News » Cover Feature

the"Conservative Compassionate"

With a year to go in the governor s office, Don Sundquist looks different to others but sees himself as the Same Old Same Old

by

comment
As always, one is struck by how bashful the man appears. Whether it is a function of his Midwest Scandinavian upbringing or merely the fact of his being the prototypical grey-haired man with glasses and a blue suit, Don Sundquist, the second-term Republican governor of Tennessee, does not dominate a room -- even one, like this kindergarten classroom on a day last week at Tucker's Crossroads Elementary School outside Lebanon in Middle Tennessee, where most of his auditors are the prototypically young and impressionable.

Yet something about him, maybe his earnestness, commands attention. Or maybe it's just that he, after all, is the governor, and even if the kiddies happen not to grasp that concept, they certainly are aware of the deference all these other adults, press people and handlers and school officials, are showing him. And so they sit still and listen as he begins a conversation, asking, among other things, that standard grown-up question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

There are the usual choruses of race-car driver (even though this is in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona) and forest ranger and the like. And one kid thinks he might want to be president someday. Nobody mentions "governor." (But then no one mentions data processor or file clerk, either.)

The next day is Dr. Seuss' birthday and the governor smiles, the expanse of large, even white teeth seeming literally to come out of nowhere, as he asks how many of the children know this. (They all raise their hands, having been briefed by their teachers.)

Sundquist does not read from Dr. Seuss, though. He reads a book entitled It's Mine by one Leo Lionni. It is the story of three selfish frogs who insist on their own selfish ends and refuse to cooperate with each other, even when scolded by an older and wiser toad. Comes a flood, and the frogs are almost swamped until they land together on the safe shore of what looks like a rock but turns out to be the back of the didactic old toad. At the end of the story the three frogs are transformed into a community and have learned to say "It's ours!" about the common world they inhabit.

When he's done, he hands the little book to a press aide, rising almost daintily from his chair amongst the children to take his leave. Or maybe that's just some residual frailty from what the governor's entourage are calling "walking pneumonia" -- the ailment he has been nursing for more than a week, through a weekend National Governor's Conference in Washington, D.C., and through a demanding round of all-day discussions with aides, administration officials, and legislative leaders on the previous day.

He greets a visitor and says he's feeling better, that his doctor tells him he'll be "okay in about 10 days." The teeth flash again, easily.

The governor's upcoming round is with parents, teachers, and school board members, to whom he will explain one more time what he's been talking about incessantly for the last two weeks: the education plan and the budget he has proposed to a legislature which has been coolly reluctant to respond to him but may at last be showing signs of thawing, now that he's attached a pedagogical rationale to the ongoing crusade he calls "tax reform."

On his way to that rendezvous, Sundquist stops by a computer classroom, looks in and tells one child, "You can work a computer faster than I do." He turns to a teacher. "I was using mine the other night, and I was going like this" -- he bunches his fists and goes up and down with his two index fingers, hunt-and-pecking in space -- "And my wife said, 'Is that what you learned in training?'"

His next stop is in a room where children stand atop little rocking stools while they throw balls back and forth to each other. The idea, as the governor notes, is to teach "balance, coordination, real skill." Once again, he is self-effacing. "I wouldn't be able to do that, but I like to watch them," he says.

When at last he sits at a library table with the assembled adult eminences of Tucker's Crossroads, he begins by telling them that this is either the 12th or 13th school he has visited in the course of explaining his plan and getting reactions to it.

"I want to talk about it and see what you feel about it. I want to listen. I'll try not to talk too much. I'm not here to give a speech," he says, then, after telling what is clearly meant to be an ice-breaking anecdote about how he and his wife Martha, a former schoolteacher, take turns doing these exemplary reading excursions ("Sometimes I sleep in, sometimes she does"), launches into his rationale. "I did this because I was hearing from people that we're not going to compete in the future if we don't do certain things." The keystone of his education proposals is a reading plan -- a seemingly out-of-the-way idea that gained almost instant acceptance, because, he insists, "everything begins with reading."

The plan has an estimated price tag of $300 million over a five-year period, and that fact, plus the $500 million or so which the administration estimates will be the revenue shortfall over the same period, brings the total to $800 million -- a number so large that many observers, including the governor, think it will make tax reform of some sort actually thinkable this year, after several false starts.

"We have a tight budget, as you know, but some people have asked me, 'How can you propose a new program when the budget is so tight?' My answer is, 'How can we afford not to? How an we afford not to make our children competitive, to close the gap that holds them back?'"

He runs through the plan's essentials: scholarships for teachers and other incentives, mentors for first-year teachers, extending the benefits of pre-school education to all three- and four-year-olds, testing formulas for schools and their faculties, and reading coaches in each school toward the end of bringing all third-graders up to their appropriate reading levels.

Along the way he advances a striking notion, taking as his example a chemist at East Tennessee's commercial monolith, Eastman Chemical Company. "Why shouldn't we be able to create a shortcut for him into teaching?" Sundquist asks. "We need to carry out lateral entrance into the school system, move some people from other professions into teaching. We're going to have a teacher shortage, you know."

At about that point, or maybe it's moments later, when he discusses teacher retention in terms of establishing and keeping a "rhythm," that it seems obvious Don Sundquist has learned to do what contemporary idiom calls "thinking outside the box." Moreover, he is clearly versed in the jargon of the educational trade, talking up National Board exams, career ladders, Bridges programs, Gateway tests, and the rest of a pedagogical panoply with which he has quite recently become familiar. Or maybe not so recently; Martha Sundquist, after all, was once upon a time a teacher, and his apologies to this group for taking her away from the profession to become, successively, a congressional wife and a First Lady actually seem sincere.

It is Don Sundquist's own CAreer odyssey that bemuses most observers these days, however. A little over two decades ago he had a modest advertising business in Memphis and devoted a good deal of time to political activism, most of it in Republican circles. In 1982, having logged his time in the ranks (and, lest we make too much of his anonymity, having served as president of the national Young Republican Federation), he became a candidate for the then-open 7th District congressional seat, which stretched from the suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville, and which, popular wisdom had it, had been freshly redistricted by the Democrats in the state's General Assembly with an eye toward electing party scion Bob Clement of suburban Nashville.

Sundquist's get-along-to-go-along manner helped him mightily in what turned out to be a nail-biter of a race, and he found himself the upset winner on election day.

Thereafter followed 12 fairly nondescript years as a back-bench congressman. Sundquist's voting record was pretty much party-line; his ratings were always high with the American Conservative Union, low as could be with the left-oriented Americans for Democratic Action. When 1994 came around, he was the logical GOP candidate for governor, since he was the ranking Republican official in a state which was then dominated statewide at every level by Democrats.

Once again Sundquist won, helped out by the Great Republican Tide of 1994 and by the peculiarly stiff manner of his Democratic opponent, Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, against whom Sundquist's own pleasant, if occasionally thin-skinned, personality played well.

Through the first four years of his gubernatorial tenure, Sundquist devoted his time to consolidating his political victory (reaching out, for example, to such Democratic allies as state Senators Steve Cohen and John Ford to get help in eliminating the Public Service Commission, a Democratic bastion) and to reorganizing governmental services according to acceptably Republican and conservative premises. His primary achievement in that first term was Families First, a welfare reform act which began paring the rolls in stages.

Fairly early in that first term, Sundquist made good on a promise to extend the Internet into every schoolroom in Tennessee, a foreshadowing perhaps of his current preoccupations and something that for years has been high on his list of boasted accomplishments.

But otherwise Governor Sundquist made few waves, and he was regarded by the state capital's press corps more as a golfer than as a go-getter; he was seen, in fact, as the proprietor of a caretaker administration. No one regarded him especially as an innovator, and nothing he said or did in his lavishly financed 1998 re-election race against hapless Democratic leftover John Jay Hooker could have foreshadowed what was to come.

But it did come. In December 1998 and January 1999, Sundquist got briefings from John Ferguson, a fellow Memphian who was then his state finance commissioner. The import of the briefings was stunning. In the midst of an unprecedented national and statewide economic boom, Tennessee was about to go broke. Its tax code, unrevised since the 1920s, left too many loopholes for the state's businesses to climb through unscathed and relied almost totally on constant upward revisions of the highly regressive state sales tax -- which, when pumped up by permitted local-option add-ons, had reached the stratospheric, tithe-like mark of nearly 9 percent.

So in February 1999 Sundquist launched what amounted to a personal revolution as well as a doctrinal one in a State of the State address delivered to a largely unsuspecting audience of state legislators. In laying out what he chose to call the "Tax Relief and Fairness Act of 1999," Sundquist first offered a striking remedy: He proposed to take the state sales tax off groceries, a statement prompting a Democratic state legislator to leap from her seat and shout, "Yes!"

Sundquist then went on to attack "those who have had a free ride and now object to paying their fair share," who wanted to "preserve special breaks." He proposed to close tax loopholes on businesses, imposing a 2.5 percent excise tax that some, like Vanderbilt University professor James Blumstein, called an income tax in disguise.

Predictably, there was a hue and cry from the legislature, especially from Sundquist's GOP partymates. When the governor appeared before a hometown Republican audience at the 1999 Lincoln Day Dinner in Memphis, he was largely shunned at the event's reception, then greeted with minimal applause during his after-dinner speech. The audience sat on its hands for the most part, never rising to give the native son the same standing ovation that it granted every other speaker, including an obscure barn-burning conservative congressman from the Midwest.

In this climate of hostility, aided very little by the opposition Democrats, who seemed to enjoy the spectacle of a Republican governor being attacked by his own, Sundquist floundered. He couldn't get his business-tax plan passed during the regular session and resolved on a special session for that fall of 1999. By then he was ready to propose an out-and-out income tax (though he disguised his across-the-board version as a "flat tax," rarely letting the words "income tax" escape his lips), and Republicans such as former state party chairman Tommy Hopper were talking impeachment and calling openly for Sundquist's resignation.

Although Sundquist has since had to back off an income tax plan -- he proposed an alternate concept two weeks ago whereby the state sales tax, reduced to 4 percent, would be extended virtually across the board in previously exempt categories -- he still comes to its defense in conversation, and it may well be, as his adversaries charge, that he means for a stalemated legislature to return to it ultimately.

As he said at Tucker's Crossroads, still calling that now dormant proposal by the name of "flat tax," an income tax would allow "a lot of people" to pay less taxes. "Tennesseans would pay $55 million less in new taxes" because of deductions they could take on their federal income tax returns. "And the state would pick up $500 million in new income. It would involve higher elasticity. It would be a fair solution. And I'd be willing to push for a constitutional amendment that would make any increase in the tax dependent on 60 percent majorities in both the Senate and the House. You can't get 50 percent to raise taxes, much less 60 percent!"

Sundquist has also become the leading champion of TennCare, the state-run health-care program for Tennessee's uninsured and uninsurables. When Blue Cross/Blue Shield almost pulled out of TennCare in December 1999, Sundquist denounced the giant insurance monolith as "Ebenezer Scrooge." He took the term back last week when he was able to announce that Blue Cross/Blue Shield had signed on again, a fact which he believes will guarantee the program's survival.

Conservatives were wont to attack TennCare as too costly (and sometimes as "socialized medicine"), but Sundquist now believes the opposition has crested. "It makes good financial sense," he noted at Tucker's Crossroads, pointing out that if the state were to fall back on Medicaid, the demands for local governments to provide the indigent care that TennCare does currently would cause their property taxes to go straight up astronomically.

On the subject of health care, as with education, Sundquist can build up some rhetorical momentum, even a bit of grandiosity. "We've been making real progress," he said. "Immunization rates are up, infant mortality is down, the rate of emergency room care is less than half of what it used to be. TennCare is responsible for that. My dream is to take one disease each year and come as close as we can to curing it. The first year I'd like to concentrate on diabetes. Who has it? Who needs early treatment? What are the heart problems and other ramifications? It's in my family, you know. My mother and my father had it, and I'm borderline myself."

At another level of consciousness, of course, Sundquist recognizes that he doesn't have an infinite number of years to totally transform Tennessee's educational levels and to cure all human illnesses. "I have another year left," he notes, "and I'm going to try not to be a caretaker. I think if I can get us up to a certain point, then all that will be necessary is maintenance. People won't have to pay new taxes every year for us to meet our goals in education and health care. People wanted those two things worked on. They wanted to be able to vote on a state lottery. We've done that. Now if we can get tax reform accomplished, I think I'll have done my job."

The governor is so intent these days on setting out goals and stalking them that sometimes, as in putting forth the fairly rigorous testing procedures he wants the state's public-school teachers to be subject to, he can be called to account, as he was at Tucker's Crossroads by a teacher who lamented the growing number of demands on her time, the reports to be filled out. "Like today," she said. "It's beautiful outside. Wouldn't it be neat to go outside and see the daffodils?"

Sundquist seemed a bit stunned. "The school system should have responsibility if they issue a certificate. The school system should, in fact, pay for remedial education later if students haven't been properly educated. But," he said, relenting, "we shouldn't have a school system where a teacher couldn't go out and look at daffodils."

Later on, the governor considered the question of whether he'd evolved in his fiscal thinking since his days as a congressman. "No," he said. "We practice fiscal conservatism in state government. I believe money ought to be properly spent. But there comes a time when you go backwards if you don't spend money. Think of TennCare as an ounce of prevention. You can spend a few dollars for pre-natal care or you can spend hundreds of thousands for a preemie. That's fiscal solvency."

But Sundquist allows for what others may see as a change in his emphasis. Using a phrase made famous by President Bush, the governor said, "Well, I'm a conservative, and I'm compassionate. So I guess I'm a conservative compassionate or a compassionate conservative."

What about the negative responses he'd gotten from time to time over the last two years from audiences of his former conservative supporters -- as, for example, when he was booed by an election-night crowd at Nashville's Wild Horse Saloon at the official Bush celebration party.

"I noticed it," he said. "You can't be in politics for as many years as I've been in politics without noticing -- and understanding -- something like that."

After this burst of candor, he flirts briefly with denial mode. "On election night, if you remember, Senator [Bill] Frist didn't get much of a reception for someone who had just won an election."

PHOTO AP
Sundquist pushes education reform to an educator at Tucker’s Crossroads Elementary in Lebanon, Tennessee.
Then with Consider-the-Source. "A lot of people who were partyers," Sundquist says, pausing to let this unexpected word have its effect, "who came in off the street into the Wild Horse ... "

But he drops that line, too, and goes right to the point. "There's no question," he says deliberately, "that there's an element in our party who are against. They're never for anything. Some of these people profit off politics, either by managing campaigns or raising money, and they use this to improve their position. But if you're going to be an elected official you have to be consistent in your views."

Sundquist begins a smile, and you can feel just a tad of that modest -- and rare -- radiance that would justify George W. Bush, that inveterate nicknamer, giving this man the name "Sunny."

"I think I'm vindicated now," the governor of Tennessee declares. "We're hundreds of millions of dollars short on the budget which I vetoed and they overrode. If you believe you're right and in what's in your heart, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican you have to put up with that kind of thing. And I don't question other people's motives." Sundquist hearkens back to an expression from his youth, a term of art once used for measuring radio audiences. "But I had confidence when my Hooper rating was in the 40s it would bounce back, and now that it's in the 60s, I still think I'm right.

"Part of being in leadership is to be consistent in your principles and views. And if you're gong to lead simply by doing what the polls indicate, you're in sad shape. I'm satisfied that by the time I finish my eight years, Lord willing, people are going to look back and say, 'He made tough decisions. He did what was right, and he didn't worry about a few boos or people who were saying negative things.'

"Because what I worry about are the children and the sick and the elderly and the people who want opportunities. This is an opportunity state. I am very comfortable with who I am. It is not pleasant to be around people who boo, but that comes with the territory. You have to do what's right. You have to ignore it."

Add a comment