States’ Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission: Who Is Bill Haslam?

Monday, April 10, 2017
Bill Haslam

William Edward “Bill” Haslam, governor of Tennessee, was named states’ 2016 co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) on February 4, 2016, after being selected for the post by his fellow Appalachian state governors. His term ended in February 2017 as he was replaced by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Haslam worked in conjunction with ARC federal co-chair Earl F. Gohl, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. Established in 1965, the ARC is an economic development partnership between the federal government and the governors of thirteen Appalachian states to positively impact the 25 million residents of the states’ 420 counties. Its focus is on improvement in job opportunities, income, development and training programs, infrastructure and education. In the budget he presented on March 16, 2017, President Donald Trump proposed eliminating all federal funding of the ARC.


Haslam was born on August 23, 1958, in Knoxville, the youngest of three children born to Cynthia Allen Haslam and Jim Haslam II. Six weeks after his birth, on October 9, his parents signed the documents to launch Pilot Corporation, which grew from the purchase of a Virginia gas station to become a major national petroleum firm and the successful owner/operators of convenience-store and Pilot Flying J truck-stop chains.


Young Haslam attended the private college-prep elementary school, Webb School of Knoxville, and during his teenage years he worked part-time at his father’s company. Envisioning a career as a history teacher and eventually a minister, Haslam, at the age of 16, became active in Young Life, a Christian youth ministry. Within weeks of attending his first event with the group, tragedy struck. On December 5, 1974, Haslam’s mother died suddenly at the age of 42, presumably from an undiagnosed heart condition—the same kind that was thought to have killed her father when he was in his 30s. Haslam later said that her death helped shape the formation of his religious faith. “Painful things are going to happen,” was the realization that went through his mind at the time, he later told Knoxville News Sentinel’s Josh Flory. “You have to decide, is there some meaning beyond just the everyday life you're living?”


Haslam attended Emory University and on his first day of class in 1976 he met Crissy Garrett, whom he would marry in 1981. During summer breaks, he performed voluntary work for the political campaigns of U.S. senators from Tennessee, Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, and also served as a volunteer leader at Young Life. In 1980, he earned a B.A. in history from Emory. Before joining the seminary, he decided to return to Pilot, a move that led to his decision to remain with the firm and, in 1995, become its president. Four years later he left Pilot to join Saks Fifth Avenue as CEO of its catalog and e-commerce division. He left Saks in 2001 and joined the Dallas-based clothing chain, Harold’s Stores, as a member of its board. He also became an owner of the East Tennessee minor-league baseball team, the Tennessee Smokies.


Haslam entered the political arena in 2002, throwing his hat into the ring for mayor of Knoxville. The city’s traditionally non-partisan mayoral race took a partisan turn due to Haslam’s membership in the Republican Party, and his opponent, county commissioner Madeline Rogero, accused Haslam of being a puppet of the oil companies. But on September 30, 2003, Haslam defeated Rogero 52%-46%. Three years later, he appointed Rogero as his director of community development. Having doubled the city’s savings under his balanced-budget policy during his first term, Haslam was reelected in 2007 in an 87% landslide.


During his years as mayor, Haslam achieved success with a number of historic community preservation projects, including restoration of two Knoxville movie theaters and a restaurant. President George W. Bush took notice and, in 2008, appointed Haslam to a four-year term on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.


In 2010, Haslam ran for governor of Tennessee, weathering criticism by his opponents over allegations of price-gouging by his oil firm in the aftermath of fuel shortages following Hurricane Katrina. He was also attacked for stonewalling requests that he disclose data pertaining to his income at Pilot. Nonetheless, he won the governorship that November, defeating his Democratic rival, Mike McWherter, by winning 65% of the vote. Combined with GOP state congressional wins, Haslam’s success brought Republicans full control of the state government for the first time since 1869. He ran for reelection in 2014 and defeated his Democratic opponent, Charles Brown, by winning more than 70% of the vote.


Haslam’s first act as governor in January 2011 was to overturn a state law requiring him and his top aides to disclose their outside income. “Government works better when people have input into the process, you are open to alternatives and examiner [sic] them, and then you explain why the decision was made,” Haslam stated in a head-scratching official statement. “The rule should be the more you can be in the open, the better.”


Ranked as the 17th most conservative governor in the country by a 2013 New York Times analysis, Haslam has marked his governorship by a number of controversial initiatives and actions. His 2011 budget called for cutting all state funding to Planned Parenthood, an attempt that was denied by an amendment added by an unknown lawmaker. That same year, he signed bills or orders to: overturn a Nashville measure barring discrimination against the employment of gays by companies contracted with the city; require photo identification at polling places; bypass the teachers’ union by doing away with public school teachers' collective bargaining rights; limit civil suit damages; lift the cap on charter schools; and impose a curfew on public demonstrators of the Occupy Nashville movement. (The resulting arrests of demonstrators were thrown out by commissioner Tom Nelson, who ruled that the state had no authority to set such a curfew.) He did veto the state’s so-called “Ag-Gag” bill, which targeted animal activists to prevent them from exposing animal cruelty.


During the next few years, Haslam refused to veto a bill (thereby making it law) allowing educators to challenge scientific teachings, such as evolution and global warming, and he refused to implement an Affordable Care Act state health exchange. He signed a bill requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, and—acting against the advice of doctors, addiction experts and most national medical associations—he signed a bill allowing criminal assault prosecutions of new mothers if narcotics were used during pregnancy, which led to the arrest of a Tennessee mother two days after giving birth, even though she had taken methamphetamine, which is not a narcotic.


In 2016, under pressure from civil libertarians, Haslam vetoed a bill that would have made the Bible the official book of Tennessee, reasoning that “this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.” He also signed a bill into law that allowed counselors and therapists with “sincerely held principles” to turn away potential clients who are gay, lesbian, or transgender. Numerous advocacy groups protested, including the ACLU of Tennessee. “This measure is rooted in the dangerous misconception that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate,” said ACLU-TN executive director Hedy Weinberg. “Allowing counselors to treat some potential clients differently from others based on their personal beliefs defies professional standards and could cause significant harm to vulnerable people.”


In 2013, the FBI launched a fraud investigation into Pilot Flying J, for which Haslam had served as president until 1999, but who maintains 15% ownership in the company. The following year, the firm—under the chairmanship of Haslam’s billionaire brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam—confessed to shortchanging trucking companies on gas rebates, and it settled by agreeing to pay $92 million in fines.


According to Forbes, Bill Haslam’s net worth reached $2 billion in 2015, making him the wealthiest elected official in America. That is, until the January 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $3.5 billion.


If Haslam had his way, Trump would not have become president. In October 2016, immediately after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump was heard speaking crudely about having taken sexual advantage of women, Haslam called for Trump to withdraw from the presidential race. “I want to emphasize that character in our leaders does matter,” Haslam said in a statement. “None of us in elected office are perfect, but the decisions that are made in the Oval Office have too many consequences to ignore the behavior we have seen. It is time for the good of the nation and the Republican Party for Donald Trump to step aside and let Gov. Mike Pence assume the role as the party's nominee.” No other prominent state Republicans were reported to have expressed support for his position.


Haslam and his wife, Crissy, have a son, Will, and two daughters, Annie and Leigh, along with six grandchildren.

-Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

The GOP Star You've Never Heard Of (by Alexander Burns, Politico)

Tennessee Gov. Haslam Exempts Himself and Top Staff from Financial Disclosure (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Official Biography (Appalachian Regional Commission)

Official Biography (Office of the Governor of Tennessee)


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