Candidates spar over Pilot chain
Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 6:47 pm
By: The Associated Press
The Messenger 09.15.10
By ERIK SCHELZIG
Associated Press Writer
COOKEVILLE, (?” as our defaulAP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter wasted little time in going on the attack against Republican opponent Bill Haslam at the first debate of the general election campaign Tuesday.
In his opening statement at Tennessee Tech University, McWherter took aim at Haslam’s background as an executive with the family-founded Pilot chain of truck stops before he was elected mayor Knoxville in 2003.
“I think the oil business has taught him all the wrong lessons,” McWherter said, citing price-gouging in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008. “When gasoline prices are rising, that is great for the oil business.”
Haslam later responded that the pricing problems were quickly addressed and new software was created to avoid a repeat. He also criticized McWherter, the son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, for his attacks on Knoxville-based Pilot.
“Really what I’m surprised about Mike, quite frankly, is your whole attitude toward Pilot in this campaign,” he said. “When your dad was governor … he actually used to come to our manager meetings and talk about how proud he was of Pilot, and how glad he was that it was a Tennessee-based company.
“I would think that as governor you would be glad to have a company that employed so many people, paid so much in taxes, and gave so much back to our state,” he said.
McWherter said Haslam hasn’t been forthcoming about Luxembourg-based investment firm CVC Capital Partners, which owns a 47.5 percent interest in the Pilot Travel Centers subsidiary.
Haslam responded that as a distributor of Budweiser beer, McWherter also deals with a foreign company because Anheuser-Busch was bought by Belgium-based InBev in 2008. McWherter rejected the analogy, telling reporters afterward that he is simply a customer, while CVC “clearly has a lot to say about what the operations are at Pilot.”
The debate in Cookeville came with less than a month remaining before the start of early voting. The candidates have two more debates scheduled for Knoxville and Memphis in early October.
The candidates differed sharply on the severity of the budget shortfall facing the next governor. Haslam said he’s best suited to help shepherd through more than $1 billion in cuts, while McWherter argued his opponent was unnecessarily trying to terrify voters about the budget that he said has been managed by term-limited Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Both candidates said they oppose the election of school superintendents, preferring the current system of having them appointed by school boards.
McWherter said it would be a main priority to grow the state’s public pre-kindergarten program beyond children who qualify for free and reduced price meals.
“I am a huge proponent of the pre-K program in this state,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to expand that program in Tennessee.”
Haslam said that while the pre-K program has shown “dramatic returns” in high-need areas, the state can’t afford the more than $250 million it would cost each year to offer universal access.
“My idea is that we leave pre-K where it is right now,” Haslam said. “And when the revenue situation changes, we will look at expanding it then.”