“I was hoping to go for a run before council,” Bill Haslam says on the other end of a cell phone that belongs to Janet McGaha, manager of his office as mayor of Knoxville, the third-largest city in Tennessee and, as Haslam likes to boast on the campaign trail for
governor, the city with the lowest unemployment rate in the state.
The 51-year-old is trying to arrange a few things before the 7 p.m. meeting of the Knoxville City Council, over which he presides.
He arrives at Café 4, a bistro in the revamped Market Square, wearing a gray Fulton Falcons T-shirt that is polka-dotted with sweat marks, blue-and-gray Nike jogging shorts and white Asics running shoes. On his wrist is a bulky digital Ironman watch that he uses to time miles when he runs. His average mile: 8.5 minutes. His breathing is still a bit labored from the run, and his brown hair — graying at the temples — clumps with sweat. He does not have a cell phone with him; he left it at the office, about six blocks from here, and when he needs to make a call, he borrows an iPhone from a man he knows who is standing nearby, leaving the screen streaked with sweat when he hangs up, handing it back with a hearty, smiling thank-you.
Haslam is as placid as a chummy uncle, an unusual quality for a man with such high political ambition, with so much riding on the two jobs he’s performing simultaneously. If he experiences stress, he does not show it. He moves through crowds and negotiations alike with the confidence and ease of someone who has grown up on top, a near-mythical quality to plebes and one that he seems to know how to work to his advantage.
His ascendancy is not unexpected: Haslam’s father Jim started Pilot Oil, now one of the largest and most successful Tennessee businesses ever, and plowed the path for Bill to become president of the company, during which time Pilot grew immensely, from 5,000 to 14,000 employees spread across 39 states.
Although he stepped down as president to run for mayor in 2003, Haslam still draws a vast portion of his income from the company, which his brother Jimmy runs. (It’s not clear how much comes from Pilot, as Haslam has thus far refused to make public his tax returns, saying that doing so would reveal private information about other family members.) Pilot has remained a campaign point for Haslam: He uses it as a reminder to voters of his “executive experience,” while his opponents continue to point out price-gouging lawsuits against Pilot in 2008, allegations of illegal gambling at Pilot travel centers in other states, and the company’s recent $1.8 billion merger with Flying J, in which the Federal Trade Commission is requiring the company to divest 26 of its locations to alleviate antitrust concerns.
This criticism just rolls off Haslam; when met with it, he tends to smile halfheartedly — the chummy uncle is suddenly disappointed in you — and suggest that any governor of Tennessee would be crazy not to want such a major corporation headquartered here. Which is probably right, all things considered.
But Haslam’s business career is not all high marks. From 1999 to 2001, he ran Saks Direct, an e-commerce division of Saks Fifth Avenue started in 1972 but reimagined near the end of the dot-com boom. During his two-year stint as CEO, Saks Direct stock lost more than two-thirds of its value. When Saks Fifth Avenue announced it was reorganizing the division in 2001, it attributed a $35.1 million loss to Saks Direct, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“The CEO asked me to come start an Internet retail business,” Haslam said in response to a question about Saks Direct during a debate last week at Belmont University. “… That business team is still there and recognized throughout the Internet world as a great team, and [now] it’s the second most profitable division at Saks.”
But on this day in Knoxville, Haslam is “being mayor,” as his campaign staff is wont to say. After spending 45 minutes or so at the cafe, he checks his watch and stands; it’s time to begin the 15-minute walk back to the office. There, he will catch a quick shower, join his cabinet for a pre-council meeting during which he will inhale a couple slices of pizza while being briefed on agenda items, then make the trip down six floors to chambers, where he will spend the next few hours listening to complaints about a new development that needs a zoning change to break ground, another allowing people to use goats to hold back overgrowing kudzu, and some chipper chatter over allowing suddenly chic urban chicken farming within the city limits — and why not, really? — among all kinds of other things.
You take on a job like mayor knowing it will change your life, probably consume your life, Haslam says. You run for governor with the same fervor. When you do both, you trade the fundamental privacy of your personal life for something hellishly intense. You do it knowingly, willingly.
“It sounds like I’m joking, but one of the hardest things literally is listening to yourself talk for that long,” he says. “After a while, you get bored with yourself, and you think, ‘Well, everybody’s already heard this.’ Well, they haven’t, but you have.”
Office for sale
It’s not altogether outlandish to say that Bill Haslam is buying this election, a notion that has been trumpeted for months. His Republican opponents — U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — continue to hammer him on that front, suggesting it is somehow outrageous for the most heartily financed campaign to win a political race in America. Were they not obsessing at the same time over his multi-millionaire family — suggesting it’s his family money that’s paying for this election — they’d be closer to the mark. Because it is the way he’s buying the election that’s so fascinating, not the simple fact that he’s buying it.
According to spending and fundraising reports, the latest of which was filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance last Monday, the Haslam juggernaut has dropped more than $7 million on the primary thus far. His ads have appeared on statewide television since the Olympics in February. His mailers remind voters that despite what his opponents have said, he supports expanded gun rights, and he drops the ever-important political-code phrase — “Second Amendment” — to bring the message home. Because of his campaign’s cash flow, Haslam’s message appears in near-perpetuity, with his opponents trying to catch up by using the media, social networking websites, and so forth.
During the second quarter, Haslam spent $3.5 million, more than double the closest competitor, Wamp, who doled out almost $1.7 million. Ramsey, meanwhile, fell far behind in the fundraising stakes during the second quarter, taking in $278,257 to Haslam’s $2 million. (Although it’s worth noting that Ramsey still had about $65,000 more on hand than Wamp, whose campaign was sitting on $1.29 million last week.)
The mayor also loaned his campaign $400,000, the first such personal expenditure for Haslam (Ramsey and Wamp lent their campaigns money months ago). But it’s paltry in comparison with the $8.7 million he has raised in the last 18 months.
Which brings us to what’s so fascinating about Haslam’s progress toward buying this election. Never in the history of a Tennessee campaign have so many people donated to one candidate. The campaign’s count, confirmed through publicly available fundraising reports, is 8,387 individual contributors. Those people have made almost 12,000 different financial contributions. The sweep of that giving far exceeds everyone else’s.
“He leaves a wonderful impression on people when he works a crowd,” says Ted Welch, a well-known Republican fundraiser who has worked for, among others, Sen. Lamar Alexander. Welch, who donated money to Bill Gibbons’ abandoned primary effort, has not contributed to Haslam’s campaign, according to finance records. “He handles it beautifully, and he’s remembered very favorably by the people who meet him.”
For all the hubbub over Haslam’s wealth, this primary doesn’t even graze the edge of some others happening now in America. In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner waged a Republican primary for governor that saw some $114 million raised and spent — though $70 million of that came out of Whitman’s pocket. She has said she’s willing to personally spend $150 million in the general election.
In Florida, independently wealthy Republican Rick Scott is only $3 million short of the $24.9 million spending limit in his party’s primary, which is still more than a month away. If Scott exceeds that mark, his opponent would get matching funds from the state for every extra $1.
Still, Haslam is the Rich Guy in a race of rich guys (relatively speaking), which puts him in the necessary position of convincing the public that he is also the Nice Guy, the Sane Guy and the Responsible Guy. Along with public appearances and the occasional debate, Haslam is using TV to deliver those messages: All 13 of his TV ads are positive, folksy and character-driven. Whether it’s Friendly Bill in front of a black-nothing backdrop talking sedately about the avalanche of pain to befall Tennesseans if the budget gap is not addressed, or a rancher leaning on his truck while testifying to Haslam’s conservative and Christian credos, the ads lead back to one central message: Bill Haslam is the guy you want in charge.
It is a carefully crafted message in a carefully crafted campaign where Haslam, portraying himself as the genteel one, has continued to evade divisive issues.
Conservative bona fides?
One of the major agenda items for this evening’s Knoxville City Council meeting is the ordinance to allow urban chicken farming. Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, seeking to defer the measure for two weeks, asks whether anyone in the crowd — the assembly hall is about two-thirds full, mostly white and mostly older — is “here to speak to hens.” After a beat of silence, Haslam, who presides over the council, leans into his mic and says, “Speak to hens?” He cracks a smile and waits another beat for the crowd and other council members to laugh, which they do, at which point Haslam lets out a signature chuckle, a funny little sound he makes when he thinks something is humorous or, also, when he’s a little uncomfortable. It’s barely perceptible, but Haslam does it often when talking about issues like gun rights, abortion, immigration and other items that are high on the tea party agenda.
Haslam doesn’t spend much time talking about such issues — not on the trail, certainly not as mayor of Knoxville.
“Bill very much sticks to the business at hand,” says Vice Mayor Bob Becker, a Democrat. “Even more so, he looks for ways to connect with people, so he doesn’t tend to talk about social issues or his beliefs. He will if you start the conversation, but he doesn’t push it.”
When you do start that conversation, Haslam fidgets. His face sours and he gets gravely serious. He emphasizes the points he makes (which are often rather soft compared with Wamp and Ramsey) with a harrumph noise made by quickly pushing air through the nostrils; he does this all the time when he’s challenged on some issue he doesn’t want to discuss, or that’s maybe a little outside his wheelhouse. He also rubs his right foot on the ground to no particular rhythm, toe down and fixed, heel raised just enough to give clearance for the quick, staccato movements. Back and forth. Back and forth. Indicators of anxiety, like we all have. Except when you put yourself on this kind of pedestal, people notice.
“I think [the candidates are] running on things they know about,” says John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. “You get out of your zone of comfort … and that starts to weigh. It works against you.”
In a tough primary without the crutch of the guaranteed party-line vote, the three major Republicans have to play up their differences rather dramatically. But Wamp and Ramsey, in reaching for essentially the same demographic, are stepping all over each other, while Haslam has, at least thus far, remained mostly above the fray.
“It just strikes me that he is very much a conservative Republican out of the [Lamar] Alexander mold or the [Bob] Corker mold,” Geer says. He expects Haslam to win the primary and, in all likelihood, the general election.
“He’s going to be a good manager, and that’s what he’s comfortable with. In some ways, he’s positioning himself as [another] Phil Bredesen,” Geer says.
Bredesen, a wealthy businessman who doesn’t take a government salary (neither does Haslam in Knoxville) and tends to avoid rhetorical flame-throwing, has recently reminded voters how squirrelly he can be on social issues: He just signed into law an immigration bill that would require jailers to obtain proof of citizenship for any arrestee they suspect might be in the country illegally, saying at the same time that he didn’t particularly agree with the bill on substance but a veto would put fellow Democrats in a difficult position with conservatives come election time.
Like the Democratic governor, Haslam seems to crawl toward such conclusions. Asked during a sit-down interview for his thoughts on gay marriage, abortion and allowing guns in bars — three issues given ample time by the General Assembly of late — Haslam stumbled and demurred before giving brief, general answers confirming his conservative bona fides: He is a believer in traditional marriage who is pro-life and supports allowing permit-holders to carry their guns into establishments that serve alcohol. Otherwise, he is typically unspecific on such issues.
During a conversation that took place more than a month ago, Haslam said that as governor, he would not intercede if the legislature were obsessing over such social issues. Instead, he said, he would pursue a sort of separate, parallel agenda concerned principally with economic development, education and balancing the budget — let the kids play while the adults handle the real business, he seemed to be saying. This sets him in stark contrast with Wamp, who has said he would “quarterback” the legislature, peeving both state legislators and Ramsey, more the quarterback than anyone.
“Yeah, I mean, I think the legislature’s going to do what they’re going to do, and obviously they have leaders who are going to focus on issues that they choose, and I assume that will keep happening,” Haslam said in response to a question about whether he agreed with a resolution to honor Arizona for its new immigration law.
Asked if he would sign a bill modeled on that state’s law, which has been criticized for being discriminatory toward those of non-white descent, he said simply: “If they passed it, yes.”
If there has been a signature problem with the Haslam candidacy, this is it: He is not conservative enough. He has an inglorious history with gun rights, having joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group — to curb gun violence in cities — before withdrawing under pressure (and already as a gubernatorial candidate) after the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights supporters lined up against Bloomberg. Speaking of the NRA, Haslam joined in March 2009 (also while campaigning for governor), and he has acknowledged that he doesn’t own a gun. That has undermined his credibility when it comes to determining who most supports the Second Amendment, which seems to be a paramount issue to some in this race.
“I’m trying to be nice, but I mean that’s got to be the most phony thing we’ve seen in Tennessee politics in many years,” Wamp told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
And his position on immigration, once nuanced, has been troublesome for some conservatives. He has said numerous times, including in interviews for this story, that he favors cracking down on businesses who employ illegal immigrants before going further with legislation. But last week, perhaps under mounting pressure to be more forceful on an issue that has clearly captured the spirits of Tennesseans, Haslam issued an ad in which he lines up with Wamp and Ramsey, saying he would enact a law requiring law enforcement officials to ask for citizenship papers of those they encounter and suspect might be in the country illegally,
a la Arizona.
Amid all the furor about federal policy over which it is unclear any Tennessee law could hold sway, the biggest, most concrete problem facing the next governor will be the gaping $1.5 billion hole forecast for the next state budget. The reasons for that hole are esoteric, complex and not exactly soundbite-ready. Yet how to confront it has remained Haslam’s foremost message.
In fact, it is one of the three pillars of the Haslam campaign: budget, jobs and education.
“My experience with Bill is that he focuses on the issues that he can directly impact as mayor, such as budgets, education, housing, economic development, downtown revitalization, etc.,” says Madeline Rogero, who lost to Haslam in a close, heated race for Knoxville mayor in 2003 (although Knoxville’s races are nonpartisan, it was clear that Rogero was the Democrat). Haslam appointed Rogero director of community development in 2006.
A Haslam first term might well be Tennessee’s moment of austerity. While he’s been reluctant to name specific programs or agencies where cuts will come, he has indicated that there will be many nicks, not necessarily a few slashes.
“You saw how much they wrangled in the last three weeks about I guess it was $120 million,” he says. “Next year the cuts and issues are going to be a lot bigger. So it’ll be my purpose to start those budget issues early, because there will be cuts and they will be controversial. They won’t be easy. There will be a lot of things that end up getting cut that people are going to say, ‘How in the world can you do that?’ So let’s push those and have those conversations starting early.”
He has issued a 15-page plan called “Jobs4TN,” in which he outlines strategies for growth and principles by which he would conduct the business of the state. To wit: no income tax; make market data more readily available to people on all sides of a new or existing business; institute regional workforce development assessments; decentralize the state development department; create “Small Business Works” and “Tennessee First,” two vaguely defined government programs designed to help small businesses build and grow.
Haslam has also proposed four ways to help Tennessee’s mortally deficient public education system: Raise testing standards; create assessment and training programs for principals to improve managerial quality at schools; recruit good teachers; make student data more available to both parents and teachers so that intervention may come sooner for failing students.
“Local government, the politics goes away,” Haslam says. “At the end of the day, these jobs — being mayor and governor — are about delivering services.”
Haslam has showered at his office and returns wearing a light blue oxford shirt — back wrinkled, sleeves rolled up to forearms — a pair of dark khaki dress pants with black cross-stitching, and a tie with fat green-and-white stripes. The back of the tie swings freely and is nearly as long as the front, suggesting one of three things: a sloppy knot, a short torso or a long tie. He looks more like an assistant Little League coach dressed to receive an award for community leadership than the guy running the show.
His office is like any mayor’s: filled with knickknacks, like a commemorative skateboard deck and a hardhat emblazoned with some date worth memorializing. The magnificent panoramic view includes the Tennessee River and the Smoky Mountains. On his desk is an iPad (whose screen is covered in finger smudges from heavy use) and a Blackberry. Near the desk are two chairs and a couch, over which hangs a massive portrait of Haslam and family; the mayor is in the foreground, and his wife of 29 years, Crissy (a nearly ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail) and daughters stand behind him.
He is comfortable here, it seems, more so than on the trail. Perhaps it is because in this place, Haslam is used to controlling the conversation, something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to him but to which he is nonetheless accustomed.