expressing his gratitude to McWherter for his service.

“This is a sad day for Tennessee,” Haslam said. “Governor McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens. He had a long and distinguished career in the legislative and executive branches as well as in business.

“I will always be grateful for his personal kindness to me and the wise advice he gave me during my first months in office. Crissy’s and my thoughts and prayers go out to Mike and the entire McWherter family during this difficult time.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who preceded McWherter as governor, affectionately referred to McWherter on the Senate floor Monday as “a big, burly, Hoss Cartwright sort of fellow” and praised McWherter for acting in a bipartisan way when Alexander was governor and McWherter was speaker.

McWherter served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. The two had a long friendship, and Clinton made a stop in Nashville last year to campaign for Mike McWherter for governor.

As governor, McWherter ushered in the Education Improvement Act in 1992, which simultaneously provided a big boost in funding for education and a demand for accountability in schools. Its echoes can be heard in Legislative Plaza now as the state weighs even more reforms in education.

The accountability under McWherter came in the form of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (pdf), drawn from a model by William Sanders at the University of Tennessee. The data measured student and school performance and was seen as a major advantage in 2010 when Tennessee fashioned its successful application for federal Race to the Top funds for education.

McWherter was driven to create fairness in funding for education in the state’s 95 counties. The impetus began when McWherter and aide Billy Stair attended an education summit in 1989 in Virginia for governors held by President George H.W. Bush, who urged raising standards.

McWherter and his lieutenants conducted meetings across the state. The result was a plan that offered more funding and flexibility in exchange for accountability. A bipartisan effort produced the funding. At first McWherter took a stab at implementing an income tax. It didn’t get far. The Legislature implemented a one-half-cent increase on the sales tax instead.

TennCare has been a different story, but at its inception it was viewed as a new way of dealing with the increasingly difficult issue of health-care costs. The state’s (then) $2.8 billion Medicaid program was seriously jeopardizing the state’s financial stability. McWherter proposed a system where 12 managed-care organizations took on the task of health coverage.

It was a monumental change, but McWherter had bipartisan support and managed to implement the plan by executive order. But it required a waiver from the federal government, and there was considerable resistance in Washington. McWherter’s finance director, David Manning, spent a great deal of time in Washington on the move, and McWherter met with Clinton at least once in the Oval Office to get it through. The federal government approved the plan Dec. 23, 1993.

Doctors didn’t like it. The plan reduced their rates, and they were made to take TennCare patients if they wanted to care for state employees in the Tennessee Provider Network. But TennCare was a new reality. The costs of care plagued McWherter’s successors, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, with Bredesen substantially cutting the TennCare rolls. The program continues to be a source of controversy, as in every state dealing with Medicaid cost issues.

McWherter responded to federal court demands and revamped the state’s prison system beginning in the 1980s. In seven years, the state built more than 8,000 new beds. It was also a time when the “three strikes and you’re out” approach to sentencing took hold, when three or more felonies put convicts in prison without parole. McWherter called it “three strikes and you’re in.”

McWherter had said one of his most difficult times as governor came in 1989 when a bridge over the Hatchie River in West Tennessee collapsed, where eight people died.

Despite his folksy charm, McWherter was a wealthy man. He grew up the son of sharecroppers in Palmersville, Tenn. He worked in a shoe factory but went on to head various businesses including a beer distributorship and nursing homes. He was first elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1968.

McWherter defeated a former governor, Republican Winfield Dunn, in the gubernatorial race in 1986. In the campaign, McWherter enjoyed unusual popularity in normally Republican strongholds in East Tennessee, most notably in Upper East Tennessee, where Republican U.S. Rep. Jimmy Quillen had clashed with Dunn over building a medical school at East Tennessee State University. McWherter won a second term in 1990 by handily defeating Republican Dwight Henry.

With his first campaign for governor, McWherter famously said, “Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and I’ll be ready to go to work.” The line caught on, and vanilla wafers became a staple of his years as governor. When Mike McWherter was formally endorsed for governor by Bredesen at Swett’s restaurant in Nashville, with father Ned looking on, there was a box of vanilla wafers on hand to remind the faithful.

News of McWherter’s death drew reactions of sadness Monday.

The Tennessee Democratic Party issued a statement from Chairman Chip Forrester, himself grieving the sudden death of his 19-year-old son over the weekend: “I had the high honor of serving in his first campaign for governor and count him as one of my true political mentors.”

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said, “I believe all Tennesseans, regardless of political affiliation, appreciate his years of service to our state even after he served as speaker of the House and governor.”

The House Democratic Caucus issued a release from House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh of Covington and former Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry of Memphis, saying “Ned McWherter was our House speaker. He was our governor. And, he was our friend. He taught us how to bring new business, better education and prosperity to our state while taking care of those Tennesseans who many times went without. Most of all, he taught us what it was about to be a Democrat while working with our friends on the other side of the aisle.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said, “Few men have meant as much to as many Tennesseans as Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. This state has lost a true statesman and a true original. My heart and the hearts of all Tennesseans go out to the McWherter family today.”

Sen. Roy Herron, a Democrat from McWherter’s hometown of Dresden, said in a formal statement, “Governor McWherter was our greatest governor during my lifetime, and I believe he was our greatest governor during Tennessee’s lifetime.”

Business and Economy Featured News Transparency and Elections

Clinton Implores TN Democrats to Reshape Election Debates

About 1,500 or so Democratic Party die-hards waited for nearly two hours under threat of downpour in downtown Nashville Thursday night to hear former President Bill Clinton suggest ways they may dodge the storm clouds gathering on the electoral horizon.

In order to do that, Clinton said, party enthusiasts are going to have to focus a lot of energy battling the “anger, apathy and amnesia” gripping the country right now.

Clinton was in town to give a boost to the profile and political fortunes of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter in his uphill battle against Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, the Republican primary winner.

However, Clinton’s themes were no doubt similar to what he’s been pitching wherever he’s taken stage lately — most recently this week in Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama.

“I am concerned about this election only because of the relentless opposition and complaints and criticism of the other party and their minions in media,” said the one-time Democratic commander-in-chief. They have “created the feeling that somehow everything is not right and it is the fault of the Democrats.”

Clinton said he “gets the anger” pulsing through the electorate and focused on the party that controls the United States government right now. However, decisions made in anger are usually wrong — and if voters act on that anger at the polls, they’ll regret it, he said.

But the responsibility for breaking out of the apathy and combating the political amnesia rests with Democratic activists, he added.

“I believe that Mike McWherter will win this race if you, between now and election day, can convince most Tennesseans to change the subject from anger, apathy and amnesia, to the following: What are we going to do now, and who is most likely to do it?” said Clinton. “If those are the questions, Mike wins. If it is about anger, apathy and amnesia, we’re all toast. And we’ll all pay the price.”

Republicans are the ones primarily responsible for the country’s economic woes and the government’s bleak fiscal picture, charged Clinton.

“They only care about (balancing) the budget when (Democrats) are in, and then they want to get rid of education and privatize Social Security and Medicare…and give people in my income group another tax cut,” he said.

The GOP is “a very ideological party,” and “they are impervious to evidence,” Clinton said.

Clinton praised the stimulus package and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which he credited with “saving the financial system and keeping interest rates near zero.” Together, those government interventions into the economy prevented 8.5 million more people from being unemployed, he asserted.

However, Clinton made little mention of President Obama directly, and was more or less mum on the subject of the health reform package, the wisdom and workability of which McWherter and outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen, also on hand for the event, have themselves questioned.

Indeed, Clinton at one point made something of a joke at Obama’s expense. “I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to (Mike McWherter) and his father and his family for the support I received — and the support my candidate received in 2008,” Clinton said. He added, to audience laughter and applause, “I still think she’s doing pretty well as secretary of state, by the way.”

Clinton said the most important duty a governor shoulders is bringing jobs to a state. That’s something the two-term president said McWherter has a much better understanding of than Haslam.

“If you look at every analysis (and) all the job growth for the next 10 years, the most potential is in three areas: small business, manufacturing … and clean energy,” said Clinton. McWherter “is the only candidate that’s actually got a plan to increase assistance to help small business expand and to make America more energy independent through the use of Tennessee-grown biofuels, and those are two of the three areas where we are going to get our job growth. Nobody else is talking about that.”

Andrea Zelinski shot video and contributed reporting to this story.

Press Releases

Bill Clinton Keynote Speaker at McWherter Rally

Press Release from Mike McWherter for Governor; Sept. 8, 2010:

NASHVILLE – On the evening of September 9th, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton will headline a rally hosted by Jackson businessman and Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter. The move comes as campaigns across the country ramp up their efforts after Labor Day Weekend in their attempts to win general elections in November.

“I’m honored to have Bill’s support and look forward to welcoming him to the Volunteer State,” said Mike McWherter. “President Clinton has always focused on the needs of small businesses and working families, which are the top priorities of my campaign. Everyday Tennesseans need a governor who will stand up for them and not cower to the pressure of special interest groups. I will be that governor.”

The rally, which will begin at 6:30 and take place at the Hall of Fame Park next to the Hilton Downtown Nashville Hotel, will be free of charge. However, we do ask that guests RVSP at

Mike McWherter, the only candidate in the race who is not a career politician, is a successful small business owner in West Tennessee. A native of Northwest Tennessee, he now lives in Jackson with his wife Mary Jane and their children Walker and Bess. The McWherter for Governor campaign can be found online at