Inside the War Memorial Auditorium, four former Governors sat watching a ceremony each of them are all too familiar with. The ceremony, which included music, a pledge, prayer and a hand on a bible, ended with five former Governors on stage.
“For the last eight years, we have loved every bit of doing this and I can’t thank you enough,” former Governor Bill Haslam said to the packed room. While he acknowledged a Governor doesn’t get to pick their successor, he said “I can’t think think of anyone else that we are more excited to turn over the keys to this wonderful state we call home.”
Haslam thanked his wife, Crissy Haslam, for her eight years of service to the state, which was echoed by a standing ovation in the auditorium. Haslam said they both woke up praying for the Lees and that they would continue to pray and cheer for them.
“Tennessee is a great state,” he said moments before handing over the reins to Lee, “for everyone that seems to live a life that seems to be all about themselves, there’s a hundred that rush to help when there’s a tornado or wildfire, when the military is deployed or school children are in a bus wreck, whatever it is.”
Governor Bill Lee pledged to build on the foundation laid by his predecessor. He acknowledged education and unemployment achievements under Haslam, saying Tennessee is the envy of many states under his leadership.
U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-District 2) was there Saturday. He calls Gov. Lee “the right man at the right time.” Burchett says Gov. Lee is a real Christian, not a “bumper sticker Christian.” Among Lee’s inaugural remarks, he spoke about providing non-violent offenders the tools they need to stay out of jail and live productive lives in society. Burchett says he believes Lee’s promises. “He really doesn’t care whether he wins or loses at the end of the day, I think he just wants to do the right thing,” Burchett added.
Burchett also shared the moment he saw Governor-potential in Lee. He says it was three or four years ago in Campbell County when he saw a room full of people stop what they were doing to look at Lee, who was speaking. “I thought, if he can get in front of enough people, he will be our Governor.”
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-District 3) came with a message of support to lawmakers and the new Governor. “I wish you the best. As your federal partner, I’m going to work very hard on the house appropriations committee to make sure we get the federal dollars into our great state that we need to get the job done,” Fleischmann said.
Patricia Mills drove in from Bean Station, Tennessee, to see Lee’s inauguration. Mills says she has supported Lee from the very beginning. “I feel like God put Bill Lee where he’s at,” she said. While the Republican primary leading up to the general election became negative at times, Mills says Lee never says anything bad of anyone.
Knox County Commission Chairman, Hugh Nystrom, also stood in line to for the inauguration. “Ultimately local governments work with state government to make sure we’re doing a good job taking care of folks in our community,” Nystrom said. On former Governor Haslam, Nystrom believes he leaves the state better than he found it and says he could talk for hours on Haslam’s overall impact. “Bill has big shoes to fill,” he said.
Dan Raper was beaming Saturday. He drove from Powell for the historic event. While he says he’s taken pride in having a Governor for eight years who has also served as Knoxville Mayor, he’s also thrilled to have Lee takeover.
For Raper, Lee’s integrity is unmatched. He invited Lee in February 2017 at the Knox County Lincoln Day Dinner to an event honoring fallen officers. Raper wrote on the back of a card where and when the event would be and Lee was there three months later. “For him to show up and not even get a reminder, that meant a lot to me,” he said.
Raper put up signs for Lee, talked to voters in Knox County, police officers around the state, and ultimately helped Lee earn the endorsement of the Tennessee Fraternal Order of Police. “We were proud to give it to him. He earned it. He earned our trust and I think he’ll keep that trust,” Raper added.
“Tennesseans we stand in one of the great states in all of America. But, our greatness has never come from what one individual has done. Our greatness has always come from the collective lives and service and commitment and sacrifice of those who have come before us,” the 50th Governor said in his inaugural address.
Lee said in his trips throughout the volunteer state’s 95 counties, all Tennesseans care about three things: safe neighborhoods, good jobs and better schools. “I believe that we can create safer neighborhoods, good jobs, better schools all across our state,” he said.
Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R) is the longest-serving lawmaker in Nashville. First sworn in as a state representative in 1978 and going onto the state senate in 1986, Gov. Lee will be the seventh Governor McNally has served under. “I enjoyed the Governors I’ve served with over the years, all of them different from each other. I think all of them had the best interest of Tennesseans at heart,” he said.
The senior legislator is also Speaker of the Senate this session. He forms committees, votes on Senate proposals and works closely with House leadership as well as the Governor. After attending multiple inaugurations, McNally was front and center Saturday. He called the joint convention of the House and Senate to order, ultimately leading to the oath of office.
McNally is optimistic about Tennessee’s future under Lee’s leadership. He believes Lee will continue the path of prosperity he credits Haslam with, citing the state’s financial standing, low debt, credit rating, low tax and unemployment.