Affection for McWherter, Antipathy for Republicans at Dems’ Jackson Day Dinner

In praise of the late Gov. Ned McWherter’s record on education, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh reignited battles of this year’s legislative session Saturday night at the Tennessee Democratic Party Jackson Day Dinner.

“Ned wouldn’t have backed down when my colleagues across the aisle began to attack teachers in this state, and neither did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus,” Fitzhugh said to applause. “Ned would have stood for teachers when politicians decided to stop being partners with our teachers and wanted to be dictators to our teachers, and so did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus.

“We know what Ned would do. He would fight for teachers, not against them. He would work with teachers, not attack them.”

Those lines rekindled controversial fights this year when Republican Gov. Bill Haslam led the way on changing the teacher tenure system, and the GOP-dominated Legislature repealed a state law passed in 1978 that mandated collective bargaining between local school boards and teachers unions, replacing it with a “collective conferencing” system that many unionized teachers believe undermines their negotiating leverage.

Noting that signs saying “I Miss Ned” were on the tables inside the big tent that hosted the affair on the grounds of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall, Fitzhugh, from Ripley, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, education in our state misses Ned.

“He was a man who deeply cared about the children of our state, and he dedicated his life in public service to improving education.”

McWherter, who died April 4, was the focus of most of the speakers, including his son, Mike, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee last year. Mike McWherter, who lost to Haslam, announced the first Ned McWherter Legacy Award to veteran Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry from Memphis, who had a conflict in schedule and did not attend the dinner.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave the keynote speech and stirred the crowd especially when going after Wall Street and the Republican presidential field for 2012.

“None of us get through this life on our own. We’re all interdependent and dependent upon each other, and I wish the folks on Wall Street understood that,” Strickland said. “These Republican presidential candidates, I wish they would just acknowledge that they attended schools that someone else provided. They benefited from roads and bridges that someone else built.

“I’m just getting a little sick and tired of the attitude that I associate with an economic and social Darwinism that says, ‘I got mine, and too bad if you don’t have yours.’ We are one country, one people, and we are dependent upon each other.”

Strickland said he was glad he is a Democrat because the Democratic Party created Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But most of the evening belonged to Ned.

Each of the tables had a box of vanilla wafers holding two American flags, a reminder of McWherter’s famous line just to give him a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and he was ready to go to work. The program featured several videos with clips from McWherter’s career, including interviews, campaign ads and televised debates.

The speakers in the tribute included Fitzhugh, former lawmaker and commissioner of economic development Matt Kisber of Jackson, and state Sens. Roy Herron of Dresden and Andy Berke of Chattanooga. The crowd gave a standing ovation to the tribute’s keynote speaker, John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and worker in the civil rights movement in the Department of Justice during the Kennedy administration.

Seigenthaler spoke as McWherter’s friend. He noted the videos showing McWherter speaking of Republicans like former Govs. Lamar Alexander and Winfield Dunn with humor and respect.

“It reminds us that there was a time when civility, a time when decency in public discourse, when friendliness in political rhetoric, brought people together for a common good,” Seigenthaler said. “How times have changed.

“How refreshing it is to hear Ned speak of Gov. Alexander and Gov. Dunn with respect, with high regard, with the acknowledgement of their achievements and accomplishments even as he stood across the aisle, a member of a party who stood more often than not for causes different from theirs. To Ned McWherter, civility was a way of political life. And how we miss that today.”

Seigenthaler said when he thinks of President Andrew Jackson and McWherter he thinks of “two great public servants, each of whom rejected flatly the idea that prevailed so widely in so many parts of the country, and even in this state today, the idea that government is the enemy of the people.

“Government is the friend and servant of the people. Jackson felt that. And Ned McWherter felt it in the depth of his soul and the core of his bones. Jackson and McWherter felt for the common man. Both stood for the working men and women of this state and of this country.”

The crowd went silent early in the program when state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester recalled the span of only a few days when Forrester’s 19-year-old son Wilson and McWherter died this year.

There were lighter moments. Kisber delighted the audience when he described the celebration in Spring Hill with the opening of the Saturn automobile plant and McWherter drove the first car off the assembly line.

“A person the size and stature of Governor McWherter was not Saturn’s target customer,” Kisber said.


Kisber, Seigenthaler Among Guests Invited to Speak at McWherter Commemoration

Former legislator and economic development commissioner Matt Kisber and current House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh will be among those speaking in tribute to the late Gov. Ned McWherter at the Tennessee Democrats’ Jackson Day Dinner Saturday.

The event will be at the Bicentennial Capitol Mall in Nashville.

John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean, and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, will be the keynote speaker for the program called “A Tribute to Governor Ned Ray McWherter.”

McWherter, governor of Tennessee from 1987-1995, and speaker of the House for 14 years before that, died April 4 at age 80.

McWherter’s son, Mike, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010 in a race won by Republican Bill Haslam, will present the first annual award named in honor of Ned McWherter to a Democrat for leadership.

As previously announced, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland will be the featured speaker at the event apart from the McWherter tributes.

Kisber is expected to talk about McWherter’s work on jobs, and Fitzhugh is expected to focus on McWherter’s contributions to education. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is also scheduled to speak.

The recipient of the new honor, known as the Legacy Award, will be selected by Mike McWherter and officers of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Business and Economy Education Environment and Natural Resources Health Care Liberty and Justice Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

State ‘Dashboard’ Still in Works

Yes, Gov. Bill Haslam will indeed have a dashboard — the device for measuring the state’s progress, as the former Knoxville mayor outlined in his campaign for governor.

But it’s still not certain when the dashboard will appear, or what will be on it.

When Haslam, a Republican, announced the idea of a dashboard for state government to the Rotary Club of Nashville last September, Mike McWherter, his Democratic opponent, said it was “little more than a gimmick masquerading as policy.”

But Haslam said Tuesday the dashboard idea is alive and well and headed to a place Tennesseans will be able to see, presumably online. He mentioned it might appear in a couple of months, but not to hold him to the timing.

When asked Tuesday if the state is going to get the promised dashboard, Haslam replied, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me that.”

In fact, Haslam said he and Mark Cate, special assistant to the governor, had been working on the dashboard just Tuesday morning.

While a dashboard for state performance might sound quirky, the dashboard concept is actually quite normal and common for businesses. Haslam comes from a business background, as a former executive with his family’s company, Pilot Corp., which has grown into one of the nation’s top truck stop chains, Pilot Flying J. He envisions a dashboard for state government, just as Pilot has at its corporate headquarters in Knoxville.

“We’re trying to decide: What are the things that are the right measurements, area by area, of state government?” Haslam said. “Some are easier to do. That’s the discussion we’re having. Does the dashboard have 50 dials on it or 10? It’s hard to watch 50 dials, at the end of the day.”

Haslam said some things will be on display for sure, including college graduation rates and unemployment rates.

“Those are no-brainers,” he said. “The problem is the bigger no-brainers are the stuff that take a long time to impact.”

Haslam said if you walk into the Pilot office, “everything in the world is on the walls.”

“It lets you know how you’re doing, so you don’t kid yourself, but it lets everybody know what you think is important,” he said.

“The hard part is coming up with what those should be, the things we can really impact and don’t take forever to move the needle.”

When Haslam first unveiled the dashboard idea at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon last year, he said it would cover five categories: jobs and economic development; education and workforce development; fiscal strength; health; and public safety.


Former Gov Candidate McWherter Launches News Service

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter, who lost the race to Bill Haslam in November, wants to find an innovative way to stay current and active in state politics.

McWherter, who hasn’t ruled out another run for office in the future, is now launching a daily e-mail service called “Out of the Blue” that he’s billing as a one-stop source for aggregated, political and government-related news stories.

“I think it will help generate talk around the water coolers, and at the same time I’m hoping it will help generate conversation and dialogue in the coffee shops … places where people gather where they don’t have a Starbucks, but they gather, and they visit and talk in the morning and talk about what’s going on in their state,” said McWherter, who is paying for the operation.

He said the news stories from print, radio, TV and online media will focus on government for the remainder of the legislative session, then on current affairs when lawmakers are not in session.

McWherter said he began working on the concept in December and hopes it will ultimately make government more accountable by drawing more attention, especially in rural areas, to state government.

He said he picked up on the campaign trail that people living in more rural areas were hungry for information but didn’t have the time or desire to sift through several news sites from across the state.

While McWherter contends it is his goal to promote the values of the Democratic Party, he said the site isn’t meant to step on the Democratic Party’s toes, although he said it will ultimately help promote future candidates.

“Let me assure you, this is not an attempt to usurp any efforts by our leadership, but merely to help enhance communication efforts. United we can stand and develop an environment in our state which serves everyone, not just a privileged few,” he wrote on his website promoting the email list.

“I think this project will help promote candidacies for people running for office going forward in lots of different venues,” he told TNReport. “And that’s what I hope it will do. I also hope it will help stimulate, encourage people to be more involved in whatever facet they want to.”


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.”

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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.”

Press Releases

McWherter Offers Season’s Greetings, Resolves to Stay Active in TNDP

Statement from former Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Mike McWherter; Dec. 22, 2010:

As 2010 comes to a close, I want to take a moment to wish you and your family Merry Christmas.

As well, I would like to share my thoughts as we end what has been a momentous year.

I have been blessed to travel throughout 2010 from Memphis to Mountain City. Each city I visited held many treasures – from the people I was honored to meet to the many celebrations in our state’s small towns and communities. Those traditions and the undeniable spirit of Tennesseans are on my mind at this time of year. People in every corner of this vast state have become new members of my extended family.

The view from the window of our blue Yukon that we traveled in on the campaign trail was amazing. As we drove roughly 150,000 miles crisscrossing this state, I saw the changing leaves in the Smoky Mountains. The familiar skyline of Nashville including the Batman Building welcomed us to the Music City countless times. The many acres of farmland blanketed in soybeans, cotton and corn were like oceans of green before fall arrived these past two years. While I always thought that I was very familiar with Memphis, I got to visit places there like Orange Mound that I had never traveled into before. And then each place in between which has left an undeniable memory with me, and for that I am grateful.

The holiday season is a time to reflect and be thankful for the blessings of the past year with our family, our friends old and new including those that we met on the road – strangers who ultimately became important parts of our lives.

Since the election, I have returned to Jackson and have spent the last few weeks with my beautiful wife, Mary Jane, and our children, Walker and Bess. Walker has had an incredible first semester at Rhodes College in Memphis, and Mary Jane and I received the good news last week that Bess has been accepted at my alma mater Vanderbilt University. I have rolled up my sleeves and gone back to work at Central Distributing, and, like many residents across the state, we are still working to recover from the spring floods that ravaged our state. We, like other Tennesseans, are moving forward and anticipating the new year.

2010 has been a challenging year for everyone. People in the state of Tennessee have faced economic uncertainty and times have been tough. I am not a man that makes many New Year’s resolutions, but I resolve in the new year to continue to be an active member in the Tennessee Democratic Party. One thing I have learned in the last 18 months is that when Tennesseans work together, great things can be accomplished.

2011 is right around the corner with new challenges and opportunities for this great state. I am optimistic. As my father, Governor Ned McWherter, once famously said, “Give me four vanilla wafers and a cup of coffee and I’ll go to work for you.” I am ready to go to work with you and for you in the coming year. With or without cookies and coffee, I will strive to make Tennessee better in 2011.

I wish you and yours peace, joy and happiness this holiday season.

Best Wishes,

Mike McWherter

Paid for by Mike McWherter for Governor, Beth Franklin, Treasurer

NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Bill Haslam the Next Governor of Tennessee

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam will be the next governor of Tennessee. The Tennessean reports that the Associated Press has called the race. Haslam is leading Democrat Mike McWherter by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

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McWherter: Polls May Come Back To Bite Haslam

Both candidates for governor spent the eve of the election swinging through the state for last-minute campaign stops to shake hands, knock on doors and make final appeals to fence-sitting voters before the polls open tomorrow.

Democrat Mike McWherter says he’s feeling good about his chances, even though he’s 29 points behind Republican Bill Haslam in the polls.

Here’s what he said during a stop at his Nashville campaign headquarters Monday:

News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Haslam Still Uninterested in Getting Specific on Budget Plan

Bill Haslam indicated earlier this week that he’d really like to spend more time with journalists discussing the state’s finances than explaining his views on guns and the Second Amendment.

“We need to talk about jobs, we need to talk about fixing the budget,” the Knoxville mayor and GOP candidate for governor said during a campaign stop outside an early-voting center in Mt. Juliet.

But he offered few specifics Thursday when asked by reporters what departments or programs he’d propose trimming should he assume the state’s highest elected office and with it an expected $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Details won’t come until he becomes governor, said Halsam.

“There’s a world of difference between being on the campaign trail and being in office,” he said. As a candidate, it’s easy to point out questionable spending, he continued, “but you need to get in there in the middle of it” to decide what programs are worth keeping and what needs cutting or scaling back.

To get a head start, Haslam said he’s looking forward to taking a crash course in state finances by tuning in to Gov. Phil Bredesen’s annual budget hearings. But that class isn’t being offered this fall.

The termed-out governor does not plan on holding them this year, preferring instead to let the election winner do his own probing for waste and spending excesses. The administration has asked state agencies for budget proposals that slice 1 percent and 3 percent off their fiscal outlays in an effort to give the next chief executive thought-out, workable options.

Haslam, whom polls have consistently shown with a commanding lead over Democratic candidate Mike McWherter, has taken heat throughout the campaign for speaking vaguely about his budget plans. After presenting the Nashville Rotary Club with a list of his priorities and a strategy for using them as a “dashboard” to measure the state’s progress, reporters hammered him for dodging questions about specifics.

On the campaign trail, Haslam has pledged to bring more jobs to Tennessee. He has said he would run government like a business and start with a top-to-bottom look at spending if elected. The Knoxville mayor has indicated he’s unlikely to favor expanding programs, at least for the time being — and that he’ll consider getting rid of unnecessary assets the state owns to reduce the cost of maintaining property. However, he declined to offer details on what he would target. He also said he would look to change the state’s purchasing practices to save money.

Haslam has weathered several days of media focus on comments he made to gun-rights proponents indicating he’s agreeable to nixing existing requirements that Tennesseans obtain a permit to carry firearms in public. The Republican nominee complained this week to the The Associated Press that campaign reporters lately have been ignoring whether gubernatorial candidates have “done their homework on the budget.”

McWherter has blasted Haslam on the firearms issue. But he, too, has largely neglected to offer specific fixes to the state budget. McWherter has suggested he’ll follow Bredesen’s lead and take cues from ranking members of the Legislature when the time comes to offer a spending plan.