Lee profile delves into surprise GOP nomination, first months in office

Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, clap along to “Rocky Top” at his inauguration celebration in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest edition of the Almanac of American Politics includes a profile of first-year Gov. Bill Lee that chronicles his surprise win in the Republican primary and the accomplishments of his first legislative session The folks over at the Almanac have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at the profile: 

Businessman Bill Lee easily won the governorship of Tennessee in 2018, becoming the first Tennessee Republican to succeed a Republican governor since 1869. Lee’s victory shattered another longstanding pattern in Tennessee: Since the 1960s, partisan control of the governor’s office had changed with every new governor. This electoral habit finally came to an end as Tennessee became one of the most Republican states in the union.

Lee, a seventh-generation Tennessean from Williamson County south of Nashville, earned a mechanical engineering degree at Auburn University, then returned home to join the Lee Co., a business founded by his grandfather in 1944 that specializes in HVAC, electrical work, and plumbing. Starting in 1992, Lee served as president and CEO; by the time of his gubernatorial run, the company was employing 1,200 people and earning annual revenues of more than $220 million. The company collected $13.8 million from state contracts between 2012 and 2018, but it stopped signing new state contracts during his campaign, and Lee put his holdings into a blind trust. Separately, Lee helped operate the Triple L Ranch, a 1,000-acre farm founded by his grandparents with 300 head of Hereford cattle. Carol Ann, Lee’s wife and the mother of their four children, died in a horse-riding accident in 2000. Lee eventually became close to a third-grade teacher of one of his children, and in 2008, they married. Bill and Maria Lee attended a conservative, charismatic church, and Lee served as a board member of the Men of Valor prison ministry.

Senate Finance Chairman Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) and other s check their watches awaiting the time for Gov. Bill Lee, right, to enter the House chamber to deliver his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lee was one of several Republicans to enter the race to succeed two-term Gov. Bill Haslam. A major business figure in the state, Haslam had come to the governorship after serving as mayor of Knoxville. He fit with the East Tennessee tradition of pragmatic Republicanism, producing achievements in education and transportation policy. Haslam often sparred with the more conservative members of his own party in the GOP-controlled state legislature, and he declared that he would not vote for Donald Trump in 2016, even though Trump was poised to win the state by 26 points.

In addition to Lee, the Republican primary field seeking to succeed Haslam included Rep. Diane Black, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd. Boyd, who spent $21 million on his candidacy, came the closest to following Haslam’s more pragmatic approach, but Republican primary voters seemed to be in a mood for a more conservative choice. Black came into the race as something of a frontrunner, winning endorsements from Vice President Mike Pence and the National Rifle Association. Lee, meanwhile, framed himself as an outsider. He campaigned from an RV and a tractor, and refrained from negativity as the Boyd and Black campaigns beat up on each other. The low-key approach enabled Lee to climb in the polls. In the end, he finished first with 37 percent, followed by Boyd at 24 percent, Black at 23 percent, and Harwell at 15 percent. The Tennessean called Lee’s victory “arguably the biggest Cinderella story in Tennessee Republican politics in decades.”

Bill Lee speaks at a unity press conference in Nashville on Aug. 4, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

On the Democratic side, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean easily won the primary with 75 percent of the vote. But Dean was unsuccessful in his efforts to woo Republican moderates. Unlike the Senate contest between Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, which remained relatively close almost to the end, the gubernatorial race never became a genuinely competitive contest. Lee won, 60%-39%. Lee’s 21-point margin was almost twice as large as Blackburn’s 11-point victory over Bredesen. Dean exceeded 60 percent in his home county of Davidson (Nashville) as well as in the Democratic stronghold of Shelby County (Memphis), but Lee won all but one other county.

After taking office, Lee prioritized a proposal to expand school choice. Not surprisingly, this was met with opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and legislative Democrats, although another proposal, for a 2.5 percent teacher pay increase, was enacted to become effective 2021-2022. Citing what he’d seen working with the prison ministry, Lee proposed criminal justice reforms, including $10.5 million for prison-based college and high school courses, $1.7 million for specialized drug courts for nonviolent offenders, and an additional $1.5 million for GPS monitoring to avoid having to incarcerate those involved in nonviolent crimes. Lee also proposed additional funding for probation, parole and correctional officers, as well as $11 million to support behavioral health care for the uninsured mentally ill.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee speaks at a rally in Franklin on Oct. 17, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lee signed executive orders to increase ethics and transparency within state government, and he said he would back a bill to outlaw abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. In February 2019, USA Today discovered a 1980 photograph from Lee’s Auburn days in which he had posed in a Confederate uniform. That wasn’t long after the discovery of a photograph of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page that featured one man in blackface and another in a KKK costume. Lee told the newspaper, “I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it.” The discovery did not appear to cause a significant hit to Lee’s standing in the state.

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.

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