It is a sunny Wednesday morning at the Pilot Travel Center on Lovell Road, just south of the Interstate 40 entrance and exit ramps. A half-dozen or so big rigs are parked over in the diesel bays, as truckers refuel their vehicles and themselves. The domestic-consumer-sized pumping station out front is also busy, with more modest trucks and cars. Inside, you can get breakfast at a Wendy’s franchise, or stock up on Mountain Dew and Cheez-Its in the convenience store. There are showers in back for the long-haulers—a constantly updating electronic sign helpfully indicates how many are open—along with racks of industry publications like ProTrucker and Hiring Truckdrivers. Half the aisles in the store are taken up with tools, hardware, and accoutrements of the trucker’s life: tail light covers and bulbs, steering wheel grips, inflatable seat cushions. A small display of books offers an array of inspirational literature: God’s Promises for Every Day, A Woman’s Guide to Overcoming Depression, The Top 100 Men of the Bible.
This is just one of 310 Pilot locations spread along the major traffic arteries of the United States, from New York to New Mexico, Florida to Washington, Connecticut to California. It can be easy for East Tennesseans to think of Pilot as a local company, and in some ways it still is: Its headquarters are on Lonas Road, visible from I-40 between Papermill and Weisgarber, and many of the earliest Pilot franchises remain in operation here. But the small gas stations and convenience stores that Knoxvillians associate with the big red-and-yellow logo have long since been subsumed into a business that ranks among the largest private corporations in America. It generates billions of dollars in revenue, employs thousands of workers, and is in the midst of the latest and largest of a long string of mergers, which will turn it from a merely huge company to a truly enormous one. (See sidebar, "The Haslam Family: Knoxville's Co-Pilots")
And at its helm sit the Haslams. They hardly need an introduction to anyone who has lived, worked, or just read a newspaper in Knoxville any time in the past 50 years. The wealth generated by all of the gasoline, diesel, cigarettes, beer, coffee, and self-help paperbacks sold at Pilot locations since 1958 has helped turn the company’s owners into the city’s most visible and influential family. Their philanthropy has financed projects large and small in local neighborhoods, hospitals, and especially at the University of Tennessee. Their civic and political involvement has helped elect governors, congressmen, and eventually one of their own members to the office of city mayor. Of Tennessee’s two sitting senators, one, Lamar Alexander, is an old family friend who was once on the board of Pilot; the other, Bob Corker, was a college roommate of James Haslam III, Pilot’s current CEO.
Now, a Haslam is running for governor. Mayor Bill Haslam is the family’s “nice guy,” a designation even his opponents in the Republican primary grant him. (Though in a year when niceness is a perceived liability on the Republican side, they mean it as an insult.) He came into the race as the nominal front-runner, not least because of his family’s political connections and ability to round up cash from supporters. On that, he has made good. As of July 2 he reported raising $8.7 million in campaign donations to date, including $3 million from Knox County residents. That’s considerably more than his primary opponents: Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga reports about $4 million, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville reported Tuesday that he had raised only $278,257 in the second quarter and had about $1.35 million on hand.
What has been harder to ascertain is what exactly Haslam’s agenda is. While Wamp and Ramsey have been bidding fiercely for the angry-conservative mantle, promising to “give Washington the boot” (Ramsey) or confront the federal government “at the state line” (Wamp—who is, for the record, currently part of the federal government), Haslam has taken a more reserved line. His numerous TV spots tend to be soft-focus and smiley, with vague appeals to community, decency, and leadership. Although he has dutifully issued press releases decrying President Obama’s health-care plan (“an intolerable expansion of federal power”), praising the Supreme Court’s recent gun-rights decision (“an important ruling”), and bemoaning illegal immigration, none of those issues has been at the core of his campaign or his stump speeches. Instead, he talks about fiscal management and looming hard choices in the state budget.
His time as mayor of Knoxville is the most obvious clue to his approach to governing. But it’s hard to say how illuminating it is. He is widely liked and generally respected in local political circles (and it is still hard to find people in Knoxville who will say much bad about anyone named Haslam on the record). He has also benefited from contrast with Knox County government during the same period: While his administration has given an appearance of low-key professionalism, and maintained good relations with City Council, the county has been beset with strife, scandal, and public outrage. A property tax increase passed in Haslam’s first year put the city’s books in good order, and it now enjoys a $50 million-plus fund balance. (A subsequent reassessment significantly reduced the overall tax rate, but real property tax revenues still rose by 37 percent from 2002-03 to 2008-09.) He touts a revitalized downtown as a major achievement, though he acknowledges the seeds for it were sown to some degree before he took office. Overall, it is a record that does not yield much by way of ideology.
“He’s a pragmatist,” says Bill Lyons, a former University of Tennessee professor of political science who has worked for the past seven years as Haslam’s senior policy director. “There will be issues before him that need solutions. It would be a lot of a problem-solving agenda.”
Haslam has recently trumpeted endorsements from some members of regional Tea Party groups, he knows that he can’t compete on the spit-and-snarl front where that wing of the GOP seems most at home.
“I think in a campaign, you get in trouble when you try to be who you’re not,” he says in an interview in his City County Building office last month, between extended bouts of campaigning. “I was giving a talk last week in West Tennessee, and right before I got there, one of our local supporters said, ‘You need to show a lot more passion when you talk.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to show them who I am.’”
Well, okay. So ... who is he?
To start with, there is the second-son storyline.
Bill Haslam does not particularly like it, but it comes up a lot, in profiles going back to his time in the private sector, and in the kind of bar-room, armchair psychology that prominent people from prominent families always inspire.
The details may vary a little, depending on who’s telling the story and how well they know the family, but it generally runs something like this: James Arthur Haslam II, aka Big Jim, built a fortune by parlaying a single Gate City, Va., gas station into, first, a chain of successful Pilot pump operations, and then a larger chain of convenience stores, and then a still-larger chain of full-service truck stops (or “travel centers,” in the industry’s preferred parlance). Along the way, he used his mounting wealth and clout to nurture generations of East Tennessee Republicans. Through decades of service on the boards of the University of Tennessee and the Public Building Authority, he also helped shape both the state’s higher education system and, literally, the landscape of Knoxville.
Then came the sons: James III, aka Jimmy, and William, aka Bill. They entered the family business straight out of college, and moved up through the corporate ranks. By the mid-1990s, Jimmy was CEO, Bill was president, and their father was chairman. If it needs saying, they all made a lot of money along the way. Exactly how much is hard to know, since the company is privately held and Bill Haslam has throughout his political career resisted calls to disclose much by way of personal financial information. (He says it would compromise the privacy of the rest of the family.) But it is safe to call them all multi-multi-millionaires. In 2005, the magazine BusinessTN ranked them tied for 12th on its “Rich List” of wealthy Tennesseans, with an estimated net worth of $800 million. Last year, the same publication ranked Bill, Jim, and Jimmy individually all within the top 20 on its state “Power 100” list. Bill was highest-placed of the three at No. 9—between Lamar Alexander and Dolly Parton—on the grounds that he was “the one to beat” in the governor’s race.
But Bill’s status within the family was, until his first political run, a little unclear. From early on, his brother—who is four years older—was the heir apparent at Pilot, in both name and position. Like his father, Jimmy attended the University of Tennessee. Business-minded from the start, he graduated in 1976 with a degree in marketing. (His father has a B.A. in business administration, class of ’52.) Bill opted instead for Emory University in Atlanta, where he majored in history and graduated in 1980. He has talked about his initial inclination to go into education or even the clergy. But his father persuaded him to spend at least some time at Pilot first. Still, by the time he left the company in 1999 to join the nascent online division of Saks Inc., he was by his own account not indispensable. Speaking of his working relationship with his brother and his father, he told the News Sentinel at the time, “It really did work for a long time and probably would have continued working.” But he added, in a seeming attempt to dispel any notion of sibling rivalry, “Because Jimmy is there, I have the luxury of being able to leave the company—versus, I am leaving the company because Jimmy is there.”
(Wamp in particular has taken aim at Haslam’s business credentials. In a July 2 interview with the Memphis Flyer, he likened Haslam to another younger brother in an oil family: “He didn’t run Pilot oil. Goodness gracious. This is like the TV show Dallas: There’s Jock, there’s J.R., and there’s Bobby. This is Bobby. He’s a nice man. Bobby was the nicest guy in that family. But he was never in charge.”)
The Haslam brothers seem to hold each other in warm regard. Bill calls Jimmy “an incredibly effective CEO, one of the best I’ve ever been around.” Jimmy, in a big-brotherly way, has encouraged Bill in his other endeavors—most notably by urging him to think about running for mayor, after Bill left Saks in 2001. (Bill says he was spending too much time in New York and missed his family. Others, including Wamp, have suggested it was because the Internet venture was floundering.)
“A lot of people were coming up to me and saying Bill should run for mayor,” Jimmy Haslam says, in an interview at his office in Pilot’s headquarters building. “And I told Bill that, and he goes, ‘I just don’t know if I want to do that.’” Jimmy says he knew his brother was going to be vacationing in Destin, Fla., at the same time as family friend Bob Corker, who had left a successful construction and real estate business to serve as mayor of Chattanooga. “Corker has always said, ‘Being mayor is the single most exciting, enlightening, fulfilling job I’ve ever had,’” Jimmy says. “And I told Bill that. And I said, ‘You ought to go for a run or a bike ride with Corker.’”
Bill Haslam has often told the story of the resulting conversation, in which Corker told him that serving in public office was the best, most direct way to make a difference in the life of a community. Bill says he returned from that Florida trip open to the idea of running for mayor. But he tends not to mention the initial push from his brother. Just as in references to his time at Saks, there is rarely an acknowledgment that at the time he was hired by the company, Saks Chairman and CEO Brad Martin was a member of Pilot’s board of directors. In conversation, the junior Haslam brother seems relatively aware of the position of privilege he comes from, and the advantages that position has given him over the years. But it is also clearly important for him to be seen as someone setting his own particular course.
And that drive has taken some interesting forms during his time as mayor. Elected as a scion of the local political establishment, he has more than once shown a willingness to buck it—or, at least, to allow room for other voices.
During the hard-fought mayoral race of 2003, in which Bill Haslam ultimately defeated Madeline Rogero by about 2,000 votes (out of nearly 30,000 cast), Haslam was painted by his opponent as the product of a long line of back-room Knoxville power-brokering. Rogero, a Democrat and former county commissioner, used the line, “Too few people have made too many decisions for too long.” A campaign ad, which still elicits both admiring chuckles and head-shaking tut-tuts seven years later, starred Rogero as “Big Jane,” a shadowy string-pulling executive, in a pointed dig at perceptions of Jim Haslam’s behind-the-scenes influence.
How things change. Rogero now works for Haslam as his director of community development. And as she prepares for another run at the mayor’s office next year, she talks admiringly of her boss. “My experience is that he genuinely likes people and listens to what they have to say,” she writes in an e-mail. “He reached out to me and my supporters after the 2003 campaign and embraced issues that we had promoted such as the importance of public process and strong neighborhoods, and a commitment to becoming an environmentally sustainable city.”
Discussing his tenure, Haslam sounds each of those themes himself. For someone who had worked only in the private sector, and mostly at a private family company, he admits the requirements of public office took a while to sink in.
“Ultimately in a public job, I know it sounds corny, but there’s a greater good involved,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “In a private job, you’re working for the shareholders, whether it’s one person or a million, you’re working for the shareholders. In a public job, you’re working for the citizens. The difference is, if you’re in business, everybody knows here’s what the mission is: We’re trying to sell more newspapers or sell more Fritos or manufacture more TV sets, or whatever it is you’re trying to do. In a public job, you don’t have that same consensus about exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”
As an example, he cites the South Knoxville waterfront planning process. At the first meeting, he recalls, when the assembled citizens and officials split into groups to begin to discuss their priorities, one woman at his table thought the south shore should hold a butterfly garden. And a man on the other side of Haslam said he thought riverfronts were best used for commerce, loading and unloading goods. “And I’m thinking, whoa, we’ve got a long process here,” Haslam says.
The result of that was a waterfront plan that tried to balance the concerns of local neighborhoods with enough enticements to attract condominium development along the waterfront. So far, little has happened with it, which Haslam blames on the real-estate collapse that came soon after the plan’s 2006 adoption. But Rogero says she was impressed by his commitment to the complex effort. “When a large commercial property owner, who had not participated in the process, tried to make last-minute changes,” she notes, “the mayor and Council, to their credit, supported the proposed plan and the process.”
That large property owner was Bill Baxter of Holston Gases, a powerful voice in Knoxville and a longtime friend of the Haslam family. He is now one of the most prominent local supporters of Wamp’s gubernatorial bid. Baxter disputes that characterization of the South Knox waterfront process—he says he and other longtime property owners tried to be involved in the plan and were mostly ignored—but either way it’s clear that Haslam did not go out of his way to mollify him.
Likewise, at least some of the current controversy over the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness is due to feathers ruffled in the affluent West Knoxville neighborhoods that were Haslam’s strongest base of initial support (and where he, his brother, and his father all live). A proposal to put housing in Lakeshore Park, along tony Lyons View, created a furor that is still smoldering among some of the wealthiest and best-connected families in town. The Ten-Year Plan office has since seemingly shelved the Lakeshore idea and hired professional public-relations help to tamp down calls for the plan’s repeal. But Haslam has stood by the plan and its director, Jon Lawler.
Still, the perceived fecklessness of the Ten-Year Plan raises the most common criticism of Haslam’s mayoral style: his tendency to keep a distance from day-to-day operations. Baxter frames it this way: “Bill Haslam arranges for the affected parties to get together, holds public hearings, asks for ‘input,’ and in the name of ‘consensus’ then defers to whatever watered-down compromise is worked out by others.” Contrasting him to Wamp, he says, “Zach will lead the charge and get things done; Bill will ask the crowd where they’d like to go.”
Haslam’s hiring of Rogero, for example, came only after the previous director of community development, Renee Kesler, had become embroiled in numerous complaints over hiring and favoritism. It was the closest thing to a real scandal his administration has endured so far, and he was criticized for not reacting to it faster.
On the other hand, choosing Rogero to clean up the mess was a politically charged move of its own. There was pressure from local African-American leaders, including the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, to replace Kesler (who is black) with another African-American appointee. But Haslam says he simply thought his former opponent was the best person for the position.
“I knew Madeline would be great at that job,” he says. “She had a high degree of credibility, she had a good insight into the community. And if you think about what Community Development does for us, she had the perfect background and the perfect skill set.”
Lyons, not surprisingly, disputes the characterization of Haslam as disengaged. “He’s not a micro-manager, definitely,” he says. “But there isn’t anything of any consequence that we don’t repeatedly discuss.”
City Councilman Bob Becker, a Democrat and the city’s current vice mayor, does see Haslam as a “hands-off manager.” But, he says, “He’s a great hands-off manager.” Becker, a former neighborhood activist who supported Rogero’s 2003 campaign, says he has been impressed by Haslam’s staff appointments, his willingness to work with Council members, and his disinclination to hold grudges when votes don’t go his way.
“I’ve had a couple of fights with Bill,” Becker says, “but even those, it has been, I’ll sit down with him and say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking—what are you thinking?’”
Of course, those traits are one thing in a city government with non-partisan elections. How well they would translate to the fiercely politicized landscape of Nashville is an open question. Lyons says the challenges would be different, but notes that Haslam didn’t know much about civic government when he became mayor. “He’s a very quick learner on these things,” he says.
But Lyons’ complimentary descriptions of Haslam as practical-minded and non-ideological—“The real question that he does ask is, what’s just the right thing to do?”—do not exactly contradict the swipes at his conservative bona fides from Ramsey and Wamp. Wamp has sneeringly described Haslam as an “establishment moderate,” which in 2010 Tea Party circles is a slur just short of “progressive.” (It’s worth noting that Wamp has not always had a problem with the Republican establishment. Between 1994 and 2006, according to the website opensecrets.org, he received $23,650 in campaign donations from Haslam family members. That included $1,000 in 1996 from Bill Haslam.)
It’s true that the Haslams have usually favored a milder strain of conservatism than that of the white-hot talk-radio crowd. They have been longtime friends and supporters of Howard Baker Jr., Lamar Alexander, and Jimmy Duncan—nobody’s idea of liberals, but not culture warriors either. Jimmy Haslam, carefully noting that he speaks only for himself, says he is a “social moderate and a fiscal conservative.” His brother steers clear of the dreaded m-word, but in characterizing his own views does not go for any of the God-guns-gays issues (though those are all given nods on his campaign website).
“In the end, I think the smaller government we have, the better,” he says. “That, ultimately, private people are going to be a lot more efficient, whether it be families or businesses, in how they spend money than government is. Obviously, I wouldn’t be mayor running for governor if I didn’t think government had a role. But the question is, how big is that role?”
He believes the next governor of Tennessee will be forced to make difficult cuts in the size and services of government. But he doesn’t think it will be easy, not least because he says Gov. Phil Bredesen has already done a good job of reining in the state budget.
“As a conservative, I’d like to tell you, well, there’s a billion and a half of fat in state government, we’re gonna go cut it all out and nobody will feel it,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s true. I think when you make the adjustments, people are going to feel those cuts. And that’s whoever the governor is. You don’t take a billion and a half out of state government without anybody noticing it. That pressure will be felt in higher ed, it’ll be felt in K-12, it’ll be felt in how frequently roads get paved. People will notice.”
Is that kind of message one that will resonate with this year’s Republican primary voters? He shrugs.
“I guess we’ll see. I do hear most people you talk to saying, these are serious times and we want to have a serious approach to it, where we talk about it in terms of the best approach instead of just yell at each other. I hear that sentiment over and over and over again.”
So, a serious approach to serious times, hard choices, smaller government, not much yelling. And a likable guy with a nice smile and a lot of money. If all of that leaves you feeling like you still don’t know exactly what a Haslam governorship would be like or how it might work, well, join the club.