NASHVILLE — As he nears the end of his first year as Tennessee governor, Republican businessman and political newcomer Bill Lee said his biggest surprise was, well, just how much of a role politics plays in governing.
"The biggest difference between the private sector and this new job of mine is politics. And the degree to which politics plays a role was a surprise to me," Lee said last week during a wide-ranging interview with the Times Free Press. "I'd never been involved really in politics and, having not been a politician, you don't know how political this job can be."
Despite that, political players and observers say Lee has done fairly well this year, although there have been bumps, scrapes and controversies along the way, with some actions, including the governor's controversial voucher-like Education Savings Account program, expected to linger on into 2020.
Still, 62% of Tennesseans say they approve of the job he's doing, according to a Vanderbilt University poll of 1,000 registered voters released last week.
"He certainly didn't make any major mistakes," said Dr. John Geer, a political science professor and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. "I don't think he's taken any gambles. Any missteps, if he's made any, haven't resonated with the public. And "most politicians would kill for that" approval rating, Geer said.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said of Lee, the seventh governor he's served, "I think he's done a great job" during his first year. "It's difficult, you know, for anyone, no matter what their experience level is coming in as governor."
When he ran for governor in 2018, Lee touted his background as a political outsider and his business experience in running a large company while stressing his religious faith — one slogan on his campaign bus, also used in campaign ads, described him as a "Man of Faith."
Gov. Lee’s first year:
— The Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act expanding access to vocational and technical training to students.
— Winning legislative approval for an Education Savings Account program, which provides money to low-income parents to pay for private school tuition and related education expenses for students in Davidson and Shelby counties.
— Establishing a stand-alone statewide public charter school authorizer and adding $6 million to the charter school facilities fund.
— Establishing an Office of Faith Based Initiatives to support partnerships with the nonprofit community.
— Expanding the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit with an additional 24 positions dedicated to identifying fraud and waste.
— Proving $11 million more to support mental health services through the behavioral health safety net and regional mental institutes.
— Creating the Future Workforce Initiative to prepare students for the jobs of the future in science, technology, engineering and math.
— Establishing a three-year pilot program to provide support services for high school students in Tennessee’s 15 distressed counties.
— Continuing uproar over Education Savings Account law as well as what behind-scenes ‘pork barrel’ deals were struck to win narrow House approval.
— Blow up over Lee signing Tennessee law-mandated proclamation declaring July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” in remembrance of the controversial Confederate general and first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. Deals with long-standing controversy over whether Forrest’s bust in state Capitol should be removed.
— Passing charter school authorization initiative.
— Pressing forward with legislatively required Medicaid block grant program.
— Agreeing to participate in refugee resettlement program
He pledged to help rural Tennesseans left behind in the state's economic boom and promised to boost vocational educational training opportunities. After winning the GOP primary and the general election, Lee took office Jan. 19. He appointed a cabinet and top advisers, many of whom had no elective or appointive office experience. And he immediately pushed a school voucher-like initiative.
His Education Savings Account measure passed, but not without controversy still shrouding the process today. Compromises restricted its goal of allowing low-income families to use public money to pay for private schools. Approval by the GOP-led General Assembly restricted it solely to the Metro Nashville and Shelby County school systems.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, chairman of Hamilton County's legislative delegation, said while he backed most of Lee's initiatives, he didn't support Lee's Education Savings Account bill.
"The [education savings account] thing was in my opinion just a bad deal," said Gardenhire, a longtime voucher supporter who vehemently opposed Lee's last-minute compromise with House Republicans to exclude undocumented students and even U.S.-born students whose parents are undocumented from the program.
That flat-out violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Gardenhire said.
Speaking more generally about Lee's first year, Gardenhire said, "it's been a steep, steep learning curve" for the governor and his team. "Well intentioned, but a steep curve for him and for his administration."
Lee cites No. 1 achievement
Despite his hard-fought fight for the ESA program, Lee said that isn't what he's most proud of getting done in his first year.
"The thing that I think I'm most proud of and I enjoyed the most and that I think will have a significant impact on people's lives is really born out of my 35 years of being in the private sector and being with primarily skilled trades people — recognizing the lack of focus in our public school system, recognizing the under-appreciated value of those trades," the governor said.
His nominee for No. 1 achievement is his answer for that: The "Governor's Investment in Vocational Education Act" known as the GIVE program. Funded with $25 million, it seeks to foster long-term regional partnerships between Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, community colleges, industry, economic development and workforce agencies along with K-12 officials to identify and fix "skills gaps" in local workforce pools.
That is "something I've had in my heart for years and years," said the governor, who has an engineering degree from Auburn but also a master plumber's license. "I was the motive behind the [law], a significant investment and effort toward creating a new model in high school that has a specific focus on vocational and technical and agricultural education."
It will provide "pathways of hope and success and for a lot of kids in a lot of schools across the state that otherwise might not have had that path for success," Lee said. "I'm most proud of that. Probably one of the best moments in my governorship was handing out the first GIVE Act grant, which occurred a few weeks ago in a high school in East Tennessee."
ESA, stand-alone charter school authorizer legislation and House Speaker Casada
Still, in terms of time, effort, controversy and public awareness, the ESA measure, another bill creating a standalone body to authorize charter schools and a political wildfire that consumed a key Lee ally, House Speaker Glen Casada, kept Lee and his administration hopping.
"I think if there's one area he probably should not have dove into, it was the voucher bill," said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. "But we'll have to see how all that works out. But overall he's had an exceptional first year."
The ESA drove a wedge in the House Republican super majority with a number of rural lawmakers — teachers are an important constituency in those areas — reluctant to sign on. Various compromises and deals were made, the most dramatic moment coming when the bill deadlocked on the House floor on a tie vote.
For 40 minutes, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, buttonholed, cajoled, threatened, pleaded and horse-traded to get the winning vote. It passed 50-49. Not long after, Casada was engulfed in another controversy, this one involving the leak of sexually explicit text messages exchanged with a younger top aide.
Other issues quickly surfaced, and the GOP Caucus approved a no-confidence measure on the speaker. After Casada said he hoped to earn back their confidence, Lee, who had tried to stay out of the mess, issued a statement that he would call lawmakers back into special session to remove Casada if he didn't step down. He did.
But a new controversy erupted when an Upper East Tennessee Republican, who initially had opposed ESAs, later announced a nonprofit in his district was getting a $75,000 grant from a $4 million set-aside in the state budget. It became apparent a deal had been struck for votes, something not uncommon, but Senate GOP leaders knew nothing about it. More criticism about ESAs quickly ensued and exactly what was promised to whom remains murky even now.
Lee sought to downplay that.
"It seems like people continue to talk about the same thing," the governor said. "But I continue to say the same thing, which was we worked really hard to convince people and encourage people why these kids needed this opportunity and why education savings accounts were a good idea."
In efforts to get lawmakers on board, Lee said, he spent hours talking to members on the ESA bill, noting, "that's how it works."
"I think the signature event in the Bill Lee governship has been passing school vouchers," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. "And people should be very worried about their public schools."
Another controversial Lee bill involved the stand-alone board to approve charter school applications. It's expected to make the process easier for would-be operators to open the schools, which are public schools but run privately and with fewer state regulations.
Lingering controversies: Medicaid, Nathan Bedford Forrest and a foreign refugee program
While not a Lee administration initiative, the governor was directed by Republican majority lawmakers to seek to convert much of the funding for its TennCare Medicaid program into a federal block grant. If approved by the federal government, many of the program's 1.4 million low-income children, mothers, the disabled and seniors would be affected.
The waiver proposal is pending before the Trump administration, which has welcomed such proposals, but despite Lee's efforts to address critics' concerns they remain opposed.
Another controversy not of Lee's making involves Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose bust sits in an honored niche at the state Capitol near the House and Senate chambers but has been the target of numerous protests. And during the summer, yet another Forrest controversy erupted when Lee signed a usually unnoticed — and by law required — proclamation declaring July 14 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day." With Forrest having been the Ku Klux Klan's first grand wizard, there was an uproar.
Lee has publicly said he would like doing away with the requirement that he sign the annual proclamation. The governor has also said he would like to provide more historical context about Forrest to Capitol visitors who see the bust. Critics want it removed.
Meanwhile, Lee is coming under criticism from his right flank for saying Tennessee will continue to accept refugees, one of only a few Republicans to do so under a directive signed by President Donald Trump allowing governors to do so. Lee and his wife, Maria, have long been involved in international Christian missionary work.
Asked about some of the first-year controversies, Lee made it clear that he favors another term: challenges.
"I don't think I've had many controversies. You may think that," he said, chuckling. "I don't. We've certainly had challenges but I really don't see those so much as controversies" but "opportunities."
"I mean, that's what you do in leadership. You address challenges as they come along, you minimize their distraction from getting good things done. And you move forward.
"We had our share of challenges but that's kind of life, that's no different from running a business," the governor added. "Challenges pop up constantly, and the degree to which you address those is the degree to which you can be successful."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.