While announced and expected Republican candidates for Tennessee governor differed little in their comments at a Rutherford County GOP event on Thursday, they handled questions about tough and timely issues.
Businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee spoke at at the annual Reagan Day Dinner, as did state Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) and Congresswoman Diane Black. Boyd, who formerly served as Gov. Bill Haslam’s economic commissioner, and Lee are the only two who have officially announced their candidacies for the 2018 race.
On sanctuary cities, all four in attendance said they were strongly against Tennessee cities refusing to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. There are no cities in the state that have technically refused to cooperate with ICE, though Nashville Mayor Megan Barry is seen as sympathetic toward illegal immigrants. Moreover, lax immigration enforcement nationwide under previous presidents has meant ongoing problems with criminal illegal immigrants who continue to commit crimes.
“No city in Tennessee will be a sanctuary city under my watch,” said Boyd, who is regarded as an establishment Republican and who last year gave a large donation to Conexión Américas for its culinary entrepreneurship program. Renata Soto, the founder and director of the Nashville group, is also the board chair of the National Council of La Raza, a progressive national Hispanic advocacy organization that pushes for benefits for illegal immigrants.
Black, who in Congress has advocated for withholding federal funding from sanctuary cities, said that not only do sanctuary cities break the law, the practice is “very dangerous.” She said that a six-year-old girl in her district in Wilson County was recently molested by an illegal immigrant who had already been charged several times and was still in the U.S. Black said Congress needs to pass clear laws that liberal courts will need to uphold.
Green, who has pushed for a tough anti-sanctuary city law in the state legislature, said that law enforcement officials have a “moral right” to work with ICE. Lee said that sanctuary cities are “an invitation for lawlessness.”
Asked about federal encroachment on states’ rights, all four candidates sharply criticized the federal government for interfering in state and local matters.
“We have got to stand up to the federal government and say enough is enough,” Green said.
Boyd said he is especially concerned about religious liberty and 2nd Amendment rights, noting that his uncle owns a gun shop in Crockett County. Black cited her recent sponsorship of pro-life legislation that overturned an Obama administration rule that forced states to provide Title X family planning grants to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. Lee, who has a background in agriculture as well as business, told how the federal government is so into micromanaging that there are even regulations on how to put fertilizer on the ground.
Asked about private school choice programs, all four candidates said they were in favor of vouchers that would allow students to attend religious and other private schools using taxpayer dollars. However, Boyd was more hesitant in his support than the others and advocated for a pilot program he helped start in Knoxville through which struggling public schools provide supports services for parents as well as students. Support services for parents include parenting and GED classes. They can also learn about financial planning and get legal advice. Students are given extra help in reading and math.
“Public schools done right can be effective,” Boyd said.
At various times during the evening, Green and Lee said that public schools need to bring back vo-tech programs.
On a question about Medicaid, all four candidates voiced support for reforming the federal health care program for low-income people, including requiring able-bodied adults to work.
“We need to do anything that encourages financial independence for people and moves them away from dependence on government,” Lee said.
Black, a registered nurse who got into politics to tackle government regulation of health care, said that holding a job gives people a sense of meaning and accomplishment and should be strongly encouraged.
Boyd and Green said they were in favor of block grants as a way toward reforming Medicaid.
No questions were asked about the IMPROVE Act, which raised the gas tax despite a budget surplus. The legislation was recently passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Haslam. Green, however, made a quip that could be interpreted as a reflection of his opposition to the tax. At one point after answering a question early, he said he was giving some of his allotted time back “because I believe when there’s excess in government, it should be given back.” His comment was greeted with laughter and applause.
Social issues were rarely mentioned, however Black used her closing remarks to address some. She said that Tennessee has “great people and great values” and is a place where “right is right, wrong is wrong, God is God and life is life.” Black said some people moving into the state from elsewhere are trying to change that.
“They try to take some of that away. They try to say that there are other things such as gay rights that we have to accept in our schools,” Black said, also mentioning the push for transgender bathroom privileges.
Black said Tennesseans need to be gutsy and tell newcomers, ” ‘No, you come to our state, you accept what we have here.’ ”
State senators Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and Mark Norris (R-Collierville), as well as House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), were also scheduled to attend Thursday’s event at the Stones River Country Club in Murfreesboro. However, Beavers and Norris backed out citing scheduling conflicts and Harwell had a family emergency.