PHOTO: Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee checks on the cattle on his Triple L Ranch in Fernvale, Tenn., on Monday, June 25, 2018. / Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
On Monday morning, Bill Lee skirted the counter inside his Fernvale farmhouse, signing a copy of his recently released book to send to Gov. Bill Haslam.
Lee, the chairman of Franklin’s Lee Company and a seventh generation Tennessean, prepared to leave for Chattanooga later in the day, one of many stops along the campaign trail in his bid for the governor’s seat.
About 15 miles west of his campaign office in downtown Franklin, Lee’s Triple L cattle farm, which has been in the family for 60 years, rests on 1,000 acres. Several members of his family live along the same road where he grew up.
“It was a lot more rural 50 years ago,” he said. “You know it was rural when your mailing address was ‘Route 4, Franklin, Tennessee. That’s it.”
Lee’s grandfather founded Lee Refrigeration Service Company in 1944; the heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing and appliance service business is now called Lee Company, and has over 1,200 employees.
Lee graduated from Franklin High School, then Auburn University, where he met his first wife, Carol Ann. The Lees settled back down on the farm, beginning their family with four children.
Tragedy struck nearly 20 years ago when Caroline was killed after a horse riding accident on the farm.
Lee, a Christian, said the moment spurred on spiritual growth.
“As I walked through that season of restoration and grief and healing, it was also a season of sharpening,” Lee said. “You determine in a season like that the things that are very important to you, and the things that don’t matter. It causes you to live more purposefully.”
He said he soon decided to focus on improving his company’s quality for workers and customers.
“My focus became more about building the best company I could create, rather than just the biggest company I could create,” he said.
Eight years later, after traveling with his children and becoming involved in nonprofits like the YMCA and Men of Valor, he married Maria, then a teacher at Christ Presbyterian Academy.
Lee, a Republican, said his decision to run for governor came partially as a result of his work with nonprofits and seeing the issues Tennesseans face.
He wondered, “What would it be like if my job was to make life better for six-and-a-half million people?”
On January 1, 2016, Lee said he told Maria he was going to pray about running for governor every day that year until he received an answer.
After a few months, he was clear.
“The role for me, in particular, of governor, is suited to my life,” Lee explained. “It is the executive branch of government. What skill sets would you need for that role? Executive skill sets, and executive leadership,” he said. “That’s what my whole life has been, as an adult.”
Transitioning educational priorities
Lee said the top priority in his campaign is education, with a focus on vocational programs and offering alternatives to four-year college.
“In this campaign, every candidate talks about how valuable vocational training is, and the trades, like that’s a new subject,” he said. “But that’s been my whole career.”
He became interested in education policy after mentoring Adam, a boy he met through the YMCA’s Y-CAP program for inner city youth.
Adam was attending a Nashville public school, with poor educational results. Lee had him enrolled in a nearby charter school, where he saw a better outcome.
“This kid’s whole future is going to be different because he changed schools in his same neighborhood,” Lee thought. “That got me interested in the other kids that didn’t change, and what’s really wrong with education.”
With a current jobs-skills mismatch for technical openings across the state, Lee said he wants to attack the problem like he has through his own company: inviting the private sector to mentor and teach students in manufacturing and tech jobs.
In high schools, he wants to see agricultural, vocational and career technical programs, teaching skills like cosmetology and welding.
Similar to Williamson County Schools’ career day, Lee wants other counties to have programs introducing seventh and eighth graders to myriad career options.
“I don’t think we have to spend a bunch of taxpayer money to change the high school, I think we just have to change our focus to change our high schools,” he said.
Rather than an emphasis on test scores and academics for their own sake, “education is about the preparation of a child for success in life,” Lee said. “And that looks a whole lot of different ways.”
But that’s where the comparison stops. While Dean and Fitzhugh want to expand Medicaid, Lee says the problem runs deeper than healthcare coverage and premiums.
“Whether you’re a payer, or a provider or a patient, there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability, and there’s no pressure to lower costs, at all,” he said.
Because of a lack of accountability in government sponsored healthcare like TennCare, Lee said, “Obamacare is destined to fail.”
“When a patient has no incentive to quit smoking, or no incentive to change their pathway toward obesity, or nothing to cause them to rein in a preventable, chronic disease,” Lee said, “the system will fail.”
“We already know how to lower costs, if we just would address health instead of healthcare, and yet we do very little to address the health of our community,” he said, pointing to Tennessee’s chronically low score in nationwide health rankings.
Lee said he would begin by looking at the problem like a businessman and incentivizing positive health behaviors.
Efficacy of Donald Trump
Lee has framed his background, with no experience working inside government, as a positive in uniting voters.
“I don’t have a lot of the political baggage that comes from being on the inside,” Lee said.
Of President Donald Trump, Lee said he admires his accomplishments since the election.
“He has been very effective at implementing change in some ways that have been stagnant for years,” Lee said, like lowering taxes, creating tax reform, deregulating the business sphere and addressing U.S. border security after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy resulted in families being separated at the border.
Lee admires Trump’s efficacy, but says they differ in many regards.
“I’m not like Donald Trump, I don’t think anybody is,” Lee laughed. “He’s a unique person all to his own, and he has a whole unique style that no one can imitate.”
Though they might be different in their approach, Lee said his political ambitions align with Trump’s. Namely, he has none.
“I hope to bring that kind of out-of-the-box, non-political approach to problem-solving in Tennessee,” he said.
He called the state “remarkable,” and said the challenges ahead are not insurmountable for a government which leads by serving its citizens.
“It will take an attitude of breaking the status quo, and challenging the old ways of doing things, and recognizing that politics cannot drive policy.”
When asked why he would be the best choice for voters, Lee paused for a few moments.
“I believe that I’m the person that has the greatest ability, the strongest motive, and the most effective possibility of bringing about real change,” he responded.
Occupation: Farmer; chairman, Lee Company
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn University.
Community involvement: Member, Grace Chapel; former chairman of YMCA of Middle Tennessee; former president of the Associated Builders and Contractors; served on the board of several community organizations including Hope Clinic for Women and Men of Valor Prison Ministry.
Family: Wife, Maria; four children, Jessica, twin sons Jacob and Caleb, and Sarah Kate; five grandchildren.
Visit his website at www.billlee.com.