Bill Haslam is a successful businessman, served as Mayor of Knoxville (2003–2011), and is currently serving as the 49th Governor of Tennessee. He assumed office in 2011. Forbes tagged him in 2016 as the richest elected official in the United States, with a 2015 estimated net worth of $2 billion. Born William Edward Haslam in Knoxville on August 23, 1958, he attended Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he met his wife, Chrissy Garrett.
After graduating from Emory in 1980, Haslam married Garrett, and the two returned to Knoxville. There, Haslam joined his father’s company, which at the time was an extensive chain of truck stops. He and his brother ascended to president and CEO, respectively, of the Pilot Corporation in 1995. Under their watch, Pilot grew into the nation’s largest truck diesel provider, and employed more than 14,000 workers in 39 states. While he has not worked for Pilot since the 1990s, Haslam still retains an ownership interest in the company. Before turning his attention to politics in 2002, Haslam also served as the CEO of the luxury department store chain Saks Fifth Avenue’s e-commerce and catalog division for two years, and then joined the board of Harold’s Stores, another luxury retailer. Additionally, he is to this day a co-owner of the Tennessee Smokies, Knoxville’s AA-level minor league baseball team.
In 2002, after meeting with then Chattanooga mayor and later U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Haslam announced that he would run for mayor of Knoxville. Despite attacks characterizing him as a pawn of the oil industry (a tactic that would also manifest in later campaigns), Haslam defeated Knox County commissioner Madeline Rogero by an 8-point margin to become mayor of the East Tennessee city. As mayor, Haslam encouraged retail growth through tax subsidies, succeeded in several historical preservation initiatives, tripled the city’s cash reserves through a successful balanced-budget policy, and planned a transformation of the South Knoxville waterfront area that was ultimately stymied by uncooperative manufacturers located on the banks of the Tennessee River. Additionally, he helped in launching the Knox Achieves program to provide tuition assistance to Knox County high school seniors who enrolled in local community colleges—an initiative which would ultimately influence the Tennessee Promise program which he signed into law in 2015.
In 2008, Haslam began exploring the possibility of a gubernatorial run following the impending departure of term-limited Democratic governor Phil Bredesen. After former U.S. Senator Bill Frist declined to run for the post, Haslam declared his intent to campaign for governor in January of 2009. He prevailed in a tough Republican primary contest and defeated his general election opponent, businessman Mike McWherter, in a landslide victory that saw Haslam carry 90 counties and 65 percent of the vote.
As governor, Haslam has championed both education issues and economic growth, and has worked to rein in the state budget. One of Haslam’s signature achievements has been the implementation of the Tennessee Promise program, which was inspired in part by the Knox Achieves program implemented under his watch as mayor of Knoxville in the late 2000s. Tennessee Promise guarantees that any student who graduates from a Tennessee high school is entitled to attend an in-state community or technical college tuition-free for two years. The program, which also requires that students complete community service hours and maintain a passing grade-point average, provides each student with a mentor for the college admissions process. Among Governor Haslam’s other education initiatives are the Drive to 55, which is an effort to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees to 55 by the year 2025, and Tennessee Reconnect, which seeks to return adults to universities to either finish their degrees or earn new ones.
In Haslam’s tenure, Tennessee’s economy has seen major growth, with Nashville becoming one of the hottest cities in America. Despite already not having a state income tax, Tennessee under Haslam has lowered the food sales tax and eliminated others such as the gift tax and the inheritance tax, which he claims was disproportionately affecting family farms. He has also signed legislation that provides cash grants to facilitate government efforts to entice companies to either relocate to their locale or expand pre-existing operations. This economic success for the state helped lead him to a sweeping reelection victory in 2014.
Haslam has also worked to streamline the state government to make it “more customer-focused, efficient, and effective,” as his official biography states. However, the T.E.A.M. Act, a civil service reform, was met apprehensively by some who harbored concerns that it could facilitate cronyism in the executive branch of the state government. Haslam has spearheaded other measures to improve the state government, including a series of executive orders that he issued in an effort to improve transparency.
Nearly as significant as what the governor has done is what he has chosen not to do: he has exercised his veto power on a number of occasions. Two of the most significant applications of his veto pen were in 2013, when he vetoed a controversial “ag-gag” law, and in 2016, when he vetoed a bill that sought to designate the Bible as Tennessee’s official state book. On other occasions, however, Haslam has chosen not to sign a bill in favor of allowing it to become law without his expressed support, which has acted as a politically shrewd way to express his concerns with particular pieces of legislation, such as a bill protecting science teachers who advocated against evolution, another allowing concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses, and yet another that urged the state’s Attorney General to sue the federal government, citing security concerns about its refugee resettlement program.