In GOP debate, candidates for governor back Trump immigration policy, dispute Lee’s claim to be the ‘only outsider’

The leading Republican candidates for Tennessee governor tried not to second-guess President Donald Trump during a debate Wednesday night, including pledging support for his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, according to the Associated Press report.

At the debate, House Speaker Beth Harwell, ex-state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd and businessman Bill Lee blamed congressional inaction for the migrant family separations that have sparked recent public outrage. The statements likely took aim at U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who instead took a stance similar to Trump by blaming Democrats. She said Democrats are not supporting construction of a border wall.

The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, have said the separation of families was a new policy by the Trump administration, and applauded the administration for ending it. They have called for the Republican-led Congress to negotiate a larger immigration solution.

The four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls expressed concerns and sympathies about the families that have been split, and said they support Trump’s policy change to keep families detained together.

“Those parents came here willingly,” Black, a Gallatin lawmaker, said at the Nexstar Media Group debate. “I can’t imagine being a mother or grandmother and putting my grandchildren or children in that situation. With that being said, I think the president has made the right decision in detaining and deporting the families together.”

The group largely steered clear of attacking each other, and aligned again by saying it’s disrespectful for professional athletes to take a knee during the national anthem and would leave a game if someone did. Black has already dropped her Tennessee Titans season tickets over it.

They expressed some concerns over Trump’s tariffs and their impact on Tennessee’s car manufacturers, farmers and more. But they also largely praised his decision making and negotiating skills.

“He is the president of the United States. He’s in the arena,” said Harwell, a Nashville lawmaker. “And I’m not going to second-guess him.”

In one of Boyd’s TV commercials, he likens himself to Trump. But the former economic development chief wouldn’t levy much in the way of criticism of the president when asked Wednesday.

“I don’t tweet as much,” said Boyd, a Knoxville businessman. “Maybe having a little bit more reserve there would probably be a good thing. But that’s his personality and it’s worked well for him, and so I have no criticisms.”

From The Tennessean report:

Among the few contentious moments occurred after Lee was asked about his continued claims of being a political newcomer, as opposed to his opponents. 

“I am the only outsider and I actually think being an outsider is a strength,” Lee said. “While these folks are all well-respected, they are all politicians and insiders and I am the only conservative outsider in the race.”

Boyd, who previously served as commissioner of the state’s Economic and Community Development office, took issue with Lee’s claim, saying by entering the race, all four candidates are by definition politicians. 

Harwell, who has served in the state legislature since the late 1980, argued that members of the General Assembly do not make a living off their work and are not career politicians. 

Lee noted his credentials as an outsider who can lead the state by challenging the status quo.

Harwell touted her credentials and legislative accomplishments while saying voters can choose “promises” or “performance” — referring to herself.

Boyd talked about his business experience and time in government.

Black said she was a “career nurse” and not a politician and someone who has held conservative policies. She has held various elected offices since 1999.

…The candidates also had some disagreement on medical marijuana, a question which the next governor may face, given President Donald Trump’s recent call to leave the issue up to the states. 

Although Black, Lee and Boyd said they opposed legalizing medical marijuana in Tennessee, Harwell continued to embrace the idea, saying, “It is cruel to withhold that from someone who needs that help.”

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