NASHVILLE — Republican businessman and political newcomer Bill Lee will become Tennessee’s next governor, after he bested Democratic former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean on Tuesday
Lee will replace outgoing GOP Gov. Bill Haslam.
“I’m grateful for the voters of Tennessee, grateful that you placed your trust in us to lead this great state,” Lee said during his acceptance speech in Franklin, before hundreds of supporters. “We ran a positive campaign from the very beginning until the very last day because we wanted to give a picture of what this state could look like.”
From the beginning of his political campaign, Lee cast himself as a political outsider who underwent a personal transformation when he faced the death of his first wife of 16 years, Carol Ann, from a tragic horseback riding accident. His religious faith became a defining characteristic along the campaign trail and described running for the governor’s office as a “calling.”
He surprised many when he secured the Republican nomination in August after going up against U.S. Rep. Diane Black, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and House Speaker Beth Harwell— two opponents who spent more campaign cash and had more political experience than Lee, who has never before ran for public office.
Lee courted voters by traveling the state twice in an RV in a tour he called “Believe in Tennessee.” He visited all of Tennessee’s 95 counties in 95 days, and often chose smaller rural political events over sharing the stage with Dean.
His campaign remained overwhelmingly positive, but he has faced criticism for providing scant details on key policy positions.
As his Democratic opponent campaigned heavily on the need to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid eligibility to improve health care access across the state, Lee steadfastly opposed the plan.
Instead, Lee promised to work to fix the state’s health care system, calling it a long-term project that may take 15-20 years. However, unlike Dean, the Republican says he would ultimately lobby the Tennessee Legislature to vote against Medicaid expansion, should lawmakers ever get close to doing so.
Lee also says he supports school choice, a position his opponents say will result in public funds being funneled toward private schools. He hasn’t offered details about what policy options he’ll rule out as governor.
Lee chairs his family business, Lee Company, a $225 million mechanical contracting, facilities and home services firm with more than 1,200 employees. Lee also is active in his 1,000-acre family cattle operation.
Lee later told reporters after his speech that he will consider appointing Democrats to his administration. “I want to put together a team that is the best team that can be assembled to bring about real change.”
“I want to speak just a minute to those who may not have voted for me – I want them to know from the bottom of my heart I care about you and I care about your families,” Lee said. “I want you to ultimately be proud that I am your governor.”
He added that his priorities starting out in office will be economic development for rural communities, criminal justice reforms that will create safer neighborhoods, and education reform, with a focus on vocational and technical education.
“Bill Lee is a man with strong character and love for our state and will make the right decisions to keep Tennessee moving forward,” Haslam said in a statement. “I am excited to see what this state will accomplish under his leadership.”
Dean conceded shortly after the race was called, and urged Tennesseans to support the new governor-elect. It was the first time the former two-term Nashville mayor and former elected public defender had ever lost an election.
“We didn’t quite reach the goal tonight,” Dean told supporters in Nashville during his concession speech. “Despite everybody’s hard work, our message didn’t quite carry the day.”
Voters who backed Lee said his campaign style stood out.
“Bill didn’t go onto the attack,” said Sandi Wells, 62, who voted for Lee in Williamson County. “He just talked issues with people. And that’s what I think we want.”
Wells leads a weekly coffee gathering in which politics is discussed in Williamson County, the upscale Nashville suburb and Republican stronghold. She said she has watched Lee grow as a candidate since the primary, adding that the Republican has a “very warm vibe to him.”
(Reporter Adrian Sainz contributed to this report from Memphis.)