VIEWS ON GOV. LEE
* “His vision for our state will extend our prosperity across the grand divisions and throughout our population. Bill Lee is the right governor at the right time. Together, we will take what is already very good and make it great. I look forward to working with him to keep Tennessee on the right track.” - Tennessee Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.
* “Gov. Lee’s going to be one of the great ones. No doubt in my mind.” - state House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
* “Great day. Start of a new era in Tennessee, a new governor, a new administration, lot of new members in the House. So I’m really excited. … I think we have the opportunity to do some really great stuff.” — state Senate Finance Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
* “I appreciated the challenges that Gov. Lee laid out for the state. I think he’s right that we’re going to be judged that Tennesseans have access to health care, that we’re doing something meaningful on the opioid epidemic. And that we’re providing opportunity for everyone.” — State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
* “Congratulations Governor @BillLeeTN. We’re counting on you, and we’re proud of you.” — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R—Tenn.
* “Governor Lee has an inspiring vision for the Volunteer State and I look forward to working alongside him to improve the lives of Tennesseans. Congratulations @BillLeeTN!” —U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.
NASHVILLE — Weaving his family's own experience as pioneer settlers here into the tapestry of Tennessee history, Republican Bill Lee on Saturday took his oath of office as the state's 50th governor, stressing self reliance, sacrifice, unity and faith in God to meet the challenges ahead.
"Our greatness has never come from what any one individual did," the 59-year Williamson County businessman and political outsider told a packed crowd inside the 1,600-seat War Memorial Auditorium at the state Capitol.
Rather, Lee said, "our greatness has always come from the collective lives, service, commitment and sacrifice of those who came before us — because of what we have always done as a people together, in community with each other, in service to our state and to our neighbors."
"As honored as I am to be your next governor, no governor will solve the problems — in fact, no government will solve the greatest problems that we face," Lee said. "Government is not the answer to our challenges."
Moments earlier, Lee, with his wife Maria and their children accompanying him, took the oath of office, administered by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Bivins on Lee's family Bible.
In succeeding Republican Bill Haslam as governor, Lee becomes the first Republican in state history to succeed another Republican governor. Watching the proceedings were his five predecessors, which in addition to Haslam were Republicans Winfield Dunn, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Don Sundquist and the lone Democrat, Phil Bredesen, who lost a U.S. Senate bid in 2018.
The swearing-in ceremony, originally scheduled to be held outdoors on the adjacent Legislative Plaza, was moved indoors due to rain. The auditorium was packed with top state officials, the entire General Assembly, the state's two U.S. senators and nine congressmen, as well as hundreds of Lee supporters, lobbyists and others.
As he spoke, Lee cited the work of past Tennesseans, "men and women who protected us and built a system of law and justice, circuit riders who built a community of faith. It happened because of men and women who struggled to overcome injustices and inequalities in our society — from slavery to suffrage to civil rights."
But Lee attributed most of Tennessee's successes in areas ranging from forging a state to building cities and businesses to a higher power.
"[I]t happened because of the favor of God Himself," said Lee, who often highlighted his religious faith in seeking office. "In spite of our inadequacies and our weaknesses, He has been strong on our behalf. He has blessed us indeed. And as governor of Tennessee, I will daily ask Him for his wisdom, guidance and direction."
"We will need that wisdom, for despite the blessings we enjoy, we still face great challenges," Lee added.
Lee thanked Haslam for his service and friendship, saying that from "education to economic development, you have laid a tremendous foundation for us to build upon."
But many challenges remain, Lee said, noting that regardless of where people live in the state's famous grand divisions of East, Middle and West Tennessee, in rural or urban areas, "people want the same thing: a good job, good school for their kids and a safe neighborhood."
While Tennessee is experiencing record low unemployment and taxes with companies moving into the state as well as new start-ups, Lee said 15 rural counties remain mired in poverty, as well as residents of "some of the most economically distressed ZIP codes in America — right in the heart of our greatest cities.
"When we consider our state, we see how fortunate we are, and yet, we also see how much we have to do," Lee said. " We've made tremendous progress in education in this state — in part due to great education governors who have come before me.
"And yet," Lee added, "we're still in the bottom half of states."
Lee, who ran on boosting vocational education in middle and high schools, said he believes "education is more than a test score — it's about preparing a child for success in life."
He said he wants a "resurgence of vocational, technical and agricultural education" as well as "the inclusion of civics and character education, combined with reforms," adding they "will take Tennessee to the top tier of states."
Haslam, who leaves after eight years as governor and is weighing a 2020 race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., spoke and briefly touched upon his own record in recruiting industry, offering last-dollar lottery scholarships for Tennesseans to attend community and technical colleges and other areas.
He then turned to praise Lee in a sometimes-emotional speech.
"I've seen the courage of his convictions, whether it be through a campaign or just in life. Godspeed my brother," the exiting governor told his successor, later adding, "mark my words, Bill Lee will be a great governor" who will serve two terms.
Lee said Tennesseans want safe neighborhoods, noting that although "most neighborhoods are safe, our violent crime rate is on the rise in every major city. We can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time. For violent criminals and traffickers, justice should be swift and certain."
But Lee, who did volunteer work for a faith-based program aimed at helping felons re-enter society, also cited another of his campaign pledges, cutting high rates of return of felons to prison.
"Today in Tennessee, half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years," Lee said. "We need to help non-violent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison. I believe we can do it and create safer neighborhoods for everyone in Tennessee."
He cited other challenges, including the opioid epidemic he said is "ravaging our state."
And Lee, who opposes expanding Medicaid to an estimated 300,000 low-income working adults under the federal Affordable Care Act, said "too few Tennesseans have access to health care that they can afford."
He has pledged to address health care costs but has not said how.
Also citing how "our rural communities are struggling," Lee said these all represent "the challenges of our day, and history will judge us based on how we meet them."
The "truth is," Lee added, "most of the things that have created the greatness of Tennessee don't have very much to do with government at all. Our strength has always come from our people, people like those first Tennesseans, who came here with hope, who worked together to create this great state."
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican state Senate's speaker, later said Lee "is the right governor at the right time. Together, we will take what is already very good and make it great."
One of Lee's slogans has been taking Tennessee from "good to great."
As he comes into office, Lee will enjoy the same GOP super majorities in the state House and Senate as Haslam did.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he "appreciated the challenges that Gov. Lee laid out for the state. I think he's right that we're going to be judged that Tennesseans have access to health care, that we're doing something meaningful on the opioid epidemic. And that we're providing opportunity for everyone."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, called Saturday a "great day" and the "start of a new era in Tennessee. I think we have the opportunity to do some really great stuff."
House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, noted that Tennessee remains "one of the few states that has chosen not to expand health care under the Affordable Care Act. And I would certainly hope that Gov. Lee will give that a careful look."
State Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, called Lee's speech "wonderful. The man has passion in his heart, for his family and for us."
In his speech, Lee talked about his seventh great-grandfather, Charles Braxton Lee, who settled on the banks of the Cumberland River in 1796. He said he's thought about him and his other ancestors a great deal. And he's also giving thought to those who will follow and how they will judge today's leaders.
"Were we strong and courageous, faithful, committed, certain? Did we come together to meet the challenges we faced, with courage, optimism and belief in each other?" he asked. "If we meet the challenges of this moment, they too will say of us 'They were Tennesseans.'"
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.