State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston, sat down for a one-on-one interview last week, which focused less on politics than on life as a legislator. The full story can be read here. But here is a bit of what he had to say.
BG :: You often call yourself a “Howard Baker Republican.” But Howard Baker was a moderate. Does it cause problems being a moderate in one of the state’s most conservative districts?
KY :: No, it hasn’t hurt me. But Howard Baker was a traditional conservative!
BG :: Yes, he was. But in this modern era, where definitions of conservatism and liberalism are being redefined by extremes, would Senator Baker have still been viewed as a staunch conservative?
KY :: Maybe not. But I am a Howard Baker Republican. I’m more pragmatic than ideologue. I am a conservative. But I’m pragmatic. I try to be a problem-solver, which means you have to work with everybody. I have Democrats who are my constituents and Republicans who are my constituents and I try to treat everybody the same. I am a traditional conservative.
BG :: You were a very vocal supporter of Congresswoman Diane Black in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Has that hurt your standing among the Republican establishment? Obviously not, since you were just elected the GOP’s Senate caucus chairman.
KY :: Diane Black was a longtime friend of mine. I did support her, and I’m disappointed she lost. I’m not entirely satisfied with her campaign. I reached out to the new governor immediately after the election. I have had several conversations with him and his staff.
BG :: You’ve often said that the political divide in Tennessee is not conservative vs. liberal, but rural vs. urban. Governor-elect Bill Lee, in his campaign, focused heavily on rural Tennessee. Your thoughts?
KY :: I am delighted to hear that. I think a lot of people were, when you look at the strong vote he received, not just in the general election but in the primary. The urban-rural divide is a real issue.
BG :: You were county executive in Roane County for 24 years, and you were elected to the State Senate in 2008. Did you retire at the county level to seek the State Senate, or was that something you decided to do afterward?
KY :: I retired because it was time for me to leave. I had been county executive long enough. That’s a hard thing for politicians to do, to know when to leave. I felt like I had accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish, and it was time for me to leave. I had been recruited to run for the Senate for several years, but I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t retire with an aim of running for the Senate, but shortly thereafter I began to look at it again.
BG :: Your campaign against Becky Ruppe (then the county executive of Morgan County) in 2008 got a little ugly, but your elections since then have been much easier. Is that fortuitous timing, because Tennessee has gotten redder in recent years, or is it because of your track record in the Senate?
KY :: That first campaign was just awful. But it’s been easier since then. I’ve been unopposed twice. It’s probably a little of both. I don’t play favorites with my constituents. It doesn’t matter what you are or who you are, if you’ve got a problem, I want to help.
Becky Ruppe and I are best friends now. Two weeks after the election I called on Becky and I told her, anything I can do for you or Morgan County, I will. I’ll never forget, she opened her desk drawer and pulled out a list and said, “Well, I do have a list.” But there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for me, and nothing I wouldn’t do for her. That’s how elections should be. I have a rule: Elections stop on election night and governance starts on election night. To me, there is a difference.
BG :: You were just elected chairman of the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus. Is that a leadership role you sought, or did it find you?
KY :: I sought it. I’ve known for some time that I wanted to move up in leadership. Everything in politics is the timing. When that position came open, I immediately started working on it. The election was December 3, and I started working on it six months ago. It gives me an opportunity to have more influence in the Senate. With that influence, it gives me more opportunities to help my district. I know that may sound corny, but I’m very district-driven.
BG :: We’re less than a month away from the start of the new legislative session. Has the process of filing bills begun, and how much work goes into that process?
KY :: I’m notorious for carrying a lot of bills. Last year, I carried 101 bills, which is a heavy load. I’m not going to carry as many bills this year.
I get a lot of requests for bills. I put them all in a file, and then start looking at bills in October and November. Then I make a decision about which bills I will carry. What I do then is meet with my assistant in Nashville. We have legal staff available to the legislature, one of them assigned to me. We discuss the idea for bills, and the attorney will actually draft those for me to look at. Then we make a final decision on what to do a little bit later, around the end of December.
BG :: You’ve said in the past that if a county in your district requests a bill, you’ll carry that bill — regardless of your personal feelings on it. An example is when Scott County asked for a bill allowing the county to charge for ATVs being on public roads. It was clear from watching the committee testimony that you didn’t want to carry the bill, and it ultimately failed because there were questions about its constitutionality, yet you still sponsored it. Is that something that’s unique to you, or do all senators do that?
KY :: Not all of them, no. Without naming names, there are some of my colleagues who are astonished that I am as committed to my constituents as I am. The way I look at it, the county legislative body is elected by the people. If they want me to bring a bill, I will. I try to be honest with folks. I’ll tell the commission or the county mayor that the bill may be problematic. But I’ll carry the bill for them. That bill you mentioned was a problematic bill. I gave it my best shot, to see what happened. That’s part of the legislative process.
BG :: A lot of folks see state legislators as being part-time. Is it a part-time job? Are you able to escape being a legislator? Or does it follow you every time you and your wife try to get out and do things — like go out to dinner, for example?
KY :: Not at all. I guess it goes with the territory, but we can’t go out and eat without someone coming by the table and wanting to talk about a problem. The way I look at that is every four years I go out and ask folks for their vote. I don’t mind walking up to the dinner table and saying, “I’m Ken Yager and I appreciate your help in the election.” So I figure turnabout is perfectly okay. I don’t get too many queries at church. I guess word has gotten out.
BG :: Politics is off-limits at church?
KY :: Basically, I don’t discuss politics at church. I just don’t do that. I’ll tell my friends to give me a call on Monday. And I think word is out.
But I try to be a very visible person when people see me. If they have something they want to talk about, I try to listen.
BG :: You’re 71. At 71, most folks are starting to slow down. But you just sought the caucus chairmanship. It isn’t time for Ken Yager to slow down?
KY :: Absolutely not. I’m in my prime. I feel great. They rank everybody in the Senate by seniority, and I’m now in the top tier of seniority. I’m in a leadership position. I’m now in a position to help set the direction of this state and help my district, so I’m excited about this term and the subsequent term.
BG :: There has been some talk that school vouchers will be an issue this term. Bill Lee hasn’t come right out and said he supports vouchers, but he has indicated that he’s willing to have that conversation. As someone who has a background in education, do you see vouchers as a good thing or a bad thing?
KY :: I know Governor-elect Lee supports vouchers, and some people on his leadership team strongly support vouchers. I think it’ll come up this year. I am opposed to vouchers. I will not support any proposal that will cause a hemorrhage of needed funds to our schools. one of the arguments on behalf of vouchers is freedom of choice. I happen to believe we already have that choice. It’s called parental choice. You can send your kids to a charter school if you want to, or to a private school, or you can home-school them or send them to a public school. The choice is already there. The issue is using taxpayer dollars to fund a scholarship to a private school at the cost of public schools. I’m not going to support anything that’ll siphon off funds because our schools are already under-funded. I’m hearing there might be some hybrids offered. But I don’t support vouchers. I haven’t, and I won’t.
BG :: Will Medicaid expansion be an issue this term? Bill Lee has said he is open to expanding Medicaid.
KY :: I don’t think so. There isn’t enough support in the legislature for it. Governor Haslam wasn’t able to generate the support for it. For any type of health care to pass, it would require an initiative from the governor. I don’t know if Governor-elect Lee would want to do that his first year in office or not.
I was one of the few Republicans who voted for Insure Tennessee (Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan). I thought it was a good bill and I’d vote for it again. I supported Insure Tennessee because it wasn’t an entitlement. In my conservative views, I don’t really approve of these so-called entitlement programs. But Governor Haslam was able to develop a program that required insurance participation.
BG :: Is there anything that we haven’t covered?
KY :: I want to say something about my wife, Malinda. I’m very fortunate to have a wife who is a very forbearing lady who allows me to be gone all the time. Politics can be a jealous mistress. I have a wife who allows me to do it. She was never elected, she didn’t seek this out, but she allows me to do it and is very supportive.