Meet a Member: Hargett: Voters See Past the Money

E-newsletter Issue #86 | Feb. 16, 2012

In a presidential election year that already has seen astronomical amounts of money spent by mid-February, a lot of attention is being paid to campaign financing, spending and the increasing use of political action committees to influence voters.

For Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who is charged with running his state’s primary and general elections, campaign spending is a curious topic.

“I must admit it is daunting to consider how much campaigns for national office cost,” said Hargett.

While he concedes money plays a huge role in politics, Hargett doesn’t believe the price tag has necessarily turned into a deterrent for “the average guy” who may want to run for office.  

“Just look at the final four GOP candidates,” said Hargett. “They come from a wide variety of backgrounds with wildly varying levels of financial support, and they all have a different type of strategy for how to obtain the nomination.

“Any successful campaign relies on some basic financial needs, but I never underestimate the American electorate’s ability to see past the amount of money being spent.  Americans have a way of determining what we want—or in some cases don’t want—and not being unduly influenced by the money spent in the election process.”

During the course of the three election cycles he has overseen as secretary of state, Hargett has concluded that the general public is often more concerned with disclosure of contributions than establishing any hard and fast contribution limits.

“People understand that campaigns cost money and they expect candidates to advertise on TV, radio, direct mail and social media,” Hargett said. “ If voters have access to how these campaigns are being funded, that is one more piece of data that may or may not influence their vote.”

Creating a more transparent election process has been something which Hargett was committed to even before he found himself in charge of Tennessee’s elections. When Hargett was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1996, he took up the issue of making campaign disclosure information more readily accessible to voters.

“One of my first pieces of legislation in 1997 was to create an online campaign finance disclosure registry,” he said. “The registry was designed to make disclosure easier, but even more important, to make that information more readily accessible to voters.”

While running his state’s elections is a vital part of his office’s duties, Hargett is tasked with much more than just providing and counting ballots on Election Day.

“Whether it is ensuring that the almost three-quarters of a million business filing transactions we handle are done accurately and efficiently or seeing that the current reorganization of our state’s regional library system elevates the services we provide to rural and suburban libraries, we have so many things that require focus and follow-through,” said Hargett.

Because his office has a wide range of responsibilities, all of which require dealing effectively with the public, Hargett is focusing on changing the culture of service in his department.

“The biggest challenge continues to be in changing our culture so that our department focuses on delivering a customer-focused service that the rest of the state can emulate,” said Hargett.  “We are working to tear down the traditional bureaucratic walls and give employees at all levels the opportunity to offer ideas and to improve our organization.”

Hargett, who was recognized for his exemplary leadership with a 2010 Toll Fellowship, thinks the key to good leadership is not just providing vision, but also being actively engaged in what is going on.

“My goal is to cast a vision for where our department and state need to go,” he said, “but also to stay focused and engaged through the execution of that vision. I think too often visionary leaders cast their vision, but then never get in the trenches with their colleagues. If I fail to stay engaged, then my co-workers believe that I’ve forgotten that vision or don’t care about it anymore.”

Hargett’s engaged leadership was key to seeing his department through an unexpected challenge.  When Tennessee faced a possible credit downgrade from Moody’s, Hargett said he was surprised by his office’s role in mediating the process.

“Tennessee was one of six states mentioned for a potential downgrade by Moody’s,” he said. “Our state’s leadership was quick to respond, and I had the task of facilitating our discussions with the credit analysts. That was not something I pictured doing a few years earlier, but I am proud to say our state was successful and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to play a meaningful part in the process of protecting our state’s credit rating.”

While his career in public service has had some unexpected turns, Hargett embraces his leadership role.

“I have always admired our past and current leaders for their willingness to make the sacrifice of public service,” he said. “Public service can and should be a vehicle to better our communities, and I was humbled to be recruited to run in 1996.”

Also in this Issue: