Q&A: Bill Haslam on the Issues

(Note: This is a condensed version of a longer interview. For the full transcript, see "'These Are Serious Times' — a Conversation With Bill Haslam.")

On higher education:

I think that's really one of the big challenges for the next governor, and here's how I'd put that: To be competitive in the economy going forward, it's going to require a higher degree of education. I think the economy is going to come back, but I think it's going to come back slowly, and I think it's going to come back with more of a difference to it in terms of your education. Even today in Tennessee, if you have a college degree, unemployment's less than 5 percent. If you dropped out of high school, it's over 20 percent. The statewide average is at 10.5 percent. So the economy's going to differentiate more going forward. The problem we have as Tennessee is this: If you're over the age of 25, there's a greater chance that you don't have a high school degree or even a GED than that you have a college degree. That's not a good formula to be competitive. And one of the things that I think a governor does, what a leader does anywhere, is help define the new reality. Every kid is not meant for college, but more students are than we've graduated from college in the past.

On the role of wealth in politics:

In this race, in this governor's race, more people have given to this campaign than have ever given to a campaign in the history of the state of Tennessee. I'm proud of that number. I think almost 10,000 contributions is the last count we had, and I think that says something. Because people think, "Oh well, fund-raising's easy," but really, we've had probably 125 different events, and every one of those you work hard to get people there, and you're asking people to give their hard-earned money. People sometimes think raising money's a piece of cake—it's work.

But people I think naturally ask, "Can a guy like Bill Haslam identify with me, when I work this job from 8:30 to 5 every day and I'm worried if I can make my mortgage payment and make everything work?" I've been mayor for six-plus years now, and I'm willing to stand on my record of understanding who I work for and what the struggle looks like.

On school vouchers:

Ultimately I think there's some real benefit there, in competition for schools. I think we're a long way away from that in Tennessee. So what you'll hear me talk about is, while fully protecting and supporting the rights of home/private/religious education, you're going to see most of my focus be on, how do we have real reform in K-12 education. We can't stay 42nd out of 50. We can't stay with more high school dropouts than college graduates. We can't stay with 28,000 kids a year dropping out of school and be who we want to be as a state.

On the environment:

Look at what Knoxville's done. We're one of the few non-coastal cities to be named a Solar American City. We have our own energy sustainability program around here to cut back on the city's own use and how we can model that. We've become one of the links for the electric car recharging initiative with TVA and Oak Ridge and Nissan, the city signed on to be one of the original partners. There'll always obviously be, "Gosh, this is a family that made their money selling gasoline and diesel fuel"—and still does, and still will be for the foreseeable future. But I can promise you that we're going to continue to push Tennessee in some of the directions it's been going. Gov. Bredesen I think has done some significant things, not just recruiting the solar industries of Wacker and Hemlock, but he put some money toward—the big question with solar going forward is, can it be cost competitive?—and so he put some money for a research deal with UT and ORNL that said, can we crack the nut of seeing if we can cost-compete instead of just totally having the government subsidize adding solar power. If we can become known for the research piece of that as well as the manufacturing piece, you know, there's a real "there" there.