Bill Lee (Tennessee politician)
|50th Governor of Tennessee|
|Assumed office |
January 19, 2019
|Preceded by||Bill Haslam|
William Byron Lee
October 9, 1959
Franklin, Tennessee, U.S.
Carol Ann Lee
(m. 1984; died 2000)
|Education||Auburn University (BS)|
William Byron Lee (born October 9, 1959) is an American businessman and politician who has been the 50th governor of Tennessee since 2019. Elected in 2018, Lee is a member of the Republican Party. Before entering politics he held various positions at the Lee Company, a business operated by the Lee family; he was the company's president and CEO from 1992 to 2016.
Early life and career
Lee was raised on his family's 1,000-acre (400 ha) cattle farm started by his grandparents in Franklin, Tennessee, the Triple L Ranch; the family raises Hereford cattle. He is a seventh-generation Tennessean.
After graduating from Franklin High School in his hometown, Lee entered Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama in 1977 and graduated in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. In college, Lee was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity known at the time for its use of Confederate imagery, and a photo printed in the university's 1980 yearbook shows Lee in a Confederate military uniform at the fraternity's "Old South" party. In 2019, after his attendance came to light, Lee expressed regret for his participation: "I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I've come to regret it."
In April 2017 Lee announced his candidacy for the 2018 election for governor of Tennessee. A self-described social conservative, Lee also targeted pro-business Republicans. In the Republican primary election, he ran against Congresswoman Diane Black, Knoxville businessman and former Tennessee Economic and Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, and state House speaker Beth Harwell. Originally considered a longshot, Lee rose in the polls as Boyd and Black launched negative advertising against each other. He won the August 2 primary with 291,414 votes (36.8%) to Boyd's 193,054 (24.3%), Black's 182,457 (23.0%), and Harwell's 121,484 (15.3%).
Lee previously chaired and served on the committee of the Tennessee Prayer Breakfast.
Tenure as governor
Health care and leave
Lee opposes the expansion of TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, as allowed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As governor, he has rejected proposals to expand TennCare. Lee has supported calls from dentists to extend TennCare to pregnant women who need dental care.
In January 2020, Lee signed an executive order effective March 1, 2020, that offered state employees three months' paid leave for new parents and caregivers of sick relatives. He called it "one of the most cost-effective investments in the families of our state employees in recent history".
Budget and economy
In 2019, Lee proposed repealing Tennessee's 10% amusement tax on gym, fitness center, and health club fees, arguing that the tax discourages Tennesseans from being physically active. If enacted, the repeal would reduce state revenues by around $10 million.
In a March 2019 "State of West Tennessee" address, Lee proposed creating more charter schools and that the state use $25 million to help traditional public schools when they lose students. In his February 2020 "state of West Tennessee" address, he proposed investing $70 million to equip teachers with professional development, materials and other tools to help increase the state's literacy rate. Lee has also promoted the GIVE program, which prioritizes learning opportunities in rural counties and enhances career and technical education statewide.
In April 2019, Lee announced that Tennessee would temporarily reinstate paper-based assessments for students taking the TNReady test, an annual statewide assessment, during the 2019–20 school year.
Lee supports charter schools. In May 2019, he signed into law a school voucher bill that created a program to provide public funds to families for private school tuition and costs, starting in the 2020–21 fiscal year, but a judge ruled the program unconstitutional in May 2020, before it could go into effect. Of $64 million in discretionary COVID-19 relief funding for education that went to his office, Lee sent $10 million to charter schools, including $4.4 million to launch new charters.
In July 2019, Lee signed a bill into law that calls for school districts across the state to establish threat assessment teams to address potential threats to school safety.
In February 2020, Lee proposed a $117 million investment to increase teacher salaries and a $250 million endowment to address mental health in K-12 education.
Race relations and Floyd protests
In July 2019, Lee signed an order proclaiming Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, as required by Tennessee law, celebrating Forrest, who was the first Grand Wizard of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan. The legislature repealed this requirement in June 2020. In December 2019, Lee proclaimed December 1 Rosa Parks Day, to commemorate the start of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
In May 2020, after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, Lee condemned the officers involved, saying, "police brutality is not law enforcement". On May 30, 2020, an "I will breathe" protest was held in Nashville in protest of Floyd's death. During the protest, a man set fire to the Davidson County Courthouse; the building was not severely damaged. In response, Lee mobilized the National Guard in Nashville, saying the protests had taken "a violent, unlawful turn".
In August 2020, Lee signed into law a bill increasing the severity of penalties for a number of protest-related offenses. Most notably, it reclassifies camping in a tent outside the Tennessee State Capitol from a misdemeanor to a felony offense punishable by up to six years in prison. This means that anyone convicted of the act will also lose their right to vote, as convicted felons in Tennessee are disfranchised.
In December 2019, after the Donald Trump administration allowed states to halt refugee resettlement in their states, Lee declined the offer (making Tennessee one of a handful of Republican-led states to do so) and announced that Tennessee would continue to accept refugees. Lee's decision was opposed by the Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Cameron Sexton. During a 2020 trip to the Tri-Cities, Lee was met with protests from opponents of refugee resettlement.
Lee supports capital punishment, and Tennessee has executed six people since resuming executions in 2018. In February 2020, Nicholas Sutton was executed after Lee denied clemency. Sutton had saved three corrections officers' lives.
In 2019, with the support of Republican state legislators, Lee loosened Tennessee's handgun law, allowing "concealed-carry-only" handgun permits to be obtained without requiring applicants to show an ability to fire a weapon. In April 2021, Lee signed into law a "permitless carry" bill; the legislation allows most adults 21 and older (as well as military personnel ages 18-20) to carry handguns (open and concealed) without a background check or required training. The bill, which Lee had also supported the previous year, was supported by the National Rifle Association and opposed by law enforcement organizations, such as police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors.
2020 presidential election
After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, several weeks before the presidential election, Lee supported Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacant seat, citing his position on abortion.
After Joe Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Lee was one of many Republican officials nationwide and in Tennessee who refused to acknowledge Biden's victory amid Trump's false claims of fraud. Biden won a clear victory in both the popular and the electoral vote, but Lee refused to recognize Biden as president-elect even after the election had been called, after the presidential transition had formally begun, and after the electoral college had voted, formalizing Biden's victory.
On January 8, 2021, two days several days after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes and keep Trump in power, Lee condemned the riot and acknowledged Biden as president-elect.
Lee identifies as a social conservative. He emphasized his Christian faith, creating an office devoted to "faith-based" initiatives, and declared October 10 an official voluntary day of prayer and fasting.
In January 2020, Lee proposed a bill to ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected (as early as six weeks into pregnancy). The legislation was among the U.S.'s strictest abortion bans, and was similar to six-week abortion bans that were blocked by the courts in Mississippi, Ohio, and other states. Passed in the final hours of the General Assembly 2020 session on a party-line vote, it was challenged in federal court by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Lee signed the bill into law in July 2020. Enforcement of the law was immediately blocked by a federal judge because it violated Supreme Court precedent, such as Roe v. Wade, which prohibits undue burdens on pre-viability abortions.
Lee supports allowing religious foster care and adoption agencies to prohibit same-sex married couples from adopting children. In January 2020, he signed into law a bill that assures continued taxpayer funding of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies even if they exclude LGBT families and others based on religious beliefs. Lee and supporters of the legislation framed the bill as a "religious liberty" bill that would shield organizations from potential lawsuits hostile to the group's religious beliefs. Nike and Amazon opposed the bill.
On March 26, Lee signed legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in sports opposite to their biological sex, making Tennessee the third state to do so. In May 2020, he signed a controversial "bathroom bill" that prohibited transgender people from accessing public school bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. Critics have condemned these bills as discriminatory toward transgender people, as well as LGBTQ people in general.
In May 2021, Lee signed legislation that forces businesses who serve transgender customers equally with restrooms to display warning signs that they do so. LGBT activists, Democrats, and some Republicans, criticized the bill as an attempt to shame and harm businesses. Many businesses and business leaders threatened to leave Tennessee in protest of these bills, including Nissan North America, Amazon, Dell, Pilot, Mars PetCare, and Warner Music Group, and Republican transgender business leader Jennifer Pritzker. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to stop the law, In July 2021, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, finding that it violated the First Amendment.
Marijuana and gambling
As a candidate for governor, Lee opposed medical marijuana legislation and marijuana decriminalization. As governor, he continued to oppose marijuana decriminalization, saying in 2019, "I have said before and still believe that we should not decriminalize marijuana... I think that's not good for our state."
On March 12, 2020, in response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases, Lee issued an executive order declaring a temporary state of emergency in Tennessee to "facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19." He extended the "stay-at-home" mandate through April 2020. Lee issued further orders for a "limited continuing state of emergency" through 2020 and 2021 to facilitate the state's eligibility for federal economic aid, and allowed the Tennessee National Guard and Tennessee State Guard to continue to assist with COVID-19 response efforts.
In March 2020, as the number of COVID-19 cases grew, Lee urged school districts to close through March to prevent the further spread of the disease. In April, as the number of COVID-19 cases continued to grow, he asked all school districts to close for the remainder of the school year. In October 2020, after a member of Lee's security detail tested positive for COVID-19, Lee said that he and his wife would quarantine at home, likely for two weeks.
Throughout the pandemic, Lee opposed a statewide mask mandate and "touted Tennessee for being one of the last to close early in the pandemic and among the first to reopen." On April 28, 2020, Lee signed an executive order allowing gyms in 89 out of 95 counties to open on May 1. By September, he lifted restrictions on businesses and gathering restrictions in Tennessee, except for the state's six most populous counties. By April 2021, Lee declared that COVID-19 was "a managed public health issue in Tennessee and no longer a statewide public health emergency"; ended local authority on mask mandates in 89 counties; and called for remaining local restrictions to be lifted.
As the highly contagious Delta variant spread in Tennessee, Lee said that he had "no real concern" over it. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged in Tennessee from July to August 2021. Tennessee's COVID-19 vaccination rate was among the lowest in the country. Lee encouraged Tennesseans to get vaccinated, but opposed vaccine mandates and, amid the resurgence of COVID-19 cases, maintained that it was a personal choice whether to get vaccinated. He also dismissed suggestions for a return to restrictions or offering COVID-19 vaccine incentives.
In 2021, Lee blocked the Tennessee Department of Health from reaching out to teenagers to encourage them to get the vaccinated. In July 2021, his administration fired the state's vaccine chief, Michelle Fiscus, who had angered some Republican state legislators by promoting vaccination for eligible youth. The state Health Department stopped vaccination-related outreach to minors for all diseases, not only COVID-19. Lee opposed offering vaccine incentives even as the Tennessee government spent nearly $500,000 to incentivize farmers to vaccinate cattle against respiratory disease as part of the "Herd Health" program, launched in 2019 under Lee.
In August 2021, Lee signed an executive order that allowed parents to let their children opt out of school mask mandates. The next month, Lee vowed to fight President Joe Biden's plan to require COVID-19 vaccines for federal employees and federal contractors, as well as to require businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing; Lee asserted that the action was unconstitutional.
In July 2019, Lee toured damage in West Tennessee inflicted by flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Barry. A series of tornadoes in Tennessee on March 2–3, 2020 killed 25 people and injured 150. Lee oversaw the state's recovery efforts and surveyed the damage in Nashville, visiting Germantown, Tennessee State University, and Cookeville.
2022 reelection campaign
In September 2020, Lee announced that he would run for reelection in 2022. He has not drawn a serious Republican primary challenger and was endorsed in August 2021 by former president Trump.
Lee lives in Fernvale with his second wife, Maria, whom he married in October 2008. His first wife, Carol Ann, died in 2000 in a horseback riding accident. After her death, Lee took extended time off from his construction company to raise his four children.
Lee previously served as a member of the board of trustees of Belmont University, chairman of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, and a board member of the Hope Clinic for Women and the Men of Valor Prison Ministry.
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- "Governor Bill Lee declares Dec. 1 as 'Rosa Parks Day'". WMC-TV. December 1, 2019. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
- Hardiman, Samuel (May 28, 2020). "'Police brutality is not law enforcement': Gov. Bill Lee condemns officers involved in George Floyd's death". Commercial Appeal. Commercial Appeal. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
- Hickman, Hayes (June 1, 2020). "Former Knoxville man charged in arson at historic Nashville courthouse". Knoxville News Sentinel. Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
- Gill, Joey (May 30, 2020). "Nashville 'I Will Breathe': Gov. Bill Lee authorizes National Guard to respond to Nashville riots". WKRN-TV. WKRN-TV. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
- Allison, Natalie. "Gov. Bill Lee planned for criminal justice reform. Now, he'll sign a bill going against those principles". The Tennessean. Retrieved 2020-08-24.
- Kimberlee Kruesi & Jonathan Mattise, AP Interview: Tennessee governor talks death penalty, faith, Associated Press (December 22, 2019).
- Allison, Natalie; Ebert, Joel (December 18, 2019). "Tennessee will continue accepting refugees, Gov. Bill Lee says, as legislative leaders signal disapproval". The Tennessean. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
- Joel Ebert, Gov. Bill Lee gives impassioned defense of his decision to accept refugees in Tennessee, Nashville Tennessean (January 7, 2020).
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- Hale, Steven (February 19, 2020). "Governor Denies Clemency for Nick Sutton". Nashville Scene.
- Ortega, Pamela; Smith, Emily (February 21, 2020). "3 corrections officers say Nicholas Sutton protected them. He was executed Thursday night". CNN.
- Kimberlee Kruesi, Permits won't be needed to carry handguns in Tennessee, Associated Press (April 8, 2021).
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- Natalie Allison (November 10, 2020). "Tennessee Electoral College meets, casts all 11 votes for Trump without incident". Nashville Tennessean.
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- Mattise, Jonathan (January 30, 2019). "Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, top GOP lawmakers back heartbeat abortion ban". Associated Press.
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- Jonathan Mattise, Tennessee governor signs, court blocks 6-week abortion ban, Associated Press (July 13, 2020).
- Natalie Allison, Gov. Bill Lee signs controversial Tennessee abortion restriction measure into law, Nashville Tennessee (July 13, 2020).
- Natalie Allison, Tennessee legislature passes fetal heartbeat bill; Planned Parenthood, ACLU file lawsuit, Nashville Tennessean (June 19, 2020).
- Mariah Timms, Tennessee abortion ban: Planned Parenthood, providers ask judge to halt implementation, Nashville Tennessean (June 23, 2020).
- Kruesi, Kimberly; Mattise, Jonathan (January 14, 2020). "Tennessee governor says he will sign anti-LGBT adoption bill". Associated Press. Retrieved 2020-07-25.
- Ebert, Joel (January 24, 2020). "Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs bill allowing adoption agencies to deny gay couples". The Tennessean. Retrieved January 25, 2020.
- "Tennessee governor says he will sign anti-gay adoption bill". NBC News. January 15, 2020. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
- "Gov. Lee says he signed LGBT adoption refusal bill to protect religious liberty". WTVF-TV. January 20, 2020. Retrieved January 23, 2020.
- Barrett, Sully (January 17, 2020). "Tennessee Gov. Lee to sign anti-LGBTQ adoption bill despite Amazon, Nike opposition". CNBC. Retrieved January 19, 2020.
- "Tennessee's governor signs transgender athlete bill". ABC News. Associated Press. March 26, 2021. Retrieved May 12, 2021.
- Amir Vera and Joe Sutton. "Tennessee governor signs controversial bathroom bill into law". CNN. Retrieved 2021-05-18.
- Mattise, Jonathan; Kruesi, Kimberlee; Whitehurst, Lindsay (May 23, 2021). "Tennessee moves to the forefront with anti-transgender laws". Nashville. Associated Press. Retrieved July 28, 2021.
- "Tennessee forces businesses to post "warning signs" if they have trans-friendly restrooms". Metro Weekly. 2021-05-19. Retrieved 2021-05-20.
- "Even the Log Cabin Republicans are against Tennessee's anti-trans bathroom bill". PinkNews - Gay news, reviews and comment from the world's most read lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans news service. 2021-05-11. Retrieved 2021-05-20.
- "Trans Billionaire May Move Out of Tennessee Over Anti-LGBTQ Bills". www.advocate.com. 2021-04-20. Retrieved 2021-05-20.
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- Brett Kelman, Medical marijuana in Tennessee? Here's what to expect with new Governor Bill Lee, Nashville Tennessean (November 7, 2018).
- "Governor Lee doubles down on his stance against marijuana decriminalization". WMC Action News 5. March 8, 2019.
- Millions wagered in first week of Tennessee sports gambling, Associated Press (November 17, 2020).
- Tennessee governor allows sports betting without signature, Associated Press (May 24, 2019).
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- Tennessee governor says COVID-19 no longer statewide public health crisis, WMC (April 27, 2021).
- Gerald Harris, Gov. Lee: 'No real concern' over highly contagious Delta COVID variant, despite cases popping up in Tennessee, WKRN (June 9, 2021).
- Kimberlee Krusi & Jonathan Mattise, Gov defends agency’s vaccine chief firing, outreach rollback, Associated Press (July 22, 2021).
- Yue Stella Yu, As COVID-19 bounces back, Gov. Lee backs halting vaccine outreach for teens, maintains shots are 'personal choice', Nashville Tennessean (July 22, 2021).
- Travis Lollet, Tennessee won’t incentivize COVID shots but pays to vax cows, Associated Press (August 3, 2021).
- "How Red States Got Their Groove Back". Governing. 2021-07-26. Retrieved 2021-07-27.
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- "Gov. Bill Lee tours flood-affected areas in west Tennessee". WMC-TV. July 17, 2019. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
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- Trump endorses Tennessee Gov. Lee in 2022 reelection bid, Associated Press (August 13, 2021).
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