Cooper: Lee the choice for Republicans

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee stands with his wife, Maria, at his family farm in Franklin, Tenn.

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Tennessee Republicans can feel fortunate they have an embarrassment of riches in their gubernatorial primary to replace term-limited Republican Bill Haslam. Six names are on the ballot, four of those are competitive, and all four have diverse backgrounds and unique strengths.

Of the four, we believe Franklin businessman Bill Lee offers a history of running and growing a company, the experience of being a fourth-generation farmer and an outsider's perspective on the office of governor.

We also appreciate that he has chosen not to be involved in what seems like daily negative campaign exchanges between perceived front-runners Randy Boyd, a Knoxville businessman whose ideas we also very much admire, and U.S. Rep. Diane Black.

"I think dishonest attack ads are everything that is wrong with politics," Lee told this page earlier this week. "It's not something leaders with integrity do. [The ads are] divisive, and they do much more harm than good."

Although recent independent polls on the campaign have been few, the man who terms himself the "conservative outsider" appears to have momentum in the race. We hope that will allow voters who originally considered Boyd or Black to take a look at the seventh-generation Tennessean.

Lee has never run for public office but is chairman of a 1,200-person, $220 million company that was named the No. 1 place to work in Middle Tennessee four times, and he was voted the most admired CEO in Nashville. The company provides services such as heating and air conditioning repair, electrical work and plumbing.

His campaign took shape, he told the Times Free Press in 2017, when his nonprofit experiences caused him to evaluate public service. Although he had served on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and on Haslam's Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, it was his experiences mentoring a Nashville high school student he met at a YMCA program aimed at helping at-risk youth and with Men of Valor, a re-entry program for ex-offenders, that opened his eyes.

Lee said it caused him to believe he could help improve lives on a larger scale.

A year later, he has fleshed out his campaign with initiatives such as a Roadmap for Rural Tennessee, a renewed focus on vocational, technical and agricultural education, innovative state-based and market-based solutions in health care reform, and work and job training as part of every social welfare program.

Lee said his philosophy in general is to defend the Second Amendment right to bear arms, to oppose state-driven policies that make the federal problem of illegal immigration worse, and to protect the sanctity of life.

He also has said his faith is the most important thing in his life, "and that won't change when I'm the governor."

Although recent ads by Black have attempted to worry voters that several of Lee's donations certify that he is not sufficiently conservative, records show 99.3 percent of the $164,540 in contributions he has made to candidates for federal and state offices over the past 19 years have gone to Republicans.

If that's the worst the other campaigns have on Lee, we believe he's on solid ground.

Boyd offers both the experience of a business built from scratch and administration experience under Haslam, while Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell probably knows state government better than any of the four. Black, meanwhile, touts her closeness to President Trump and her social conservative bona fides.

We admire the unselfish desire of service that caused Lee to enter the race, his experience and insights from a business background, and the lack of baggage from the current or previous campaigns. We believe he can be a worthy successor to Haslam and bring a fresh approach to the office. We urge a vote for him in the Republican primary on Aug. 2 or in early voting beginning today.