NASHVILLE, Tennessee–Kicking off his campaign for governor Monday, Bill Lee described himself as a Ronald Reagan-admiring fiscal and social conservative whose leadership experiences in business and agriculture compensate for his lack of political experience.
Lee, who is chairman of Lee Company, a large family-owned construction, facilities and home services company, is casting himself as a conservative outsider in the race for the Republican nomination. However, Lee’s hesitant position on Gov. Haslam’s gas tax increase, which has passed both the House and Senate, is likely to disappoint conservatives who want candidates with a stronger anti-tax stance.
“I’m opposed to raising taxes,” he told the media Monday morning at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, but he did not offer a definitive opinion on the gas tax increase. He said he might have handled it differently, but noted that the IMPROVE Act also included tax cuts and said the bill is “water under the bridge now.” When pressed, he said that because he wasn’t privy to all the legislative discussions surrounding the bill, he didn’t want to comment further.
(You can hear the audio below.)
Lee was set Monday to launch his “95 Counties, 95 Days RV Tour” with his wife Maria, a trip he says will take him across the state to listen to people’s concerns.
“We’re going to run the most aggressive, grassroots campaign in Tennessee history,” he said. “We may not have as much pocket change as everybody else, but we’ll burn more shoe leather than anybody.”
Lee said the focus areas of his campaign are jobs, education and safe neighborhoods. Asked about school vouchers, he said they’re “certainly worth looking at and experimenting with.” When pressed about social issues, he said he is pro-life and would be in favor of any bill that would reduce the number of abortions. As for the push for a law mandating that people use the bathroom that corresponds to their biological sex, Lee said he wouldn’t make that a legislative priority.
Lee said he’s not worried that his lack of political experience will hurt his campaign.
“My life has been one of leadership,” he said.
Lee currently serves as a representative to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for the 7th congressional district and serves on the Belmont University board of trustees. He also is president of Tennesseans for Economic Growth. In the past he has served as chairman of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee and on the boards of several community organizations including Hope Clinic for Women, Men of Valor Prison Ministry, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Operation Andrew and others.
His involvement in both business and agriculture puts him in touch with the concerns of a great many Tennesseans, he said. A seventh-generation Tennessean, Lee regards his deep roots in the state as one of his strong points.
Raised on a cattle farm in Franklin, Lee still lives there today and is involved in providing natural beef to farmers markets and farm to table restaurants cross Middle Tennessee. The Triple L Ranch is a 1,000-acre, 400-head Hereford cattle operation.
Lee, who has four adult children and two grandchildren, said he considers himself a blessed man but that hard times have taught him to make the most of his life.
His first wife Carol Ann died in a horseback riding accident on the family farm in 2000. Lee cites a Bible verse on his campaign RV, Psalm 71:14, which serves as a reminder of how he pulled through. The verse says, “As for me, I will always have hope, I will praise You more and more.”
“This verse has particular meaning for my family,” Lee says on his campaign website. “For me and my four young children, it was the darkest of days, but my faith and trust in God was profoundly hopeful even in the midst of what seemed hopeless.”
The only other announced gubernatorial candidate for the GOP nomination for the November 2018 election is Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, Haslam’s former economic development commissioner. State Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) was considered the conservative favorite for the GOP nomination, but has now been nominated by President Trump to be army secretary. Other possible GOP candidates are House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor.