Three candidates converged on Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam in a rapid-fire, statewide televised gubernatorial debate Monday night, and the darts at Haslam kept flying afterward.
Haslam is widely perceived as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and he was grilled by his opponents — two Republicans and one Democrat — on issues ranging from his refusal to disclose income from the family business to trying to be somebody in his campaign commercials he is not.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey started early by telling the audience he wanted to point out differences between him and his two Republican opponents. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican, went mostly after Haslam during the debate and especially after it went off the air.
In a debate laden with references to holy scripture and solemn appeals for prayer, Haslam’s political rivals seemed most concerned with bearing witness that the truck-stop scion is ultimately a man of the almighty dollar.
The debate was fast and furious. Ramsey said he was the only candidate who has said how he would make substantial cuts that are expected next year. Haslam said it will take a thousand small cuts, not one or two big ones.
Mike McWherter, the lone Democrat remaining in the race who will face off against the GOP’s primary winner in November, frequently lauded Gov. Phil Bredesen for the job he has done managing the state and used opportunities to emphasize his plan to create jobs over the past eight years.
Haslam said the best way to fight illegal immigration is to focus on employers and cut off the job source. Ramsey said he wanted a law in Tennessee like Arizona’s to crack down on illegal immigration.
At one point Haslam defended his refusal to disclose his income from the family’s main businesss, Pilot Corp., which recently became Pilot Flying J in a merger, and he said it’s no secret where his income comes from. Ramsey questioned Haslam on his gun rights record, and Haslam promised he will support Second Amendment rights.
On education, McWherter said the state should keep a focus on pre-kindergarten education. Ramsey opposes universal pre-K. Wamp was quick to point to his focus on early childhood reading. Haslam said raising standards and a focus on quality teachers and principals are important in education.
McWherter said one priority should be boost the state’s rainy day fund.
When allowed to ask a direct question, Wamp asked Haslam how he could have contributed to Democrat Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988.
Haslam responded that he has a long record of helping conservative candidates. Haslam said Wamp had filmed a negative ad and asked Wamp why, and Wamp said Haslam was creating a “persona” that is not the real Bill Haslam.
The one-hour debate was designed to use a combination of questions from members of a town hall-type audience, as well as technology such as Facebook and Skype. Candidates were given only 30 seconds for answers, so there was little chance to expand on any thought, but the format did provide for a large number of questions to be posed for the one hour. The debate was an extremely rare chance for the candidates to question each other.
But there was still plenty of questioning each other through the media after the debate. Ramsey kept citing differences between himself and both Haslam and Wamp. Wamp insisted Haslam is now spending his own money, which Haslam didn’t exactly dispute.
Wamp seized on Haslam’s refusal to disclose his income from the Haslam family business, Pilot Corp., which recently got federal approval to merge with Flying J travel centers to make Pilot Flying J one of the top 10 privately held companies in the nation.
That’s too privately held for Wamp’s taste.
“He’s going to spend whatever money they have to convince the people that he’s somebody that he’s not,” Wamp told reporters. “I don’t want that to happen for Tennessee voters. Just because somebody’s got a lot of money, they can create a candidate and spend $20 million-$30 million convincing people he’s somebody that he’s not.”
Ramsey spelled it out.
“I don’t think he’s talked anything about any policy to this point,” Ramsey said of Haslam. “All he’s done is said I’m a nice guy that sneaks a piece of pie every once in awhile and knows somebody named Kempie in Memphis.”
The reference was to the wholesome, folksy-themed television advertisements that have characterized the Haslam campaign.
“Even tonight it was the same way,” Ramsey said. “Where is he going to make tough cuts? Where is he on Second Amendment rights?
“I don’t think he knows a 12-gauge shotgun from a 20-gauge shotgun, and suddenly he’s saying he’s the real deal. It’s not being the real deal in trying to portray himself to be something he’s not, and if he didn’t have the money to sell himself on television he would not be in this race.”
Ramsey said Wamp has “never seen a spending bill he didn’t like” and said, “I do think Mayor Haslam wouldn’t be a legitimate candidate if he wasn’t worth a billion dollars.”
Wamp says Haslam must have something to hide by not disclosing his Pilot income.
“I just said I was not going to completely walk away without exposing some of the truth about the real Bill Haslam,” Wamp said. “One of the problems is you would not do this unless you were hiding something.
“The hiding could be anything from unbelievable tax shelters or y’all (reporters) spending the rest of the campaign going through all the different conflicts of interest, which are not into the dozens, they’re into the hundreds, based on how many different things they own and how many different family members are partners in different things.”
Wamp said Haslam could have numerous conflicts of interest as governor because of his business, a criticism that was leveled at Haslam from the day he refused to disclose his income from Pilot when the four major newspapers in the state asked for financial disclosures and printed the story in December 2009. Haslam, who did disclose income from investments outside Pilot, has been steadfast in his refusal to disclose on Pilot.
“We could potentially have a governor in this state that can’t take a position on hardly anything, because he has a direct conflict of interest on everything,” Wamp said. “They could run the tables on Tennessee voters if we don’t know what it is they own and who they own it with.”