Post Politics: Leave Bill Haslam alone

Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam

Ever since the Tennessee Newspaper Network, a cooperative of the four largest newspapers in the state, embarked on a grand project of compiling and reporting on the income tax returns of all the gubernatorial candidates, Bill Haslam has been under fire. Unlike his opponents, the Republican did not comply with the request from Network reporter Tom Humphrey to provide copies of his federal income tax returns and “all related schedules and forms” from the past three years.

His reason for being less than forthcoming was that the Haslam family business, Pilot Corp., is an S Corporation, meaning the company does not pay income taxes; rather, each shareholder is taxed on dividends individually, and because families are considered single shareholders, a full disclosure of Haslam’s income from Pilot would reveal the incomes of other family members not running for office.

His opponents, of course, won’t accept his answer. They’ve slapped him around on the issue, not just in the immediate wake of the report but in the weeks that followed as well.

One of his opponents called Haslam’s explanation “baloney.” Another said the lack of disclosure would be “a major and fundamental issue in the primary.”

Indeed, it is an issue. Both his opponents and the media have ensured that.

The most sensible reaction to this kerfuffle — whether Haslam’s desire for privacy outstrips the populist lust for openness — is the same one Bert Cooper had when the “big secret” of Don Draper’s true identity was revealed on the first season of Mad Men: Who cares?

It’s no secret Haslam is an extremely wealthy man. Most of that wealth is inherited. The inherited money comes from the family retail gas business.

So what’s the argument from the people who care?

One of Haslam’s opponents, Republican Bill Gibbons, said he needs to know so he can assess whether certain elements of governing might constitute a conflict of interest.

“Every time the state of Tennessee improves or widens a major highway in our state with a lot of commercial traffic on it, every time the state builds an interchange, Pilot Oil has an interest,” Gibbons said. “Is that a big conflict or a small conflict?”

Rubbish. The difference between $1 million and $4 million of infrastructure spending is not going to
generate such a profit for Pilot that Haslam would think twice.

But it’s not about the dollar figures. The reason his opponents hit him on this, the reason they introduce grand “open government” programs to the media, like Gibbons did, is simple: It is an opportunity to remind voters that Haslam is wealthy, and the prevailing public mood of the moment is to eat the rich.

The demographics of the Republican Party aren’t what they used to be. More and more, wealthier voters are becoming comfortable with Democratic policy and politicians (and so go Democrats toward the political center). The Republican Party, strange though it may sound, is becoming less Wall Street and more Main Street.

The tea party movement, which represents a crucial element of the GOP electorate, is libertarian at its root; more importantly, though, it is populist. The people you saw protesting out on Legislative Plaza and in county courthouses across the state aren’t well-off; they are working- and middle-class people carrying a certain amount of rage at how the monied classes — within government and without — have been taking care of themselves and their buddies first.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame Haslam’s opponents for using his wealth against him. The game is the game. But whether Haslam pulls 9 or 99 percent of his $4.75 million annual income from Pilot Oil is not of great import to the majority of Tennesseans.

Let’s not lie to ourselves about why the issue is being exploited. This not about open government. This is about politics, and wealth is an open wound for Haslam.

Kleinheider is's political blogger. Visit him at

8 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 1/18/10 at 8:20

Yes, he and his family are wealthy, let's accept that and decide
who is the best man for the job and the values and experience
they bring to the job. If you life revolves around just one party
or the other it doesn't make any difference you already know
who you will probably vote for. Some numbers for the press
and other candidates to bat around is just a ruse for not
discussing far more important issues that face our state.
Don't let any of the candidates get away with discussing
everything but the important ones!

By: NonyaBidness on 1/18/10 at 8:25

Just an FYI, an S-Corp. files a separtate IRS Form 1120S, and sends a Form K-1 to each of its INDIVIDUAL shareholders reflecting their shares of income or loss from the Corporation. Mr. Haslam could realease his personal form 1040, including the Form K-1 from Pilot Corp. (and that of his spouse if she is also a shareholder and they file a joint return) and this would reveal only his ownership percentange and income from Pilot, not the ownership percentages or incomes of any other shareholders or family members. I am not disputing your point about the importance (or lack of importance) of a candidate's wealth, I am just saying that any claim that releasing information regarding his income from Pilot would reveal the incomes of other family members is completely dishonest (or in other words, a lie).

By: localboy on 1/18/10 at 9:01


By: vechester on 1/18/10 at 9:02

I am not so concerned about his wealth as I am his attitude towards his future constituents should he win an election. I do appreciate the writer's characterization of the conservative movement. Conservatives are not all wealthy, in fact most are just hard working people who are tired of seeing our gov slip into socialism.

On the other hand, let's look at some big name politicians and their money:

Senator Feinstein's husband - her husband won a contract bid of $25 billion to sell foreclosed properties that FDIC had inherited from failed banks.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the wealthiest of the top congressional leaders, with total assets valued at somewhere between $30 million and $131 million, according to federal financial disclosure statements.

Rep. Barney Frank - put language into TARP for eligibility to OneUnited a Boston Bank who has a major stockholder who happens to be Maxine Water's husband.

I could add a bunch more, and yes some Republicans, but my point is that Democrats are no longer looking out for the "little" guy. They are looking out for each other!

So much for transparent and honest gov that represents the people.

By: pswindle on 1/18/10 at 12:13

Why should he be different and not disclose. Everyone else has to do it. What does he have to hide?

By: Kleinheider on 1/18/10 at 12:27

"Why should he be different and not disclose. Everyone else has to do it."

That's just the thing. Everyone else doesn't have to do it. There is no law. It's just a request by a group of newspapers. If we want to make it the law then that is something we should discuss -- but it isn't the law now. Haslam doesn't have to honor the request at all legally.

By: NonyaBidness on 1/18/10 at 4:57

I agree, there is absolutely no law requiring him to disclose is personal income tax returns. But he should stop lying about why he's not. Disclosing his personal 1040's and supporting schedules, including his K-1's from Pilot, wouldn't reveal financial information about any other family members, so he should stop using that as an excuse. It's simply not true.

By: sidneyames on 1/19/10 at 7:55

Well, inquiring minds will not vote for him if he does not disclose. So let's just keep that in mind at the ballot box.