“Conservative” Governor-Elect Bill Lee continues to to fill his Administration with Democrats and Republicans in Name Only (RINO’s). For those keeping count, the number of Democrat Governor Phil Bredesen’s political appointees who have since been elevated and now retained at the Cabinet level (2) outnumbers the dependable conservatives who have found a spot on Team Lee — approximately ZERO. The latest Cabinet and senior staff announcements haven’t changed that. Nor has he provided his conservative base any assurance that there is ANY room in his Administration for those with whom he claimed to be in ideological alignment during his campaign.
Last week, Lee announced his legislative affairs team. Chris Devaney, a former senior staffer and closely aligned with outgoing Never Trumper Senator Bob Corker (who worked against Marsha Blackburn in her race to fill Corker’s seat), will serve as Special Assistant to Lee. Legislative affairs will be part of his portfolio.
Brent Easley will head Lee’s Legislative Affairs office. Easley previously served as Tennessee Director for Michelle Rhee’s (ex-wife of former Haslam Education Commissioner and Obama voter Kevin Huffman) StudentsFirst Common Core and voucher advocacy group. He also served as a senior policy advisor for former State Representative Debra Maggart, who was defeated for re-election due in large part to her anti-2nd Amendment votes and support for Common Core. Easley reportedly secured his position thanks to the efforts of lobbyist Gif Thornton, who represented StudentsFirst.
Brittany Collins currently serves as Legislative Liaison to Governor Bill Haslam, and will continue as a Senior Legislative Liaison. The Haslam Administration had difficult relations with many of the rank and file Republican legislators who are expected to move into powerful Committee Chairmanships under incoming House Speaker Glen Casada. Collins’ ability to effectively promote a legislative agenda under Haslam was not helped by the fact that the Governor, through his Chief of Staff Mark Cate, ran primary campaigns against those conservative legislators. They have not forgotten.
Monday, Lee announced four Cabinet level appointments. Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long, a respected Establishment Republican, will serve as Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security. Greg Gonzales, Haslam’s Commissioner of Financial Institutions, has a strong record and will continue in that role under Lee. He is not perceived as ideologically conservative, but is seen as extremely competent by those in the banking and financial communities.
Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance Julie McPeak may be the most controversial pick by the Lee team thus far.
McPeak served previously as the chief insurance regulator in Kentucky before being appointed by Haslam in 2011. McPeak has been actively involved with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which is made up of state insurance commissioners like McPeak from across the country. NAIC collects and spends about $99 million a year, with most of that money coming from insurance companies and agents regulated by the commissioners! The conflict of interest is obvious. Nevertheless, Lee will keep McPeak in that role.
McPeak has been AWOL from her state job a lot while fulfilling her obligations to NAIC…to the tune of about 120 trips since her appointment in 2011 — and about 120 days EACH YEAR in 2016 and 2017. She was out of state four whole months each of those years — nearly a third of the time she was supposedly “working” for Tennessee taxpayers.
Nevertheless, she’s keeping her job under Lee. Will she be expected to show up for work under the new Governor? Will McPeak continue to be wined and dined — and travel to exotic locations — with those she is supposedly intended to regulate paying the bills? What impact did the lobbyists representing the insurance industry in Tennessee have in convincing Lee to retain McPeak?
Mark Ezell, who recently ran his family’s Purity Dairy business until it was sold, will be serving as Lee’s Commissioner of Tourism. Ezell was a member of Lee’s Business Coalition during the campaign. His recent political contributions have been primarily directed through the company PAC, although he has personally contributed to Republicans (Bob Corker, Lamar Alexander, Bill First) and Democrats (Ronnie Stein, Jim Cooper) over the years. He is certainly not someone identified as being actively engaged in conservative Republican political circles.
Lee’s inner-circle, composed of Democrat Butch Eley (who is chairing the transition) and incoming Chief of Staff Blake Harris (an Alabama political consultant), is relying heavily upon lobbyists (including staunch Democrats) for advice on Cabinet selections. These same lobbyists will soon be seeking favors from those they have placed, for the clients they are paid to serve. At least one spouse of a powerful Democrat lobbyist is being considered for a Cabinet appointment; another Democrat lobbyist is actively blocking appointments of those who they consider potentially adversarial to their client base.
Not surprisingly, NO conservative activists have made it through the Lee gauntlet of RINOs, Lobbyists and Democrats to emerge in his Administration. Lee is reportedly looking “out-of-state” for Commissioners of Correction and Education, so there are now few spots remaining that might be filled by Tennessee conservatives.
If “personnel is policy,” as conservative Reagan advisor Morton Blackwell and founder of the Leadership Institute often noted, then conservatives should shudder at what Team Lee may produce. Some already are.