To understand Bill Haslam you have to follow him around awhile.
Reporters use the terms like “tag along” with a candidate. With Haslam you don’t really tag along. You keep up, whether it’s down the highway when he’s in the car, down the street when he’s knocking on doors or down the hallway when he’s headed for a meeting.
He will always stop when asked. He’s as accommodating as they come. But in a broad sense, Haslam, who is running for governor in the Republican primary, is a man in constant motion, and remarkably focused.
You also need to notice where he takes that energy and focus. Wednesday afternoon was a good example.
Haslam and wife Crissy visited the A.O. Smith Water Products Co. in Cheatham County, which was hit hard by the recent flood. The company makes water heaters and is a key employer in the county. Haslam received an update on the plant’s efforts to get back on its feet.
Then it was off to Perry County, but not before Crissy dropped some books off at the board of education in Cheatham County for a school library that flooded. She got the books from a supply at Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
But it was down the curvy roads in rural Perry County, which was also hit hard by the flood and suffered the horrible deaths of a man and his daughter when he tried to save her in the storm, that probably gave the strongest impression of Haslam that day.
First, there was the the stop in Lobelville at Chet’s Pit Stop, a “car wash, store and restaurant,” which had the words “Welcome Bill Haslam” on the sign out front. Haslam went in just to tell them he appreciated the sign.
He went on into Lobelville, got a tour of a new city hall and library then got a tour of the flood ravaged area between Lobelville and Linden away from Highway 13. It included the site of where the father and daughter died and the remains of their mobile home. Afterward, Haslam met with a group of Perry Countians at a community center in Linden, the county seat, which happened to be where a Federal Emergency Management Agency outpost was just set up.
There Haslam sat, mayor of Knoxville, one of the wealthiest people in Tennessee, successful businessman and member of one of the state’s most prominent families, leaning forward in a folding chair, asking questions, giving answers, every bit as engaged with about a dozen people there as he has been with a room full of health care executives in Brentwood or a room full of MTSU economists in Murfreesboro.
People who go to big county party events and hear speeches don’t usually see this part of a candidate. He isn’t in these places just to make a speech. He’s there to listen. You sometimes get the impression Haslam’s ambition to be elected is due to his eagerness to act on what he hears in community settings. You often hear the word “leverage” when he wants to get the most out of a community asset.
Haslam sort of reminds you of the old line that says if you’re talking you’re not learning anything. Haslam listens a lot.
Perry County needed help long before the flood came. With an unemployment rate over 20 percent during the recession and caught by the same trappings of economic development typical for rural settings, Perry County could use the state’s attention.
The county has, in fact, benefited from the stimulus package sent from Washington, but that’s a temporary fix. The added problem, of course, is that the state is hardly in position to do much for Perry County as the state faces budget problems and is about to be more than $1 billion in the hole.
Perry County leaders were at ease telling Haslam what they needed. Some suggested a four-lane highway would help. Others said a better bang for the buck would be broadband access.
Many politicians would probably tell Perry Countians they would get what they want. Haslam made no such promises. He shot straight with them about the budget. But you certainly got the feeling he understood the need, and that they understood the problem.
Robby Moore, mayor of Lobelville, said Haslam’s visit was special. He said Haslam was a supportive voice during the flood crisis, contacting Perry County Mayor John Carroll.
“One of the reasons why we’re so honored to have Mayor Haslam here is we’ve had an outpouring of support from several entities, maybe not from some as much as we thought we would have, but that Monday (after the flood) Mayor Haslam was on the phone with Mayor Carroll asking if the city of Knoxville or he personally could do anything,” Moore said.
“If nothing else, it was just the words, knowing that someone cares and was thinking about us.”
Moore said he was pleased overall with FEMA and said the offices of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn had been especially helpful after the flood.
But on issues unrelated to the flood, Moore said a small piece of the pie from outside help can go a long way in a rural area like his.
“You take a million dollars and put it in a metropolitan area, that makes very little splash,” Moore said. “You put a million dollars in resources here, just using a round number, it has a social economic impact far beyond that.
“I understand the population is smaller but, too, it raises the standard of living and quality of life. So the money injected into rural areas will a lot of times have a greater impact than what it would in some other areas.”
Haslam acknowledged the difficulty of trying to give a rural area what it needs.
“One of the hardest challenges is going to be rural economic development,” Haslam said. “It’s a really tough issue.
“You’ve heard some of the things. It’s Internet capacity. Everybody talks about broadband. How are we going to get it into rural areas and who’s going to pay for it? It’s access to the Interstate. What you heard tonight was not totally dissimilar from what I hear from other rural areas. It just shows the degree of the challenge.”
When the meeting broke up, everyone began grabbing the chairs, folding them up and carrying them to designated areas against the wall, with the regular chatter that would naturally come with it. Amid this busy bit of housekeeping, one fellow had two chairs, one under each arm, carrying them to the wall, talking to folks as he went along. It was Haslam.