TN Governor's Race: Haslam Makes It Official

The popular Knoxville mayor announces his gubernatorial candidacy

"Breakfast with Bill" was breakfast only in a symbolic sense. Attendance at Pete's Cafe on Union Avenue seemed sparser than usual on a Tuesday morning; staffers speculated their regulars were spooked by the TV crews, which had showed up before dawn. By 8:30, most of the people in the long, narrow cafe were journalists, and typically they didn't do much for business, because only a few had ordered coffee. Pete's sure smelled like breakfast, but cameras blocking the aisles made bacon and eggs seem a remote ideal.

Right on time, Mayor Bill Haslam, his wife Crissie, plus a couple of kids, came in the door, along with some staffers; surrounded by TV crews, this was not a typical scene for the mayor, who's often seen walking or jogging unmolested around downtown. Standing near the cash register, the affable Haslam, a youthful 50 years old, announced to the assembled crowd that he was running for governor of Tennessee. He opened his short talk with a realistic assessment of the state's dire fiscal condition, and in particular the fact that the state is ranked 39th of the 50 in educational achievement. "Why would anybody in their right mind run for governor now?" he asked.

If he didn't fully answer that question—saying he's enjoyed being a public servant for the last five years, he said "it feels like the right thing to do now"—he laid out some details of how he's going to conduct his campaign over the next 22 months. The election is in 2010; the toughest part of it will likely be the Republican nomination that August. His likely competitors are Zach Wamp, the popular congressman from Chattanooga, and Bill Gibbons, Shelby County district attorney, from Memphis. Haslam is one of the most popular Knoxville mayors in decades, re-elected in 2007 with 87 percent of the vote, but may be the least well-known of the Republican contenders. His second term—term limits wouldn't allow him to run again—will expire about a year after the gubernatorial election.

He outlined his achievements as mayor, first mentioning the city's surprising fiscal turnaround, claiming that Knoxville now has the highest financial rating in its history. He spoke of obvious achievements in downtown Knoxville, without mentioning any by name, like the Regal Riviera, which he pushed as mayor and personally helped finance. He spoke of job recruitment, especially Sysco and Green Mountain Coffee, and that Forbes magazine recently called Knoxville one of the nation's top 10 metro areas for business and expansion. He spoke of his unusually cordial relationship with City Council, and the day-to-day "blocking and tackling" involved in delivering city services.

Jeremy Harrell, former campaign coordinator for Sen. Lamar Alexander, will be a consultant on Haslam's campaign. Haslam said he has also enlisted local attorney Herbert Slatery as treasurer, and hired a Nashville expert, Kim Kaegi, to lead a fund-raising effort. Haslam, the younger of two sons of Jim Haslam, founder of the multi-state Pilot corporation, is known to have his own resources. "We'll be fund-raising across the state," Haslam said. Sitting with his wife, son, daughter, and daughter-in-law at a table at the end of the restaurant, he spoke less formally: "We've seen that self-financing is not the right way to run a campaign." He said he wants to combat one assumption: "That Haslam is just a rich guy and that's why he's running. My job is to show that's not who I am."

The mayor was quick to add that "I'm proud of Pilot, and I'm proud of the Haslam family," but that he wanted to rely on fund-raising strategies instead.

Haslam admitted running for governor will entail "long hours and lost weekends," but said his job as mayor of Knoxville would be his "priority for the next period of time." He spoke of his confidence in his staff to run things. "We've got a great team of people," he said. "It is so important that Knoxville continue to be what it is."

An announcement for governor might seem surprising for the municipal chief of a mid-sized city, and one who never ran for public office until a little more than five years ago; but it wasn't long after that that some politicos were speculating that Haslam, whom some have found to be the most personable and charismatic of his powerful family, might make this announcement.

Haslam did not criticize Phil Bredesen, the Democratic incumbent: "Most would agree he's done a really good job in fiscal management," he said. But global issues had made it hard on governments of all sizes.

In a published statement, Haslam, who had previously worked as an executive with the Pilot corporation, said, "In these challenging economic times, Tennessee needs a leader who has experience managing a budget and prioritizing resources. We need a leader who can restrain spending while creating good jobs, making our schools stronger, and ensuring Tennesseans have affordable health care. I believe my executive experience in private business and as mayor has taught me how to be this leader."