Opinion » Editorial

Bill Lee’s Surprise


During the 2018 governor's race in Tennessee, the leading candidates were thought to be Diane Black, the ultra-conservative Congresswoman from the state's Sixth District, and Randy Boyd, the affable social engineer and idea man behind many of then-Governor Bill Haslam's governmental innovations.

Black had no trouble presenting herself as the right-wing politician and outright Trumpian that she was — supporting huge tax cuts for the wealthy, bashing immigrants, and expressing desires to curtail the EPA. Boyd was almost necessarily a moderate, given the progressive nature of the institutions he created — Tennessee Promise, Drive to 55, etc. — and their modest but real claim on the state's exchequer.

But a strange thing began occurring during the gubernatorial race that year. Under pressure from his campaign advisors, Boyd began releasing ads and campaign bromides — loaded with hard-edged innuendo about the Second Amendment, potential welfare cheats, and illegal immigrants — that cast him in an altogether new light as some kind of hard-edged reactionary, determined to out-Black Black, or even to out-Trump Trump.

Meanwhile, on the stump, Boyd continued to talk reasonably about such subjects as education, health care, technology, immigration, workforce development, transportation, and urban strategies. Asked about his newly adopted public persona, Boyd said, "If I'm running to be the Republican nominee in Tennessee, I want Republican voters to see that I'm one of them."

In the end, Republican voters failed to see either Black or the redesigned Boyd as "one of them," opting instead for political newcomer Bill Lee, a Middle Tennessee industrialist/rancher who smiled winningly, avoided ideological abrasiveness in his speech, talked up his faith, and remained difficult to pin down on specific issues. A third-place candidate for most of the race, Lee became an obvious option to the mud-slinging match between Black and Boyd and ended up an easy winner, triumphing as well in the general election over Democrat Karl Dean.

So here we are in the second year of Governor Lee, no longer the Great Unknown. It turns out he has a few ideas, but most of those he has are far to the right of the spectrum — pushing school vouchers, vowing to end abortion, renouncing Medicaid expansion, denouncing "socialism," rejecting adoption rights for LGBTQ parents, and — most recently — calling for "open carry" gun legislation, or "constitutional carry," as advocates of unrestricted weaponry call it.

Cry your eyes out, Diane Black and Randy Boyd! Bill Lee out-Trumped both of you, even if it seems he did so by stealth. In a time when random gun violence increases apace, Tennessee's governor has basically just called for more guns and the de facto elimination of curbs on their presence in the public sphere. Almost immediately, law enforcement officials, both locally in Shelby County and elsewhere in the state, expressed opposition to the proposed new legislation, and we fully support them. It will require serious effort in the legislature and luck, besides, to overcome this new threat. And let us hope, a la some famous musical advice, we don't get fooled again.

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