Tennessee Press Association hosts gubernatorial candidate forum in Nashville

Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines

Story by Andrew Wigdor / News Editor and Caleb Revill / Assistant News Editor

The Tennessee Press Association hosted a gubernatorial candidate forum in which political candidates running for the 2018 state governor’s seat discussed their views and objectives for office at the Nashville Public Library on Thursday.

Five of the candidates who are currently running for governor attended the forum: Randy Boyd, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, Bill Lee and Kay White.

Eric Barnes, the president of the Tennessee Press Association, served as a moderator. Each candidate had about three or four minutes to respond to a series of questions on various issues, which were submitted by sponsors, newspapers, citizens and advocacy groups prior to the event. Through the questions, each candidate was able to share their particular platforms and political viewpoints. Read below for the talking points the potential Tennessee leaders pushed the most.  

Randy Boyd

Boyd, an entrepreneur, founder of the company Radio Systems Corporations and educational adviser to Bill Haslam, began his opening statement by thanking the press for their work.

“One of the most important things to defending our freedoms is to have a free press, and what you do every day makes that happen,” Boyd said. “There are so many members of the press that are all also a part of another community that I’m so supportive of, and that’s small business.”

Boyd went on to describe himself as a “Christian, conservative and seventh-generation Tennessean” with family roots from West Tennessee.

“I’m a family man,” Boyd said. “My wife and I have been married for 33 years, and we have two sons.”

Boyd said that he has a passion for education.

“I’m the first one in my family’s history to ever go to college,” Boyd said. “My dad didn’t believe in it, but he said if I wanted to go, (then) he’d give me a job to pay my way through. I ran injection molding machines (for) 12 hours each shift, two shifts each weekend, and managed to be the first one in my family’s history to graduate from the University of Tennessee at age 19. So, I want to make sure other people have the same opportunities.”  

Throughout the forum, Boyd emphasized the importance of transparency in government.

“Information is the core of empowerment,” Boyd said. “I believe that information is critical to making decisions and running an organization.”

Boyd said that, when he served as the Tennessee economic and community development commissioner under Haslam, staff notes were shared with everyone in his department, a newsletter was sent to every board in the state and, most importantly, Open ECD was created.

Open ECD is a website in which citizens can go to receive information about all the programs that the department is currently working on in a user-friendly environment.

“One of the things that I want to do as governor is to take those same type of cultural changes and improve state government,” Boyd said. “We are here to serve the people, and the best way we can serve and empower the people is to share information.”

Boyd went on to say that any economic investment made by the state must be examined closely by government officials.

Boyd also stated that, during early negotiations between the government and companies, privacy can be honored but, in the end, every program must be made public.

“We can’t say everyone is a good deal or everyone is a bad deal,” Boyd said. “We have to look at the economics of each one and do a proper analysis.”

In the latter portion of Boyd’s answers, he told a story in which he stated that he met a woman during his campaign in Mountain City, Tennessee. He was in her city speaking about the benefits of Tennessee Promise and higher education.

“When I (mentioned) Tennessee Promise, which I thought was good news, she started crying,” Boyd said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why would you cry about that?’ She said, ‘I’m in Mountain City, and my dream is to be a nurse. But the closest school for me is an hour drive, there and back.’”

The woman had to wake up at 5 a.m. each morning to get to the college and had to work 40 hours a week on top of her school work. After about four months, she had to give up on her dream.

“As governor, we are going to work with community colleges and build a satellite campus on every high school in the state,” Boyd said. “We want to make sure that every student can graduate with a certificate and a job-ready skill.”

Bill Lee

Lee opened by describing himself as a “business guy,” citing his leadership as an employer for Lee Company, a Middle Tennessee plumbing and appliance company.

Lee has little political experience. In fact, his website states, “I’m running for governor, but I’m not a politician.”

“My grandfather started (Lee) company,” Lee said. “I took it over in the ’90s and grew (it) to about 1200 (people).”

After facing tragedy, Lee found his calling in helping others.

“My first wife was killed when I was 40, and I share that story because God used that to impact me in a powerful way,” Lee said. “(It was) certainly one of the most transitional times in my life, (and) it was also one that was inspirational. It caused me to look at my life and what mattered.”

When finding that there were “very few things that mattered” to him, Lee decided that he would rather spend his life “without those things.” After getting involved in some nonprofit organizations, Lee said that he volunteered for Y-CAP, a mentorship program by the Young Men’s Christian Association.

This would lead Lee to work on the higher education commission where he did some policy work around education.

Lee later mentored at a local prison where he spent one morning a week visiting with an inmate.

“That opened my eyes to the world of public safety, recidivism and sentencing reform,” Lee said.

“I spent most of my life trying to make life better for 1200 plumbers, pipefitters, welders and electricians,” Lee said. “I decided that maybe I might be able to spend my life and use my life experiences to make life better for six and a half million people, and that was a compelling thought for me.”

After buying an RV and traveling to all 95 Tennessee counties in 95 days, Lee came to the conclusion that most Tennesseans want good jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods. He said that as governor, he would be committed to those goals.

Lee went on to say that he would also support more transparency in government.

“I would be deeply committed to transparency at every level of government,” Lee said. “I think one of the problems we have is that people don’t trust the government, and that’s because we don’t have access and transparency.”

Lee stated that early education is “the foundation on which children build their education.”

“It makes all the difference in their future,” Lee said. “If we don’t create the right foundation, everything we do later is suspect.”

Lee said that Tennessee must be committed to early education by emphasizing the attraction and attainment of early-childhood educators.

“Half of the teacher prep programs that we have in our state are sub-par, and we have to change that,” Lee said.

Lee said that, due to his time working in prisons, he has learned that the bail bond system in Tennessee should be reformed.

“The truth is that about 98 percent of everyone who is going to come out of prison in this state will commit another crime and go back,” Lee said. “The human capital there is enormous. If you listen to enough incarcerated folks, you realize that there is a big problem.”

Lee said that the way that the state looks at criminals reentering society from prison is critical.

“How we look at bail, parole and a number of challenges to people reentering is incredibly important,” Lee said.

Lee stressed that the government needs to focus on issues of recidivism, which is a term that refers to people committing criminal acts and returning to prison.

“We as a state need to approach reentry in a powerful way,” Lee said, “If we can reduce recidivism, that’s critical.”

Kay White

White began her opening statement by explaining that she is a wife, a mother, a grandmother and “maybe the only one on the stage that is a great-grandmother.”

She went on to state that she taught Sunday school for 20 years and was able to pass on the skills of baking and homemaking to the children. White emphasized that Tennessee should return to teaching more traditional skills in schools.

“I was fortunate in that I was able to stay home with my five children and be a stay-at-home mother,” White said. “I learned how to sew because I learned it in school. I learned how to sew in home economics, one of the classes that is not taught today.”

White said that, due to her life experiences, she is more than qualified to take up the governor’s seat.

“I was very involved in high school,” White said. “In fact, I was the president of the Tennessee Student Library Association … Many of the life skills that I now see that God allowed me to be a participant in has led me to this moment of sitting here before you.”

She then clarified that she is a Christian and Constitutional conservative and that the laws of the land should apply to everyone, even the country’s legislature.

“They shouldn’t make a law for you and then exempt themselves,” White said.

Though White stayed at home with her family for much of her life, she ran for Congress in 1996.

“I was the first and only woman in East Tennessee who had run for a seat,” White said.

White said that she won the primary by a “big landslide,” despite there being multiple attorneys and more traditionally qualified candidates running.

She explained that a campaign could be won without spending millions of dollars in the process.

“If I had millions of dollars, I would help someone with it,” White said. “I feel that when the people make me their choice, I will be their voice.”

Despite many candidates on the stage sharing a different sentiment, White stated that she did not support Haslam’s Drive to 55 Initiative, which many feel will be the current governor’s legacy.

“I can’t really say that I support the Drive to 55,” White said. “There are some people in Tennessee who do not want to go back to college … I feel that skills should be implemented more in schools like they used to.”

The initiative aims to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. Under the umbrella of Drive to 55 are programs such as the Tennessee Promise, which allows all graduating high school students to receive two free years of community or technical college, and Tennessee Reconnect, which allows all adult-learners to receive two years free.

“It’s not all about a formal education,” White said. “It’s about being wise and having some common sense and having some skills.”

White went on to explain that she doesn’t support school choice, which would provide families with alternatives to public schools, as well.

“If you brought school choice to some of these counties, what would happen to all the teachers?” White asked. “If suddenly all the schools say, ‘Oh, they have better schools in Johnson City,’ the teachers in that county would be without a job.”

Instead, Kay said that the state simply has to improve all of its public schools.

White also emphasized the importance of justice reform throughout the forum.

“I have some plans to get people out of our jails, which is costing us a lot of money,” White said.

White said that there should be a tax incentive for people who employ nonviolent criminals after they are released.

“They’ll give (the former criminals) training, and we’ll give them a tax break,” White said.

White also said that she would reform voter restoration laws in Tennessee, which often keep former criminals from regaining the rights to vote for years.

“When those people get out and try to make a living, why do they go back to their drugs or crime?” White asked. “It’s because they have such a financial burden on them. I’m about restoring and rebuilding lives.”

Craig Fitzhugh

Fitzhugh began by describing himself as a “product of Tennessee.” The Republican state representative, who was born and raised in Ripley, Tennessee, stated that he believes in public education.

“We are all a product of public education,” Fitzhugh said.

Fitzhugh said that the government should never take away “the joy of learning.”

He also stated that he believes in teacher evaluation reform.

“I believe that we got a really bad start when it comes to teacher evaluations, and we’re only barely overcoming it now,” Fitzhugh said. “We lost some good teachers.”

He went on to say that all teachers need to be properly trained and to be paid well for the work that they do.

“We need to recognize that profession again, which we’ve lost,” Fitzhugh said.

Fitzhugh explained that the state needs to start with some type of pre-K or early learning program, and then, by the third grade, the child has to learn to read.

“If that child can read by the third grade, that child can read to learn,” Fitzhugh said. “At some point, that light will flash or flicker on in that child’s mind, and the joy of learning will be there.”

Fitzhugh also stated that there needed to be a more secure paper trail for voting in Tennessee to prevent fraud.

“It seems that paper trails have shown to be an effective tool to make sure that those votes are correct,” Fitzhugh said. “I think there’s a definite need to do that, and I also believe that we can go to second-day registration for voters.”

Fitzhugh went on to say that he believes in local control when it comes to the government dealing with certain issues.

“The majority party in the legislature has taken it upon themselves to get into city and county business,” Fitzhugh said. “Some things ought to be done by the local level.”

Fitzhugh said that, in the past, local government has been overruled in Tennessee by higher tiers of government when it came to issues such as charter schools and guns in parks.

“There are cases where, in a state-overall situation, it might be good for the legislature to weigh in, but we have given the authorities to the cities. After all, we voted for those people in our communities, and we should let them handle those local issues.”

When it comes to trade secrets for contractors hired by cities and counties, Fitzhugh said that the local government needs to examine contracts closely and determine if the information about a project should be released to the public.

“We have to do what is in the best interest of the public,” Fitzhugh said. “We may lose a contract because of that, but so be it. (There will) be somebody else out there who can do it.”

Karl Dean

Dean, who served as Nashville’s 68th mayor from 2007 to 2015, said that he was running for office because the people want a governor who is “moderate, pragmatic, common-sense and gets things done.”

Dean said that, though he faced many trials during his tenure as mayor, he always tried to push for progress.

“Shortly after I was elected, we went into the greatest recession we’ve known,” Dean said. “We faced the flood of 2010, and we had to manage our way through that. But at the same time that we were doing that, we were investing in the city, planning our future and moving ahead.”

Dean said that public education “will move the state forward more than anything else.”

Dean added that Tennessee needs to be a state that produces more graduates, but it also needs to implement more vocational programs. He said that raises for teachers must be a continuous priority.

“I applaud Gov. Haslam for adding teacher’s salary raises to the budget,” Dean said. “But we need to be doing more.”

Dean stated that a strong private-sector economy for Tennessee is critical.

“Problems don’t take care of themselves without an economy that is producing and creating jobs,” Dean said.

The former mayor went on to stress the importance of strong infrastructure in Tennessee.

“When I was mayor, we spent more money on things underwater or underground in terms of stormwater management and making the city work,” Dean said. “Infrastructure is expensive, but if you ignore it, you end up paying more later.”

Dean said that infrastructure is also a key economic tool. He stated that he will support the expansion of regional efforts to build more roads. With the addition of these roads, more jobs and money will be brought into certain areas, according to Dean.

“The main issue that faces our region is transportation, and there is widespread agreement on that,” Dean said. “But, to get that to the next level, you’re gonna need leadership from the governor’s office.”

Dean also stated that he shared Fitzhugh’s view that local government officials should be able to govern in the way that they see fit.

“Why say local government can’t make a decision about a local park?” Dean asked. “Why say they can’t make a decision about what goes on in our riverfront. It’s a balance, and what you need is people with prudence and judgment.”

Dean went on to say that justice reform will be another critical element of his platform.

“For me, justice reform is one of the most basic things we have to do, and I would assume there would be widespread, partisan agreement on this,” Dean said.

Dean said that issues of drug addiction, mental health and alcohol addiction need to actually be addressed in order to prevent crime and to rehabilitate criminals.

“When people are released, something has to be done to get to the foundation of why they were in prison,” Dean said.

The former mayor continued, saying that there should be GED and employment placement programs for prisoners.

“If people can succeed when they get out, the cost of the government goes down, and it’s the right thing as far as people living productive lives,” Dean said.

Dean said that this issue, and others, should be examined by both parties in order for future programs and plans to work.

“We should have joint committees from both parties to examine the issue deeply and then arrive at recommendations,” Dean said. “I think when one party is pushing an issue for an ideological reason, it doesn’t go far, but if you bring people together, I think you can accomplish things.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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