From left: Sen. Mae Beavers, Karl Dean, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, Speaker Beth Harwell, Bill Lee // Photo by Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
Five of the seven declared Tennessee gubernatorial candidates met on Wednesday afternoon at the County Officials Association of Tennessee’s 49th annual convention for a question and answer segment.
Alberto Gonzalez, the dean of Belmont University’s School of Law, served as the moderator. He posed questions to the candidates about the opioid epidemic, Nashville’s proposed mass transportation plan, and priorities for each should they be elected as governor.
Bill Lee is, in his words, “a product of rural Tennessee,” specifically, Fernvale in Williamson County. It is there that he grew up on his family’s cattle farm.
Lee, a Republican, spent 95 days in the spring and summer traveling to all 95 counties in Tennessee in an effort to better understand the landscape of the state and its residents.
“What I really found was that no matter where we went, people want a good job,” he said. “They want a good school for their kids, they want a safe neighborhood and that’s what matters to everyone.”
Lee said he came to see what he had always intuitively believed: Tennessee’s big cities are thriving while small towns and rural communities are floundering.
“Population centers are critical,” Lee said, “but our rural communities are struggling, and if we let them fail it will impact us all.”
From the trip, he developed a strategy called Roadmap for Rural Tennessee, which has four points:
- Promote the dignity of work and economic independence.
- Support innovation and technology to improve economic, health and educational opportunities.
- Attack the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction.
- Strengthen our state’s commitment to faith, community, and family.
A recent poll from Middle Tennessee State University ranked Lee as last in terms of voter approval, with Republicans Speaker Harwell and Rep. Diane Black and Democrat Karl Dean leading their respective parties.
Nonetheless, Lee is not discouraged. “Every time I see one of these polls, it goes up,” he said. “As someone who is a complete outsider, who has no name recognition going into this, I’m actually encouraged.”
Lee will continue his campaign in Knoxville on Thursday and in Granger County on Friday.