Over a year ago, I was introduced to Knoxville’s Mayor Bill Haslam by close personal friends, the Wolcotts. Mayor Haslam was a special guest at an event they sponsored. Since that time, I have heard Mr. Haslam speak at several business forums and I have also heard him on the campaign trail all over Middle Tennessee as I have blogged about the Tennessee’s 2010 Elections. I was at the televised debate at Belmont University earlier this summer as well. During this campaign cycle several times, I have been seated at the table with the Mayor for one reason or another and he spoke with common sense. Once, his daughter, Leigh, and I had an engaging conversation about her journey to becoming a public school teacher.
Not one to hide my passion for social media, I tweeted from many of those meetings to my followers on Twitter as I have with various other candidates. After many requests, Mr. Haslam finally made his way to 1501 Jefferson Street, the offices of The Tenneseee Tribune Newspaper on Monday. He arrived with one of his campaign staffers, Andrew, to answer questions from many in the African American community who wanted to hear from him. This was not a meeting I was going to miss. This was different. In all the places that I have been to hear Mr. Haslam speak, this was the first time that I seen him in an African America audience; Mrs. Perry’s staff and as well as a conference caller. No one will ask Mr. Haslam to weigh in on the building of a Mosque, what folks are doing in Arizona, or how much money he made at Pilot. This meeting was going to be straight and boxed, “What are your plans to bring jobs and to help improve education in this community?”
After greetings and introductions, there was some small talk but everyone was eager to get to the business at hand, hearing Mr. Haslam answers to questions to help the community that was feeling economic warfare much more than others. Mr. Haslam was as cool and calm as usual. I asked Mr. Haslam about his daughter, Leigh, and reminded him this was not our first meeting. Mrs. Perry cut off my small talk with Mr. Halsam (with a look) and the meeting started out the gate with questions centered around education, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and Tennessee State University (TSU). Since the Board of Regents recently named John Morgan as new chancellor, questions regarding his hiring were being debated statewide. To many individuals, the actions surrounding the hiring of Morgan was straight from the good old boys frequent awards government program that smells of cronyism at its best. Many throughout the state have noted that the qualifications for the Chancellor's job were downgraded to fit Morgan's education skills but still managed to give him a hefty pay raise from $180,000 to $385,000 without any push back. The group gathered wanted to know how would Mr. Haslam address this type of hypocrisy from the Board of Regents that has a long ugly history with TSU dating back to days when Morgan’s father was running Tennessee’s higher education ruling board. Mr. Haslam did not hesitate with his answers regarding the Board of Regents and its board members. He stated that members of TBR should be individuals who care about the mission of educating students first. “The board should represent the people who serve those institutions; people who understand the mission of each school”, he stated intently.
He went on to state, “Tennessee colleges are behind national averages for graduating students from higher institutions. The boards of each university should have individuals who are invested in the university that they are appointed too. In education, Tennessee is ranked 42 out of 50 states. We must improve those numbers in order to attract corporations to come to our state and to get out students prepared for the workforce.” In regards to TSU, Mr. Haslam said he met with Dr. Johnson shortly before he announced his retirement that was a surprise to everyone. Haslam would like TSU to focus on raising graduation rates and he would work with the University with best practices for measurable goals to be reached. When asked would TSU be turned into a two year university, Haslam said TSU would remain a four year institution if he is elected Governor.
Several follow up questions regarding the TBR were asked that showed Haslam was not following sensational headlines but was aware of issues perceived and actual on the campus. When a comment about TSU’s Alumni Association wanting to give input regarding existing and future issues at the school, Mr. Haslam stated the incoming President would be the authority at the university and he would be willing to “listen to others and gather collective information” but he would not “circumvent the President’s role at the university”. His job, as Governor, is to work with the school to educate students not police the administration.(Wait, shouldn’t TSU’s Alumni main role at the school be to help recruit students and raise funds for the school? Just asking!)
Anyway, when Mr. Haslam was asked about his track record in the African American community, he pointed to his current administration’s staff diversity and political appointments. He also addressed the program Project GRAD that was implemented in Knox County schools that is modeled after a program from Texas. Project GRAD is a 501c3 partnership between public schools and private sectors that was established in 2001. Project GRAD serves over 7000 students in 14 schools that are mostly low income areas to help students: increased academic achievement, increased high school graduation rate, and increased college going (and success) rate.
He was asked about his leadership style which he attributed to working in the business sector, “there is a time to listen and a time to lead”. When Mr. Haslam was asked why he wanted to lead the state at a time when the national economy and the political atmosphere are at all time lows, he became passionate in response. He stated, “He was uniquely qualified to bring business leaderships skills to the state, not only in one region of the state but to urban areas and rural areas that are hit the hardest in an economic downturn.” He also stated he has proven experience to lead in the government sector because his experience as Mayor of Knoxville. Mr. Haslam shared that he was a graduate of Emory University and has been in the private sector at the helm of Pilot Oil, a successful business that employs thousands in 39 states, for over twenty plus years.
I have seen Mr. Haslam in many different settings over the last year; business, private, and public. I must say, he was exactly the same in Mrs. Perry’s conference room as was at the Wolcott’s event and at Chamber of Commerce meetings. He was at ease speaking with us as he was at events where I have attended and often was the only minority or at least one of ten in attendance. His tone and demeanor did not change nor did he appear uncomfortable or patronizing.
After the interview and thank yous, we gave Mr. Haslam copies of back issues of the Tribune as everyone was on the way out the door. I rushed out after my wrap up conversation with Mrs. Perry and Mr. Benson. I was scheduled to interview actor Barry Scott at J. Alexander’s. After arriving at J. Alexander’s, who did I run into at the restaurant? Mr. Haslam and Andrew. Surprised, I introduced Mr. Scott to him and made small talk before moving on to our table. What did I catch out of the corner of my eye as I was being escorted away? A copy of the Tribune! Hmm, this should be a very interesting campaign season.
Photo credit: Steve Benson for Tennessee Tribune