Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times Bill Lee, the Republican Party's nominee for governor of Tennessee, speaks during a campaign stop at Lafayette City Hall on Oct. 25.

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

Bill Lee, the Republican Party's nominee for governor of Tennessee, speaks during a campaign stop at Lafayette City Hall on Oct. 25.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Lee visited Lafayette City Hall last Thursday to share his vision for Tennessee, with a focus on agriculture, education and public safety.

A third-generation cattle farmer and Tennessee business owner, Lee's personal experiences and Christian faith have shaped his views on the issues facing the state.

"I lost my first wife when I was 40 years old, and I had four little kids," Lee said. "When I went through that season, I sorted out what mattered and what didn't. I got involved in nonprofit work, mentored a little kid in the inner city through an organization I was working with. I spent one evening a week with him for five years, got very interested in his education, and I really had my eyes open up to the power of education in the life of a child."

According to Lee, that child saw a turning point in his previously-failing grades when he moved to a higher-performing school.

"Right before my eyes, I saw his future change by the power of a good education, and I became an advocate," Lee said. "That started me down a path ... that really started me thinking about this run for governor."

Lee's vision for Tennessee's school systems saw an increased focus on agriculture, vocational and technical education.

"We have 67,000 farmers in Tennessee, but those (numbers) are reducing all the time," Lee said. "To combat that, we need to increase our focus on ag education to raise up more farmers, so we can continue the important sector of the economy that is agriculture."

According to Tennessee Farm Bureau, agriculture contributes an estimated $74.8 billion to the state's economy each year. Lee said that youth organizations including the Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H and Young Farmers and Ranchers work to develop new farmers alongside programs like Ag in the Classroom.

"I also think that we can enhance agriculture by focusing on ag business," he said. "There is an emerging ag tech industry in this country. Tennessee can lead in that if we recognize how it is we can incubate, start up and support small business, especially ag tech businesses across the state."

Lee's time in the private sector as the chairman of Lee Company, a home services business that employs approximately 1,200 individuals, has also informed his perspective on education for trade skills.

“We have largely ignored vocational and technical education in our public school systems for a long time,” Lee said. “I know that because I run a company of skilled tradespeople, and we struggle to find workers every single day. Our company was even named by The Tennessean as the best large company to work for in Nashville, and we can’t fill those jobs. I look forward to re-emphasizing that in our public school systems all over Tennessee.”

Prison reform is another focus for Lee, who has volunteered for prison ministry nonprofit Men of Valor. The organization is focused on preventing inmates from returning to prison through Bible study, aftercare and employment programs.

“We intersect men incarcerated and we work with them through transition,” Lee said. “I employ some of those folks, and I got real interested in the issue of public safety. When you consider that 95 percent of people sitting in a jail cell in the state of Tennessee are getting out and coming back into our communities … what we do with those folks when they come out profoundly matters to you and me. It deeply impacts the crime rate in our state.”

Lee said that churches, non-profits and private businesses all play a role in society alongside the government, a series of relationships he sees as the most effective drivers of change.

“Government isn’t the answer to the greatest challenges we have in our day … we the people are actually the answer,” Lee said. “The government has a real important role – it protects and defends our rights and our liberties and our privileges, but it creates an environment for the people to address our greatest challenges. That includes our community, our churches and our nonprofits, and includes the private sector. When those engage in partnership with government, we can really make changes.”