Not since Zach Wamp called Bill Haslam a sissy wannabe has there been such a vicious attempt to derail the Knoxville mayor's express train to the governor's mansion.
Haslam's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 2 election, the inept Mike McWherter, held a rare press conference this week to ask reporters to connect the dots of Pilot Corp.'s financial dealings — to reach the preposterous conclusion that the Haslam family company's profits are funneled into Iran's nuclear program.
"Nearly half of Pilot's interests are foreign-owned," said McWherter, sweating profusely in the TV lights, "and at least one of those foreign companies is doing business with Iran, a rogue nation that is developing nuclear weapons and poses a threat to our national security."
McWherter's desperate aides have been spending some time with Google to discover that Luxembourg-based CVC Capital — which partnered with Pilot this summer to buy the Flying J truck stops — also owns a major stake in a German chemical and energy company named Evonik. They're the ones doing business in Iran.
By McWherter's side at the press conference, a campaign-produced map stood on an easel showing Tennessee, Luxembourg and Iran — with little arrows helpfully pointing toward Tehran.
Pressed on whether he actually was accusing Haslam and Pilot of helping fund Iran's nuclear ambitions, McWherter claimed he merely was demanding answers from his opponent because he's refused to disclose his federal income tax returns (as if Haslam's returns would show the line item "unspecified sum for blowing up the world").
"I think that is up to Bill Haslam to explain that situation," McWherter said.
Haslam's campaign responded by pointing out that the parent company of Anheuser-Busch, whose beer McWherter distributes, does business with closer-to-home enemies in Cuba and Venezuela.
"It's just political junk," Haslam said. "I think that's the kind of stuff that really turns people off of politics, when people just throw stuff out there for no reason."
Democrats running against perks
Democrats around the country are terrified that angry, throw-the-bums-out voters will stampede the polls en masse in November's elections to shake up the system. But in Tennessee, where the GOP runs the legislature, at least a couple of Democrats are trying to turn that anti-incumbent fury against Republicans. Wilson County farmer George McDonald and Columbia City Councilwoman Debbie Matthews are railing against legislative perks in their races against two Republican senators from suburban Nashville.
McDonald, who is challenging Mt. Juliet's ultra-conservative Mae Beavers, pledges to cut meal and travel expenses, freeze senators' pay and refuse state-paid health care insurance. Matthews, meanwhile, is swinging away at her opponent — Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro — for taking the standard $185 daily allowance , which is supposed to go for meals and lodging, when he lives within driving distance of the Capitol.
Ketron billed the state $23,405 in daily, mileage and travel expenses last year, on top of his annual legislative salary of about $19,000.
"Senator Ketron has been in Nashville for eight years and he's part of the problem. I'm ready to be part of the solution," says Matthews, who's promising not to take per diem for what she's calling unnecessary expenses such as nonexistent hotel bills.
In response, Ketron is tempting fate in this year of pissed-off voters and talking as if he's absolutely certain he'll win reelection no matter how many stupid things he says.
"If the citizens don't think we're worth that, then they need to elect somebody else," he told the Columbia Daily Herald.
To the Murfreesboro Post, he denied he's abusing the system, claiming (incorrectly) that per diem is intended as "a supplement to the annual salary that legislators are paid." As for Matthews, he says: "If my opponent thinks she can come down here and thinks she can be the one voice to get rid of it ... then good luck."
Of all the legislators living within 50 miles of the statehouse, Ketron collects the most per diem, according to an analysis by the Tennessee Report. Beavers took $14,060. The others are Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, $19,302; Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, $17,791; Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, $16,950; Diane Black, R-Gallatin, $16,182 (who returned part of that); Tim Barnes, D-Adams, $15,641; and Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, $14,971. Only Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, gives back his per diem to the state.
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