Some time in the fall of 2017, when his gubernatorial candidacy was newish and his name identification across Tennessee was still in the birthing phase, Bill Lee issued what he billed as a 10-point “Commitment to Memphis and Shelby County.”
The points tended to the abstract rather than the concrete. Examples:
“— I commit that Memphis and Shelby County will play a significant role in our efforts to improve education, economic development, and enhancing public safety across West Tennessee.”
“— I commit to working with local leaders to find tailored solutions for the challenges of Memphis and Shelby County.”
“— I commit to a regional approach for economic development that ensures West Tennessee is competitive with Arkansas & Mississippi.”
Obviously, these — and others like them in the list of 10 — were fine objectives; just as obviously, they were nonspecific in the extreme, not the detailed and localized prescriptions that the Franklin businessman’s campaign billed them as.
The week of “State of the State” addresses just completed by Lee, now the governor, appears to reinforce the same impression of blanks needing to be filled in.
A case in point was the last of the three, billed as a “State of West Tennessee” address in a ballroom at the University of Memphis on Thursday evening, in the wake of the governor’s traditional “State of the State” address at the Capitol on Monday and a “State of East Tennessee” address in Knoxville on Tuesday.
Assuming the Knoxville speech followed the same outlines as the one in Memphis, it would have been more accurate to characterize the two outlier occasions as mere repetitions of the Monday night address in Knoxville and Memphis. In any case, the latter contained no new content and no expressly localized references at all, unless one counts Lee’s courtesy acknowledgements of dignitaries present before he settled into his remarks. (And even these acknowledgements, with few exceptions, were highly generalized within a request that “all elected officials” stand and be recognized.)
What followed the small talk and a brief statement of commiseration with area victims of flooding from the nonstop recent rains, was the same recollection of mountain-climbing in the Grand Tetons with daughter Jessica that had begun the speech to the gathered legislators and the state broadcasting networks on Monday.
The speech ended the same way as well, with a rumination on the moment that Lee and his daughter were inching their way along a mountain ledge high above an abyss below, with an intense awareness that looking back or looking down would be perilous in the extreme and potentially ruinous. As in Nashville, and presumably in Knoxville as well, this became a metaphorical exhortation for the state’s citizens and its government leaders as their exemplars to keep their attention focused, not on doubts or misgivings, but on the end goal of the climb upward — in Tennessee's case, to lead the nation, as Lee would have it.
And that goal — or, rather, those goals were the same ones enumerated in the State of the State on Monday — worthy ones, for the most part, though the governor’s somewhat Trumpian pledge to be “unapologetic” regarding “American exceptionalism” doesn’t sound any less jingoistic or worrisome on second or third hearing.
The heart of the “State of West Tennessee” address was as word-for-word with the Nashville original as can be imagined — though a mite condensed here and there. The same points and the same categories were recapped — an educational system featuring parental “choice” and synchronization with the needs of “job creators;” a criminal justice system balancing “swift and severe” punishment for the violent and unredeemable with compassion and re-entry assistance for the non-violent; “high quality health care” (without need for Medicaid expansion, though that aspect remained unspoken); and a cost-effective government.
As before the GOP supermajority in the Capitol, the speech was punctuated with designated applause points — “designated” in the literal sense that a member of the governor’s entourage would get them started (or try to) by extra-loud clapping from the back of the hall in case, say, the Memphis attendees did not grasp on their own, the promised glory of there coming to pass a state rainy-day fund of $1.1 billion, “highest in the state’s history.”
All these deja-vu aspects were noted by the frustrated members of a local media queue as they awaited the governor’s appearance, post-address, in a side room of the ballroom floor. Surely, they reasoned, this was the time to pin him down.
And try they did. First question was a wonky one inquiring about the mechanics of Lee’s proposals for stepping up the role of charter schools. Could he elaborate? “We’re looking to create an authorization — a state authorization that would make it easier to open up good charter schools and easier to close those that are not performing,” said Lee, which was close to his exact words in the speech.
Earlier on the very day of his speech, the state House had passed the controversial “fetal heartbeat” bill. Would he sign it? “I have said and would continue to say that I would support legislation that lowers the number of abortions in the state.”
How, in the absence of Medicaid expansion, could the state ensure the solvency of its hospitals and the accessibility of medical care? “The best way to insure the quality of health care is to lower costs.” And a few more words to that effect.
One reporter was puzzled that a speech purporting to discuss the state of things in West Tennessee, had failed to make a single mention of the sprawling and (some thought scandalously) incomplete 174-acre industrial mega-site along the borders of Haywood and Fayette counties. Just under $200 million in state funds had been expended on the site so far, with an estimated $100 million yet to come. And no serious nibbles to date from potential “job creators” of the big-ticket variety or otherwise. What were the governor’s thoughts?
“I have a lot of thoughts about it. I have met with the folks in that region a couple of times now, and at our cabinet level we are focused on how we can best utilize the mega-site. I believe we ought to have it ready, we need to pursue a tenant for it, and that will be a focus and a priority of ours.”
Why has he taken a position against decriminalization of marijuana? “I think that would not be good for our state.”
What did he have to say about the state’s numerous potentially divisive racial issues? “There’s more that unites us than divides us.”
Those were the kernels of the governor’s responses. In fairness, he expanded on a few of them but not to any degree of real elaboration. Over and over, he would beg a question, or ignore it, or find a way to restate it. This has, rather famously, been the pattern as well of his interchanges with Capitol Hill reporters.
It was also the manner of his gubernatorial campaign. As was the case then, Lee has adopted a policy as governor of letting bromides, generalities, and talking points do his speaking for him. That was a helpful tactic during the campaign, when all he needed to do was to be the last man standing. It is arguably less so now, when he is the only one left to guide the state across the treacherous mountain ledge of its future.