Sparks Fly at Debate: GOP Rivals Try to Burn Haslam on Fuel Company Ties

A couple Republican candidates for governor used rival Bill Haslam as an onstage punching bag Thursday, harping on his refusal to release details about his personal income from his family business.

GOP hopeful Bill Gibbons, Shelby County’s district attorney, called the Knoxville mayor out during a gubernatorial debate in downtown Nashville for not revealing how much income he earns from Pilot Corp., the truck-stop chain the Haslams have built into something of a national gas- and diesel-station empire.

“Frankly, he has a conflict of interest, because every time the state of Tennessee has a major highway project, Pilot Oil has an interest. He doesn’t want us to know the scope of that conflict of interest,” said Gibbons.

Congressman Zach Wamp didn’t want to miss out on the action, and he, too, took a poke at Haslam when the opportunity arose.

He didn’t name any names, but it was obvious to everyone in the room who Wamp was referring to when he opined that transparency should begin before being elected to office.

“On Wall Street, they say too big to fail. And I wonder here if one family or one corporation is too big to be held accountable like everyone else,” he said.

Haslam declined to share his details about his personal income. But he didn’t hesitate to fire back at his detractors for what he described as their seeming sleights to his family’s entrepreneurialism and success.

“It bothers me to hear somebody say a Tennessee company that started as a small business has grown to be a national company, that there’s something wrong with that,” said Haslam.

Haslam is the only Republican candidate who so far hasn’t release personal income records as requested by a band of Tennessee’s large newspapers. Those records are not public and are not required to be released to run for political office.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is also running in the August primary election, stayed out of the Haslam-centered spat.

Also participating in the debate co-hosted by the Tennessee Press Association and The Associated Press were Senate Democrat Leader Jim Kyle, former House Democrat Leader Kim McMillan and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter.