Updated at 7:28 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A 300-person bipartisan audience of politically savvy Middle Tennessee businessmen, corporate sponsors and others were left frustrated Thursday when Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Lee unexpectedly canceled a scheduled appearance also featuring Democratic nominee Karl Dean.
Staffers for Lee, who was campaigning in East Tennessee Thursday, later apologized. Campaign spokeswoman Laine Arnold blamed the situation on "an unfortunate miscommunication, and we regret not being there for the event. We apologize to the organizers and attendees for any error."
As the lone candidate in attendance, Dean, a former Nashville mayor, had the group mostly to himself as he pitched his proposals including expanding the state's Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, bolstering education funding and other matters. He later fielded several audience questions.
Republican state Rep. Ron Travis of Dayton, among a number of Tennessee legislators in attendance, did a last-minute substitution for Lee. He praised the Franklin businessman and first-time political candidate while also reading from what Travis called a list of Lee campaign-supplied "talking points."
The Thursday luncheon event was not a debate — Lee had previously declined to participate in a proposed forum the same day at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. The Republican also declined an invitation from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce to participate in a forum.
Lee has agreed to three debates with Dean in Kingsport, Memphis and Nashville.
After having the audience to himself, Dean later spoke with reporters from six news organizations covering the event.
"We have received over 20 requests to appear together in forums or debates and we've accepted them all," Dean said of Lee. "My point of view is that, again, you got to get out there, the people got to see you. People got to hear you answer the questions. People want to see what the differences are between the candidates. And those opportunities are important for the people of Tennessee."
Asked by one reporter whether he thought Lee was trying to avoid forums and debates, Dean said, "I wouldn't say it. But you can."
Earlier, as word spread that Lee would not be attending, flustered event organizer Harvey Fischer, who represents the Tennessee political interests of Farmers Insurance Group, a major national insurer, confirmed he had received a call from the Lee campaign about 15 minutes earlier saying the candidate would not be there.
"This luncheon is sponsored by Farmers Insurance, Baker Donelson [law firm], American Insurance Association and about 25 business and corporate sponsors, each sponsoring a table," Fischer said, gesturing to the packed hotel ballroom in Murfreeesboro. "There are about 300 people here today, as you can see."
Fischer said the luncheon, the forum and a dinner with MTSU Chancellor Sidney McPhee had been discussed and agreed to earlier this year by the state Republican and Democratic parties before the primary. That evidently didn't include automatic buy-in from candidates, however.
After Lee won the Aug. 2 GOP primary, Fischer said, "We were notified by the Bill Lee campaign that they would not be able to do the forum but they would attend the governor's luncheon. And so that's what we had agreed to do on this date ."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.