On the campaign trail, a transwoman discovers the humanity in Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee
“Okay, they've grown again. Any suggestions here?”
“Do you know where we put the duct tape?”
“Honey...You really do NOT want to duct tape those!”
“It would be on the bra…”
“That's still not a good idea.”
“Okay, then how do you cover up tits?”
A quick look in the mirror told the story. My days of passing for a guy were almost behind me. Perhaps six more months - then it will either be time to toss the last of the man clothes or invest in a binder. By that time my hair will be nearly over the back of my neck anyway, so let's assume that this is likely the last waltz. Next time I will have to be a real woman, and truly be brave.
I usually go in guy mode whenever I sit in on politically conservative type stuff. It makes things easier from the reporting and passing angles. The basic rule of thumb for old-school journalists is that you can drop in on something like this without identifying yourself as long as you are fair when you write about it. No press badge means you get to see the real candidate in action. And let's face it...no one really saw Bill Lee's victory coming in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He is very much an unknown.
The church reception hall where he was speaking at is off Highway 12 in Ashland City. Cheatham County was Mr. Lee's first stop of the morning. His campaign would move on to Robertson County soon afterwards and make a final stop in Nashville that afternoon. The goal was to cover all 95 counties in the 95 days from his shock primary victory to the general election. According to the candidate, the last time he was in Ashland City for an event...nobody showed up. His campaign left that day off with local barbecue sandwiches and a selfie proving that they came, then moved on.
Today around 70 people enjoying donuts and coffee were huddled in a semi circle around the podium when State Senator Kerry Roberts asked all to bow their heads as the pastor led a prayer. Mr. Lee had stepped off his campaign bus fifteen minutes before and had shaken nearly everyone's hand before he was reminded that he needed to stay on a tight schedule. Ninety-five counties in the same number of days was doable, but only just. This time people were coming to see him...there would be no more quick stops. Today, State Senator Roberts introduced Mr. Lee.
“Did anybody stay glued to the TV a couple of days ago watching the Senate hearings? If we have people like Bill Lee in Washington, we wouldn't have that kind of circus now would we?” he asked, to a chorus of amens and applause. He was dressed in a blue checked Oxford shirt and jeans...looking like a Middle Tennessee version of Lamar Alexander circa 1978 when the now Senator was running for Governor too (Red and Black flannel would not go over well in Williamson County in all honesty.)
“Cheatham County is a very special spot for me,” Lee began. “I'm a Seventh Generation Tennessean. My seventh great grandfather...landed in 1796 on the banks of the Cumberland River right here, and (his) home place is up on the hill not far from here”. He explained that the set of condominiums recently built on the old family site were named after his ancestor and that he was proud that his company was able to do some of the work where his family started seven generations before.
Lee told the crowd that he grew up on a cattle farm in Williamson County where he still lives today. He said that he is a third generation cattle farmer who is involved in agriculture, which is still a major sector of Tennessee's economy, critically important to the future of Tennessee and why he wants to put a focus upon it. He is a businessman who runs a large contractor company throughout the state. He holds a master plumbers license and an engineering degree while employing around 1200 people in skilled trades.
“Because of what I've done in all my career,” he continued…
“I have a real strong belief and an understanding that we have ignored vocational, technical and agricultural education in our public school systems for way too long. I know that because I employ hundreds of skilled tradespeople...We struggled to fill the skilled trade jobs that we have because we have ignored that sector, that component of our education system for a long time. I look forward to changing that. We actually started a trade school in our company ten years ago, and we put 1000 people through skills training in that program. And everywhere I go I say ‘You know what? That's what we need to do in high schools all across Tennessee.’ That's part of my passion.”
“Hello Ben Sasse!” thought Julie in male drag. The United States Senator from Nebraska had a ballroom full of Southern Baptists in stitches this time last year telling stories about his experience as a college administrator. He opined that most colleges today are holding tanks for twenty-somethings and about half the kids coming out of high school really should be in vocational tech programs (That may be a little extreme, but I did tell my editor later that I thought I had just spotted the next Reagan. He didn't speak to me for a month afterwards…)
Mr. Lee then got personal, explaining that another reason for running was as a result of the death of his first wife in a riding accident.
“I was forty years old. I was in the middle of my career and I had four little kids, and it was a devastating experience. Probably not unlike life experiences that many of you have had. But I share this story because it was a defining season of my life...and while it was tragic, it was (also) transformative. G-d used that experience and that season to change my perspective forever about how to raise my kids. I single parented my kids for eight years. (I learned) how to run my business differently and how to spend my life. How this informed my decision (was because) I became a person who really thought a lot about what mattered in my life and what didn't, and decided to engage in those things that mattered most.”
Dead silence in the audience. His second wife of ten years was sitting just behind me, and he was looking at her most of the time. He may have told this story tens of dozens of times, but this was real...and from the heart. I may never be able to vote for him, but there was a real human being speaking in front of me. At the very least, that made me feel better if he became Tennessee's next governor.
Lee went on to explain that this spurred him into engaging in nonprofit work. His personal involvement in helping a child from the inner-city for over five years showed him how a good education in a public school environment could change a child's future.
“That instilled in me a real passion and a belief that every single child in the State of Tennessee ought to have their future changed in a positive way by the power of an education,” Lee said. “Now we have some good schools in places across the state, (but) we have a lot of work to do in education. So, I got passionate about that and got involved in public policy about education. I started thinking maybe I could use my life in a bigger way to impact that very important subject.”
His other key experience was in mentoring a person about come out of prison through a reentry program called Men of Valor, paring businessmen such as Mr. Lee with a soon-to-be released prisoner.
“So, I met with him every week at 5:30 in the morning, and I watched that person's life change by the power of a reentry program that's really different than the way we do traditional corrections. This organisation...you know...I got very excited about reentry and recidivism. Here's why this matters to you and me: ninety-five percent of everybody sitting in a prison cell in the state of Tennessee is eventually coming out. They all reenter society...and right now fifty percent of these people, after re-entering our communities, will commit a crime in the first two years and go right back to prison...I worked with an organization that had a fifteen percent recidivism rate, and that's what started me thinking we need to do that all across Tennessee. You know, if we want to lower crime, we have to address recidivism. And we do that by being tough on crime and being smart on crime at the same time.”
The audience gave a polite round of applause. “A good start,” I thought. “But what about CoreCivic and the for-profit prison industry? I'm not one to encase my arms in barrels full of concrete over it, but…”
“I think people want a good job, a good school for their kids and a safe neighborhood. That's what matters to every single Tennessean,” he continued. “Those are the things that I want to work on as governor from this day forward.”
Mr. Lee went on to explain how the campaign started by consulting with his wife and praying over the decision for a year before they felt it right to move forward. They bought a bus, and soon started introducing themselves to Tennesseans across the state (sometimes to nearly empty venues he's confessed to much laughter...Lee later invited all in the audience who voted for his rivals to be late volunteers to his campaign.) His bus tour and a later tractor tour across rural parts of these state was followed by his “Faith in Tennessee” tour, where he explained how his Christian faith is the most important thing in his life.
“That will never change. I think that oftentimes the voice of faithful people is made to feel increasingly unwelcome, especially in the public square...and that's a mistake, because not only is religious liberty guaranteed and fundamental, but faith, and family and community are not old-fashioned values to me...those are important values that we need to carry with us forward as we take Tennessee from where she is today to where she will be tomorrow.”
It was the Sabbath that morning, and it is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot...and I really should have been in a shul somewhere...and I do have LGBTQ+ friends who are just as faithful in their Christian belief and practice as the gentleman who was speaking in front of me...and I love and will defend their right to live their full truth as believing Christians no matter what, but... “Ugh!” Enough said.
“We took the bus to thirty-five faith-based nonprofits (across Tennessee)...organizations serving the poor, serving disabled children, serving in prison ministries, serving women's health clinics, serving the homeless...Organizations that you would be so proud of...representing hundreds of organizations across our state doing the work that government can't do and shouldn't do. I'm a believer that government is not the answer to the greatest challenges of our day. We (need) the nonprofit community, the private sector, our community organizations, our churches. We the people hold the answers to the greatest challenges...and government has an important role in protecting and defending rights and liberties and freedoms, but it also has a responsibility to really create an environment where people can address these challenges.”
And I'm thinking “he means well, but ‘Danger Will Robinson!’ Which faith? Women's health clinics that provide contraception too? Protecting and defending LGBTQ+ rights also? Maybe he would get a clearer view from the governor's chair, but…”
“We have some real challenges in our state,” he continued a minute or two later after sharing more funny stories about how bleak his campaign looked in the beginning...
“I've talked about rural Tennessee, vocational education, traditional education, recidivism rates... We've got some real challenges. But let's set those aside for a minute and remind ourselves that we are very fortunate people to be Tennesseans. We live in one of the best states in the country. (A loud round of applause from the audience for that remark) My family got off the raft right here in 1796. I love this state, and I now love it even more since I have been traveling it over the last two years. We are very fortunate in a lot of ways. We're doing a lot of things. We've got great leaders in the legislature. We have a governor who has done remarkable work over the last eight years, and we are positioned in a real strong place.
But I'm a businessman…and (my company) does strategic planning...Tennessee is in a really good spot...But I think we can do even better. I believe that not only can Tennessee be a better place for the six and a half million people who live here, but we can lead the nation. We can show other states how to do it...how to lower recidivism, how to improve our schools, how to improve the economies of our struggling areas. We (the people) have the leadership...The governor is not going to lead a state and make that change - we will do that. A government that recognizes the power of local leadership, of individual people and the nonprofits and the private sector. We come together to transform this state, and I believe that we can in fact lead the nation and I would be honored to help you, and to lead with you as we transform Tennessee from where she is today to a spot where she leads America.”
“I would be honored to be your Governor...to have your support and your engagement over the next (few) weeks,” Lee concluded to applause. A closing prayer wrapped up the gathering as Mr. Lee shook more hands while being gently steered back to his bus by his spouse and campaign staff. The good folks in Robertson County were awaiting.
I took my leave...walking down the highway past the campaign bus to where I had discreetly parked my car in such a way where the locals would not spot the HRC sticker on the back window. There was one part of his story about the early days of the campaign that I mused upon as I walked along.
“It was sometime during our town hall meetings that we began to feel that our campaign was gaining momentum,” Lee began. “We were not the front runner,” he continued in a deadpan manner to a building chours of snickers from the audience. “Y'all know that, right?” (Laughter)
“I can't tell you how many times I did shake hands with someone and they would tell me 'you know, you are just a really nice guy…’ (more snickers) 'I don't think you can win…’ (chuckles) 'but I think that you are a really nice guy!’ (laughter)...and I was thinking ‘ you know, you really could have stopped at your a really nice guy!” (Laughter and applause)
Ok, I like him. He's a really nice guy…
And I will stop there.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local trans woman and Out&About Nashville columnist.