NASHVILLE — His right hand raised high and his left hand resting on a family Bible, political newcomer Bill Lee took the oath of office as Tennessee’s 50th governor Saturday inside the War Memorial Auditorium, the first inaugural ceremony to be held indoors since 1975.
An abundance of rain prompted Lee’s team to relocate the ceremony from the traditional site on Legislative Plaza, but nonetheless, the venue was filled to capacity with supporters, former governors, the state’s congressional delegation and the joint 111th General Assembly to watch the transition of power from Gov. Bill Haslam to Lee.
In his speech, Lee maintained a humble and optimistic persona, while emphasizing his view of limited government.
“As honored as I am to be your next governor, I know that no governor can solve all the problems we face — in fact, no government can,” Lee said.
“Government is not the answer to our greatest challenges. Government’s role is to protect our rights and our liberty and our freedom. I believe in a limited government, that provides unlimited opportunity for we the people to address the greatest challenges of our day.”
Among the prominent issues facing Tennessee, Lee touched on opioid addiction, educational outcomes and criminal justice reform in his inaugural address.
“For violent criminals and traffickers, justice should be swift and certain,” the Williamson County businessman said.
“But here’s the reality: 95 percent of the people in prison today are coming out, and today in Tennessee, half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years. We need to help non-violent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison.”
Sharon Boreing, president of the Washington County Federated Republican Women, was among those from the Northeast Tennessee to make the trek to Nashville.
“What I enjoyed today was the humbleness I saw from (Lee) and Marie, and how God-centered he is,” Boreing said.
Her husband, former Washington County commissioner Forrest Boreing, said Saturday’s gubernatorial inauguration was the first he’s ever attended.
“It was a calming, relaxing time for people to be able to enjoy the inauguration at a much higher level rather than being out in the rain,” Forrest Boreing said. “I’m just tickled to be in here, and I’m privileged as a Tennessean to be here.”
While U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, has attended the past three inaugurations in Nashville, he described Lee’s ceremony as one of the most “upbeat.”
“Gov. Lee really gave a very uplifting speech. He included his faith that he had, which is very near and dear to him. Then the vision he has for the state,” Roe said. “He did not have a negative bone in his body.”
In his bid farewell, Haslam fought back tears as he credited his staff and cabinet for all their achievements, including his popular Tennessee Reconnect and Tennessee Promise programs.
“In about two hours, Crissy and I are going to be getting in a car and heading east (to Knoxville) on I-40. Two things to know about that: No. 1, I haven’t driven in eight years. The second thing to know is this, and I will try not to choke up when I say this, there won’t be two more grateful people anywhere in the state,” Haslam said.
Speaking to reporters before getting on the highway, Haslam said he and his wife will remain involved in some of his signature programs, but he will follow the “one governor at a time” rule.
“There’s some things that Crissy and I are always going to care about, a lot of education issues, a lot of access to higher education and then Crissy has been involved in a lot of foster care programs that I think she’s going to stay involved in,” Haslam said.
“Our predecessors were great at the ‘one governor at a time’ rule, and we’re going to observe that, too. But on things we care about, we’re going to try to see if we can be of help.”
Haslam has not ruled out running in 2020 for the empty seat of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who said he would not seek re-election in December. Haslam told reporters a decision on his candidacy could come in March, once he returns from vacation.