It’s 10:15 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, six days before Christmas, and State Sen. Ken Yager is chatting about the business of politics in Nashville and back at home in the state’s 12th Senatorial District.
With Christmas less than a week away, production slows to a crawl for most American workers. The average workplace takes on a more relaxed approach in the days leading up to the holiday. But for Yager, R-Kingston, it’s business as usual. In his coat and tie, and over a Styrofoam cup of coffee, Yager addresses a series of questions in a wide-ranging newspaper interview. He’s already met with County Mayor Jeff Tibbals and S.T.A.N.D. Executive Director Trent Coffey to start his day in Scott County, and he’ll depart the newspaper office to have Christmas lunch with students at Oneida Elementary School — “a time of revelry,” he calls it.
This is life for Yager, who is concluding his 10th year representing the 12th District. Most think of the summer and fall months as a time of leisure for state lawmakers. The legislative session has ended and they’ve returned to their districts. They won’t take up business in Nashville full-time until sometime in January. But time away from Nashville doesn’t necessarily mean time away from the job — especially for Yager, who was just elected the Senate Republicans’ Caucus Chairman, making him one of the highest-ranking Republicans in Nashville.
A day in the life
“In some ways I’m busier when we’re not in session,” Yager explains. “I have seven counties (in my district) and I’m on the road a lot, which is probably a fallback from my experience in local office. I’m a very constituent-driven person. I like to look after them.”
Yager’s day starts at 4:30 a.m. He’s an early riser, and every day begins the same: making the coffee.
“That’s my job,” he says. “My wife doesn’t get up at 4:30. But I have that coffee ready when she gets up. And of course I have the first cup.”
From there, Yager turns to the newspapers. He reads the Knoxville and Nashville papers every morning, and also has a stack of weekly papers from throughout his district that he tackles. Then it’s on to texts and emails. Most folks may still be sleeping — or, at least, they aren’t cognitive enough to conduct business — during those last few hours before dawn, but that doesn’t rule out electronic communications.
By 7 a.m., Yager has accomplished the better part of his day’s work. From there, it’s on the road — his district ranges from the outskirts of the Chattanooga suburban area in Rhea County to places along the TN-KY border, like Byrdstown and Jellico, making the 12th the largest senatorial district in East Tennessee. Traveling to the furthest most points of the district is a three-hour trip by car. And, as one might imagine, a state senator gets a lot of invitations to a lot of events — like the Christmas lunch at Oneida Elementary School.
“I can’t get to all of them,” he said of the invitations. “We look at all of them, and we try to do our best. But I feel like I’m lucky if I can get to half of them. It’s just difficult with a district this big.”
During and in between, there are the phone calls. Yager’s cell phone rings repeatedly during an hour-long interview session, calls he politely declines with an intent to return them later.
“My typical day consists of a lot of telephone calls,” he says. “I have probably 50 phone calls a day. A big part of my day is taken up with telephone calls and email . . . but I text more than I’m on the phone, frankly.”
Yager also spends plenty of time in Nashville, even during the legislative off-season. He’s in the capital a couple of days every week, even moreso as his leadership responsibilities have increased.
A turn to state politics
Before he was a state lawmaker, Yager — who also has a degree in law and a background in education — spent an impressive 24 years as county executive in Roane County. He retired from county leadership in 2006, saying it was time to step away. But his background in local government has helped influence his direction as a legislator.
“It was time for me to leave,” Yager said of his decision to not seek re-election to the Roane County Executive post in 2006. “I had been county executive long enough. That’s a hard thing for politicians to do — to know when to leave. But I felt like I had accomplished the things I wanted to do, and it was time for me to leave.”
Yager had been recruited by Republicans to seek the state senate seat — which was at that time held by Morgan County Democrat Tommy Kilby — and had declined. But when Kilby announced he would not seek re-election in 2008, Yager reconsidered.
“I didn’t retire with an aim of running for the Senate,” he said, “but shortly thereafter I began to look at that again.”
He emerged victorious from a bruising campaign fight with then-Morgan County Executive Becky Ruppe in 2008. The battle to succeed Kilby was vicious, and tightly contested. Since that time, though, Yager has proven popular among the electorate. He won re-election in 2012 and again in 2016 without opposition.
“It was just awful,” Yager said of the 2008 campaign. “But I’ve been unopposed twice since then, which I appreciate. 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.”
As for Ruppe? There are no grudges. In fact, the two have become close friends.
“Two weeks after that election I called on Becky and I told her, ‘Anything I can do for you or Morgan County, I will,’” Yager said. “There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for me, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. That’s how elections should be. I have a rule: campaigning stops on election night and governance starts on election night. To me, there’s a difference.”
In any practical sense, Yager is a centrist Republican. He proudly calls himself a Howard Baker Republican, but bristles slightly at the notion that both Baker and himself could be considered moderates in today’s political climate. Yet, he was one of the few Republicans in Nashville who supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee initiative to expand Medicaid to include more low-income families.
“Howard Baker was a traditional conservative,” he says. “And I’m a traditional conservative.”
Yet, Yager admits that he’s “more pragmatic than ideologue,” a nod to the traits that cast him in a centrist role.
“I’m a conservative, but I’m pragmatic,” he says. “I try to be a problem-solver, which means you have to work with everybody. I have Democrats and Republicans who are my constituents, and I try to treat everybody the same.”
When it comes to identity politics, Yager has repeatedly said that rural vs. urban is a more important battle line in Tennessee than conservative vs. liberal, and wholeheartedly embraces the campaign emphasis that Governor-elect Bill Lee placed on rural Tennessee.
“I’m delighted to hear that,” says Yager, who supported Congresswoman Diane Black in the gubernatorial primary. “I think a lot of people were when you look at the strong vote he received, both in the primary and the general election. The urban-rural divide is a real issue.”
Considering new legislation
As the calendar plows towards January, and the start of a brand-new legislative session, the decision over which bills to support and which not to is well underway, and has been for some time. Yager begins sorting through his requests to sponsor various legislation in the fall months.
“I get a lot of requests for bills,” he says. “I put them in a file and start looking at bills in October and November. I meet with my legal assistant in Nashville, and we discuss the idea for bills. 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.
Yager is notorious among his colleagues for carrying a lot of bills to the table. Last year, he sponsored 101 pieces of proposed legislation. This year, he says, he would like to focus on fewer.
One rule of thumb for Yager is that if a county or city government within his district asks him for a piece of legislation, he’ll carry it on their behalf — even if he fundamentally disagrees with it. While he makes a rule of not opining on those bills, Yager appeared uncomfortable two years ago when he argued a bill on Scott County’s behalf that would have allowed the county to charge ATV riders or access to public roadways. That bill was ultimately shot down in committee on questions of constitutionality.
“The way I look at it, the county legislative body is elected by the people,” he says. “If they want me to bring a bill, I will. I try to be honest with them, and I’ll tell the commission or the county mayor that the bill may be problematic. But I’ll carry the bill for them. I’ll give it my best shot. That’s part of the legislative process.”
Not all legislators feel that way. In fact, Yager says — without naming names — that some of his colleagues in Nashville are astonished by his constituent-first mentality. But, he adds, it’s what he was elected to do.
“Whether it’s a county mayor or any constituent, I try to treat everyone the same,” he says. “I am a very visible person when people see me. If they have something they want to talk about, I try to listen.”
Continuing the grind
Yager assumes considerably more responsibility this year as he is seated as the caucus chairman of Senate Republicans. He sought the leadership position and is openly excited about it, saying it increases his influence in Nashville.
“I have known for some time that I wanted to move up in leadership,” he says. “Everything in politics is in the timing, and when that position came open, I immediately started working on it.”
The six months of work paid off; Yager’s election by his peers was unanimous.
“It gives me an opportunity to have more influence in the Senate,” he says. “With that influence, it gives me more opportunities to help my district. I know that may sound corny, but I’m very district-driven.”
At 71 years old, some would find it time to start scaling back their day-to-day commitments. But Yager won’t hear of it.
“Absolutely not,” he says in response to a question about eyeing retirement. “I’m in my prime. I feel great. I’m now in the top tier of seniority (in the Senate). 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.”
Now 10 years in the making, Yager’s career as a state legislator has meant changes for him and his family. Rarely is there a moment of downtime. Family outings can easily turn to business. But he says he wouldn’t trade it.
“I guess it goes with the territory, but we can’t go out to eat without someone coming by the table and wanting to talk about a problem,” he says. “The way I look at it is every four years I go out to 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.”
If there is one area off-limits, it’s church.
“I don’t get too many queries at church,” he says. “Basically, I don’t discuss politics at church. I just don’t do that. I’ll tell them to give me a call on Monday. And I think word is out, so they don’t ask much.”
Yager credits his wife, Malinda, for being supportive of his role as a legislator. That support is especially critical as the new session begins. During the late winter and early spring months, a legislator’s primary home becomes Nashville. Yager will depart for the capital as the weekend ends, and won’t return home until Friday of each week.
“I’m very fortunate to have a wife who is a very forbearing lady who allows me to be gone all the time,” he says. “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.”