Takeaways from the GOP gubernatorial debate in Memphis

The Memphis event was billed in advance (and again from the stage) as not being yet another meaningless gubernatorial forum in which everybody would end up restating the same platitudes, but a bona fide battle royale, a “debate.” It wasn’t.

There was little overt disagreement and minimal effort to create it. The Republican participants  — Diane Black, Randy Boyd, and Bill Lee (Harwell begged off because of legislative responsibilities) — became a virtual amen chorus to the idea that Memphis has been shafted by the state relative to other sections of Tennessee.

Black went so far as to say that the city had been the victim of “Nashville neglect,” though her prescriptions for remedying the problems of West Tennessee seemed to focus on doing something about the area’s crime rate. Lee called for tailoring special incentives to West Tennessee, and Boyd, as is his wont, cited statistics to justify his efforts on behalf of the area as former commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Businessman Lee, who has often invoked his first wife’s accidental death as the impetus for his involvement in public life referred in his answer to yet another focusing tragedy: “I have a family member that actually died of an overdose, so this is something that matters to me and matters to every single Tennessean.”

Lee declined to discuss any details during his later encounter with reporters in the ad hoc spin room of the Halloran Center.

Black was pressed on her stance toward President Donald Trump’s trade policies.

“He is a tough negotiator, and we saw that when the president puts things out there, he always puts them out there the furthest and then he works back,” Black said, adding that she is working with the administration to target “bad actors like China … rather than have a blanket trade war.”

Black said she “we are now laser targeting those countries that are not fair players,” that she will work with companies in Tennessee to “ensure this does not impact their business in any way.”

Boyd would insist later that he had been more enthusiastic than the other two about pre-K education, allowing for state support of selected programs, whereas Lee and Black were dubious about the “mixed results of pre-K,” though each would endorse the importance of “early childhood education.”

Boyd was prodded during the debate to explain the lagging development of the Memphis Regional Megasite, one of the topics of open criticism of the former economic development chief in the campaign so far. Boyd responded that other large industrial sites around the state (Volkswagen in Chattanooga, for example) also had to overcome growing pains to become successful.

Black was silent on the stage about that response, but her campaign shot out a press release citing a 2015 statement from Boyd that: “If we don’t land something in that site in the next three years then we failed.”

Boyd shrugged off that criticism to reporters after the debate.

“If always set myself big objectives. I’m disappointed that we didn’t land a company there, but at the same time it’s not over, we’re going to keep working,” he said. “If you set big goals, sometimes you don’t succeed. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying.”

Boyd also appeared surprised that the Black campaign had targeted him over the issue.

“They said that? That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Oh well.”

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