Republican Lee elected Tennessee governor, succeeds Haslam

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican businessman and political newcomer Bill Lee will become Tennessee’s next governor, after he bested Democratic former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean on Tuesday

Lee will replace outgoing GOP Gov. Bill Haslam.

“I’m grateful for the voters of Tennessee, grateful that you placed your trust in us to lead this great state,” Lee said during his acceptance speech in Franklin, before hundreds of supporters. “We ran a positive campaign from the very beginning until the very last day because we wanted to give a picture of what this state could look like.”

From the beginning of his political campaign, Lee cast himself as a political outsider who underwent a personal transformation when he faced the death of his first wife of 16 years, Carol Ann, from a tragic horseback riding accident. His religious faith became a defining characteristic along the campaign trail and described running for the governor’s office as a “calling.”

He surprised many when he secured the Republican nomination in August after going up against U.S. Rep. Diane Black, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and House Speaker Beth Harwell— two opponents who spent more campaign cash and had more political experience than Lee, who has never before ran for public office.

Lee courted voters by traveling the state twice in an RV in a tour he called “Believe in Tennessee.” He visited all of Tennessee’s 95 counties in 95 days, and often chose smaller rural political events over sharing the stage with Dean.

His campaign remained overwhelmingly positive, but he has faced criticism for providing scant details on key policy positions.

As his Democratic opponent campaigned heavily on the need to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid eligibility to improve health care access across the state, Lee steadfastly opposed the plan.

Instead, Lee promised to work to fix the state’s health care system, calling it a long-term project that may take 15-20 years. However, unlike Dean, the Republican says he would ultimately lobby the Tennessee Legislature to vote against Medicaid expansion, should lawmakers ever get close to doing so.

Lee also says he supports school choice, a position his opponents say will result in public funds being funneled toward private schools. He hasn’t offered details about what policy options he’ll rule out as governor.

Lee chairs his family business, Lee Company, a $225 million mechanical contracting, facilities and home services firm with more than 1,200 employees. Lee also is active in his 1,000-acre family cattle operation.

Lee later told reporters after his speech that he will consider appointing Democrats to his administration. “I want to put together a team that is the best team that can be assembled to bring about real change.”

“I want to speak just a minute to those who may not have voted for me - I want them to know from the bottom of my heart I care about you and I care about your families,” Lee said. “I want you to ultimately be proud that I am your governor.”

He added that his priorities starting out in office will be economic development for rural communities, criminal justice reforms that will create safer neighborhoods, and education reform, with a focus on vocational and technical education.

“Bill Lee is a man with strong character and love for our state and will make the right decisions to keep Tennessee moving forward,” Haslam said in a statement. “I am excited to see what this state will accomplish under his leadership.”

Dean conceded shortly after the race was called, and urged Tennesseans to support the new governor-elect. It was the first time the former two-term Nashville mayor and former elected public defender had ever lost an election.

“We didn’t quite reach the goal tonight,” Dean told supporters in Nashville during his concession speech. “Despite everybody’s hard work, our message didn’t quite carry the day.”

Voters who backed Lee said his campaign style stood out.

“Bill didn’t go onto the attack,” said Sandi Wells, 62, who voted for Lee in Williamson County. “He just talked issues with people. And that’s what I think we want.”

Wells leads a weekly coffee gathering in which politics is discussed in Williamson County, the upscale Nashville suburb and Republican stronghold. She said she has watched Lee grow as a candidate since the primary, adding that the Republican has a “very warm vibe to him.”

Below are responses from projected winner Bill Lee and candidate Karl Dean on their focuses for 2019.


Facebook: Bill Lee
Twitter: @BillLeeTN

What do you foresee as the biggest problem for your constituency that you plan to tackle in Nashville?

An issue that’s close to my heart and critical for Tennessee is revitalizing our rural areas. That’s why I was the first candidate to release my rural plan, a roadmap for rural Tennessee last year.

I’ll work on economic development which starts by supporting jobs through education, working to support teachers and students with new investments. I’m also committed to expanding broadband across Tennessee. I will work together with our utility providers and the private sector to break down regulatory barriers that will lead to new investment in our rural areas.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges we must address the opioid crisis. The flow of illegal fentanyl into our rural communities has completely transformed the scale of this epidemic. I’ll work with law enforcement and our treatment providers to put an end to this crisis.

What will be your main focus during the 2019 legislative session?

Everywhere I go in the state, people want a good job, a great school for their kids, and a safe neighborhood for their family. My first hundred days are going to be focused on securing those three things: improving education, supporting economic development, and strengthening public safety.

I’m particularly concerned about our vocational education. I will bring together local schools, the Department of Education, and our private sector to begin putting the resources in place to give students improved job training opportunities.

Regarding economic development, I’m focused on building a tax environment that supports existing businesses and attracts new ones. I will also explore public-private partnerships and other ways to make the private sector part of the solution.

Regarding public safety, I will work with law enforcement to address the rise in violent crime and stop the flow of illegal drugs into our state. We must also improve access for substance abuse treatment for those in need.

What’s one thing that your constituency may not know about you that you want them to remember when they go to the polls in November?

I’m an outsider to politics, and I think that is a strength. I believe there is a real difference between leadership and politics. An executive leader casts a vision, creates a strategy, and builds a team that executes. And I've done that my entire life. I led a quarter-billion-dollar company, named one of the best companies to work for in Tennessee. I led one of the biggest non-profits in the state, delivering quality education and health support in Middle Tennessee. I also presided over one of the biggest industry groups in the state, working to develop and grow the skilled trades our economy needs. I will be honored to serve Tennesseans as we take our State to a place where she leads America.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment that has made a difference in your community?

I’ve been blessed to work with several community organizations for many years, and two that have been particularly impactful have been my time leading the YMCA, and my work in Men of Valor, a men’s prison ministry. Through my time as chair of the YMCA and my involvement in Y-CAP (the Y’s Community Action Program), I’ve worked with at-risk youth in the inner city to address their unique challenges. And my time working in prisons gave me insight into the hopelessness that drove many folks into our criminal justice system and caused them to return. In my experiences with these organizations, I’m proud to have made a difference in my community, and as a governor, I’ll continue to look out for our most at-risk communities.


Facebook: Elect Karl Dean
Twitter: @KarlFDean

What do you foresee as the biggest problem for your constituency that you plan to tackle in Nashville?

I think Tennessee’s biggest challenges are access to healthcare, improving our education system, and continuing economic growth all across the state. Right now, we are paying $3.8 million in taxes every day, and it goes towards healthcare in states that have expanded Medicaid. Not only are we throwing away tax dollars, but hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans are without insurance, and our rural hospitals are closing. Not expanding Medicaid was a huge mistake, and I want to fix it.

To improve education, we need to give schools the resources they need to succeed. Right now, we are not paying our teachers enough. Our best teachers are incentivized to move to other states that can pay more. That needs to change. We do not need to use school vouchers, which will take money directly out of our public schools’ budget. Taking money away from our schools is a move in the complete wrong direction.

Finally, we need to grow our economy. Some areas of the state are doing better than others right now, and there are a number of reasons for that. We need to have bipartisan approaches to things like infrastructure and workforce development to make Tennessee an attractive place to do business.

What will be your main focus during the 2019 legislative session?

As governor I will not give up until we have expanded Medicaid, and I want that work to start on Day 1. If I am elected governor, it will send a loud and clear message to the legislature that Tennesseans want Medicaid Expansion, and I plan to work on that during the 2019 legislative session.

What’s one thing that your constituency may not know about you that you want them to remember when they go to the polls in November?

When voters go to the polls, I want them to remember how important it is to have a balance in our government. Today’s political conversation is mostly occupied by extreme views on either side of the party spectrum. That’s not what politics is about. It’s not about one party beating another. It’s about working together. Our founders established a system of checks and balances, and I think we need just that in our state. We need a moderate, common-sense leader to act as a check on our conservative legislature. Not to block the legislature, but to give our state the balance it needs to move in a direction that benefits all Tennesseans.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment that has made a difference in your community?

A lot of people ask me what my favorite project was as mayor and most assume I’ll say the convention center, or amphitheater or ballpark, but it’s actually a program called Limitless Libraries. The project started with an idea to make the resources of our city’s public libraries available to students at our public schools. We did just that. Through a partnership with Nashville Public Libraries and Metro Nashville Public Schools, students have access to the library’s catalogue of more than two million books and other items. It’s always a good thing when a young student gets excited about reading, and Limitless Libraries has created that excitement for so many kids.

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