Haslam hit from left and right as he considers Senate bid
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's opponents on both sides of the political spectrum aren't waiting for him to make up his mind about a U.S. Senate bid before launching attacks on the Republican.
Haslam said this week that he wants to take time to think and pray about whether to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker, a close family friend.
Both the Tennessee Democratic Party and the conservative website Breitbart News took aim at Haslam for the federal investigation into a diesel rebate scam at his family's truck stop chain, Pilot Flying J.
Fourteen members of the Pilot sales staff have pleaded guilty to charges related to bilking unsuspecting trucking companies, while another four, including the company's former president, await trial on Oct. 31.
"To this day, Gov. Haslam has not had to answer for these crimes, but he has likely profited from them as he still holds an undisclosed stake in the company," said Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
Those views were echoed by Will Pinkston, a member of the Nashville school board who was among the Democrats who supported Haslam's first run for governor in 2010 but has become a vocal critic on education issues.
"If Haslam runs for the Senate, Democrats should spend the next 13 months dragging him through the mud over Pilot Flying J," he said.
Haslam, who left his role with the company to run for Knoxville mayor in 2003, has said he had no knowledge of the scheme that led to criminal charges against executives at the company and an $85 million settlement with some of the defrauded customers as well as a $92 million penalty to the government.
Breitbart, which is run by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, also criticized Haslam for failing to denounce his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, for defending his players' right to protest during the national anthem after they were criticized by President Donald Trump.
Haslam told The Tennessean this week that he hasn't spoken to his brother about players kneeling or staying in the locker room during the playing of the anthem.
"The consensus I hear around me is, players have a right to express their opinions," Haslam said. "And fans have a right to decide whether or not they're going to continue to go to games. It's part of living in a free society and also an economy that's based on capitalism, where consumers get to choose."
Haslam's failed efforts to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans under then-President Barack Obama's health care law has drawn the ire of another conservative national group, the Club For Growth.
Andy Roth, the group's vice president for government affairs, said Haslam is "cut from the same cloth" as what he calls Republican establishment figures like Corker, fellow Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"Any governor that supports Medicaid expansion is not going to be a candidate that will be well-received in a GOP primary," Roth said.
Haslam told reporters this week that he's ready for a spirited primary if he decides to get into the race.
"One of the advantages of having run several times and having being in office for a while is that you get a little bit more used to being shot at than you were initially," he said.