Republican businessman Bill Lee, who hopes to replace Gov. Bill Haslam, wore a navy blazer and khakis as he made a gubernatorial campaign stop in Farragut Tuesday evening, Sept. 26.
Lee, a native of Williamson County in his first run for any elected office, spoke with a crowd of about 25 in the Chapel at First Baptist Concord.
He has lived on the family’s cattle farm since he was a toddler. “My family has been there 220 years,” Lee said. “We sell meat in Middle Tennessee. I run a company called Lee Company. I’m an ag[riculture] guy.”
Lee said he wanted to use his experience in making the lives of his 1,200 employees better as a springboard toward improving lives across the state.
“I told Maria [his wife] I was going to pray about this every day and I did, starting in January,” Lee said about his decision whether or not to run.
Lee announced his bid in April, bought an old RV and visited each of Tennessee’s 95 counties in 95 days. Psalm 71:14 is inscribed on the side of his campaign bus: “But as for me, I will always have hope.”
“I had some dark days in my life when that was particularly true for me,” Lee said. “I have great hope for Tennessee. The more I do this, the more I know I’m supposed to be doing it. There’s real opportunity to influence people’s lives for good.”
A question-and-answer session found Farragut and area attendees asking Lee his views on wooing out-of-state industry, his stand on abortion and his response to a local tragedy.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s hand shot up quickly.
“You’ve raised the conservative bar considerably,” he said to Lee.
Burchett, a GOP candidate for the 2nd District U.S. Congressional seat to be vacated by retiring Republican U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., preceded his question by saying there has been a lot of talk about using incentives to lure out-of-state industry.
However, Burchett also said there has been opposition to using incentives, asking Lee his opinion.
“I think the most valuable employers for our state are those that are created here,” Lee said. “Half of the people who work in this state work for small businesses. We need to place as much emphasis on entrepreneurship and small business start-up as we do on attracting businesses to come in from out of state.
“In traveling to 95 counties, one thing I’ve realized is this is a rural state with some big cites,” he added. “We have 20 percent of our counties federally designated as economically distressed. We need to change the way we’re doing things that would address that.”
Lee stressed the need to help middle school-age children understand their career options can include getting a master’s degree or developing a skilled trade. He said more tax dollars need to be used for trade schools.
“Agriculture is 13 percent of our economy,” he added. “Virtually none of our education dollars are in agriculture.”
Another question came from Lenoir City resident Steve Eimers, whose daughter, Hannah, was killed last November in a guardrail traffic accident. He explained his efforts to make roads safer, especially guardrails, since the tragedy.
“What will you do to make sure we improve our roads and what would you have said to me that Gov, Haslam hasn’t?” he asked.
“I’d say first of all that you’re courageous to show up and sit here and say what you just said,” Lee said. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. I’m deeply saddened and sorrowful for you. I would want you to come to my office and tell me everything you know on this subject [of guardrails].”
“We’re about to adopt an infant,” Eimers said. “What will you do to support the unborn?”
“I’m a guy who believes life begins at conception,” Lee said.
“I take issue with one statement you just mentioned, and that’s about abortion,” a woman on the front row said, adding she believed abortion was acceptable in the case of rape or incest.
Another audience member asked about the opioid crisis.
“It’s a crisis, an epidemic and it’s getting worse,” Lee said, adding the state needs to further the transparency around the distribution of opioids.
“Our per capita prescription level is astonishing in regards to other states in this country. Twenty-nine-day rehabilitation for opioid addicts is nothing but a revolving door. We’ve got to invest in community-based rehabilitative services.”
An audience member said that in Knox County a pawn shop, a tire store and a restaurant have been discovered “helping people get money to go out and buy the drugs.”
“It’s a complicated web,” Lee said. “I think one of the most powerful tools are our partnerships between the state and nonprofits.”
Similar to Eimers, Lee has known personal tragedy.
“My first wife was killed in a really tragic horseback riding accident with our 4-year-old daughter when I was 40 and we had four kids,” he said. “God is a redeemer and walked with me through that. My business almost failed. It was a really difficult two to three years.”
Lee said he turned the business around and got heavily involved in nonprofit work.
“I realized I’m not guaranteed tomorrow,” he said. “There are very few things that matter and I want to be about those things.”
He was a single dad for eight years before remarrying.
“I’ve met Bill a couple of times,” said Farragut native Andrew Davis, campaign manager for Burchett’s Congressional run. “He’s a great guy. I’m here to support Bill and support Jason [Zachary, Republican state representative from District 14 that includes Farragut].”
On the pew next to him was Davis’ grandfather, Ed Fowler.
“Andrew’s told me a lot of great things about Bill Lee,” Fowler said. “He sounds like a down-to-earth Christian fellow and that’s why I want to meet him.”
Zachary made opening remarks, then the Rev. Gerald McGinnis, pastor of Park West Church, prayed.
Lee began his address by introducing his wife, Maria.
“Maria is the best part of this team,” he said.
The next scheduled candidate forum at FBC is GOP state Rep. Beth Harwell, Tennessee General Assembly Speaker of the House, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 24.