Gov. Haslam’s tough talk on civil service could earn him a nickname

Robert Houk • Jan 23, 2012 at 8:39 AM

It’s a shame politicians today don’t have colorful nicknames that you can use in polite conversation.

I thought of this last week when Texas Gov. Rick Perry decided to bow out of the GOP race for the White House.

Perry, who was often called “Governor Good Hair” by the late columnist Molly Ivins, referenced Sam Houston in his speech announcing his decision to drop out of the race. Houston served as governor of Tennessee before moving to Texas, where he would later hold the same title. He already was considered a remarkable man by the time he left Tennessee, but he became a legend in Texas (because you know everything is bigger in Texas).

Houston had a pretty good nickname, too. His Cherokee friends had dubbed him “The Raven” when he was a young man and living with them in East Tennessee. Houston never shied away from this nickname. In fact, he embraced it as part of his rugged political persona.

“As a Texan, I have never shied away from a good fight, especially when the cause was right,” said Perry, whose many gaffes and mental stumbles during the GOP debates doomed his campaign. “But as someone who has always admired a great Texas forefather — Sam Houston — I know when it is time for a ‘strategic retreat.’ ”

Perry’s departure from the GOP race came as a great disappointment to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and many other Republican leaders in Nashville.

It was a sad repeat of the 2008 fiasco that saw many Tennessee Republicans get behind another tough-talking conservative (former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson), only to see their candidate bow out of the race early. (Some used to call Thompson the “stealth senator” because, as he once put it, he liked to visit his state “under the radar.”)

Gov. Bill Haslam is one Republican officeholder in Nashville who was neither disappointed or surprised by Perry’s decision. That’s because Haslam (and our own Congressman Phil Roe) is supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the race.

Meanwhile, Haslam (who could use a good nickname) has been traveling the state to promote his legislative agenda. One proposal, which will undoubtedly get some push back in Nashville, is to end civil service as state employees now know it.

Haslam said urgent changes need to be made to the state’s hiring process because 40 percent of the current 40,000 state employees are expected to retire within the next five years.

The governor isn’t all that keen on the “bumping” allowances of the current hiring system that allows state employees who have seen their positions cut to receive favorable treatment (based on their seniority) when applying for other state jobs.

“Our responsibility is to hire the best people we can,” Haslam said last week.

While the governor said he realizes many of the current civil service measures were put into place to prevent “patronage and cronyism,” he believes the data shows the “cure has been far worst than the disease.”

Such tough talk about the competence of state employees might just earn Haslam a nickname.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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