PHOTO: Bill Lee’s family looks on following his innaguration as Tennessee’s 50th governor Saturday in Nashville / Photo by Alexander Willis
BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
At precisely 12 p.m. on Saturday, Bill Lee officially became the governor of Tennessee, being sworn into office at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville.
Lee, who owns a cattle ranch in Williamson County as well as The Lee Company, a business and residential plumbing, heating and electrical service provider and contractor, has been a strong proponent of criminal justice reform, reducing the impact of the opioid crisis, as well as limited government.
Now-former Governor Bill Haslam briefly spoke before Lee was sworn in, thanking Tennesseans for the opportunity to serve the state.
“For the last eight years, we have loved every bit of doing this, and I can’t thank you enough,” Haslam said. “Every day, I’ve walked up to the steps of the capital and thought, as David says to God in Second Samuel, ‘who am I lord, and who is my house that you have brought me here?’ I’ve felt that every day that I got to do this job, and I always will, so to the people of Tennessee, I am forever grateful.”
Haslam said he had the utmost confidence in Lee to perform as governor, occasionally pausing to collect himself during an emotional speech.
“Mark my words: Bill Lee will be a great governor, eight years – not four years – eight years from now,” Haslam said to laughter from the crowd. “We will be paying tribute to the great job, [and] I know that because I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him hire a great team of people. I’ve already seen him recruit business to Tennessee, I’ve already seen him begin to wrestle and understand the budget. But even more than that, I’ve seen the courage of his convictions, whether it be through a campaign, or just living life. So Bill… godspeed my brother.”
Lee was officially sworn in following a performance of the National Anthem by the bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent, after which Lee began his speech by speaking of an early Tennessee settler.
“In 1796, a man and his young family made their homestead on the banks of the Cumberland River just up the way from here,” Lee said. “That was the year that the great state of Tennessee was founded, and 223 years later, and 50 governors later, we stand here on the banks of the Cumberland River celebrating our history, and anticipating our future. That man’s name was Charles Braxton Lee, and he was my seventh great grandfather, and we stand here not beneficiaries not of great governments of the past, but of the lives of the great men and women that have come before us.”
Lee continued to stress that Tennessee’s prosperity came not from government, but from its citizens.
“[Tennessee] stands as one of the most prosperous in the nation,” Lee said. “It didn’t just simply happen, it wasn’t inevitable – it happened because of men and women who came before us. Men and women who educated our children in one-group school houses, and then built an education system. Men and women who cared for our sick on the frontier and then built clinics, and then hospitals, and then a health system. Men and women who protected us, and built a system of justice and law.”
Lee thanked Haslam for his service, proclaiming Tennessee to be among the most prosperous states in the nation, while still acknowledging the high rates of poverty in select communities.
“We have good jobs and great prosperity here, record-low unemployment, record-low taxes, companies are moving here, businesses are moving here,” Lee said. “We have great prosperity as I said on every corner, and yet we have 15 counties in poverty – all rural, all Tennesseans. We have some of the most distressed zip codes in America, right in the heart of our greatest of cities. So when we consider our state, we see how fortunate we are, and yet we also see how much we have to do.”
Issues facing Tennessee, Lee said, include the ongoing opioid epidemic, which claims tens of thousands of lives annually in the United States, access to affordable health care, as well criminal justice reform. Tennessee has among the highest incarceration rates in the county, with 930 Tennesseans incarcerated for every 100,000 residents, or almost 1 percent of the state’s total population.
“While most of our communities and our neighborhoods are safe, our violent crime rate is rising in every major city in our state,” Lee said. “We can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time. For violent criminals and for traffickers, justice should be swift, and it should be served. But here’s the reality; 95 percent of people sitting in a jail or prison cell in the state of Tennessee, are coming out into our communities, and right now, half of them will recommit a crime, and go back in, in the first three years. We need to help non-violent offenders re-enter society, not re-enter prison.”
Lee concluded his speech by continuing to cite the merits of a limited government, declaring the state’s greatness not to come from any government, but from its people.
“As honored as I am to be your next governor, no governor, in fact, no government will solve the greatest problems that we face,” Lee said. “Government is not the answer to our challenges. Government’s role is to protect our right, our liberty and our freedom, and I believe in a limited government that provides unlimited opportunities for we the people to address the greatest challenges. The truth is that most of the things that have created the greatness of Tennessee don’t have much to do with government at all… our strength has always come from our people.”