Ever since the Tennessee Newspaper Network, a cooperative of the four largest newspapers in the state, embarked on a grand project of compiling and reporting on the income tax returns of all the gubernatorial candidates, Bill Haslam has been under fire. Unlike his opponents, the Republican did not comply with the request from Network reporter Tom Humphrey to provide copies of his federal income tax returns and “all related schedules and forms” from the past three years.
His reason for being less than forthcoming was that the Haslam family business, Pilot Corp., is an S Corporation, meaning the company does not pay income taxes; rather, each shareholder is taxed on dividends individually, and because families are considered single shareholders, a full disclosure of Haslam’s income from Pilot would reveal the incomes of other family members not running for office.
His opponents, of course, won’t accept his answer. They’ve slapped him around on the issue, not just in the immediate wake of the report but in the weeks that followed as well.
One of his opponents called Haslam’s explanation “baloney.” Another said the lack of disclosure would be “a major and fundamental issue in the primary.”
Indeed, it is an issue. Both his opponents and the media have ensured that.
The most sensible reaction to this kerfuffle — whether Haslam’s desire for privacy outstrips the populist lust for openness — is the same one Bert Cooper had when the “big secret” of Don Draper’s true identity was revealed on the first season of Mad Men: Who cares?
It’s no secret Haslam is an extremely wealthy man. Most of that wealth is inherited. The inherited money comes from the family retail gas business.
So what’s the argument from the people who care?
One of Haslam’s opponents, Republican Bill Gibbons, said he needs to know so he can assess whether certain elements of governing might constitute a conflict of interest.
“Every time the state of Tennessee improves or widens a major highway in our state with a lot of commercial traffic on it, every time the state builds an interchange, Pilot Oil has an interest,” Gibbons said. “Is that a big conflict or a small conflict?”
Rubbish. The difference between $1 million and $4 million of infrastructure spending is not going to
generate such a profit for Pilot that Haslam would think twice.
But it’s not about the dollar figures. The reason his opponents hit him on this, the reason they introduce grand “open government” programs to the media, like Gibbons did, is simple: It is an opportunity to remind voters that Haslam is wealthy, and the prevailing public mood of the moment is to eat the rich.
The demographics of the Republican Party aren’t what they used to be. More and more, wealthier voters are becoming comfortable with Democratic policy and politicians (and so go Democrats toward the political center). The Republican Party, strange though it may sound, is becoming less Wall Street and more Main Street.
The tea party movement, which represents a crucial element of the GOP electorate, is libertarian at its root; more importantly, though, it is populist. The people you saw protesting out on Legislative Plaza and in county courthouses across the state aren’t well-off; they are working- and middle-class people carrying a certain amount of rage at how the monied classes — within government and without — have been taking care of themselves and their buddies first.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame Haslam’s opponents for using his wealth against him. The game is the game. But whether Haslam pulls 9 or 99 percent of his $4.75 million annual income from Pilot Oil is not of great import to the majority of Tennesseans.
Let’s not lie to ourselves about why the issue is being exploited. This not about open government. This is about politics, and wealth is an open wound for Haslam.