By MARINA WATERS
The weekday morning traffic on Boones Creek Road on Thursday morning was nothing out of the ordinary — until the Tennessee gubernatorial candidate, Bill Lee, came trucking through the bike lane on a large red tractor.
Lee was headed for Bob Evans restaurant for his first stop of the day on his tractor that he uses on his farm back in Williamson County, Tennessee. Lee’s tractor tour will take him from Mountain City to Memphis, but Lee isn’t just stopping in various hangouts for biscuits, grits and gravy; the farmer and business owner is ready to introduce himself and talk about agriculture.
“We’re a rural state with big cities,” Lee said. “We have a foundation of small towns and rural communities that matter to every Tennessean, whether you live in a rural community or urban Nashville. And we have some deep issues in rural Tennessee. I believe we’ll lose a way of life and we’ll lose it forever if we don’t decisively act in policy around opioids, skilled workforce, high-quality access to education and high-quality access to health care through technology and innovation.
“I’m deeply passionate in seeing those challenges met and preserving a way of life that I grew up with and has been a foundation for me and, I believe a lot of Tennesseans believe deeply about—thus the tractor from Mountain City to Memphis.”
Lee announced his plans to run for governor in April and then traveled throughout Tennessee’s 95 counties for 95 days (but this time in an RV) to hear from Tennesseans about the challenges and concerns of the state.
But before Lee decided to travel the Volunteer State, he went through a time in his life that he says inspired his current work; Lee’s first wife died from a horseback riding accident on his family farm, leaving him with their four children and a life that he said at the time felt seemingly hopeless.
“I share that because while it was tragic, it was actually really transformational for me. God’s a redeemer and he used that experience in my life to change me forever and to change perspective forever,” Lee explained. “I came out of that season of life realizing that I’m not guaranteed tomorrow and there aren’t very many things that matter for real in my life and those that do, I want to be involved in. So I got involved.”
From there his work with non-profit organizations, such as the YMCA where he met a young inner-city boy, would inspire his interest in public education. Lee has also publicly spoken out in favor of school vouchers that would allow students who are zoned for a school within the bottom five percent in the state to attend private schools.
“I decided to start driving into the projects and start picking him up every week. I still do that today,” Lee said. “That relationship introduced me to the power of a good public education and the constructive nature of a bad one—the difference in a kid’s life based on his education.
“I moved him from one school to another and had a whole different experience. That kid’s life is changed in a big part because of the education he is getting now as opposed to where he was.
“I got really interested. I still am. That led me to some public policy and sort of led my appetite for that.”
Lee told the group of area mayors and commissioners about his work with a former convict and how a look into the public safety spectrum also inspired his motivation to run for governor.
“That relationship still continues weekly and opened my eyes up to corrections, law enforcement and issues around public safety,” Lee explained. “I got on the governor’s task force for recidivism and sentencing reform, which really means that I sat on a committee for a year and watched policy be made. In my view, it was going to change thousands of people’s lives if it was done right. That’s really where I started thinking, ‘Gosh, this public service is life changing work.’ If there’s vision, strategy and there’s passion, then lives can be changed.”
His work also brought Lee to see the common ground a young student, a former criminal and a business man all shared — a dream.
“People want a good job, they want a good school for their kid and they want a safe neighborhood. Those three things constitute different people’s version of the American dream,” he said. “My ex-con, he doesn’t want to live like me. My inner city boy, his version of the American dream is not to live like me, but it is to have a good job and a good school for his kid and to be in a safe neighborhood. Whether you live in rural Unicoi or urban Memphis, that’s what you’ve got to have access to. That would be my focus as a governor.”
Now that Lee has officially launched his campaign and is traveling the state on a tractor, he said he has invited hope back into his life and is ready to focus on keeping that hope and opportunity for the Volunteer State and those in it.
“I have a great deal of hope for this state. Not just to maintain, but to actually lead the nation,” he said. “Can you imagine Tennessee instead of being in the bottom half of educational outcomes if we were a top 10 state in educational outcomes? It would be a life changer. You talk about changing the lives of millions of people— that would change the lives of millions of people and their futures. Same with public safety issues and economic issues. So I have a lot of hope.
“At Lee Company, we say, ‘Hope is not a strategy. It fuels a strategy.’ So we’re developing a strategy.”