At breakfast the morning of the City Council vote, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam explained to me that he had a problem with cities "opting out" of the new law allowing permit holders to carry in city parks. He cited the example he used at the meeting of a permit holder walking down Gay Street complying with the law, then cutting through Krutch Park and suddenly becoming a lawbreaker.
If Knoxville had done the "opt out" as other cities have, the Krutch Park pedestrian could be charged with a criminal offense. Knoxville City Council instead decided to keep an existing city ordinance that says carrying in a park is a civil fine of $50.
Council was faced with more issues than gun rights. Some parks are near schools and used by school children. The city has gone to people over the years to get rights-of-way for greenways and will no doubt be going to other property owners in the future. Allowing people to carry guns through other people's property was a complicating factor. Allowing permit holders in some parks and on some greenways, but not on others is also an enforcement nightmare. Keeping the existing ban was a compromise and Haslam supported it. He pointed out that local government is not about theory (as in legislator speeches) but about implementation. How do you administer in the practical world the theoretical concept that people with gun permits should be able to carry them?
Haslam was presiding at a City Council meeting where everyone knew the votes were there to keep Knoxville's ban on guns in parks. Under the city charter, Haslam didn't have a vote. But it was becoming ridiculous for the mayor of the city and a candidate for governor not to speak out on the subject.
I have no doubt what Haslam's two principle GOP opponents would have done in a similar circumstance. They would have made a speech about the sanctity of the Second Amendment and beat their breast about the rights of gun owners. Then they would have watched City Council vote to keep the ban. If you don't have to take the tough vote, if your audience is voters in a statewide political race, why wouldn't you just craft your comments for maximum political advantage?
Why didn't Haslam?
Haslam made his point against "opting out" and criminal sanctions, but supported the City Council compromise. It was a nuanced position that gives us some insight into the kind of candidate Haslam is, and how he might govern should he be elected governor. His actions at Council have outraged gun groups. He has been attacked by his GOP opponents. He has been accused of "waffling" on the issue. In a gubernatorial campaign, nuance and compromise are not thought to be virtues.
Haslam almost has a compulsion against doing the "political" thing. His tenure as mayor has been marked by a singular reluctance to manipulate the media, grandstand for the public, or engage in self-promotion. (Not that any other mayor would do that.)
It is as if Haslam knows his motives are pure and he doesn't need to prove anything to anybody. How could anybody question his sincerity? It is, in many ways, a good way to be. It has worked in the Knoxville mayor's office. He is well liked. People trust him. Rarely does anyone question his motives. But then, we know him. Perhaps by the time the campaign is over, people across the state will know him. And trust him. And respect the fact he won't just say anything to get votes.
Is he too good to pander?
Does he find it degrading to, in the case of the Council meeting, beat his breast, defend the Second amendment, and be seen as pandering to the voters? Even though he evidently believes permit holders have the right to carry in parks?
Has Bill Haslam ever had to kiss corporate ass to keep his job? Has he ever had to "play the game" to get ahead, get a promotion, or close a deal?
Well, to get elected governor you sometimes have to kiss some voter ass. Good luck.