While Tennessee has crawled out from under the Great Recession and improved its national standing in education, we still lag in economic opportunity, educational attainment, job preparation, infrastructure and, most significantly, public health.
The next governor will be faced with developing strategies to keep our rural hospitals functioning, making our schools safer, giving students better chances of success, improving job preparation and bettering the health of citizens. We would much prefer a leader who focuses on those issues than an ideological warrior.
The primary season certainly has been memorable. The GOP primary largely has been a contest for who can be most like Donald Trump, a rather popular figure among Tennessee Republicans, while Democrats have tried to show how pragmatic they can be when it comes to working with the president and Republican legislative majorities. Some candidates also have fallen into the detestable trend of barraging potential voters with negative campaign advertising in lieu of substantive commentary.
It’s a different matter when you get the candidates in a personal setting for direct questions. After sitting down with all six viable contenders to succeed Haslam in both parties, our team was most impressed with Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Craig Fitzhugh.
On the right, Lee is checking all the right boxes for traditional Republican voters — Second Amendment protections, limited government, business acumen and tough immigration policy to name a few — while also presenting creative solutions in such areas as education and criminal justice. As Lee’s standing has risen in the polls, he predictably has become the target of attack ads, but he wisely has stayed largely above the fray.
We like his thoughts about developing public-private partnerships to improve career-technical opportunities for Tennessee high school students and his similar approach to curbing recidivism among felony offenders with better transitional efforts. Lee already has demonstrated his commitment by investing his own time and resources to those ends.
Although Lee never has held public office, his business successes make him well-suited to manage the state’s resources and foster economic growth. He would be a natural successor to Haslam and his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, in that sense. It could be to Lee’s advantage that he is an outsider in state government, though, as he would not carry as much political baggage and could offer fresh perspectives.
On the left, Fitzhugh has the opposite advantage. As a 12-term member of the Tennessee General Assembly, he knows state government inside and out. As House minority leader since 2011, he has been in the unique position of navigating through a Republican supermajority in state government while furthering the priorities of his constituents.
As a bank executive and experienced lawmaker, Fitzhugh knows his way around finance and budgetary issues. He’s an Air Force veteran who rose to the rank of captain in active duty and major in the reserves. As an Eagle Scout, he has served the BSA in leadership roles for more than 35 years.
Although he resides on the other side of the state, Fitzhugh’s rural roots and personable approach give him the proper perspective to understand the needs of Northeast Tennessee. That’s most clear in his commitment to expanding broadband into rural communities as a key to economic development, and he’s willing to fight the special interests of the major broadband providers to get it done. We would expect him to be a feisty force in the governor’s chair.
Most importantly, Fitzhugh is firm in his belief that Tennessee needs to sign on to Medicaid expansion, both as a way to improve the health of Tennesseans and to save the state’s hospitals.
Both candidates’ standards and ideas seem to align with the values and needs of Northeast Tennessee. Voters in either party would do well to cast votes for Bill Lee or Craig Fitzhugh in Thursday’s primaries.