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Knoxville News Sentinel Mayor Bill Haslam hurries back to his office after a reopening ceremony for the renovated Gay Street Bridge in 2004 in Knoxville.

Fourth in a series

Bill Haslam considered being a minister, and he turned down job offers in the teaching profession. He dabbled in the restaurant business, tried his hand at Internet retail and spent many years as a top executive at Pilot Corp., his family's fuel-retailing chain.

So what career choice made him happiest? His wife, Crissy, offers this: "I think being mayor."

William Edward Haslam was elected Knoxville's 80th mayor on Sept. 30, 2003. The successful leap into the political arena marked a new triumph for the Haslam family, which already had wielded great influence in Knoxville through its management of Pilot and through various civic and philanthropic ventures.

But while the Haslam name provided access to a network of influential supporters and deep-pocketed contributors, it couldn't solve every political problem - and it created some new headaches.

On one of his signature issues, Bill Haslam got crossways with a family friend and failed to sway a longtime Pilot partner. And before taking office, the mayoral campaign gave voice to deep-seated reservations about the family's influence among some Knoxvillians, reservations that would later resurface on the statewide stage.

The Haslam family had been deeply involved in Republican politics for decades. Long before taking the reins as CEO of Pilot, Bill's brother, Jimmy Haslam, had considered a run for the state Legislature, while their father, Jim Haslam, had been floated as a possible GOP candidate for governor in the 1986 election.

Neither Jim nor Jimmy ever ran for a major political office, but both became influential behind-the-scenes political players. Beginning in the 1960s, Jim Haslam supported the campaigns of Howard Baker, who would go on to become U.S. Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff.

Both father and son also were prodigious fundraisers, with Jim, according to the Washington Post, among the top campaign-finance "bundlers" - contributors who also solicit donations from others - for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

The Post also identified Jimmy Haslam as a top bundler for Bush, and he chaired the statewide fundraising effort when his former college roommate, Bob Corker, made a successful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Running for mayor

The family's ability to round up campaign cash was a huge asset in the mayoral tilt, but the race wasn't exactly a runaway.

Bill Haslam was matched against Madeline Rogero, a former Knox County commissioner whose journey to the race had taken a far different route. She moved to Knoxville in 1980, was elected to the County Commission in 1990, and after two terms moved into the nonprofit sector, including a stint as executive director of Knoxville's Promise, an alliance for youth.

In the race for mayor, Rogero earned attention for a sharp focus on issues. She even spent a week riding city buses to campaign stops, highlighting her support for mass transit.

But Rogero also made an issue of her opponent's family connections.

Jim Haslam, a University of Tennessee trustee, had served on the search committee that recommended John Shumaker as the new UT president in 2002, and when Shumaker stepped down in August 2003 - amid controversy over expenses he incurred and his use of UT's airplane - Rogero said it was an example of what happens when "good ol' boys" make decisions without public input.

"For far too long too few people have made too many decisions that affect the future of Knoxville," she said at the time.

For his part, Bill Haslam dismissed the latter criticism as "petty, personal politics" and emphasized his independence. During one debate, he touted his ability to say no to his prominent father, declaring that "I've had a lifetime of saying no."

Haslam won more than 52 percent of the vote, compared to just over 46 percent for Rogero.

From foes to allies

But from the tension of the campaign, a working partnership was born. In 2006, the city's director of community development, Renee Kesler, came under fire after a staffer accused Kesler, who is black, of favoring black job applicants and paying them higher starting salaries. After a review, the mayor's office said Haslam found no support for claims of discriminatory hiring. Kesler resigned anyway.

The resignation left Haslam looking for a new community development director, and with less than a year to go before voters would decide on his re-election, he turned to a familiar face.

He had already reappointed Rogero to the Knoxville Transportation Authority board. When he approached her about the job, she recalled, they joked that some people might think he made the hire so she wouldn't run against him a second time.

"But the reality is even though we were so close [in the first race], he had been a good mayor and he would have the additional advantage of incumbency," she said.

Haslam had read "Team of Rivals" - historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln's decision to include former campaign opponents in his Cabinet - and said later that he liked the concept of bringing in people with different perspectives.

Rogero now is making another bid for mayor, but her view of the city has changed. Asked about her past criticism, that too many decisions were being made by too few people, she cited Haslam's effort to reach out to her and her supporters, adding that "he's started to turn that around."

That ability to build bridges has been a hallmark of Haslam's governing style, and a factor in some of his administration's biggest successes. In 2005, for example, the city was weighing a plan for a new movie theater on Gay Street that would have involved the demolition of three historic buildings, including the former S&W Cafeteria building.

Haslam gave preservationists 45 days - a deadline that was later extended - to identify an alternative plan, and eventually the parties involved settled on a wrap-around theater design that spared the fronts of the historic buildings.

The deal worked only because of a complex financing package that included a $1 million tax-increment financing incentive, a $1.1 million state grant and millions from private bond investors. Haslam himself bought $2 million in bonds and guaranteed the TIF note, while his father and brother each pitched in $750,000.

Risky from both a political and a business standpoint, the move paid off. A year after opening, it was Knoxville-based Regal Entertainment Group's second-highest grossing theater in the Knoxville market, and for Haslam it represented an economic development victory achieved without alienating the preservationist camp.

The feat couldn't always be replicated, though. While Gay Street and Market Square have flourished in the last decade, Knoxville lags behind cities such as Chattanooga when it comes to sprucing up the city's waterfront. One of Haslam's priorities as mayor was redevelopment of the South Waterfront, where two of his family's allies had a major presence.

The business of politics

In 1965, Jim Haslam had sold half of his business, Pilot Oil Corp., to Marathon Oil Co., which provided the financing that allowed Pilot to experience a growth spurt. In 1988, the two companies parted ways, but by the time Bill Haslam took office they had linked up again, with Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC a 50-50 partner in Pilot Travel Centers.

That entity - a joint venture between Marathon Oil Co. and Ashland Inc. - had one of the biggest industrial sites on the South Waterfront, an asphalt plant that, as Haslam said in 2005, was "sitting right in the middle of everything we want to do down here." If the waterfront was going to be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly ribbon of condos, retail shops and parks, Marathon's facility would have to go.

The personal history between the Haslams and Marathon had been positive.

"There was no chance it [the negotiation] was going to start out antagonistic," Haslam recalled, "because I knew them and we had a long-standing relationship."

The two sides, however, couldn't reach a deal to move the plant.

Dave Hill, who would head the Haslam administration's South Waterfront push, recalled that Marathon Ashland officials made the trip from Findlay, Ohio, and met with Haslam in his conference room, where the mayor asked what it would take to induce them to move.

As Hill recalled it, the company said the cost would be $10 million to $20 million. The city obviously couldn't provide an incentive that large for a single business, and as Haslam left office as Knoxville's mayor this month, Marathon's asphalt plant was still in place.

Another industrial user that's still in place is Holston Gases, the company run by Bill Baxter, a Haslam family friend and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Baxter supported Haslam in his first run for mayor but hasn't embraced the administration's approach to the South Waterfront, which includes new zoning regulations that impose specific criteria for height, building setbacks and other design features, rather than mandating a specific use for the properties along the river.

Ultimately, though, the Holston Gases chairman said the South Waterfront was a relatively small part of his disappointment and that he never really saw aggressive leadership from the mayor to recruit manufacturers and promote economic development in Knoxville. While he was highly complimentary of Jim Haslam and Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam, Baxter said of Bill Haslam, the mayor, that "my sense is that he kept everybody happy. You know, he got the [property] tax increase passed and there was enough money to go around, and he kind of kept all of the various groups happy, and so he got re-elected."

But while it may have left Baxter cold, the ability to keep everybody happy is a nifty political feat. With a friendly personal style and a willingness to listen, Haslam won his 2007 re-election bid by a landslide and was soon being discussed as a potential contender on a larger stage.

A grander stage

By early 2008, Bill Haslam was seriously considering a run for governor. He talked to a variety of people and counted the cost, trying to determine who else would run, who might be willing to help him and whether he was willing to go through the grueling campaign process.

The other important question in his mind was what the state needed from a leader. "Because at different times ... whether it's mayor, or governor or president, for that matter - city, state, nation, whatever - it needs different things at different times," he said, "and I wanted to make certain that what the state needs right now was something I thought I could help with."

As 2008 neared an end, the looming question was whether Bill Frist, the former U.S. senator from Nashville, was going to enter the race. On the first Sunday in 2009, Frist said he wasn't going to run, a declaration that flung open the starting gate on the Republican side.

Two days later Haslam launched his bid for governor.

At some point, Baxter said he got a call from Jimmy Haslam, who asked him to join the finance team. Baxter said he explained that he had committed to U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, which led to a lunch with Jim Haslam at Calhoun's on the River. "And I gave him my reasons and he was satisfied, even though he was disappointed," Baxter said.

At any rate, the Knoxville mayor didn't need the support of his family's friend. Matched against Wamp, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Shelby County prosecutor Bill Gibbons, Bill Haslam quickly jumped out to a fundraising lead and - despite being assailed over his gun-rights bona fides, his unwillingness to release information about Pilot-related income and other issues - was never knocked from the front-runner's perch.

He handily defeated Wamp and Ramsey in the August 2010 primary - Gibbons had dropped out - and in the Nov. 2 general election Democratic businessman Mike McWherter was unable to gain any traction.

Haslam won the general election going away, earning the right to become Tennessee's 49th governor.

News Sentinel business writer Josh Flory may be reached at 865-342-6994.


When Bill Haslam was sworn in Saturday as Tennessee's 49th governor, it capped a family rise to prominence that began some 60 years ago. The Knoxville News-Sentinel, a member with the Chattanooga Times Free Press of the Tennessee Newspaper Network, documented the family's journey to wealth and power.

Sunday: Jim Haslam, family patriarch

Monday: The young Haslam family and the start of Pilot Oil Corp.

Tuesday: Pilot gets bigger

Today: The emergence of Bill Haslam

Thursday: The rise of Jimmy, and the Haslam family's philanthrophy