Read the Almanac of American Politics’ profile of Gov. Bill Lee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest edition of the Almanac of American Politics includes an updated profile of Gov. Bill Lee’s first term in office.

The folks over at the Almanac have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at the profile below (one major addendum since the text was finalized was former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Lee’s re-election bid last week):  

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 revenue 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 attend a conservative, charismatic church, and Lee serves as a board
member of the Men of Valor prison ministry.

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 declared 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. Black came into the race as something of a frontrunner, winning endorsements from Vice President Mike Pence and the National Rifle Association. 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, and he veered right in response. As Boyd and Black beat up on each other, Lee framed himself as an outsider, campaigning from an RV and a tractor and refraining from negativity. The low-key approach enabled Lee to climb in the polls. 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.” 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. Lee won, 60%-39%.

After taking office, Lee signed executive orders to increase ethics and transparency within state government. He signed a bill to create education savings accounts to provide private-school tuition for qualifying public school students, but in 2020 the law was struck down in the courts. He also signed a bill that would apply criminal penalties to voter registration groups if they submit incomplete forms; this law, too, was enjoined by a federal court in 2019. Over several months, Lee grappled with a running controversy over memorializing the state’s Confederate history. Lee attracted national attention when he signed a proclamation declaring July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, honoring the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan figure. Lee said he had no choice but to sign it, given longstanding state law. (Complicating matters, USA Today had earlier discovered a 1980 photograph from Lee’s Auburn days in which he had posed in a Confederate uniform.) In 2020, after racial justice protests flared nationally, Lee signed a law that eliminated the requirement that the governor denote the commemoration, though the law disappointed critics who noted that the measure did not eliminate Nathan Bedford Forrest Day altogether. Meanwhile, the State Capitol Commission approved removal of Forrest’s bust from the capitol, reversing the panel’s vote in 2017 to keep the bust where it was.

In 2020, Lee proposed a $117 million pay increase for K-12 teachers, but the proposal was shelved after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Lee, like other Republican governors in red states, began opening Tennessee’s economy during the pandemic relatively early; in July, he rebuffed a suggestion by Dr. Deborah Birx to close bars and tighten indoor-dining rules, and he resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate. In August, Lee signed legislation to shield businesses, schools, and nursing homes from coronavirus lawsuits. However, Lee did largely allow local officials the option of imposing their own, stricter rules. Cases spiked in the fall and winter, as they did nationally; by March, the case rate had fallen significantly, but Tennessee remained in the top one-third of states for per capita cases. Even beyond the coronavirus, 2020 was a challenging year for the state, with a cluster of large tornadoes hitting Nashville and a Christmas Day bombing in the city’s downtown.

Lee took heat from some in his own party for continuing to accept refugees, but he did please conservatives by signing several bills in 2020. One protected adoption and foster care agencies with religious objections to same-sex adoptive parents; another was a bill to bar abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, unless the mother’s life is in danger. Lee outraged liberals by signing a bill targeting protesters who camp out on state property; the measure upped potential charges to felonies, meaning defendants could be stripped of their voting rights if they were convicted. Lee has announced that he’ll run for a second term in 2022. As long as he doesn’t get a top-tier GOP primary challenger, he should be in good shape for reelection.


The 2022 Almanac of American Politics 50th Commemorative Edition, will be released in August 2021 and can be purchased online at or by calling 1-888-265-0600. Use the code “15AAP2022” for a 15% discount during check-out.


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