Featured News Transparency and Elections

Haslam Administration Keeps Schedule-Planner Under Wraps

Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t too keen on letting Tennesseans in on who he’s meeting behind closed doors.

“There’s just a lot of discussions that we have, that any governor needs to have, as part of the decision-making process that we go through on so many different issues,” the governor said recently.

The administration rejected a request from TNReport in July to review or obtain copies of the governor’s calendar-scheduling planner dating back to his Jan. 15, 2010, inauguration through June 30, 2012.

Haslam’s office said his schedule falls under the protection of “deliberative process privilege.” The exception under common law allows for government secrecy in instances of communications, opinions and recommendations on policy issues.

However, the state government’s own open-records advocate, Elisha Hodge, says there’s no precedent under this exception in Tennessee to keep the governor’s calendar hidden from public view.

“In Tennessee, the deliberative process privilege has been discussed in a number of public records cases,” but never in the context of public officials’ calendars, said Hodge.

In the cases the judiciary did review, “the courts have never found the privilege to be applicable, based upon specific records that were at issue in the cases.”

Information like what’s on the governor’s schedule should be public, said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

“I don’t want to know when he brushes his teeth, and I don’t want to know when he goes to bed,” Flanagan said. “But when he’s acting in the official capacity for the state of Tennessee, the people of Tennessee need to see how he’s performing his duties.”

The only way to challenge the administration’s stance would be to sue the administration and take the governor to court, which is a costly option.

Haslam has something of a mixed history with government transparency since assuming the state’s highest office.

In his second executive order, which set ethics training requirements for his cabinet members, the governor said that “this Administration intends to set a high standard for openness, transparency and accountability.”

“It is the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable,” his executive order declared.

But his staff is now looking to standardize how agency officials respond to public requests for information, with an eye toward avoiding requests for public documents that amount to “fishing expeditions” that cost time and money to assemble.

His office also moved to let commissioners keep secret how much they earn from their various sources of income, and he advocated in favor of ensuring that companies winning millions of dollars worth of state economic development awards can keep their lists of business owners out of the public eye.

Past governors assented to varying levels of letting the public review their calendars, said Larry Daughtrey, a retired Capitol Hill reporter for the Tennessean. Daughtrey contrasted the general practice with the relative openness of Gov. Ned McWherter, who led the state from 1987 to 1995.

“With McWherter, you could get his meeting schedule, but you had to go to the press office and ask to see it. You could also walk into any meeting you wanted in the governor’s office,” he said. “I don’t remember any other governor who would let you see the meeting schedule, at least with any regularity.”

Haslam’s administration puts out a weekly public schedule, which includes certain public events reporters are invited to. Gov. Don Sundquist did much the same, said Beth Fortune, who was Sundquist’s press secretary. Sundquist served from 1995 to 2003.

“We issued a weekly calendar of Gov. Sundquist’s public events, not private meetings. Sometimes, we would open private meetings to the press, if requested, and depending upon the topic of the meeting and its participants,” she said via email.

Once their terms are over, governors hand over to the public hundreds of boxes worth of correspondence, records and scheduling information. The latest records in state archives are from the Sundquist administration and reveal flight schedules and appointments with various lawmakers and interest groups.

Records for Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was termed out of office in 2011, are still being processed into microfilm.

Governors in some other states, including the notoriously corrupt Illinois, allow their meeting schedules to be made public, including facts like who they met with, where and when. But officials there redact information on certain meetings.

Gov. Haslam offered that his administration may “re-evaluate” opening up his meeting schedule, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I can’t say it’s not a decision we won’t revisit as we’re here a little longer and get used to the different decisions and impacts that that might make. I think we just felt like coming out of the box, that there was a need just to protect that deliberative process for now,” Haslam told TNReport in an interview last month.

He said closing off his calendar now doesn’t mean the public is getting locked out of answers as to why certain decisions are made.

“(Citizens) really want to know where are you, what did you decide and tell me why you decided that,” said the governor. “And I think we do owe answers like that — whether it be issues we’re facing on health care issues, or whatever it is — to say here’s where we are, and here’s why we think what we do.”

Featured News Transparency and Elections

Lawmakers Praise Naifeh Upon Retirement Announcement

As Jimmy Naifeh prepares to hang up his title as one of the longest sitting legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say he leaves behind a legacy of determined leadership.

Naifeh, who presided over the House of Representatives as speaker for 18 years, the longest in the state’s history, announced he would not run for re-election his year.

“Governor McWherter always told me when it was time to go home, I’d know it. After talking with my family and friends, I believe the time has come for me to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders,” he said, admitting he “certainly played hardball, just once or twice,” during his time in office.

“Whatever he told you, you could take it to the bank,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Thursday, shortly after the 72-year-old Naifeh declared on the House floor it was time for him to pass the torch to fellow Democrats.

“He has really been a fixture that stood for what he believed in, even though lots of times I disagreed with him,” the Blountville Republican continued. “He’ll be missed in this institution. I mean that.”

Naifeh’s announcement drew the attention of not only his House colleagues, but senators, who recessed their chamber to watch his announcement, along with Comptroller Justin Wilson, who watched on bended knee behind Naifeh’s chair in the back of the chamber.

“He was an incredibly strong and powerful speaker, and he knew what he wanted to do and always tried to move very definitively in that way,” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday, speaking after a press conference on reducing obesity at the Tennessee Hospital Association headquarters in Nashville. “He was going to do what he said, whether you liked it or not.”

Naifeh’s political biography stretches 38 years to his election in 1974. The Covington Democrat was elected Speaker of the House in 1991. He served uninterrupted under Governors Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen.

“Naifeh used the speakership to say what he thought ought to be done,” said Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, the Legislature’s elder statesman, who began serving in the Senate four years before Naifeh was elected to the House. “He was such a definite individual, that I think that impressed itself on the House primarily, but actually on the entire Legislature.”

In the early 2000s, Naifeh was a vocal advocate for instituting an income tax — a debate that sparked protests on Capitol Hill and what House Speaker Beth Harwell described as “clearly a turning point” leading to the rise of the Republican Party taking over the General Assembly and Naifeh’s loss of the gavel.

“I think yes, it was very helpful to us in obtaining our majority status,” said Harwell, who had allowed Naifeh to preside over the chamber shortly after making his announcement.

“It became a battle cry that helped us ascend,” added Ramsey, who served in the House four years under Naifeh. Ramsey said his appreciation for the hard-nosed Democrat grew considerably once be became Senate Speaker in 2007. “I appreciate leadership styles whether they’re mine or not,” said Ramsey. “His worked well.”

Rep. Debra Maggart said Naifeh’s failed effort to institute an income tax was a clear trigger giving rise to Republican takeover of the Legislature.

“I would say the Republican majority today, that we enjoy, is a direct result of the income tax fight,” said Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman from Hendersonville. “It took a while to get it here, but it did come, and I do think that certainly had a lot to do with it.”

Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, also announced his retirement from the General Assembly Thursday. He joins nine Democrats who have declared this year will be their last.

Haslam said he originally found it striking that so many lawmakers were calling it quits this year, but says maybe it isn’t so unusual.

“There’s a lot more turnover here than people think there is, and so it’s maybe not all that extraordinary in the bigger picture,” he told reporters.

Alex Harris and Steven Hale contributed to this report.


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.

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.


The Winding Political Path of Gerald McCormick

The first powerful person to help Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in a political campaign was the governor at the time — Ned McWherter, a Democrat.

That’s because McCormick was a Democrat, which might surprise many followers of the Republican lawmaker, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Capitol Hill.

It was 1992, and McCormick, a Chattanoogan, a University of Tennessee graduate and a Gulf War veteran, was running for the first time. He lost. After his defeat, Republican organizers in Chattanooga, including Zach Wamp, told McCormick a lot of the positions in McCormick’s message sounded like they belonged in the Republican Party. Wamp should know. He had once been a Democrat, a Jimmy Carter supporter.

“It was true. I was a very conservative Democrat,” McCormick said.

So McCormick became a Republican.

“They invited me in. I did it and have not regretted it since. They opened their arms up. The Republican Party in Hamilton County in particular has been really good to me,” McCormick said.

“I saw Governor McWherter several years ago when I was elected to the Legislature. I reminded him who I was. He said, ‘It’s really good to see you. Glad to see you made it to the Legislature finally.’ I said, ‘Governor McWherter, I just want you to know I did make it to the Legislature, but I was elected as a Republican instead of a Democrat.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s all right. Everybody has to be something.'”

McCormick said he felt more comfortable with a limited-government philosophy, and he notes Ronald Reagan, also once a Democrat, is another example of switching to the Republican side. McCormick said he believes former Democratic Gov. Buford Ellington — elected to the office twice, serving from 1959-63 and 1967-71 — would probably have had a hard time today being a Democrat.

McCormick had been campaign chairman for Republican Rep. Bobby Wood of Harrison, and when Wood retired from his seat after 28 years, McCormick ran for it and was elected in 2004. He has since climbed to one of the most powerful positions in the state.

He began to see trends turn Republican in the Legislature after the 2006 election. He had been the assistant majority leader and wanted to run for speaker this year, but after gauging his level of support and recognizing that others, like eventual Speaker Beth Harwell, had more seniority, McCormick went for the majority leader’s position successfully. At 49, he now guides a Republican contingent that includes moderates and conservatives, not an easy mix to control.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with, McCormick talked about the collective bargaining issue that became so prominent in the General Assembly this year, the changing roles of the majority and minority parties in the Legislature, his personal background and his thoughts on Gov. Bill Haslam.

Repeatedly in the interview, McCormick spoke of the heavy responsibility of being the majority party in governing and said the voters could “pitch us out” as fast as they threw the Democrats out of power.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in a separate interview with TNReport, said, “I think Gerald did a really good job this year. It was his first term, as my first term as minority leader, we were sort of muddling through together.”

Fitzhugh said he particularly appreciated the way McCormick handled the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits, an issue Democrats felt strongly about.

Fitzhugh did refer to McCormick as “mercurial” and even compared him to temperamental House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. McCormick readily admits he will mix it up with the best of them.

“Rather than ‘mercurial’ I would say ‘passionate,'” McCormick said. “Mike Turner is the same way. He’s a very honest person. If he’s mad at you, he’ll let you know. I’m the same way. I feel like people need to know. If you’re upset with them, it’s better just to tell them and have the discussion right away rather than letting it fester.

“That’s been my approach to life. It usually works. Sometimes it backfires a little, and sometimes maybe I should count to 10 before I say something.”

McCormick was one of the most notably irritated Republicans on the tumultuous day in 2009 when Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, made a deal with Democrats that resulted in Williams being elected speaker of the House.

“I shared my feelings with Speaker Williams at the time,” McCormick said. “It’s not personal. It’s really not. He broke his word, and he affected a lot of people’s lives.

“We had people who had literally rented apartments on the idea that he was going to vote with the majority and elect Jason Mumpower speaker. We had people who had quit jobs and moved up here, and he didn’t tell us the truth. I thought he needed to hear it very soon and very decisively that I disagreed with what he had done.”

McCormick said he and Williams are on good terms now. He even messaged Williams a happy birthday last month.

McCormick said while he and Fitzhugh have policy differences that Fitzhugh has been very effective for the Democrats, particularly on budget issues.

McCormick admitted he did not foresee the collective bargaining bill — which diminished the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate for the state’s teachers — as becoming the dominant issue it was this year.

“In a broad philosophical sense, I don’t think government employee unions ought to be negotiating with other government employees with the taxpayers’ money,” McCormick said.

“Having said that, I’ve never said that on the campaign trail before and have never been elected on that basis, so I tried to take it slow and analyze it as we went along. In the end, we probably did the right thing, in that we lessened the influence of the teachers’ union over education policy while still keeping the teachers involved.”

The Legislature wound up with a “collaborative conferencing” law that watered down the TEA’s power.

The bill on collective bargaining was resented by teachers who crowded the halls of the Capitol and marched on Legislative Plaza this year.

“I’m surprised at how the volume has turned down so soon after we passed the legislation,” McCormick said. “We had a lot of noise in the beginning. As more people understand it, I think they have become accustomed to it and are more comfortable with it.

“Really the only people who are bitter about it are the union activists, who quite frankly did a better job of taking care of themselves than they did the average teacher out there in Tennessee.”

McCormick said the teachers union had become “virtually a financial arm of the state Democratic Party.”

Times have changed substantially since 2004 in terms of Republican strength in the General Assembly.

“It’s a lot different being in the majority,” McCormick said. “Now, you have the responsibility of actually governing. When you’re in the minority, you don’t, and you can pretty much throw grenades and see where they land and not have to worry about implementing the policy. Now, if we come out for a policy, we actually have the votes to pass it, and we have to make sure it’s a responsible policy and one that we can implement.”

He understands the Democrats’ predicament.

“You have to remember they were in the majority for a century or more. They’re not used to not getting their way,” he said.

“Most of the time we could ignore them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, on a number of levels. They got elected by the people of Tennessee, too. From a practical standpoint, if they get up and walk out, we won’t have a quorum. I don’t think they’re going to do that, as long as we treat them fairly.”

He remembers quite well another time and another political landscape at the Capitol.

“When I started out, Jimmy Naifeh was the speaker of the House. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine a situation where anybody else was the speaker of the House,” McCormick said. “He was so dominant, and so effective, not necessarily doing what I wanted him to do, but the trains ran on time when he wanted them to.”

McCormick was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Gulf War. A sergeant, he was sent to the war soon after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Because of his area of training, which came at Fort McClellan in Alabama, McCormick saw some of the planning for the war and was in one of the first units to go, spending about six months there.

A native of Jackson, McCormick grew up in Memphis, went to Germantown High School and attended the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kim, a Chattanoogan. Upon graduation they moved to Chattanooga. McCormick admits he got homesick for Memphis in college and wanted to go to Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, but his mother insisted he stick it out at UT, where he took a lot of political science and history courses.

He has worked a lot of jobs, including roofing and fast food. He picked up garbage on the side of the road while with a temporary employment agency. He eventually worked for the Hamilton County assessor of property, where he was trained to be a commercial real estate appraiser, and he transitioned into being a real estate broker and developer, his current profession.

When he’s not working on real estate projects, McCormick is in a position now in Nashville that puts him on the front line of government power, including leadership meetings with the governor.

“I’m very impressed by a number of aspects of Governor Haslam’s style of operating. No. 1, I think he is absolutely completely honest. I don’t think we will ever see any kind of a personal scandal or a political scandal surrounding Bill Haslam,” said McCormick, who had supported Wamp in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

“He acts in a small group exactly how he acts in a big group. He’s a very nice, decent person.”

He cited an example of Haslam’s style, where McCormick was making points about the political aspects of a specific issue.

“He cut me off. There were about four of us in the room,” McCormick said. “He pointed to each one of us, and he said, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to do? Don’t worry about the politics of it.’ I think he really believes that.”

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Haslam Grateful for Gov. McWherter’s ‘Practical Advice’

They flew the flags at half staff Tuesday at the Capitol as Tennesseans continued to mourn Monday’s death of former Gov. Ned McWherter.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who issued a formal statement Monday on McWherter’s death, welcomed the opportunity to say more to reporters Tuesday about McWherter.

“The thing about Gov. McWherter that I appreciate the most is when he didn’t really have to, he was incredibly helpful to me,” said Haslam, who defeated McWherter’s son, Mike, in November.

“In my first three months in office, and even between the election and the inauguration, whenever I called him he would not just answer my question, he would be helpful. And I mean that. I will always be grateful to him for the practical advice he gave me.

“I think the other thing that impresses you about Gov. McWherter is it’s hard to serve in this office for eight years and walk away and have almost everybody still respect you and think you did a good job, and that’s true in Gov. McWherter’s case. He was real clear in what he believed. But he was always about listening to everyone and then making a decision going forward.”

Memorial services for McWherter will be Saturday at 2 p.m. at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in Dresden, McWherter’s hometown. The Dresden service will be on the lawn of McWherter’s home.

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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

Statement from Gov. Bill Haslam on Gov. McWherter

Press Release from Governor’s Office, April 4, 2011:

Statement from Gov. Bill Haslam on the Passing of Gov. Ned McWherter

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam issued the following statement on the passing of former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter:

“This is a sad day for Tennessee. 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.”