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VOL. 132 | NO. 115 | Friday, June 9, 2017

Lee Campaigns in Collierville After Nashville Fundraiser

By Bill Dries

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The night after he raised $1.3 million in Nashville at the first major fundraiser in his bid for Tennessee governor, Bill Lee was in Collierville for a local Republican Party gathering, along with a few hopefuls in countywide races on the ballot earlier in 2018.

BILL LEE

“It’s a great opportunity to meet some new folks,” Lee said Wednesday, June 7, at the Republican Women of Purpose gathering at the Halle Plantation clubhouse.

Lee, the chairman of Franklin-based Lee Co. and owner of a family cattle ranch and farm-to-table restaurants, is on a 95-day bus trip with his wife, Maria, to visit each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Thus far, he’s stopped in 42 counties, and at this early but crucial stage in the Republican primary race, most of those stops are about introductions.

“People want a good job. They want a safe neighborhood and they want a good school for their kids. That’s what we’re focused on,” Lee said as local Republicans – more non-candidates than candidates for now – lined up for a barbecue buffet more modest than the spread Tuesday evening in Nashville hosted by Christian music star Michael W. Smith.

Lee’s fundraising total is just a bit higher than the $1.25 million former Tennessee Economic and Community Development commissioner Randy Boyd reported raising at his first fundraiser in April.

And the mark set by both is considered a standard for those also considering the Republican race to succeed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. They include state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin.

Lee didn’t dwell on the figure, calling it “very, very encouraging” and “an affirmation that people really believe in us.”

The dollar amount is also an indication of what it takes to run for statewide office in a place with two time zones and three “grand divisions” – each of which is culturally and politically distinct, even within the same political party. Television advertising is a necessity to effectively reach voters across Tennessee.

“It requires a lot of money to run a competitive statewide campaign,” Lee said. “We certainly cannot do this alone. … We are going to be able to put together what it takes to win and to bring about change in the state.”

Lee is defining himself as a “conservative outsider” with “strong conservative values” and “faith coupled with compassion.”

Both he and Boyd are businessmen, with Boyd having some government experience in the past three years, first as an adviser to Haslam and then as ECD commissioner.

With the general introductions at this early stage, Boyd is touting his work in Haslam’s administration as an architect of the governor’s two major higher education efforts: Drive to 55, the goal to get 55 percent of Tennesseans educated with a college degree or certificate of training; and the Tennessee Promise last-dollar scholarships, which guarantee two years of free community college for all Tennessee high school graduates.

Boyd isn’t claiming to be Haslam’s designated successor outright and has said there is still work to be done.

Lee, too, is complimentary of Haslam.

“There’s a lot of work to do and we have 19 distressed counties,” Lee said. “We have schools that are not in the top-ranking schools in the country, and our neighborhoods are generally safe across the state but there are some folks who don’t live in places of safety. There is a lot of work to do and we are very hopeful about that.”

While most voters are just getting to know the contenders, many of the early backers at fundraisers like the one in Nashville are not strangers to the race for governor.

Smith was a prominent supporter of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp’s unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor – a race in which Wamp faced Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in the Republican primary.

The Lee campaign also announced it is adding Anna McDonald, a former finance director for the state Republican Party, as its chief fundraiser.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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