It hit me first when Bill Haslam put an ad for his gubernatorial campaign on the hard-left Huffington Post website. Then it hit me again in the patronizing comments he made during a visit to the Times Free Press: The mayor of Knoxville is a well-intended gentleman, but some of his views bear little resemblance to the views of most Tennesseans, and he can be awfully condescending.
And he backed Al Gore.
As I wrote when I first saw the Haslam ad on The Huffington Post, it appeared beside a column headlined, "The Republican Strategy: Covert Destruction at all Costs." The article spoke of Republicans' "Fascist leanings" and linked the Tea Party to Nazism. (Update: A check of "HuffPo" last week found columns condemning President Obama - for not being liberal enough - and singing hosannas to Nancy Pelosi for getting ObamaCare passed.)
I still cannot fathom why Mayor Haslam - a GOP candidate for governor in Tennessee - would advertise on HuffPo at all, much less during a primary campaign in which his key opponent, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, is plainly more conservative than he is. A call to his office didn't clarify things: The ad was just "part of our comprehensive online ad program," a Haslam staffer told me. Well, "comprehensive" is one way to describe a GOP candidate advertising on a conservative-hating website.
Fast forward to Mayor Haslam's visit a few weeks ago to the Times Free Press. Intent on winning friends and influencing people, he stopped just shy of saying the Chattanooga paper was in the tank for Rep. Wamp.
"I realize that, you know, you all are in the hometown of one of my competitors, and I realize that's, you know, a certain difficulty for the newspaper ...," he said.
Funny, I don't think reporters and editors at the Times Free Press "know" any such thing. I doubt Mayor Haslam has faced tougher reporting in the Knoxville media than Rep. Wamp has faced here. When Congressman Wamp does well in primary voting in Chattanooga or any other part of the state, it most definitely will not be because our journalists gave him a pass. It will be because voters understand that while both he and Mayor Haslam clearly love Tennessee, Rep. Wamp is the more tested and more conservative candidate.
Mr. Haslam has been mayor of a city of fewer than 200,000 people. That's not peanuts. But Rep. Wamp has represented well over 600,000 Tennesseans in the 3rd District, subjecting him to greater local, state and national media scrutiny than Mayor Haslam has ever faced. Because Mr. Wamp is not in possession of a fleet of dump trucks stuffed with cash, far more Tennesseans know him on the basis of his record than on the basis of a 24-seven TV and radio ad tsunami. And it's a record they like, judging from the big margins by which he has been re-elected.
Mayor Haslam, by contrast, is known mostly through his Memphis-to-Mountain City saturation advertising. That's convenient for him, not least because it provides cover for his unreliable stance on the Second Amendment.
He says he's for gun rights ... but it was only last year that he parted ways with a group that advocates serious restrictions on those rights. He says he left the group over disagreements with some of its goals ... but his staff declined to say what the disagreements were. He boasts of being a "life member" of the NRA ... but it's a membership he purchased just last year. (He's youthful-looking, but on his best day he's not going to pass for 1.)
Mayor Haslam's $1,000 campaign contribution to Al Gore is equally informative. Mr. Gore has never been what you'd call a Zell Miller Democrat, nor even a Phil Bredesen Democrat.
It's no wonder the liberal Knoxville News Sentinel is cheering for Mayor Haslam in the primary. Let's give the News Sentinel the benefit of the doubt and assume the endorsement was not a case of hometown bias. That leaves one obvious explanation for why he got the endorsement: At least in the GOP primary, he is the candidate most in line with the Knoxville paper's liberal views.
Setting off additional alarms, the even further-left Memphis Commercial Appeal embraces Mr. Haslam's "approach toward major social issues."
There's nothing criminal about that - nor about advertising on wacky leftist websites, nor about cutting a check to extremists such as Al Gore. But Mayor Haslam's actions and the backing he gets from liberal quarters leave people wondering what he believes.
As a courtesy, he might want to clarify things before Aug. 5.
To reach Steve Barrett, call 423-757-6329 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.