If elected, Republican Bill Lee says he’ll tackle expanding vocational education, implementing criminal justice reforms and helping spur job creation but offered few details on specific policies he wants to see passed within his first legislative session.
Lee, owner of Franklin-based Lee Company, is making his first run for political office. The GOP nominee often touts the success of his firm — a $225 million mechanical contracting, facilities and home services company with more than 1,200 employees — as evidence he’s ready to lead the state.
Democrat Karl Dean promises to hit the ground running on expanding the state’s Medicaid program to increase coverage to the state’s neediest residents, even though he will likely face a Republican-dominant Legislature that has previously resisted such efforts.
Dean, a former Nashville mayor, says he’s undaunted by the challenge because he has experience in public service and a willingness to work with both political parties.
But first he has to get elected. While he’s long on specifics he’s been short on flair, and some critics say he has not swung hard enough or campaigned with enough fire to overcome the state’s growing tendency to vote Republican.
Dean has trailed in the polls for most of the campaign, but remains hopeful he’s closing that gap.
“If I win this election, the voters will have spoken pretty clearly,” Dean said. “The voters will have elected someone who campaigned on getting this done.”
Dean mostly stuck with positive campaign messaging, but lately has issued warnings about what a Lee administration would look like. In a statewide television ad he described the Republican’s policy positions on guns and school vouchers as “extreme.”
“It’s just trying to get people to know what’s coming,” Dean told The Associated Press earlier this week.
With GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell leaving office, Dean said, the Legislature is losing its key gatekeepers on preventing far-right conservative policies from becoming law. Dean said he didn’t believe Lee would offer adequate pushback like Haslam.
“There’s going to be no check,” Dean said.
In a recent phone interview with AP, Lee declined to address Dean’s characterization. Instead, he said anything he wants to accomplish must include a strong relationship with the Legislature.
If elected, Lee says he’ll work to “dedicate funding and reallocate commitments” to support his education proposals to expand vocational training to give more students options when leaving high school. The details are still being fleshed out, Lee said.
Lee also said Tennessee’s sentencing and recidivism laws will have his attention come January. He said the state could work with private groups to reduce the number of people who return to prison and possibly propose changes to sentencing for certain crimes.
He said that, “... I suspect this session we will develop legislation that will in fact address re-entry, that will address intake and that will begin to address sentencing reform.”
Lee has positioned himself as a political outsider that Tennessee needs to bring the state from “good to great.” However, that stance also comes with questions on how he’ll govern.
Lee has been asked multiple times where he stands on school vouchers, but hasn’t said clearly what he would or would not veto when it comes to funneling public money to private schools. Dean has come out against vouchers.
Dean has endorsed legalizing medicinal marijuana, while Lee says the data hasn’t shown medicinal marijuana is the right approach for states. On immigration, Lee opposes giving in-state public higher education tuition to students whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally while Dean supports doing so.
And while Lee has made his religious faith one of the central talking points of his gubernatorial campaign, he didn’t respond when asked if he would have vetoed legislation making the Bible the official state book of Tennessee — as Haslam did in 2016.
“I don’t know what the specifics of that bill were,” Lee said. “My hope is that I’ll govern in a way that brings people together and doesn’t divide.”
Lee is much more comfortable talking about where he stands on guns. He says “qualified and vetted” teachers should be armed in schools. He also promises to sign legislation that would expand “constitutional rights” to carry firearms and opposes a ban on any type of weapons but particularly assault weapons.
Dean counters that those positions back up his claims that Lee would be coming to the governor’s seat with “extreme” views.
“Tennessee has very pro-Second Amendment laws, I would say it’s not mainstream to have guns in schools,” he said. “Most of us agree that some people, those who have made threats or mental illness, should not have guns.”