Tuesday was a homecoming for Mark Cate as the special advisor to Gov. Bill Haslam was guest speaker at Maryville Kiwanis Club.
The former Maryville College vice president and executive with Lawler-Wood served as the governor’s campaign manager and then was appointed special advisor when Haslam was elected. He shared his thoughts on the progress made in the first six months of Gov. Haslam’s term.
Cate said he never expected to become a campaign manager when he left Maryville College after 16 years for an executive position with Lawler-Wood. “It was Memorial Day, 2009, when I sat across from then candidate Haslam, and he asked me to be his campaign manager. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding?’ What followed was the most fascinating two years of my professional life. Working for the governor is truly the highest honor of my career.”
Cate shared how the day before the inauguration he got to spend a few moments with the outgoing governor. “The day before inauguration, we’re at the Capitol working on moving everyone in, and I went to Gov. Bredesen’s office. His assistant asked if I wanted to see the governor.”
Cate said he went in to just say hello, but Gov. Bredesen asked him to sit with him. “He was in a very reflective mood, and he started talking. On one hand, I needed to be with my boss to go through a run-through, but it struck me that here I was, sitting with Gov. Bredesen and listening to him reflect on government. It was a special time.”
Cate said being mayor of a city is completely different from being governor of a state. “You take on 47,000 employees, and it is truly a large fire hose to the head. The first week, you’re still trying to remember where the restrooms are, but the legislature and the commissioners and everybody has been waiting for you. Everybody thinks you are ready to start on day one. It was an interesting time - 18 of our 22 commissioners were new and 36 of the 39 members of the governor’s staff were new.”
Cate said the first couple of days the governor set the tone for how he wanted his administration to act and the mindset he expected of them. “With the governor, what you see is what you get,” he said. “He said, ‘We will not take this opportunity for granted.’ Secondly, he is big about hiring people with no- to low-egos. He said, ‘We will be responsive to the citizens of the state, work hard and make great things happen. Putting that context in place was so important.”
Cate said the administration wants to make great things happen for the state. “Call us Pollyanna, but we truly believe this is an opportunity to transform state government. We have to take a different approach. It is a bureaucracy, there’s no question. Although our state has been pretty well run in the past, at the end of the day, its about people,” Cate said. “The governor says, ‘The team with the best players wins. That is his mantra, working with people who are willing to be agents of change.”
One area where Cate said the governor is working to make change is in the idea of political patronage. “Mainly, that there won’t be any,” said Cate. “Thirty years ago every county had patronage chairs who decided who would get what position. But this governor said we will hire competent, professional people,” he said. “We’re going to promote people based on qualifications.”
Cate said charter schools are another idea that will transform education in the state. “Charters schools help in areas that need a competitive environment,” he said.
Cate said Haslam believes education is the state’s best long term economic development tool. The governor doesn’t believe that the government can legislate jobs,” Cate said. “You can create a business-friendly environment,” he said.
Cate said the governor ordered his commissioner for Community and Economic Development to do a top-to-bottom review of the department. The advisor to the governor said existing businesses usually account for the majority of jobs created. “We want to leverage our existing assets. We will bring in top CEOs and ask how can we recruit their vendors and how can we recruit their competitors,” Cate said of the governor’s approach to industrial recruitment. “It’s going to be a much more targeted approach as opposed to having someone else calling on a CEO. When the governor gets involved, that makes a difference.”
When asked which legislation was the most difficult for the governor to sign, Cate said it was House Bill 600.
The bill that Haslam signed forbid localities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that would be stronger than state law. It, in effect, overturned a Nashville Metro ordinance that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation for businesses that have contracts with government.
“The governor didn’t oppose the (former ordinance) from a philosophical perspective,” Cate said. “He just believes government should not be drilling down and telling small business what to do.”