almanac of american politics

Almanac of American Politics profiles Gov. Bill Lee

Our friends at the Almanac of American Politics are bringing out their latest reference book, a 2,200-page compendium that includes chapters about Gov. Bill Lee and the political landscape in Tennessee.

Senior author Louis Jacobson wrote the volume’s 100 state and gubernatorial profiles, and we have been given the green light to publish the Volunteer State material on the TNJ: On the Hill blog. We also have been given the discount code of TNJournal15 for anyone interested in getting 15% off the print version here.

Here is the Almanac’s profile of the governor (we ran the chapter about Tennessee 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. After pursuing a conservative agenda, Lee was reelected by an even wider margin in 2022.

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 and a former mayor of Knoxville, Haslam fit with the East Tennessee tradition of pragmatic Republicanism, often sparring with the more conservative members of his own party. In addition to Lee, the Republican primary field included Rep. Diane Black, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd. Black came into the race as something of a frontrunner, while Boyd, who spent $21 million on his candidacy, began the race following Haslam’s more pragmatic approach before veering in response to demands from GOP primary voters. 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. He finished first with 37 percent, followed by Boyd at 24 percent, Black at 23 percent, and Harwell at 15 percent. In November, he faced former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Dean proved unable to woo large numbers of Republican moderates, and Lee won, 60%-39%.

His win shattered a 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.

After taking office, Lee signed executive orders to increase ethics and transparency within state government. Over several months, he 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 leader. 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, like other Republican governors in red states, began opening Tennessee’s economy during the coronavirus pandemic relatively early and resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate, though he did allow local officials some latitude in imposing stricter rules. 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 banned abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat unless the mother’s life was in danger. Lee outraged liberals by signing a bill targeting protesters who camped out on state property; the measure upped potential charges to felonies, meaning defendants could be stripped of their voting rights if they were convicted.

During the two years leading up to his reelection, Lee signed a number of bills urged by social conservatives. One required that transgender students compete in sports according to their sex at birth; another opened public schools and districts to the risk of lawsuits if they let transgender students use locker rooms or restrooms that didn’t align with their birth sex; a third banned “critical race theory” in schools. He also signed a measure that allowed most adults to carry a handgun without a permit (though not a long gun, to the disappointment of pro-gun activists).

On the eve of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Lee signed a bill stiffening penalties for the distribution of abortion medication by telehealth or through the mail, and when Roe was overturned, an abortion ban he had signed in 2019 went into effect, without exceptions for rape and incest. Lee sought and ultimately enacted an overhaul of K-12 education funding, adding $1 billion to the pot but changing the formula for distributing it. He notched a win at the state supreme court in 2022 when the justices narrowly upheld a school voucher program targeted to families in Davidson County (Nashville) and Shelby County (Memphis). When faced with a “truth in sentencing” bill that required people convicted of the most serious crimes to serve 100 percent of their sentences and others to serve 85 percent of their sentences, Lee refused to sign it but allowed it to become law without his signature; he argued that it would not reduce crime and would cause prison overcrowding and higher costs to taxpayers. In one of his few actions that aligned with liberals, Lee paused executions to allow for an independent review of the state’s process for lethal injections that focused on whether the drugs might cause undue pain and suffering.

Lee had little to worry about in his reelection bid. He easily defeated the Democratic nominee, physician Jason Martin, 65%-33%; Lee’s winning margin was 11 points wider than his 2018 victory, as well as an improvement on the margin by which President Donald Trump won the state in 2020. Lee fared better compared to 2018 in most of the state’s big counties, enlarging his winning margin by 5 points in Knox County (Knoxville) and 8 points in Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and cutting his deficit in Shelby County (Memphis) by 12 points. Lee’s losing margin in Davidson County (Nashville) remained roughly the same. In 2023, Lee signed an anti-drag-show bill. When critics brought up a school yearbook picture in which he had dressed in drag, he called the comparison “ridiculous.”

After a mass shooting at a Nashville school in April 2023, Lee issued an executive order seeking to bolster the state’s gun background checks and also proposed a stronger “red flag” law that would allow courts to remove weapons from persons deemed a risk for gun violence.

National publication delves into the political landscape in Tennessee

Our friends at the Almanac of American Politics are bringing out their latest reference book, a 2,200-page compendium that includes chapters about Gov. Bill Lee and the political landscape in Tennessee.

Senior author Louis Jacobson wrote the volume’s 100 state and gubernatorial profiles, and we have been given the green light to publish the Volunteer State material on the TNJ: On the Hill blog. We also have been given the discount code of TNJournal15 for anyone interested in getting 15% off the print version here.

Here is the Almanac’s chapter on Tennessee (the profile of the governor will be posted next week):

Tennessee, once a political battleground, is no longer. It has become one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation, with just a few pockets of blue in its biggest cities. And while Tennessee has long been home to an influential strain of moderate Republicanism, the tradition’s most recent exemplars—Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam—are now out of politics, succeeded by more solidly conservative Republicans.

Tennessee is almost 500 miles across, closer in the east to Delaware than to Memphis, and closer in the west to Dallas than to Johnson City. It has had a fighting temperament since the days before the Revolutionary War, when the first settlers crossed the Appalachian ridges and headed for the rolling country in the watersheds of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Tennessee became a state in 1796, the third state after the original 13. Its first congressman was a 29-year-old lawyer who was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants: Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, who killed two men in duels, was a general who led Tennessee volunteers—it’s still called the Volunteer State—to battle against the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and against the British at New Orleans in 1815. He was the first president from an interior state, elected in 1828 and 1832, and was a founder of the Democratic Party, now the oldest political party in the world. Jackson was a strong advocate of the union, but 16 years to the day after his death, Tennessee voted to join the Confederacy. Today, Jackson’s own party largely disowns him for his slaveholding past and his role in the forced removal of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears; as president, however, Donald Trump lionized him. (Today, Jackson’s home and plantation east of Nashville, the Hermitage, has an extensive exhibit documenting its enslaved people.)

Tennessee is a state with a certain civility: Both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on Sarah Polk, the widow of President James K. Polk who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Yet it was better known as a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a manifesto calling for retaining the South’s rural economy and heritage. (Today, the state ranks third in tobacco production and 10th in cotton.) Tennessee is also known for the momentous 1925 trial in Dayton in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes defied a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools.

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Ascendant GOP, rump Democrats: Read the Almanac of American Politics’ Tennessee profile

The folks over at the Almanac of American Politics have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at its latest political profile of Tennessee:

Tennessee, once a political battleground, is no longer. It has become one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, with just a few pockets of blue in its biggest cities. And while Tennessee has long been home to an influential strain of moderate Republicanism, the tradition’s most recent exemplars—Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam—are now out of politics, succeeded by more solidly conservative Republicans.

Tennessee is almost 500 miles across, closer in the east to Delaware than to Memphis, and closer in the west to Dallas than to Johnson City. It has had a fighting temperament since the days before the Revolutionary War, when the first settlers crossed the Appalachian ridges and headed for the rolling country in the watersheds of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Tennessee became a state in 1796, the third state after the original 13. Its first congressman was a 29-year-old lawyer who was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants: Andrew Jackson. Jackson, who killed two men in duels, was a general who led Tennessee volunteers—it’s still called the Volunteer State—to battle against the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and against the British at New Orleans in 1815. He was the first president from an interior state, elected in 1828 and 1832, and was a founder of the Democratic Party, now the oldest political party in the world. Jackson was a strong advocate of the union, but 16 years to the day after his death, Tennessee voted to join the Confederacy. (Today, Jackson’s own party largely disowns him, while Donald Trump lionized him.)

Tennessee is a state with a certain civility: Both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on Sarah Polk, the widow of President James K. Polk who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Yet it was better known as a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a manifesto calling for retaining the South’s rural economy and heritage. (Today, the state ranks third in tobacco production and ninth in cotton.) Tennessee is also known for the momentous 1925 trial in Dayton in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes defied a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools. In 1959 and 1960, Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson trained a generation of student civil rights activists, notably John Lewis, a student at Nashville’s Fisk University; they organized sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters at Kress, Woolworth and McClellan stores. The protests sparked confrontations, arrests and ultimately a bombing that destroyed the home of the defense attorney for the protestors. That prompted Nashville Mayor Ben West to make a public appeal calling for an end to discrimination in the city. Within a few weeks, stores began to integrate their lunch counters and Nashville later became the first major city in the South to desegregate public facilities. The campaign became a template for student-run civil rights efforts throughout the South that Lewis, who eventually became a Georgia congressman, would heroically lead. (Lewis died in 2020.) Against this backdrop were business leaders who created the first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, as well as brands as varied as Holiday Inn, FedEx, and Moon Pies. The New Deal-era creation of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority also provided the state with bountiful energy, from a mix of coal, nuclear and hydropower plants.

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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.

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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.

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