On a day when 3,000 or more unionized Tennessee teachers and their supporters marched on Legislative Plaza in the rain, Gov. Bill Haslam refused Saturday night to get into the fray over a bill to end collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and local school districts.
Haslam is for now sticking strictly to his own education agenda, which includes changing the state’s tenure system for teachers.
“We, from the very beginning, put the things forward that we thought could make the most difference in the classroom, and I’ve said that repeatedly, and I’ll continue to say that,” Haslam said at a Republican Party Reagan Day dinner in Rutherford County.
Haslam referred to “name-calling” on both sides of the collective bargaining issue, the most contentious of several GOP-sponsored legislative efforts in the General Assembly right now that have drawn union ire.
“Obviously, there is a lot of disagreement about the collective bargaining issues and name-calling on both sides, and we want to be on the side of the people who are solving problems. And we’re going to continue to do that — the things that we think will impact the classroom the most.”
It wasn’t clear, however, if the governor knew he’d himself been nicknamed “Mister Rogers” by one speaker at a much smaller tea party rally at the Capitol earlier in the day.
Raymond Baker, a former Republican political consultant, was critical of Haslam, whom he views as too soft to be counted on in a bare-knuckle political brawl with the powerful teachers’ union.
“Bill Haslam, where are you? Where are you?” Baker asked.
“Speaker (Beth) Harwell, where are you?” he added.
Baker then reeled off the names of other states’ GOP governors battling public employee unions or actively leading on issues important to conservative Republicans.
“Here’s the deal. Wisconsin got Scott Walker. Florida got Rick Scott. South Carolina got Nikki Haley. Arizona got Jan Brewer. We got Mister Rogers,” Baker said. “You cannot govern Tennessee like it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
After his remarks to the tea party crowd, Baker said Haslam is prone to give in on the issue.
“He is completely non-confrontational. He is a compromiser,” Baker said. “He has met with the TEA and cut a compromise deal with them that will still allow for collective bargaining while claiming that it doesn’t. He simply doesn’t have the backbone to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee.”
Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sponsors SB113, the collective bargaining bill in the Senate, attended the tea party event and said Haslam has done nothing to force any sort of compromise on the issue.
“I think Gov. Haslam has a broad agenda, and reforming education is one of the biggest parts of his agenda as a new governor,” Johnson said. “I think he is going to work with us in the General Assembly.
“There has been no discussion whatsoever of any type of compromise. That discussion may happen at some point. We are talking frequently about his agenda and our agenda and how we can help each other. There have been no discussions about compromise or what the bill will ultimately end up looking like. I just know he is very supportive, and we’re very supportive of him.”
Tennessee’s issues, for the moment at least, are limited mostly to teachers, but Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the GOP will likely target other quarry if they’re successful now.
“If they get the teachers, they’re coming after the firefighters. If they get the firefighters, they’re coming after the police officers. If they get the police officers, they’re coming after the construction workers, service workers and everybody,” said Turner, a board officer for the Tennessee Fire Fighters Emergency Relief Fund
“I’ve been preaching for years that if you let the Republicans get in charge this is what you’re going to get, and this is what we’ve got.”
Turner publicly urged Haslam to “please stop this terrorism against our teachers.”
Haslam has steadfastly refused to pick sides over collective bargaining. He has said there will be “twists and turns” as the legislative process continues, but he has refused to voice his opinion on the legislation, hewing instead to his priorities of extending the probationary period on tenure and opening up the education system to more charter schools.
Increasingly, whether lawmakers institute a ban on collective bargaining appears to be coming down to the degree of Republican support in the House.
“I know we’ve got a number of Republican House members who support our position,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the TEA.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘Who are they?’ Obviously they don’t particularly want to say on the front end. But it’s a moving target, and we’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like. This is not just going to go down Democrat and Republican lines.”
Winters said he thinks it’s a good sign for the union that Haslam is avoiding taking a public position on the bills they oppose.
“I certainly don’t consider the governor a foe. I think the fact that he is not taking a position in support of these really divisive bills is very much to his credit,” Winters said. “He wants to get off to a good start. We want him to get off to a good start. And I think it’s very much to his credit that’s he’s staying out of this right now.
“I think it’s just unbelievable that this many teachers turned out on a stormy rainy day to show their concerns about what’s happening in this Capitol. I’m just ecstatic we had this kind of turnout.”
Turner told the crowd of teachers he had heard what was going on at the tea party event Saturday.
“They were bashing the man who could stop this tomorrow. They were talking about Gov. Bill Haslam like he was a Democrat. If he wants to join us, we’ll welcome him. We’ve got room for him,” Turner said.
“I hope he’s listening today. I hope he’s watching this. He’s from a position of wealth and privilege. I don’t know if he understands what it’s like to go through things we go through to raise our children and earn a living. But I do know this. He’s a good man. He’s reached out to us in the Legislature. He’s trying to do the right thing. But he has the power to stop this madness now.”
Several Democratic legislators took part in the teachers rally, which cast Republican efforts on education as nothing more than political payback after the GOP made historic gains in the last election.
Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, addressed the crowd and claimed Republicans are attempting to get revenge over issues surrounding union campaign contributions. The TEA typically gives much more money to Democrats than Republicans.
“I’ve only been here two years, but I can promise you it’s a much more partisan, much more toxic situation than it has been since I’ve been here,” Stewart said.
“This legislation that’s been brought up, in my honest opinion, is much more about revenge than it is about reform. It’s much more about payback than it is about progress. Unfortunately, folks, I have to tell you, I honestly believe it’s much more about the cash than it is about the kids.”
The Tea Party event speakers included longtime activist Ben Cunningham, former Republican state representative Susan Lynn and former congressional Republican candidate Lou Ann Zelenik. Johnson also addressed the crowd.
Tammy Kilmarx, president of Tennessee Tea Party, said before the event that her group is the one trying to protect teachers.
“We are trying to show support to our legislators that are trying to stand for what the taxpayers elected them for,” she said. “We’re here to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee, because they are the ones that are having to pay for the unions to do what they do.
“The big union bosses make a ton of cash. I think most of the teachers don’t even understand where their dues are going.”