With Dean trailing Lee 52.7 percent to 39.7 percent entering the debate, many pundits believed the pressure was on Dean to agressively distinguish himself from Lee, but both candidates largely stuck to their scripts while addressing a host of issues, from sentencing reform to regionalism.
“What I think I have to do as a candidate, and what I think (Lee) has to do ... It’s not coming in here and having a moment of high drama that we’re all going to say ‘Ahah,’ there’s the answer to the question,” Dean said after the debate.
“What I need to do is show that I have the experience, that I understand these issues and that I can lead the state. So I’m not trying to stage anything during these debates. I’m just trying to be me.”
Lee, who celebrated his birthday at the debate, said he felt confident in his performance.
As to Northeast Tennessee-specific topics, both Lee and Dean said they supported the state approval of the Ballad Health merger, as well as the efforts to broadly market the Tri-Cities through “regionalism.”
Dean actually spun his Ballad Health question around to emphasize his support for Medicaid expansion, while Lee said the merger was a prime example of altering the health-care model to lower costs.
“That’s what we have to do with health care is continuously be looking at changing the model. This particular model change is going to result in about $80 million in investment from Ballad into behavioural health in this community, $80 million in chronic disease and a partnership with (East Tennessee State University) and others in education for health care professionals,” Lee said.
Although he remained cordial during the debate, Dean took a swing at Lee afterwards, saying he had a concrete plan for improving health through Medicaid expansion while criticizing Lee’s proposal of creating a long-term plan.
“I’m left with a plan that I’m talking about that I can articulate why we need it, and (Lee) is left saying, ‘Get back to me in 15, 20 years.’ I think that’s a big difference,” Dean said.
In response, Lee said the first year of his plan to address rising health costs could be effective in lowering costs through the implementation of coordinated care between providers and technology improvements.
“Part of the reason uninsured Tennesseans are uninsured is because they can’t afford health insurance. So when we lower the cost of health insurance, that allows for more people to afford it,” Lee said, often referring to the current health care system as “fundamentally flawed.”
Dean came out strongly against vouchers, saying he believed it ultimately undermined public education.
Lee called public education the backbone, and while he agreed nothing should be done to diminish its quality, he said choices are important. As an example, he recited a story about an inner-city child, who he mentored, that switched schools and saw grade improvements.
“Choice elevates the entire system, including our public schools,” Lee said.
Lee said pouring money into education “won’t solve it,” instead calling for innovative and creative ways to bring the models that do work to bear. Dean said he would always protect education, calling it his No. 1 priority.
Several hundred people attended the gubernatorial debate, sponsored by Ballad Health and Eastman and organized by the Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times-News.
It will be the only gubernatorial debate held in Northeast Tennessee. The third and final debate will be held Oct. 12 in Nashville.