It is hard to imagine a worse start to a governorship than Bill Lee’s. Elected in 2018 as an exemplar of evangelical Christian values and bipartisan criminal justice reform, Lee has become quite the opposite. His schizophrenic response to COVID-19, along with an inept school voucher program, are further displays of a governor who simply was not prepared for the job.
Though Lee’s election signaled an important shift in criminal justice, he expanded the penal system’s reach into vulnerable constituencies. The Criminal Justice Investment Task Force, established in March 2019, made 23 recommendations for reforming the criminal justice system. This initiative, however, has been overshadowed by the governor’s allegiance to the most reactionary state officials.
In 2019, Lee backed Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s “election integrity” bill that intended to criminalize voter registration drives by third-party organizations. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law believed the legislation targeted civil rights and Black-led advocacy groups. A federal judge granted an injunction on the law calling it a “complex and punitive regulatory scheme.” Among its most controversial parts were a series of fines amounting to modern-day poll taxes and nearly a year in jail for individuals or groups convicted of violating the law.
Later in the year, the governor acquiesced to Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s decision to fast track the executions of nine persons on death row. Lee abdicated responsibility insisting that Slatery and state Supreme Court are solely responsible for final decisions on the death penalty. At least two of the persons (Pervis Payne and Abu-Ali Abdur’ Rahman) scheduled for executions may have been wrongfully convicted.
Constitutional safeguards have little standing in Lee’s universe when it comes to activists who denounce police killings and Confederate memorabilia on state property. Earlier this summer, the governor endorsed the Orwellian anti-protest bill orchestrated by the overly ambitious and tantrum-prone Rep. William Lamberth. The legislation targeted the People’s Plaza activists, who organized a two-month occupation of the state capitol. It imposes an index of sentences from 30 days to six years in prison, not just against protestors but against homeless residents too, including penalties for unspecified actions broadly defined as vandalism.
If criminal justice reform is Lee’s top priority, then we are all in trouble. His surrender to the far-right has converted the criminal justice system into a vehicle for pummeling voter empowerment groups and young activists. If anything, the governor’s actions expose the ideological divisions within the criminal justice reform movement. Advocates that center systemic racism, white supremacy, sexual violence, civil liberty violations, and the disproportionate incarceration of people in low-wealth communities—all foundations of the carceral state—are marginalized by conservative activists who tout reforms to the criminal justice system.
The governor’s most inept action has been his ill-fated voucher bill. It is the only legislation in recent memory that was adopted by the same lawmakers who detested it. So much was their dislike of the voucher program, called Education Savings Accounts by the administration, that most representatives exempted school districts in their counties from its purported benefits. The final legislation limited the voucher counties to Shelby and Davidson—both having the highest number of Black students—whose representatives opposed it.
Lee’s legislative allies twisted arms to pass the voucher bill, giving uncommitted lawmakers a boatload of pork-barrel spending projects. Media outlets later reported that Speaker of the House Glen Casada may have tried to bribe Rep. John Mark Windle for his support of the bill by offering him a promotion to the rank of general in the National Guard. For a political party that touts itself as fiscally conservative, anti-earmarks, and as morally upstanding, this behavior was more than hypocritical. It displayed a willingness to do anything just to give the school privatization movement a victory at the expense of public dollars.
Lee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been equal parts confusing and chaotic. Several Republican governors instituted the equivalent of mask mandates in their states. At least four pro-Trump counties in Tennessee announced mask mandates in late October to curtail rising infections.
On September 12, the governor was photographed maskless with other politicians while attending a 400-boat Trump rally at Tims Ford Lake that drew 3,000 people. The governor had to quarantine within a month because a member of his security detail contracted the virus. Yet still, Lee’s cavalier attitude and nod to anti-maskers were reckless and disrespectful to first responders and the families directly impacted by the virus.
In November, the governor rejected Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s request for more COVID-19 federal dollars to help alleviate the city’s fiscal crisis. This was the second time Lee turned down the mayor’s request, the first occurring in September when the governor tried to bully the city to open all businesses against the advice of public health experts.
It is hard to imagine a more callous response than the governor’s sanctimonious reprimand of Nashville. Metro officials have already tightened the county’s fiscal belt with cost-saving measures and a property tax increase. And Nashville was the only city of its comparable size hit with the twin blows of a natural disaster and the virus in the first half of the year. The county’s urgent care facilities also serve COVID-19 patients in the greater region, including pro-Trump rural counties, meaning Nashville is carrying a greater share of the public health burden than most counties in the state.
The governor even found time to weigh in on President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial accusations about election fraud. A chief assertion by Trump is that Dominion Voting Systems, which supplied voting technology in Georgia and Michigan was corrupted, somehow posthumously by deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. In his defense of Trump’s refusal to concede defeat, Lee stated that “If every state had an election process like Tennessee, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”
Lee’s groveling ignores the fact that Dominion Voting Systems is also used in Tennessee’s Hamilton and Williamson Counties, the latter from which he hails. Hamilton County is the hometown of former Sen. Bob Corker, who as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had congressional oversight over foreign election malfeasance.
Rep. Mike Carter, who sits on the House Subcommittee on Elections and Campaign Finance, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, the second vice-chair of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, represent parts of Hamilton. Williamson County, the power base of the Republican Party, is the home of U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn; Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson; Rep. Brandon Ogles, the Caucus Vice-Chair; and former Speaker of the House Glen Casada.
These Dominion-voting counties collectively gave 70% of their vote to Trump. Thus, if Lee insinuates that Democrats were part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the 2020 elections, then he must indict himself and state’s Republican Party leaders for defrauding their own voters.
One would think that Lee’s persona of evangelical piety, faux compassion, constitutional illiteracy, and Victorian sportsman would wear on voters. This, however, is Tennessee where healthy governance and intellectual curiosity take a backseat to hyper-partisanship, the abuse of the supermajority, and the permanent stain of racial conservatism. Yet, at some point, Lee must decide if he wants to be a good steward of the state or merely a scarecrow for his radically conservative flank.