Secretary, Governor Turn Talk From Rivalry to Reform

By Lonnie Harp — September 11, 1991 4 min read

Gov. Ned McWherter of Tennessee and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander sat down to breakfast last week in an effort to draw attention to their education-reform plans and away from weeks of local news stories that have cast the politicians as feuding rivals.

Officials said they hoped the meal at the Governor’s Mansion and a joint appearance at a ceremony to announce a new dropout-prevention program would end speculation of a political tug-of-war.

Newspaper columnists and some political observers have described the ongoing questions about Mr. Alexander’s personal finances, a state investigation into contracts steered to Mr. Alexander’s former aides during his tenure as president of the University of Tennessee, and his cold shoulder to Mr. McWherter’s school-reform package as evidence of a simmering: power struggle.

Spokesmen for both men, however, have denied that bad feelings exist.

“I think the media has tried to create the whole situation as a personal feud,” said Ken Renner, communications director for Governor McWherter. “But I don’t think either man feels that way.”

“It’s just an interesting peg to hang a story on,” he added.

Etta Fielek, a spokesman for Mr. Alexander, said discussions during the breakfast were focused on education reform. She said that the Secretary pitched President Bush’s America 2000 strategy and that Mr. McWherter sought to win endorsement for his school-restructuring legislation. The Tennessee bill, which dominated this year’s legislative session, remains in a conference committee and unfunded.

Ill Feelings?

Mr. McWherter’s struggle to win legislative approval for his bill mirrors a similar battle waged by then Governor Alexander when he fought for two years in the mid-1980’s to gain approval for his Better Schools Program.

In his role as Speaker of the House, Mr. McWherter, a Democrat, was pivotal in gaining approval for the controversial measure, which Mr.

Alexander, a Republican, had made his top legislative priority.

Political pundits say much of the recent speculation in Tennessee about ill feelings between the two men stems from Mr. Alexander’s reluctance to return the favor to Mr. McWherter, who now needs Republican votes in order to break the stalemate on the education bill and the tax-reform measures he introduced to fund it.

Mr. McWherter has denied that he is working against his predecessor.

“Good Lord,” he told reporters, “you show me anyone in Tennessee that supported Alexander more strongly than I have, and I will roll him around this Capitol in my wheelbarrow.”

While president of U.T., Mr. Alexander had appeared alongside the Governor in regional rallies designed to build grassroots support for the education package.

Since joining President Bush’s Cabinet, however, Mr. Alexander has not publicly endorsed the reform plan and has criticized Mr. McWherter’s leadership during this year’s General Assembly.

Mr. Renner acknowledged the Governor’s disappointment in having to use last week’s Nashville meeting to once again ask for Mr. Alexander’s support.

Mr. McWherter “hopes that [Secretary Alexander] will take a look at it and see if he can help us,” the Governor’s spokesman said.

Political observers have speculated that aides to Mr. McWherter were responsible for releasing information about Mr. Alexander’s personal finances to Senate investigators.

Prominent Tennessee Republicans have said, however, that they doubted the Governor’s office would engage in such a practice, especially since Mr. McWherter must gain support from Republicans to win approval of his education and tax-reform plans.

Aides to the Governor have also argued that the recent investigations into several questionable contracts at U.T. approved during Mr. Alexander’s tenure are not part of a vendetta.

“Our focus has been on the university,” Mr. Renner said, adding that the Governor is responsible for overseeing the public university’s operation.

In recent weeks, reports in newspapers across the state have highlighted contracts awarded without bids to some of Mr. Alexander’s former aides, his wife’s undisclosed interest in a resort used repeatedly for u.T. functions, and a degree-peddling scandal at the university’s space institute during Mr. Alexander’s tenure. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

The state comptroller is currently reviewing the allegations, which will be scrutinized as part of the university’s audit later this fall.

Former Aides Hired

Two of the aides mentioned in recent Tennessee reports were hired as consultants to the U.S. Education Department shortly after Mr. Alexander’s nomination.

Lewis Lavine, chief of staff during Mr. Alexander’s terms as Governor, was paid $11,191 for 30 days’ work to help organize and hire workers in the Secretary’s office. Officials said Mr. Lavine’s contract was terminated May 9, once a permanent chief of staff was hired.

Mr. Lavine now heads the Ingram Group, a Tennessee government-relations firm hired by U.T. for $36,000 over two years to advise athletic-department officials.

John Parish, Mr. Alexander’s former press secretary, remains a consultant to the Education Department. He has reported 24 days of work and been paid $6,000 to assist officials in the department’s public-affairs office. Mr. Parish last worked for the department on March 14, officials said.

A Memphis lawmaker has repeatedly called for Mr. Parish to resign from the state’s Registry of Election Finance because of continued political lobbying and his role in helping Mr. Alexander answer recent questions about changes in his financial disclosure forms.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Secretary, Governor Turn Talk From Rivalry to Reform