Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is betting on a trifecta to help him accomplish his goal of being the next governor of Tennessee. At a visit to meet with members of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce on May 13, Haslam shared his thoughts on what it takes to win the governor’s seat: People, money and hard work.
“What does it take to win? It’s fairly simple,” he said during the breakfast meeting. “Build a network of people to help you.”
Part of that networking also involves raising money to get the message to the voters, Haslam said. “I don’t like that part,” he said.
Haslam said in Knoxville he could walk down the street and know people. “In Jackson, unless I get lucky, nobody will know who I am,” he said. “You have to raise money.”
The mayor said a candidate also has to know the issues. “To me, that’s the fun part. That’s the important part that gets crowded out by the urgent,” he said.
Haslam said the final thing is the candidate has to put in sweat equity. “You have to work your tail off,” he said. “I can promise you, nobody will outwork us.”
The mayor said running for mayor six years ago was the best decision he could have made because it was everything he hoped it would be. “Being mayor is a great chance to change a community,” he said.
Haslam said seven years ago he wasn’t even considering a political career until he was on spring break vacation with his family and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who then was just starting his term as Chattanooga mayor. Haslam asked Corker why he left a successful private business venture to run for mayor.
“Bob said, ‘Do you care about your community?” He said if you want to change a community, being in public official is the easiest and best way. I thought about it and in 2003, I ran for mayor, and in 2007, I ran again,” he said. “Being mayor is a hands-on job. It’s a problem-solving job. You can make a real difference.”
Haslam said the job of mayor has been very up-close with the public. “I’ve had people grab me at Kroger and as the offering plate was passed at church,” he said. “I even had someone grab me at a gravesite. I have loved that nature of it.”
Haslam said when he began considering if he would run for governor, he asked himself three questions. “The first question was, ‘Do you really want to do this? It’s a long road -- running for public office,’” he said.
The mayor said general election is 18 months away. “I’ve been running for four months. I’m spending 40 to 50 hours a week at it, and it’s something I’m willing to do for better part of two years,” he said. “You talk with your family, pray with them and talk with friends. The second question is can I win?”
The mayor said a candidate has to have financial help. “Other people stick out their necks. You don’t want to do that if you don’t have a realistic chance,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed but we feel we have a fighting chance.”
Haslam said the third question is, what is needed? “All political jobs aren’t the same. Being mayor is a whole different job than running for city council,” he said.
The mayor said the state’s next governor has challenges including dealing a $1.2 billion deficit.
“Since we’ve been in office, Knoxville’s debt is 25 percent lower, the rainy day fund is 300 percent higher. Our credit rating is higher. Our budget is less than last year and the year before,” he said. “I understand how to control costs. Being in business helped prepare me to manage budgets. Being in business helped me in being mayor and being mayor will help me to be governor.”
Haslam said the second big challenge is all about jobs. “If we’re going to be a great state, we have to be great at bringing jobs,” he said.
The mayor said the state unemployment rate is pushing 10 percent currently and in some rural counties in West Tennessee, it’s over 20 percent. “That’s a hard number to swallow. We’re sales tax-driven. I don’t think we should have an income tax,” he said. “The best way to grow business sales taxes in the state is to bring new jobs, and I understand how to do that.”
Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Travel Centers, said his father started the company 50 years ago after he bought a closed gas station. “I can remember my mother wrapping Christmas presents for every employee,” he said. “I can tell people why Tennessee is the right place to base a business. Nothing sells like personal testimony.”
The mayor said the third key challenge is K-12 education. “We’re 42nd out of 50 states, from Virginia to Texas. The only state we’re in front of is Mississippi. If we were a country and they placed us in countries similar to us, we wouldn’t be with Japan -- we’d be a country in the former Soviet Union. That tells you where we are,” he said. “Why are we 42nd? That’s what we deserve. That’s what we expect.”
Haslam said Tennessee Diploma Project that will increase math and science requirements would put more rigorous demands on the students.
“Now 75 to 80 percent of kids test as being proficient. Under the new national standards, 27 percent will say they’re proficient in English and 22 percent in math,” he said. “Three out of four children will test out that they are not proficient. That is, on the face of it, bad news, but I think it’s good news. I think this is a wake-up call Tennessee can use to change things.”
The mayor said there will be parents and others who push back and insist the schools go back to the lower standards.
“Will government stand in the doorway and say standards are great?” he said. “How do we raise ourselves up to the next level?”
Haslam said recruiting business to East Tennessee requires that area leaders leverage the assets of the area such as Oak Ridge National Lab and the University of Tennessee. “Lead with strength when you’re recruiting,” he said. “Don’t worry about what you’re not good at, build on your strengths.”
The mayor said not having a state income tax helps, as does being a right-to-work state. “We’ve got a good work culture, a great geographic location,” he said. “The big key is we’ve got raise the level of workforce in terms of training level.”
Haslam was asked his thoughts on reorganizing higher education in the state. The mayor said many graduate high schools without even having post secondary education on their horizon and this has to change.
“We have to start with an overall vision for how we do higher education with the whole community college look,” he said. “Education is about serving citizens of Tennessee, and we have to start by saying how best do we do that? How do we encourage more people coming out of rural high schools to go to college?”
Regarding transportation, Haslam said the next governor is going to face a major issue with how roads and bridges are funded statewide. Now fuel taxes underwrite this expense but as vehicles become more economical, less money is spent on fuel while the costs of asphalt and repairs has risen.
“We’ve got to address it,” he said.
The mayor said that to cut costs, he would match budgets to inflation in each department of state. “The bottom line in state government is that the size of state government is increasing faster than in the last 10 years,” he said.
Regarding education, Haslam said principals should be given authority and held accountable. “There should also be training academies for principals to learn about financial management and personnel management and how you hire people,” he said. “We would look at setting up principals’ academies across the state to help provide training for people who are good principals but need more.”
Haslam said tourism remains an important part of the state’s economy.
“I think we have to keep focused on tourism. It’s a great job creator. Every part of the state has something they can sell,” he said. “One thing we can do a better job at is handing tourists off from one part of the state to the other.”