Give Governor Phil Bredesen credit: He has risen above party politics to an extent few previous state executives could claim — although several others should be credited with trying. Not the least of these was Bredesen's gubernatorial predecessor, erstwhile Memphian Don Sundquist, a Republican whose full-out support of controversial tax reforms and social programs like TennCare eventually estranged him from his own political base without making sufficient inroads among Democrats, who by and large remained in opposition.
Democrat Bredesen has been almost a mirror image of Sundquist, zigging right where his GOP predecessor zagged left but doing so without surrendering the loyalty of legislative Democrats, who seemed to recognize, as their party's influence with the state electorate worsened, that they needed Bredesen more than he needed them.
For better or for worse, Bredesen accomplished down-to-the-bone budget reductions that Republicans had only talked about. He has, for the most part, eschewed taxation (and a state income tax, in particular) as a remedy for the state's ills, and, though state health advocates accuse him, with some justice, of gutting TennCare, the reality is that his drastic cuts came only after earlier, more modest reform initiatives had been rebuffed by defenders of the program.
Even quite recently, Bredesen's sardonic description of currently pending national health-care legislation as "the mother of all unfunded mandates" has animated opponents of President Obama's initiative, even beyond the state's borders.
But now, as if by way of compensation, Bredesen has embraced one of the most formidable of the Obama administration's stimulus programs, Race to the Top, with its several billions of dollars available for states that can demonstrate interest in improving education and, in particular, the quality of teaching.
By dint of public appeals and applied lobbying, Bredesen was ultimately able to persuade the legislative leaders of both major parties and, importantly, the potentially recalcitrant Tennessee Education Association, to back his proposal for limited, if substantial, use of student performance data in determining tenure, promotion, and pay for public school teachers. At the insistence of the TEA and other teachers' groups, access to such data for such purposes had previously been off the table.
There were holdouts on either end of the political spectrum — but only 10 in the 99-member House and three in the 33-member Senate. It was a substantial achievement, but, as members of both parties and all political persuasions were persuaded by the governor, no less than $485 million in federal funding — the amount the Bredesen administration is seeking — is at stake. Even such determined foes of federal stimulus spending as Knoxville state representative Stacey Campfield and Memphis state senator Brian Kelsey (see Politics, p. 14) were moved to vote for the governor's reform program.
Congratulations are in order — not least because of the unprecedented degree of unity achieved in the process. And, like everybody else, we've got our fingers crossed that Tennessee wins out in what amounts to a competition between the states for the federal funds.