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Differences Emerge Among Candidates

NASHVILLE – Some key differences between Tennessee’s top-tier gubernatorial candidates began to emerge Tuesday, as the group tackled a host of topics from battling the opioid crisis and improving education to how best to help struggling rural areas.

During a televised forum from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Republican candidate and House Speaker Beth Harwell promised to reject any financial incentives to businesses looking to move to Middle Tennessee.

Instead Harwell, who represents Nashville, a booming city where companies have received incentives

Gubernatorial candidates Beth Harwell, Bill Lee, Karl Dean, Randy Boyd and Craig Fitzhugh face the audience at the candidate forum at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena on Tuesday in Nashville. Leadership Tennessee is the presenting sponsor of the forum. GEORGE WALKER IV / THE TENNESSEAN


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locate, said she would offer financial benefits for companies to move to rural areas of the state.

Meanwhile, Democrats House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean clashed over how money was spent in Nashville’s recovery from the May 2010 flood.

Helping the rural economy in Tennessee

Harwell’s answer came in response to a question about whether the state should be doing more to help the less populated areas of Tennessee.

The other candidates, which also included Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee — both Republicans — and Fitzhugh and Dean, all agreed rural areas need more help from the state.

Lee said the state’s rural areas are at risk of “losing a way of life” without action by the next governor, while touting a plan he introduced earlier in his campaign.

Fitzhugh said he would like to ask students what it would take to bring younger generations back to Tennessee.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, was the lone top-tier candidate to not attend Tuesday’s forum.

Falling along partisan lines

On other issues, the candidates’ answers at the forum largely fell along partisan lines, with Fitzhugh and Dean saying they would immediately work to expand health care under Medicaid.

Harwell, Boyd and Lee each touted the need to obtain block grants from the federal government to address the state’s health care needs.

But in her answer, Harwell separated herself from her Republican colleagues.

“I think there’s a new day here in Tennessee. And I believe — and I don’t agree with everything he wants to do — but I will tell you this about President (Donald) Trump. I think he understands the domestic issues belong at the state level, where they can be more efficiently and effectively run,” she said.

Harwell — who in the past said she voted for Trump — has largely shied away from talking about the president, while Black has touted her relationship with the real estate mogul.

Among the other issues the candidates discussed at the forum was the need to continue to improve the state’s standardized testing system, known as TNReady.

The testing system faced another year of problems. This year, high school students had trouble access the online portion of the test and districts across the state had to halt the exams as a result.

Tennessee education officials revealed that the state’s testing vendor was the target of a “deliberate attack” on its computer systems earlier this year. A dump truck even severed a fiber optics line, preventing some students in the state from taking the test.

The problems prompted state lawmakers to intervene, passing legislation that would hold students, teachers and district harmless for any results that do not benefit them.

Still, the number of online tests administered was a milestone for the state as it has sought for years to move to an online platform.

More than 2.5 million TNReady tests were administered this spring, with about 300,000 students taking the test online. Only high school students were required to take the online version this year.

Debate over guns after Parkland

In addition to school testing, the candidates also weighed in on the Feb. 14 shooting in a Parkland, Florida high school that left 17 people dead.

When asked whether the Parkland students had positive or negative impact on the conversation around guns and gun control, Lee stepped away from the group. The four other candidates said the students had a positive impact.

Lee did not explain his answer but touted the need to protect students by arming teachers.

Boyd explained his answer by saying it is “always good to have a conversation.”

Dean said “this is the moment” the state needs to come up with ways to keep guns out of the hands with mental health issues.

Among the few differences between Dean and Fitzhugh came when Fitzhugh said he was “shocked” when he read that federal money was used to pay for an outdoor music facility.

“That’s where we lose the public trust,” Fitzhugh said.

Dean said the minority leader was wrong.

“We went through a natural disaster after a great recession and this city came together in a way and perhaps he can’t understand but we got back up on our feet,” Dean said to rare applause from the audience.

The five candidates also tackled questions about how they would handle an economic downturn, the state’s opioid crisis and school choice, all as part of the latest gubernatorial forum, which was hosted by Leadership Tennessee.

The statewide initiative within Lipscomb’s College of Leadership & Public Service fosters collaborative, nonpartito san dialogue on issues of importance throughout Tennessee.

Other partners for Tuesday’s forum include the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, the University of Memphis and Nexstar Broadcasting, which owns ABC affiliates in Nashville (WKRN-2), Memphis, Knoxville, Jackson and the Tri-Cities area.

Questions came from WKRN anchor Bob Mueller and a panel of Leadership Tennessee alumni: Darrell Cobbins, president and CEO of Universal Commercial Real Estate in Memphis, Michael A. Anastasi, vice president of news for the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee in Nashville, and Laura Woods, senior counsel for Eastman in Kingsport.

The forum did not include Black. Her campaign said she was unable to attend the forum because she planned to be in Washington, D.C., where she will be casting votes and preparing for legislative issues including legislation related to the opioid crisis, according to a spokesman.

Earlier this year, Black, who is a recent graduate of Leadership Tennessee, had missed 29 of 101 votes the House had taken since January.

Reach Joel Ebert at jebert@tennessean. com or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29. Reach Reporter Jordan Buie at 615-726-5970 or by email at Follow him on Twitter @jordanbuie.

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