Governor-elect Bill Lee will be inaugurated on Saturday January 19. As that date approaches he and his team are working feverishly to complete the selection of his Cabinet and fill many of the top deputy positions in key departments of state government.
Thursday afternoon, Lee announced six new commissioners:
- David Gerregano has served as Governor Bill Haslam’s Commissioner of Revenue the past two years, and helped shepherd the Haslam tax increase (including adding $300 million per year in higher gas taxes) through the Legislature last year. He will continue to serve in that capacity for Lee.
- Bob Rolfe was appointed in March 2017 by Haslam to fill the slot of Commissioner of Economic and Community Development that Randy Boyd vacated when he left to run for Governor. Rolfe is being retained by Lee in that same position.
- Gabe Roberts is presently serving as Deputy Director at TennCare and will be elevated to the top slot by Governor Lee. As Deputy Director at TennCare Roberts was actively involved in Governor Haslam’s efforts to expand Medicaid/Obamacare which was derailed by the Legislature in special session in 2015 and again in the regular Session. And during Roberts tenure at TennCare the department apparently paid a lot of tax dollars to dead people and prisoners.
- Workforce Development has been called a critical priority for the Lee Administration and the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development will be Dr. Jeff McCord, who is currently the VP of economic and workforce development for Northeast State Community College in Kingsport. McCord is currently in the 2018-19 class of Leadership Tennessee, the Exec. Director of which is Cathy Cate, spouse of former Haslam Chief of Staff Mark Cate (who serves on the Leadership Tennessee Advisory Board).
- Corrections has been plagued with multiple problems during Haslam’s tenure. Nevertheless, current Haslam Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker, who served as Assistant Commissioner prior to being elevated to Commissioner, will remain on the job under Lee.
- Jennifer Nichols will be joining the Lee Team to head the Department of Children’s Services. Nichols, of Shelby County, currently serves as the chief homicide prosecutor in the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. Previously, Nichols served the Criminal Court Judge of Division 10 in the 30th Judicial District in Memphis.
Concerns about the Lee personnel process continue to rise as conservative supporters of Lee during his campaign are passed over for positions being filled by Haslam holdovers, establishment Republicans and favorites of lobbyists. Today’s announcement continued that trend.
With the exception of the selection of Courtney Rogers as Commissioner of Veterans Services, Lee has failed to select any other grassroots conservative to serve in a senior position on his staff or in his Cabinet. The absence of consistent conservatives in his inner circle, combined with the fact that his conservative policy agenda, Ten for Tenn that he released during his primary campaign, has been replaced by a more moderate list of “priorities” that eliminated 7 of his 10 campaign promises, is raising alarm bells among many conservative activists.
Lee has responded to the rising chorus of concern by doubling down on his exclusion of solid conservatives in his Administration. The new round of appointments continues that trend.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is responsible, among other things, for enforcement of Tennessee’s laws and regulations governing illegal immigration. Illegal immigration was a focus of Bill Lee during his campaign but has been dropped as a priority more recently.
Four of the six newly announced Cabinet appointees are those who were previously appointed by current Governor Haslam (with some starting their service under Democrat Governor Phil Bredesen) and none of which have been actively involved in conservative political circles. One is tied directly to Haslam’s former Chief of Staff Mark Cate. About a third of Lee’s cabinet thus far are holdovers from the Haslam Administration, which is why some already refer to the Lee Administration as Haslam 2.0. Several key Departments remain to be filled, including Environment and Conservation, General Services, Education, and Transportation.
While notable conservatives have been recommended to lead several of these remaining departments it appears unlikely that actual conservatives will find a place in any of the remaining leadership positions based upon the negative view of conservatives among the senior leadership team Lee has charged with selecting his Cabinet. Former State Senator Mae Beavers endorsed Lee during the primary after she withdrew. Beavers’ endorsement gave a strong boost to Lee from her staunch conservative base. Beavers has thus far not been named to any leadership post by Bill Lee.
Lee campaigned as a strong conservative and supporter of President Donald Trump, but has moved in a more moderate direction ever since he survived a contentious Republican primary with 37 percent of the vote — meaning 63 percent of Republican primary voters chose another candidate. Nevertheless, Republicans coalesced around Lee as their nominee and helped him to a 21 point margin over Democrat Karl Dean last November.
While conservatives don’t think Dean would have been a better choice than Lee, many now wonder aloud whether so-called moderate Randy Boyd would have appointed more conservatives than Lee has done. It would have been difficult to appoint fewer.
The fact that several vocal Lee supporters have denounced potential appointees for “not supporting Bill in the primary” definitely limits Lee’s pool of candidates. As one political activist noted, “with nearly two thirds of Republicans voting for someone other than Lee in the primary, his approach to filling his Administration and dismissing the base seems to be one determined to insure primary opposition in 2022. He may get his wish.”