Little Big Man 

The finance guru comes down from the hill

The finance guru comes down from the hill

With only a few days left as master bean-counter and policy-maker for the state of Tennessee, state Finance and Administration Commissioner Bob Corker bursts out of his office door. He has one caller on hold. In just the past minute-and-a-half, four messages have accumulated on his secretary’s desk.

“What are you doing here?” Corker asks in a friendly sort of way. “We’ve got an appointment, don’t we?” I ask back. There’s a pause. Then, with his trademark Chattanooga drawl, he says, “Yeah, we’ve got an appointment.” A broad, teasing smile spreads across his face.

Corker’s yellow tie is tossed back over his left shoulder. It has not landed there by accident. The tossed-back tie is a Corker trademark. If it means anything, which it probably does, it means that Bob Corker is too busy to be tangled up, or tied down, by a mere piece of cloth hanging from his neck. Experience proves that, in Corker’s world, anything that might slow him down, bottle him up, or impede his efficiency is to be avoided.

Corker picks up his messages and says, “Let me talk to [state House Speaker Jimmy] Naifeh real quick.” Then he retreats into the F&A executive office on the first floor of the state Capitol building. A minute later, Corker’s ready to talk.

He starts off, displaying his deft command of small talk and pleasant conversation. I mention that the pattern of the carpet in his office is remarkably ugly. Corker gives the carpet a glance. In the past two years, he says, he’s never noticed it before. He hasn’t had the time.

Corker, 43, sits for a while. Then, for the final half-hour, he is constantly moving. Sometimes he is standing; sometimes he is sitting on top of his desk. Maybe it’s a reflection of his much-touted energy or some instinctive anxiety. Perhaps it’s the result of a self-conscious insecurity about his modest height.

In the almost two years after Corker lost to Nashville heart surgeon Bill Frist in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, there’s little question which of the two has had a more direct impact on the lives of Tennesseans. Not only has Corker done the finance guru’s traditional job of shepherding two budgets—the latest almost $14 billion—through the state Legislature; he has had more influence on major state programs than most previous F&A commissioners.

There are two reasons Corker has been able to have such impact as a policy-maker: First, he is interested in the business of government. And secondly, either by intent or by default, Gov. Don Sundquist has allowed him to delve into it.

During the first half of his term, Sundquist has delegated specific policy issues to top cabinet members and aides such as Corker and policy wonk Leonard Bradley, who has since left state government and made the move to academia. Meanwhile, Sundquist has devoted most of his own time and energy to political issues.

“I’ve been able to deal with every single issue I talked about in my [Senate] campaign,” Corker says. Through his involvement in TennCare and TennCare Partners, a new mental health care program that is scheduled for start-up next week, he says, he has been part of “some of the most cutting-edge health reform in the country.”

Still, Corker always manages to give the impression of staying above politics. And that clean-cut image has helped Corker excel in his job. “I look at the F&A guy’s job as being sort of the person who has to make sure the government is carried out with perfect integrity,” Corker says. “I believe the F&A guy should stay totally above politics.”

The schmooze-meister

The leaderships of Tennessee’s Democratic-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate have both praised Corker endlessly, and many of them admit privately that they prefer Corker to his predecessor, David Manning, who, serving under Gov. Ned McWherter, developed a reputation as a builder of roadblocks.

“I just think [Corker]’s a pretty straight shooter,” says state Rep. John Bragg (D-Murfreesboro), who is retiring this year after having served as the powerful chairman of the House Finance Committee.

“I think he did a lot of bridging the gap between the House Finance Committee and the administration. You could believe what he said, and you didn’t have to worry whether he was being political.”

That can’t be said of every aide and cabinet member in the Sundquist administration. Next to Corker, Bradley got some pretty high marks for his extensive compromise on the administration’s landmark welfare bill, “Families First,” which passed the Legislature this year. Top-notch lobbyist Nancy Menke, who managed to get Sundquist’s Children’s Services bill passed this year, has friends on both sides of the aisle. Labor Commissioner Al Bodie is another favorite.

Many other commissioners and aides are simply low-profile figures who haven’t had the chance to develop relationships with lawmakers. But chief of staff and Deputy Gov. Peaches Simpkins is feared far and wide for her skill in managing by politics and for her swiftness in retaliating for any action she deems anti-administration.

For example, during the last two days of session this year, Simpkins single-handedly breathed life into a controversial ethics bill loathed by state Sen. Bob Rochelle (D-Lebanon). Rochelle was almost certain that the bill, which dealt with slush funds, had been killed. Then he started criticizing the administration and the state Department of Correction from the Senate floor. That little speech earned him tougher campaign finance restrictions.

A switch in time

It’s the sharp contrast between Simpkins and Corker that makes the former real estate contractor from Chattanooga stand out. And it’s Corker’s knack for building relationships on both sides of the aisle that has fueled talk of his possibly switching political parties.

“At one of our meetings, we were sitting around—Corker had done something nice—and I told him if he’d change parties we’d run him for governor,” Bragg says.

State Democratic Party Chairman Will Cheek, who says he doesn’t know Corker particularly well, also has good things to say. He says Corker is “very well regarded. He seems to get along well with folks on our side. Would you welcome someone like him who wanted to join your party? Of course.”

Says Corker: “I feel that working with people with no bias has been beneficial. I feel I have always been direct and open. I am honored by those kinds of things people have said.”

Will he switch? He doesn’t waste a lot of time on the issue, but the answer, at least for the moment, is no. He doesn’t want to talk about the subject at length, and he won’t risk backing himself into a corner. At this point, Corker says, his philosophy most closely resembles the Republican ideology.

“What I don’t like to do is argue one side,” he says, with his usual non-partisanship. “What I like to do is take the best of both and pull it into policy that takes the best of both.”

The whole question of whether he would switch political parties raises a good question about Corker’s political future. It’s a sure bet he won’t run for mayor of Chattanooga—or even Nashville, where he and his wife, Elizabeth, plan to stay with their two daughters. A bid for the U.S. House is out of the question, because a CEO type like Corker would go crazy in a room with 434 other people who wanted to argue whenever he tried to get something done.

That leaves the U.S. Senate, where Fred Thompson’s re-election campaign is already under way and where the guy who defeated Corker in 1994 won’t be on the ballot again until the year 2000. Of course, there’s the office of governor, but Corker probably wouldn’t run for that seat until after Sundquist completes a second term—assuming he has one—in 2002.

But this lack of immediate political options seems perfectly all right with Corker.

“I don’t really have some driving deal that I’ve got to be on some ballot sometime,” he says. “I have a serious interest in public policy, and I’d like to be able to have the opportunity to move in and out of that.

“No doubt, I would like to be in a position to be considered as someone who would like to run for governor in the future, but what I mostly want to be is productive.”

Corker walks out of the Capitol building at the end of this week for the last time as Sundquist’s finance commissioner. The following Monday morning, however, he’s going to get up and get to work on something else—probably a health care start-up.

His replacement, John Ferguson, is going to discover that it may take a while to get used to walking around in Corker’s big shoes.

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