Dr. Carol M. Swain Commentary: Why I Am Not Supporting Bill Lee for Tennessee Governor

Carol Swain, Bill Lee
by Dr. Carol M. Swain


Last week I wrote an opinion piece about why I support Diane Black for Governor of Tennessee. I explained that for weeks I have been telling people the only viable GOP gubernatorial choices for Christian conservatives were U.S. Representative Diane Black and business owner Bill Lee. My decision to choose Black over Lee has caused considerable angst among Lee supporters who are demanding an explanation. Focusing solely on Lee, I will outline the factors I considered while I was formulating my decision.

My decision to support Diane Black over Bill Lee has nothing to do with whether Lee is a good man or a good Christian. I have no reason to question his character or his faith. I am well aware of Lee’s dedication to organizations such as Men of Valor, which helps reintegrate former prisoners into society. I applaud him for his mission work and contributions to Middle Tennessee. Just like I did with Black, I took the time to read Lee’s book, although I was unsuccessful in my attempts to interview him about the book and how it has shaped his desire to serve in office.

Lee’s book, This Road I’m On: The Power of Hope in the Face of Adversity, tells the story of his family and the farm on which he was raised. It also goes into the Lee Plumbing and Electrical business he inherited and expanded, as well as the personal tragedies related to the accidental death of his first wife, the challenges of being a single father, and his courtship of and marriage to Maria. The book does not give any real insights into policy perspectives or how he might govern as the state’s chief executive. It does show him as a man raised in a hardworking farm family with values and principles that have sustained and undergirded his faith.

What this all boils down to, though, is that I cannot support Bill Lee for governor because he is not conservative enough to meet my standards nor is he the best-qualified GOP candidate in the gubernatorial race. He lacks the political knowledge and experience needed to serve as Tennessee’s chief executive. Because Lee has never served in public office, his actions and words are the only indicators of his values and principles. What we can glean from his actions would place him squarely in the liberal/moderate Christian category. The Tennessean reports that “While on the campaign trail, Lee has championed conservative values and touted the need for a Republican in office. . .voter records show that Lee, who first registered to vote in 1978, did not vote in a Republican primary election from 1996-2006.”

We also know from public records that he gave money to Democratic candidates. As the owner of Lee Company, Lee gave $1,000 to Phil Bredesen’s 2005 re-election bid against Republican Jim Bryson. Karl Dean, a Democrat, received a $250 campaign donation in his 2011 mayoral bid, and Megan Barry received $500 from Lee while successfully running for Nashville mayor, while her closest Republican challenger, David Fox, received nothing from Lee. (I received a $1000 contribution from Lee in 2018 during my mayoral bid. I also received a donation from Dave Black ($1,500).

When Lee gave money to Republicans, he favored establishment politicians that conservative Republicans labeled as RINOS (Republicans in name only), such as John McCain and Mitt Romney. Donald Trump received nothing from Lee in 2016.  In addition to candidates, Lee’s contributions to liberal organizations include $5,000 given to Williamson Business PAC, a liberal organization that supported embattled school superintendent Mike Looney by helping to elect six liberal school board members supportive of Common Core.

Lee’s campaign spokesman has described Bill’s contributions as business-driven instead of ideologically motivated. Lee apologists are quick to invoke President Donald Trump as an example of a Republican who donated to Democrats. OK, but if these had been purely business decisions, Lee’s donations should have been going to both parties rather than favoring a Democrat in a contest against a Republican candidate. Donald Trump’s case is different because he was a Democrat for most of his life.

Lee’s donation to Megan Barry means that he helped elect a woman who, as a candidate, made history by officiating at Nashville’s first gay marriage. Barry also made history by becoming Nashville’s first female mayor as well as the first mayor to plead guilty to a felony and leave office in disgrace (you win some; you lose some).

Lee disappointed some conservatives with his answers when he spoke to the UT-Chattanooga College Republicans on November 14, 2017 and questions came up about same-sex marriage and transgender bathrooms. Here’s what he said:

On gay marriage: I get asked all the time about federal issues that a governor has no. I mean you can give opinions about what you think about immigration or gay marriage. But if you have settled law in federal court, it becomes only an opinion and not something that a governor advocates for or supports or doesn’t. And until the Supreme Court changes that ruling, then it doesn’t matter what I think about it.

On transgender bathroom law: I think that a statewide policy on an issue like that is not in the best interest of Tennesseans. It’s divisive and destructive and…that’s government intervention into areas of life that I don’t think we ought to intervene. I think that those are best decided locally. Those decisions are best decided locally. And that we’ve handled personal decisions locally like that in the past, and that’s why I’m not advocating for or against a transgender bathroom bill. I actually think…I’m a very conservative guy who has very conservative principles who thinks that we oftentimes create divisive subjects that play into the hands of more chaotic policy than if we allow local authority to make decisions on things.

While these answers might have struck a chord with young Republicans, it is hardly the strong, principled answers young people need to hear as they strive to survive in an environment that is increasingly intolerant of Christian conservatives.

Lee’s early positions were at odds with the goals and mission of Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative organization that has been actively trying to use the state constitution as a vehicle to regulate what counts as a marriage in Tennessee. On the bathroom bill, conservatives from around the state have taken stances that would support a more conservative approach than the one Bill Lee offered the students. However, a few months ago, Lee recorded videos for the Tennessee Voter’s Guide that offered strong conservative positions on same-sex marriage and whether new legal protections were needed to protect the LBGT community. The videos would suggest that Lee’s positions or his ability to explain them have evolved since last November.

Lee’s political inexperience and lack of knowledge on some issues also concern me. I have heard him speak on several occasions and have now read his memoir. While he is quite good at sharing his Christian testimony and faith, he sometimes avoids giving direct answers to questions about issues most people over forty can answer definitively. Lee’s campaign website offers a laundry list of ideas.

  • Creating jobs
  • Our rural way of life
  • Great schools
  • Illegal immigration
  • Your right to bear arms
  • Enforcing the law
  • Protecting life
  • Our constitutional guarantees
  • Supporting our veterans
  • Standing up for our values
  • The role of government
  • Fixing a broken healthcare system

These positions are ones that most Republicans can agree on. However, it is filled with platitudes and weak on specifics.

On July 5, just ahead of early voting that began on July 13, the Lee campaign unveiled its “Ten for Tennessee,” aka Contract with Tennesseans. Listed below are the components of the contract (additional details are listed online).

  1. Foster an environment where jobs continue to grow
  2. Rethink public education with major vocational reforms, real school choice and civics education
  3. Stand up for rural Tennessee by expanding economic opportunity and winning the war on opioids
  4. Get tough on the state budget by making government smaller and more efficient
  5. Ensure new voices in Nashville by passing term limits and challenging the influence culture of insiders
  6. Create a new office of faith-based and community initiatives
  7. Make government more accessible, open and accountable to taxpayers
  8. Protect and defend a culture of life
  9. Defend our constitutional liberties without compromise
  10. Enforce the rule of law on immigration

Like the website laundry list above it, this ten-plank plan is strong on age-old generalities, weak on specifics. On point – a small one – in its favor: it gives voters slightly more detail than the list on Lee’s website does. However, issue No. 6 – the creation of a new office of faith-based and community initiatives inside the governor’s office – set off an alarm inside my head. It is a potential can of worms that can make the state a sitting duck for litigation and numerous unintended consequences. On the surface it sounds great to the religious leaders who would welcome more support for the social services they provide. At best, suggesting the creation of such an office comes across as naïve; at worst, a nightmare.

The idea for such an office can be traced to George W. Bush’s Charitable Choice provision, which allowed religious organizations to compete for federal dollars to provide social service programs for the poor, and it was part of the privatization of welfare. It was based on the premise that religious organizations should not be discriminated against as welfare-service providers. Religious organizations can provide governmental services as long as secular alternatives exist. However, to legally receive any financial support, the recipients must avoid using taxpayer’s money to directly or indirectly support any form of sectarian worship, religious instruction, or proselytizing. Lee’s proposed new office would have to offer benefits to all religions on a non-discriminatory basis, which means Buddhist, Muslims, Jews, Hindi, Wiccans and Satanists could compete for benefits on an equal footing with Christians. I suspect this little detail has not been adequately explained to Lee’s supporters. His proposed office adds yet another level of bureaucracy and one not needed.

Bill Lee or Diane Black as governor will have the bully pulpit to send a signal across the state that Metro Nashville and other cities and towns will have to offer grants and opportunities to service providers, including the religious ones, on a non-discriminatory basis. Consequently, if Metro government favors secular agencies providing services to the homeless or drug offenders over those that are religious-based, the religious organizations should be able to expect strong support from the governor.

In conclusion, I cannot support Bill Lee for governor of Tennessee when there is a better-qualified candidate who can defeat Karl Dean and hit the ground running. Diane Black is my choice for governor because of her experience and record of achievement as a leader who is smart and tough enough to get things done. Lee has many admirable qualities, and I urge him to run for mayor of Nashville should he not prevail on August 2 in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He would easily attract many Democrat votes, and Republicans like me would support him over Democrat candidates. Nashville needs a real outsider to change the culture of corruption that comes from one-party rule. Lee has the connections and finances to make history by becoming that city’s first Republican mayor.

– – –

Carol M. Swain is a former associate professor of politics at Princeton University and former professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. Her forthcoming new book is Debating Immigration: Second Edition (forthcoming, August 2018). Facebook: Profcarolmswain  Twitter: @carolmswain E-mail: [email protected] Website: carolmswain.com 










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28 Thoughts to “Dr. Carol M. Swain Commentary: Why I Am Not Supporting Bill Lee for Tennessee Governor”

  1. Jerry

    Lee has no political experience like our president Donald Trump look what he had done for America.Go. GO Lee.

  2. Bob

    So now your voting for the Socialist Party?

  3. Jack Dobson

    Well-reasoned, Professor Swain. I’m torn between the head (Black) and the heart (Lee) and probably won’t make a final decision until Wednesday night. The only certainty is I wouldn’t vote Boyd even in the general but fortunately the Haslam connection apparently has knocked him out.

  4. Kiki

    yes, but Dianne wanted to give Obama a blank check for illegals and many other things. Seems no one can be trusted.

  5. Who is this clown?

    Should have titled this one: “Why me, a loser, couldn’t even win over a majority of GOP voters in Nashville bc I spent all my money on billboards” That would have been an actually interesting article

    1. Eric

      Comments totally uncalled for.

    2. Eric

      Those comments were uncalled for.

  6. TN Mockingbird

    Bill Lee lives in Williamson Co so he can’t run for office in Davidson Co.

  7. Lucy

    But you were fine taking his $1000 campaign donation, though. Right, Carol?

    1. Carol Swain

      Lucy, I received campaign donations from more than 800 unique contributors. Initially, I planned to remain neutral between the two candidates but two factors changed my mind. The threat of a Randy Boyd nominee and information discussed in the above article . I will support Lee and work for his nomination if he wins the primary.

  8. Aries

    Carol, thank you for the response and reasoning for your choice. I don’t agree but I respect your choice and decision.

  9. Jane

    Bill Lee is a principled conservative. His refusal to attack his opponents and focus on telling voters who he is belies his commitment to keeping his message on the high road and validating his statements about himself where his faith is central to his life. He has put his money and time where his principles are over and over, mentoring disadvantaged high school students, going overseas to serve others, funded numerous not-for-profit efforts that serve those in need and made time to serve men leaving prison. Rather than wait for government to build education facilities to train workers, he built his own school on his own dime.

    Bill Lee is a constitutionalist. He loves America and its Founders and is on a journey to understand better our American uniqueness. He confesses that in the course of building a business, creating jobs, raising a family, dealing with personal tragedy and trying to make a difference, he has missed many of the public policy fights. However, when confronted with specific issues, he always looks to our Founding documents and his solid principles to take a position. He has, no doubt, stumbled through some difficult questions early on, but as he has immersed himself in his campaign, he has solidified his commitment to pursuing public policy in the shadow of the Constitution.

    Bill Lee is honest. It has been said that you really know someone when you work alongside them. Well, the turnover at his company is negligible. When people are fortunate enough to go to work for Lee Company, they almost never leave. His organization bespeaks the very core of the man.

    Bill Lee answers to his own values and principles. His refusal to join the sniping and continue on the high road is first-line evidence of that. He has been overt in his demonstration of how those values and principles inform his understanding of public policy. Has he had missteps? Yes. But the complicated nature of many issues demands constant information gathering. As the information is solidified in his mind, he is able to apply principles and values appropriately. Tennesseans can be sure that Bill Lee will lead our state being led by the highest ethics.

    Bill Lee is a successful executive. With over 1200 employees and growing, he has built a team of people who have seen his vision and moved Lee Company into the forefront of Middle Tennessee Service Organizations. This experience properly positions him to build a team around him as Governor.

    Bill Lee is a multi-faceted individual. Cattleman. Master Plumber. Mission-minded. Philanthropist. Team-builder. All these and more make Bill Lee sensitive to the complexity of the Tennessee economy and people.

    Bill Lee knows where his strength is found. He has refused to shrink from the importance of his faith and reliance on his God and his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Such faith was built from his youth and nurtured over the years through good times and tragic times. Such a foundation is well within the tradition of the Nation’s Founders.

    Bill Lee has the proper demeanor to lead Tennessee. Bill’s calm voice and strong sense of purpose translates well in one-on-one situations and in front of thousands. His leadership at Lee Company through difficult financial times was unquestioned as he was able to make difficult decisions and encourage his team by his very presence.

    Bill Lee is an outsider. Much like Donald Trump, he brings a completely fresh perspective to government, refusing to assume the status quo must be continued.

    Bill Lee looks for solutions. In growing his business to multiple service lines, Bill has been called upon to constantly adjust to a growing market and to the pushes and pulls within his own organization. He has been called upon to make difficult decisions. He has prevailed in a very competitive environment. He is a winner.

    Bill Lee is easy to follow. Anyone who has spent five minutes in his presence knows right away he is not a “my way of the highway” sort of person. He oozes confidence and his soft tone begs one to listen carefully and join him in his efforts.

    Tennesseans can trust Bill Lee. In finality, trust for elected officials is earned based upon a lifetime of decision-making. Bill Lee’s decision-making is solid. He is a man of high moral character and God-directed principles. He has demonstrated his ability to lead, to organize, to adapt, and to understand the needs of multiple demographic sectors of our state. I challenge you to find a better person to be tasked with leading the Volunteer State.

    Bill Lee for Tennessee.

    1. Mike Dioguardi

      I know Bill’s sister. If liberalism runs in the family, he probably has a severe case of it.

  10. Pastor Dan Eidson

    What I have longed for for a long time. A reasonable response to a person’s political position without all the phony explanations. You have done an excellent job presenting your position. If I lived in Tennessee I would not vote for him either.

  11. L. P. Barnett

    There are times (much too many lately) when a voter must after extensive research hold his or her nose and just vote. For myself this is one of those times. While Bill Lee has many positions that I completely agree with, the faith-based initiative thing is completely off the rails for all the reasons Carol Swain has indicated! Since for me Randy Boyd is out of the question, although I am not crazy about her record, Diane Black is the one who will receive my vote for governor of Tennessee. I also agree with Ms. Swain that Bill Lee would make an excellent mayoral candidate.

    1. 83ragtop50

      I am with you L.P.

  12. Reese Bagwell

    The TRUTH about Tennessee’s race for Governor (like so many other Republican Primaries- Caveat Emptor & Beware the Pretenders! Do Your Conservative, Patriot Research!!
    As reported in the excellent Patriot Post, “Across our nation, there are a few hotly contested federal and state Republican primaries in which genuine conservative candidates are facing wealthy pretenders who are recasting themselves as “conservative.” These imitators can fund unlimited advertising and social media buys for their makeovers.
    Some “conservative” candidates are, at best, moderates.
    A case study of how such pretenders operate is the primary campaign between those seeking to become Tennessee’s 50th governor. One candidate, Randy Boyd, hails from a well-heeled family and is a likable candidate. He is a husband and father, and he has supported some initiatives that have helped his community of Knoxville, Tennessee.
    But he is not a “conservative Republican,” despite the facade that he and his handlers have erected for their campaign to defeat an unpretentious and unapologetic conservative, Rep. Diane Black.
    Read on HERE: https://patriotpost.us/alexander/57199-republican-primary-pretenders-caveat-emptor

  13. Kevin

    Ouch! Many of the exact points made in this commentary could be made about a recent candidate for Mayor of Nashville. But pawns come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and colors.

    I have not voted yet, for the specific reason that I know that campaigns monitor who have voted and who haven’t. And I love messing with the pollsters heads! Polls and “pollsters” are one of the ways we are manipulated! That said (pollsters block your ears) my vote WILL go for Bill Lee!

    We are not only voting for Governor, we are sending a message regarding how we feel about the current game that is being played!
    Voting for (some use tepid, I use pathetic) Diane Black IS surrendering to the “establishment”! I understand the potential for winding up with something even worse, but at this point, I am where some of our forefathers were in 1776!

    1. Cowgirl

      No Diane Black per my family & friends!!

  14. lb

    Thank you Dr Swain. I was not going to vote for Lee–I asked many times–what are his policies? I kept getting the same answers about him being a Christian and businessman–those are admirable but exactly WHAT does he stand for other than that as it applies to US? Then he releases this lame
    10 for T” thing–nothing substantial and a total mishmash.
    Boyd is a no go from Day 1–LA RAZA RANDY is not a joke
    Diane Black is the only choice for me
    And why is the first commenter who supported Lee urging people to go vote now because “something might happen”–that says all you need to know

    1. John Bumpus

      Silence Dogood says of Diane that “she is experienced.” The way I see it, that’s the problem. D. C. Diane has ‘too much’ experience!

      1. Silence Dogood

        Experienced is what I demand in surgeons, pilots, detectives, accountants, lawyers, managers, bankers, car repair technicians, and …. honestly I could go on and on. How about you folks? Tennessee’s budget is close to $40,000,000,000 with 43,000+ employees. I will go with experienced. Black has a Conservative record I can track. Lee does not. In a day and age when the Federal Government demands Tennessee allow perverts in the girls restrooms, spends my tax dollars on abortions (murder), and wants to take my 2A rights I want a track record. No more trust. A proven fighter (unlike Corker and Alexander) that will defend this state from the courts and liberal fascists like Cohen. Not 10 wish-washy planks. Diane Black for the win.

  15. Silence Dogood

    Donald Trump’s selection as President required two things not present in this election. A dispirited Conservative base angry at having been lied to for the last 24 years and Satan herself running for office on the Democrat ticket. Thankfully, those are not issues in Tennessee. I have voted for Diane Black because of her Heritage Score and because she is experienced and a fighter. I believe Swain is spot-on with regards to Bill Lee running for a humbler office his first time out. Nashville Mayor would be a great place to create a success story for Bill and for him to begin running for Governor of Tennessee. Thanks, Carol!

  16. John Bumpus

    I have already voted, and I voted for Bill Lee. Best vote now while you can, something might ‘come up’ to prevent you from getting to the polls on August 2. Just ‘get it done.’

    Stuart Anderson says that he has called Lee a “No Record Candidate” from the outset. Let me remind him (and everyone else) that the President before his election to the highest office in our land had not previously held public office either, and he seems to have ‘turned out’ alright.

    Another gentlemen in another post to another article today commented, vote for ‘citizens’ not ‘politicians.’ This sounds like very good advice.

    1. Stuart I. Anderson

      “. . . seems to have ‘turned out’ alright” spoken with the subjunctive voice that captures it precisely. As a Cruz conservative re: Trump I say so far much better than I expected unforced lunacies and all, but too early for a victory lap and let’s see what happens in 2020. As a conservative I can also state that every time we vote for a No Record Candidate we are taking a chance, a risk based on nothing but campaign promises and attempts to project non-political wisps of background onto a political screen. I often express this by saying voting for a No Record Candidate is what you do if you are “feelin’ lucky.”

      Sorry, I’m a conservative and emotionally I feel just a bit of resentment against wealthy individuals well out of puberty who haven’t been able to bestir themselves to consistently and meaningfully participate in our political process suddenly springing themselves upon us as the great “conservative” candidate who will save us. The very arrogance of it all is too insufferable for words! In addition, I spent thousands of dollars in two elections trying to defeat tepid conservative Diane Black while supporting two solid conservatives, but place before me a Diane Black with a long record of consistent tepid conservatism against a No Record Candidate like Lee I will choose the tepid conservative every time. I’m simply never feelin’ that lucky.

      1. Silence Dogood

        Well spoken, Stuart. Trust from the electorate is seldom rewarded by a candidate when elected. Rich old guys with no elected representative experience who are going through a mid life career crisis seem to want to go into politics. Tennessee is full of them. So sad….

  17. Stuart I. Anderson

    Carol Swain goes into much needed detail as to why I called Lee a No Record Candidate from the outset of this campaign and I couldn’t agree more with her conclusion that if you are a conservative and you want a proven tepid conservative in this campaign who has a very good chance to win vote Diane Black. With Diane’s lifetime Heritage score of 78% and Club For Growth lifetime score of 80% she has simply proven to be a stronger conservative advocate than freshly minted alleged conservative Lee. Still, Bill Lee apparently is doing well at the late stages of this campaign and he certainly is preferable to Randy! so I await the results of the late polls before deciding who to vote for on Election Day 8/2.

  18. Lee

    Thank you for this informative article. Very helpful.