Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dr. Jason Martin, left, and incumbent Gov. Bill Lee, right. Photos by John Partipilo.
With early voting under way, Gov. Bill Lee is running his re-election campaign in a vacuum, largely ignoring his opponent, Democrat Dr. Jason Martin, while the challenger is taking the fight to the Republican frontrunner, calling him a failed leader.
The Republican governor won’t acknowledge his opponent when reporters question whether he’s taking Martin seriously.
Asked why people should vote for him instead of his opponent, Lee says, “We have accomplished a lot of things in the last four years, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In contrast, Martin doesn’t hesitate to knock the governor.
Martin blasts Lee for starting the Education Savings Account program, which uses public money to send students to private schools, and for supporting private Hillsdale College’s plans to open 50 charter schools here in spite of President Larry Arnn’s comments that teachers are educated in “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
Amid that criticism, Lee continues his mantra that he pushed a billion-dollar investment through the General Assembly in K-12 schools this year.
Lee is buoyed by exploding state revenues, which were 16.5% higher than projected in fiscal 2021-22, and remain strong this fiscal year. He’s poured money into the “rainy day fund,” as well, which will have a record $1.8 billion at the end of this year.
The governor explains that educating the next generation is “the most important step” the state can take for the future, noting part of his plan is to advance vocational/technical education and to advocate for parents to have choices.
“I’m very excited about what the future holds for our public schools, for our public charter schools and for school choice across Tennessee,” Lee says.
Martin, who was recently endorsed by the Tennessee Education Association’s political action arm, sees it differently. He contends Lee’s plan chips away at traditional public education, and he takes a stand against Hillsdale’s Arnn.
“If Lary Arnn tried to come to our community, and I was governor and he was to look at that crowd and say that our teachers, you all, went to the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country, he would be shown the door. We’re not gonna put up with it,” Martin says at a recent education rally near the Capitol.
Dr. Jason Martin
Despite increases in K-12 funding each year under the Lee Administration, Martin points out Tennessee remains behind Alabama and Kentucky in per-pupil funding, about 46th nationally. He also contends the state’s new funding formula takes control away from local officials and gives authority to unelected bureaucrats at the state level.
“Public education is one-third of our prescription for prosperity across the state of Tennessee, not just in our cities but in our rural communities,” Martins says, adding more “wraparound services” such as mental health counselors and case managers are needed in public schools. Workforce development, affordable health care and infrastructure such as broadband across the state make up the rest of his campaign plank.
Lee’s budgets have funded broadband expansion, and he used millions of dollars in COVID relief money to pay for part of the state’s plan.
Martin spent much of his career working at Nashville General Hospital, the safety net hospital in Middle Tennessee. He contends “the greatest moral failure” of the General Assembly and Gov. Lee is their refusal to accept billions of dollars from the federal government to expand Medicaid to more than 300,000 uninsured and underinsured Tennesseans. Some groups say that number is as high as 600,000.
Martin contends the state could use about $1.4 billion annually from the federal government to avoid being number one in the nation for medical bankruptcies per capita and a national leader in hospital closures. More than a dozen closed in the last five years.
Lee, on the other hand, has consistently argued that the Affordable Care Act is “fundamentally flawed.” Instead of urging the Legislature to expand TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, his administration pushed a “modified block grant” to passage. It is designed to increase efficiency and use “shared savings” with the federal government to provide more services to the state’s poorest residents, including low-income women and children and the disabled.
The Trump Administration approved the program just hours before leaving office in 2021, leading to a lawsuit from the Tennessee Justice Center. That is on hold until the federal government, under the Biden Administration, makes a decision. The Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor, argued mainly against a provision that would have limited the prescription formulary for TennCare enrollees, and the state put that section on hold.
Abortion restriction questions
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Lee has taken the position that he is satisfied with the law as written, despite the lack of exceptions for rape and incest and the potential criminalization of physicians who perform surgeries to save the life of pregnant women suffering from ectopic pregnances and other deadly emergencies.
I’ve met thousands of Tennesseans who understand that the government, the heavy hand of the government, big government Bill Lee, does not belong in that doctor’s office with a woman, her provider, her family and her God.
– Dr. Jason Martin, Democratic nominee for governor
In July, he declined to answer reporters’ questions about about whether he supported changing the state’s “trigger” law, which bans almost all abortions. Physicians can be charged with a felony for performing abortions even to save the life of a mother and have to prove in court that the procedure was necessary to keep the woman alive.
During the summer, Republican state Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City said he thinks the law needs to be altered to help doctors avoid confusion. Recently, Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and Republican Congressman Mark Green agreed that the law needs revamping to ensure doctors can treat women suffering from problem pregnancies without the fear of arrest.
Briggs said the legislation should separate those types of abortion procedures from what are considered “elective” abortions, or cases when women simply want to end a pregnancy.
A spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office did not answer questions recently about Lee’s stance on that section of the law.
In light of the governor’s intransigence on the abortion law, Martin calls him a “radical” on women’s health rights.
Martin says he’s traveled to all 95 counties and hasn’t met one person who wants another abortion to take place in Tennessee.
“But I’ve met thousands of Tennesseans who understand that the government, the heavy hand of the government, big government Bill Lee, does not belong in that doctor’s office with a woman, her provider, her family and her God,” Martin says.
He points out 80% of Tennesseans believe the “trigger law” is going to hurt women and could lead to their death.
“We live in Gov. Lee’s Tennessee where you can be forced to have your rapist’s baby before your rape kit comes back from the underfunded Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab,” Martin says. “That is wrong, and we need to do something about it.”
A nearly year-long backlog of rape kits drew fire this fall in the murder case of Eliza Fletcher, whose alleged killer, Cleotha Abston Henderson, was linked to rape kit that had been taken nearly a year earlier, not long after he got out of prison after serving 21 years of a 25-year sentence.
Gov. Lee announced plans in early October enabling TBI to hire more forensic scientists and administrative assistants to expedite work on rape kits.
Asked whether he thought it was fair to other rape victims that Fletcher’s death jumpstarted debate about the backlog, Lee noted only that his administration provided $25 million in the current budget for more personnel to cut wait times and then opted to give the agency 25 more positions this fall.
“Certainly this issue that the TBI has had, they’ve had for a long time, and we became aware of that. They made the request and we have helped them fund this request,” Lee said.
Lee launched his TV advertising with a spot noting that a look at television makes people feel “like the world’s gone a little bit crazy – but not in Tennessee.”
He says he’s proud of the work his administration has done and cites the fastest-growing economy in the nation, low taxes and more skilled trades.
The governor also lobbied the Capitol Commission for removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the State Capitol to the State Museum, a move that angered some conservatives who called removal of the Confederate cavalry general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan a cleansing of history.
“We’ve put families first like we said we would, and I think we’re just getting started. Being your governor has been the honor of my life and I’d be honored to serve again,” Lee says.
The governor landed $557,389 in contributions during the most recent quarter, spent $1.4 million and ended September with $3.5 million on hand.
Martin, who barely won the Democratic primary, raised $481,900, spent $298,504 and had $249,493 on hand at the end of the quarter. His expenses included no major TV ad buys.
Instead, he used social media to spread his message, including one spot in which he tried to debunk all of Lee’s claims, calling out Lee for putting his political finger in the wind and shifting positions.
Midway through Lee’s administration, he held a press conference backing personal leave for state employees, even signing an executive order advancing the plan. But when that tanked among conservatives, he came out with a proposal to allow “constitutional carry,” a measure that passed in 2021, enabling “law-abiding” residents over 21 to carry handguns without a state permit.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, the governor went along with requests to close K-12 schools in the final months of the 2019-2020 school year. He also made executive orders encouraging “non-essential” businesses to curtail operations while allowing restaurants to do drive-through business.
Lee appointed a Unified Command Group to make key decisions during the pandemic and set up a panel to oversee the expenditure of billions in federal relief money. The command group, however, took some knocks for approving no-bid contracts that proved to be expensive and embarrassing.
Lee walked a tightrope of sorts as he faced pressure from ultra-conservatives, often saying that taking a COVID-19 vaccine was the best way to avoid illness but never putting masks and vaccine mandates in place.
The governor’s main economic recruiting victory – Ford’s plan to build an electric truck manufacturing plant at Blue Oval City on the state’s 4,100-acre Memphis Regional Megasite – nearly ran into trouble during a special session when lawmakers tried to limit the automaker’s ability to require masks for workers. A Ford official sent out a warning statement, and legislators spent the latter hours of the session trying to figure out how to keep their COVID-19 legislation in place without angering Ford.
Lee contended he didn’t play a role in the debate, which some feared could derail the $5.6 billion truck and battery assembly facility.
The governor’s main initiative, the Education Savings Account program, turned into one of the thorniest in his term.
Amid a tie vote in the House during April 2019, former Speaker Glen Casada held the board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber for another vote. Lee called numerous lawmakers during the delay.
Ultimately, Republican state Rep. Jason Zachary agreed to change his vote and back the program in exchange for the removal of Knox County schools as a voucher district. Hamilton County Schools district also was removed to garner the necessary votes for passage.
The program was found unconstitutional by a Nashville state court and the Court of Appeals. But the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned those decisions this summer and found the program didn’t violate the state’s Home Rule Amendment, which requires state laws affecting one or two counties to be approved locally.
The Department of Education has approved 454 of 965 applications for the program, which allots state dollars for students to enroll in private schools. Up to 5,000 qualifying, low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts are allowed to use the program, with the number increasing annually for five years.
Gov. Bill Lee
In the aftermath, outgoing Republican state Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston told the Tennessee Lookout he overheard Casada on the House balcony say he was going to talk to the governor about giving state Rep. John Mark Windle the rank of general in the National Guard in return for his vote. Windle, a colonel in the Guard at the time, declined to change his “no” vote.
Casada denies making the offer to Windle, and the governor – when asked repeatedly by a reporter – claims he doesn’t know what Calfee is talking about, including a meeting Calfee says he had with the governor in which they discussed the matter and then hugged.
Not only does Martin criticize the governor’s voucher program, he blasts Lee’s handling of a truth-in-sentencing measure passed this year. Even though Lee opposed the bill, which requires most sentences for violent crimes to be served at 100% or 85%, he allowed the legislation to become law without his signature.
Martin contends Lee “doesn’t stand for what he believes.” When the measure reached his desk, the governor released a statement saying it would not reduce recidivism, prison crowding or taxpayer expenses, yet allowed it to become law.
“He blows in the political winds. He’s beholden to the Republican General Assembly,” Martin says. “And that’s not leadership, and we can do better to take care of one another.”
Still, in a state where more than 60% of the voters backed Donald Trump in the 2020 election, Lee is a strong favorite to win a second term.
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