WRCB-TV: Gov. Bredesen exit interview: "This country is hungry for leadership"

Posted on December 16, 2010

NASHVILLE (WRCB)- When asked if he wishes he could have run for a third term, Tennessee's governor pauses to think for a moment and says, "This past year has been great, with the good things happening in jobs and education," before adding, "but the answer I should give is that I feel good about the incoming governor."

Prohibited by the state Constitution from seeking a third term, Phil Bredesen says at age 67, he has no intentions of seeking another elective office.  But he makes it clear that he's not ready to exit the political stage, particularly in the area of health care reform.

In his only Chattanooga television interview as he prepares to leave office January 15, Bredesen spoke frankly about his dissatisfaction with "the partisan politics that have defined the health care debate."  After complaining about his fellow Democrats "toeing the party line" he dismissed any notion of switching parties by saying, "I'm even unhappier with the Republicans!"


He scoffed at any suggestion of switching parties, although some observers have said his style of governing might be more in line with the GOP.  "I'm a Democrat, and I've always been much more comfortable in the Democratic party.  It is my wish that the national party gets more in line with what Americans are demanding, and I think they can do that."

He recently authored a book, "Fresh Medicine" which calls for a complete overhaul of the nation's health care system (before entering politics, he founded and operated HealthAmerica Corp., a Nashville insurance company).  Bredesen suggests a model somewhat based on Social Security. There would be a health tax on Americans, who would then receive vouchers to help them pay for some forms of medical coverage. He also advocates pulling care systems together and strengthening the practice of comparative medicine, using tried-and-true facilities like the Mayo Clinic as "models that work."

He says the book is "in no way intended to advance my political career.  I just think it's important that, instead of just complaining about health care and engaging in the politics of it all, somebody should put some solutions out there.  After January 15, I intend to devote more time to being a part of this debate."


He expresses disdain for politicians "who don't have a coherent world view.  This country can work for everyone, but I have yet to see that type of attitude from either party.  I hope someone comes along who can do that.  This country is hungry for leadership."  When asked if he might be seeking a place on a future presidential ticket, he emphatically shakes his head and says, "No, that's not the direction I'm going."  Would he ever run for office again? "Well, you never say never, but that is not my intention."


Bredesen lavishes praise on Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, soon to be Deputy Governor for Bill Haslam.  "Claude is smart, focused, and has a great sense of stability.  He will be a great addition to the next administration." He credits Ramsey and Sen. Bob Corker for being most instrumental in attracting Volkswagen to Chattanooga.  "Hamilton County is in a great position," Bredesen says. "You've created an atmosphere that businesses and manufacturers are talking about."  He remembers when people criticized Ramsey for a long-dormant industrial park at Enterprise South, now home to Volkswagen and other manufacturers.  "Claude didn't panic.  He knew he had something there, and now it's paying off.  That's mature leadership."


Bredesen hints at a massive contrast between the transition from former Governor Don Sundquist's administration in 2003, to the transition now taking place from his administration to that of Bill Haslam.  "I've said before that back then, the state trooper just sort of handed over the keys.  It really wasn't that bad.  The state comptroller was very helpful.  But Governor-elect Haslam and I have a warm relationship, we've met many times.  He's taken my advice on some things, and not on others, but I have a lot of respect for him."

He says Haslam visited with him before both his major political runs, one for mayor of Knoxville, and the other for his recent successful gubernatorial run.  "Here's what I like about him.  His focus was not on how he could win, which is what most of the hopefuls would ask me.  He wanted to know about jobs, and about what the state needs.  He wasn't interested in his own advancement, or his own politics.  I admire that in him." And also unlike the previous transition, "I feel very good about the shape the state is in.  We had some tough economic challenges, and (Haslam) will face some too.  But he's coming in with several hundred million dollars in the bank."


Bredesen is clearly not thrilled about the prospect of Tennessee's governor's office, state House and Senate all controlled by the GOP for the first time in history.  "I don't think it's healthy to have all three bodies in the same party.  It tends to move the process toward the fringe elements of a particular party.  We've seen that with the Democrats in Washington, where they pretty much sowed the seeds of their own undoing.  I've told Bill Haslam, you may have more trouble with your Republicans than you do the Democrats!"

Despite leaving office with high approval ratings from Tennessee residents, he knows he's ruffled some feathers.  "We had to do something about Tenncare.  When I took office, it was losing millions of dollars.  We had to take people off the plan, we had to cut prescription benefits.  It hurt a lot of people, but it had to be done.  I actually had people come up to me during my second campaign (2006) and tell me they didn't like it, but they knew I was trying to make the state healthy again, and they were going to vote for me."


Education was also a top priority for the Harvard-educated Bredesen. His education reform efforts resulted in Tennessee being awarded some $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds in 2010.  "That's what I will miss the most," he says.  "It's certainly unfinished business, but that is inevitable.  Education reform will never get done under one person's watch.  But our graduation rate is up considerably during the past eight years, and I believe the next governor is just as focused on keeping the momentum alive." 

Born in New York, he spent most of his early life in the northeast, making his first political run for the Massachusetts State Senate in 1969.  After moving to Tennessee in 1975 ("driving a Volkswagen, by the way"), he established his business, and renewed his interest in politics.  He was elected Mayor of Nashville in 1991 and 1995, and after one unsuccessful bid for governor, was first elected in 2002. 


Although he studied physics at Harvard and made millions in the private sector (declining to accept a salary for governor), he says he has enjoyed his two terms in the State Capitol in Nashville most of all.  "I've had many jobs, and this is by far the best I ever had.  I've tried to stay true to the people in the Home Depots and the Waffle Houses.  When you take the oath of office as governor, you're not the governor of the rich and the powerful.  You're the governor of all the people, the ones who don't often have a voice. I've tried to do the right thing for those people, and I'm glad I've had this chance."


Taking a walk around the historic state Capitol on one of his final days in office, he stopped to admire portraits of some of his predecessors.  Of Democrat Ned McWherter (1987-1995) he says, "This guy was meant to be governor.  He was one of the first I really worked with.  Very direct, very honest.  I learned a lot from him about working with legislators, meeting in the middle to get things done."  When reminded he's often chided by fellow politicians for his low-key, soft-spoken demeanor, Bredesen laughed and said, "Oh, I can get passionate.  But I've found if you're angry all of the time, it isn't an effective way of managing.  Now if I get angry every once in a while, it gets some attention!"

Of now-Senator Lamar Alexander , who was governor from 1979 to 1987, Bredesen stared at his portrait and said, "He's such a smart man.  He's a little older than you see here, but he has so much integrity, and he's done so much for this state.  My portrait is about to be unveiled here, and to think it will hang alongside Senator Alexander means a lot to me."


"There's a right way to govern, and I've tried to do that," he concluded.  "Some people take the oath of office and forget that they're not just the governor of the Democrats, or the conservatives, or whoever helped them get elected.  From that moment I took the oath, I became governor of all Tennesseans, and I've tried to keep that in mind for the past eight years.  And I can leave knowing I never forgot that, and I'm proud of what we've been able to do here."