Bill Haslam has a double-digit lead by almost every measure in the Aug. 5 Republican primary for governor.
The lone Democratic candidate, Mike McWherter, has already been making steady jabs at Haslam, as though the general election is already between the two of them.
Republican Zach Wamp says the state will be surprised and he will be the next governor, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey claims to be the only one moving up in the race.
But in the event that the polls are not wildly off base, it seemed natural to ask Haslam a simple question: Would he be ready for three more months of pounding about Pilot Oil?
Pilot is the Haslam family business, the string of truck stops that has made the Haslams a fortune. The company recently completed a merger with competitor Flying J to become Pilot Flying J, a colossus in the world of travel centers.
Haslam has been targeted for his involvement with Pilot from the start of the campaign — primarily for not disclosing his personal income from the business, which is classified as a Subchapter S corporation, which means its shareholders claim their gains and losses through their personal tax returns.
It’s also a status that allows a gubernatorial candidate to keep his income from the family business a secret if he wants to.
Haslam has done exactly that, insisting that since people already know about Pilot and that he has a stake in it, that’s all they need to know to make a judgment about it. While Haslam has endured near constant criticism from his opponents over the matter, he has not wavered on disclosure, the financing of the merger or any other aspect of his position about the company.
Wamp has especially been tough on Haslam for not disclosing his income from Pilot and laying to rest concerns about conflicts of interest.
McWherter has been just as keen on bringing up Pilot. From the day the Democrat announced his candidacy, he started hitting Haslam, first on Haslam exaggerating the number of jobs he had created. McWherter, like Republican candidates, said Haslam should disclose his income from the company. McWherter referred to Haslam as an oil sheik. He even criticized Haslam on the grounds that people don’t know how the financing was done on the Flying J deal.
So how about it, mayor? Ready for more? Three months more of the same thing?
“I am,” Haslam said. “And I guess the question I’ve always asked of everybody is: Are you guys saying you don’t want Pilot here?
“If they don’t think they want Pilot to be a Tennessee company and don’t want more companies like Pilot, they should say that, because I’m proud of Pilot.”
Yet with opponents in the race for governor talking about the importance of having strong businesses to bolster the state’s economy, Pilot has been a consistent issue in the campaign.
And McWherter has clearly shown he’s ready to repeat some of the same lines of inquiry and criticism should he and Haslam square off in the general.
Haslam said he finds the ill will directed at his family’s successful enterprise somewhat curious.
Pilot began in 1958 as one gas station in Gate City, Va. The company built a convenience store in 1976 and began transforming its other locations. A “travel center” debuted in 1981, and aggressive expansion of the company followed. With the merger of Flying J, Pilot Flying J became one of the 10 biggest privately held companies in the nation.
“I think anybody who is governor would be proud of Pilot,” said Haslam, adding that another fellow named McWherter — former Gov. Ned McWherter — seemed to be fine with the company.
“Mike’s dad was awful proud of Pilot and came and spoke several times to our group,” Haslam said. “And I’m not quite certain why all this hostility toward a company I think most governors of most states would be proud to have.”