The two leading Democratic candidates for Tennessee governor squared off in their first televised statewide debate at the Clayton Performing Arts Center on the Pellissippi State Community College campus in Knoxville on Sunday evening.
Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh answered questions about several key issues, including education and healthcare.
Dean is the former mayor of Nashville. Fitzhugh is the house minority leader and a state representative for Tennessee’s 82nd district.
Dean and Fitzhugh were first asked about their stance on abortion, considering Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Cavanaugh as the next Supreme Court Justice and the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the high court. If the ruling is overturned, abortion laws would be determined on a state-by-state basis.
“It’s a matter of choice,” Dean said. “[A woman] should be free to consult with her doctor, with her faith and with her family. But ultimately, it is her choice.”
“Health matters shouldn’t be the government’s opinion,” Fitzhugh agreed. “It should be the choice of the woman herself and whoever she would share that choice with. I would not propose further restrictions.”
Both candidates agreed that the reversal of Roe v. Wade is a long way from happening and recommended taking a “wait and see” approach.
Next, the two were asked about the NFL’s national anthem protests – whether kneeling for the flag was a First Amendment right or disrespectful to the flag. In a recent poll, a majority of Tennesseans surveyed agreed it was disrespectful.
Fitzhugh said, as a veteran, he supported players’ choice to kneel if they want to do it in a respectful manner.
“This is a sporting event. It doesn’t mean anything derogatory about our flag,” Fitzhugh said. “Many times when you kneel you do it for a solemn purpose. If that’s the purpose, I see that person has that particular right.”
Dean concurred, saying it’s a First Amendment issue.
“Protest sometimes makes people uncomfortable,” he said. “That is generally the idea behind it. To facilitate the discussion about issues that people believe aren’t getting the attention they deserve, or they want to bring about changes in our society.”
Fitzhugh added that he doesn’t particularly like when people wear the flag on their back, saying that can be just as disrespectful.
“It’s not the flag, it’s what the flag stands for,” Fitzhugh said. “And I stand for the ability for people to protest in a peaceful manner.”
Dean said the issue facilitates discussions that might bring about change.
“Instead of condemning each other and fighting, reach out and try to have a conversation about the issues that lead people to protest,” Dean said.
Candidates were asked about corporal punishment and both agreed that the practice was outdated. Tennessee is one of 19 states that still allow corporal punishment and one of eight states where 15 percent of schools actively use it.
“It’s time to end the practice,” Dean said. “We ask a lot of our educators. Corporal punishment is a step too far and I’d like to see that gone.”
“Times have change and children are smarter and can adhere their conduct to what they should have in schools,” he said. “I think it’s time that we don’t burden our teachers and staff with that.”
Both candidates said they wouldn’t allow their children or grandchildren to be spanked in school.
On the issue of school safety, specifically school shootings. One recommendation in Tennessee is to arm teachers. Both candidates have said in the past that they oppose that idea.
“The best thing we can do is to have a school resource officer,” Fitzhugh said. “We need to do better background checks to prevent people from having these types of weapons… And we need to use more security methods and get local government involved.”
Dean agreed that school resource officers are they preferred method for school security.
“Working with law enforcement, we can make our school safer,” Dean said. “And then I think we have to have this discussion about guns. I know Tennessee is a state with strong support for the Second Amendment… I think we need to begin the discussion on the issue of background checks.”
Next, the candidates were asked about sanctuary cities. Although there are none in Tennessee, the issue is a campaign pillar for several Republican candidates. Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill banning the cities in the most recent legislative session and Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
“This is an issue looking for a problem,” Dean said. “I think you follow the law. We wouldn’t have an immigration issue if Congress would do its job and finally reform immigration that we’ve been waiting 10, 15 years to occur. This is ultimately a federal issue. They need to resolve it.”
Fitzhugh and Dean both said if elected governor, they would have vetoed the if it came to their desk.
Medicaid was next on the agenda. There are more than 300,000 Tennesseans who don’t have health insurance. The candidates were asked what the governor can do for the thousands of Tennesseans who don’t have, or can’t afford, health insurance.
“If you talk to me for more than three minutes, I will mention Medicaid expansion,” Fitzhugh said. “If I’m the governor, I have enough rapport with my colleagues in the House and Senate… that if I can get the bill to the floor, it will pass.”
Dean said he also believes Medicaid expansion can be done.
“If you look at polling that Vanderbilt has done, the majority of the people of Tennessee support it,” Dean said.
Questioning then turned to sports betting. A recent Supreme Court ruling allowed states to make their own legislation on sports betting. Several neighboring states, including Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi, have already said they are making steps towards legalizing gambling in their states. The candidates were questioned about their stance on sports betting to help supplement the state’s revenue stream.
“I think we have got to go through a process where we respect the beliefs of the people in the state,” Dean said. “This reminds me of the lottery. I think this will be an issue that will be front and center in the next year or so, and we just have to wait and see where it goes.”
Fitzhugh was in favor of sports betting in the Volunteer State.
“We are so limited in our ability to raise revenue in this state,” Fitzhugh said. “This is one option we need to look at. We might even be able to direct that [money] towards teacher salaries. It’s happening in Tennessee now, we’re just not getting any money from it.”
Next, discussion focused on controversial memorials and statutes across the state. There have been calls to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol building, which have now been rejected twice. Both candidates have said in the past that the bust should be removed.
“It should go,” Fitzhugh said. “It’s important to me, but it’s important for those school children, and they look up and see who’s up there. Especially children of color. They don’t need to think this is a high point in our history. Because it wasn’t. It was a low point.”
Dean agreed, saying the bust doesn’t belong in a hall of honor of important Tennesseans.
“This has a proper role, perhaps, in a museum or somewhere else, but not… in one of the most spectacular and honored positions in our state capitol,” Dean said.
In a related issue, sales of license plates bearing an image of the Confederate flag have spiked in recent months. Candidates were asked if they would support the plate if they became governor.
“I voted years ago when this happened against [the bill to allow the plate]. I lost that vote,” Fitzhugh said. “It’s the law now. The law would have to be changed.”
Dean concurred, saying he didn’t feel the plate was appropriate.“I think the message is clear from the fact that sales have increased and we’ve gone through this national discussion of how we honor our history and we re-evaluate what we’ve done in the past,” Dean said.
Fitzhugh and Dean agreed that local communities should have final decision about which monuments are displayed in their cities.
Next, candidates were asked what they would do to offset how President Trump’s tariffs will hurt Tennessee’s industries, including agriculture and automotive manufacturing.
“One thing we need to do as a state is always work on economic development and always thinking strategically about how we can diversify our economy,” Dean said. “We have to take ownership of our own problems, be creative, find solutions and be aggressive about our own economic development.”
Fitzhugh said the president’s policy worried him.
“I’m more of a free trade guy than an isolationist,” Fitzhugh said. “For the short term, until Mr. Trump comes to his senses, we will try to help our farmers, we’ll try to help the automotive industry, to get through this period of time until it’s clearly proven [the tariffs] aren’t the right things to do.”
Candidates were then asked specific questions based on their previous stance on various issues.
Fitzhugh was asked about the “death with dignity” bill he proposed in 2015. Two versions of the bill have failed to gain traction.
Fitzhugh said he wouldn’t be ready to push for the bill again, adding that it’s a personal issue, not a religious one.
Dean was asked if a recent campaign ad about “forgotten Tennessee” was an appeal to Trump supporters. Trump touched on “forgotten” Americans in his victory speech.
“I’m trying to appeal to everyone,” Dean said. “There are people here in Tennessee who are forgotten, particularly if you talk about small towns and rural areas.”
He said these areas don’t have the tax base to do what they want to do with their schools, or economic issues relating to lost jobs that never returned. Dean said other issues include lack of access to internet and closing medical centers in those communities. Dean added that he would include some suburban and urban areas too, particularly in Memphis.
“Memphis every day, unlike Nashville, competes with the states right next to it,” Dean said. “We have to do everything we can to maintain the tax base in Memphis
Fitzhugh jumped in to say he was concerned about the “forgotten Tennessee” characterization, particularly as it related to Memphis.
“I’d rather say there are those that are in the shadows of those skyscrapers that we need to help,” Fitzhugh said. “They just need a little opportunity. It’s not that they’re forgotten. I haven’t forgotten them. We don’t need to forget about folks. We need to lift them up.”
Next, the topic turned to outsourcing as a cost-saving move if it meant laying off state workers whose jobs are being replaced. In 2015, Gov. Haslam established a committee to look at ways to eliminate 3,000 state jobs through outsourcing, including custodial, maintenance and grounds keeping jobs.
“I think, in general, you shouldn’t be doing that,” Dean said. “You don’t want to take a firm stance on everything and say you would never look at working with a non-profit or working with somewhere else where you would get something done more efficiently.”
Fitzhugh took a harder stance on the issue.
“I’m not for outsourcing on government functions,” Fitzhugh said. “You don’t run a state like a business. Profit is the motive of a business. People is the motive of a state. It doesn’t do good to outsource on government functions.”
The candidates were asked about whether financial incentives offered by the state on development deals should require an affordable housing component.
“I am worried about the affordable housing in our state,” Fitzhugh said. “In my communities, it’s more of an affordable and adequate housing. If it’s too expensive for a teacher to live in a urban area or rural area, we’re not going to get the teachers there.”
“The state can play a role with incentives and the state can play a role with the state housing authority,” Dean said. “I think local government takes the lead and the state can step in and provide more money.
Both candidates were asked if the minimum wage should be raised above the current federal minimum of $7.25. Both candidates agreed that it should be raised.
“We have the most people per capita working at the minimum wage than any other state,” Fitzhugh said. “I’m certainly for adopting a minimum wage and raising it.”
“Our goal should be to have a livable wage,” Dean said. “I would like to see us move it up over $10 and I would like to see us be in a position where we’re doing more and creating new and better jobs in our state.”
Candidates were queried about the reason for disproportionate school discipline among minority students. In Metro Nashville schools, 45 percent of the school population is black, but black students account for 65 percent of school suspensions. The story is the same in Knox County schools, where 14 percent of the school population is black, while black students account for 33 percent of school suspensions.
Dean weighed in first, saying that it’s a national issue that must be addressed.
“Nothing good happens when a child is not in school,” Dean said. “Suspending them, expelling them, only magnifies the issue. And to see that kids, by racial lines, are being treated differently, also raises some concerns. My goal would be to do what we do in Nashville: set up truancy centers, set up centers where you keep kids in school.”
“Education is the most important thing we do in this state. It’s not a quick fix, it’s our only fix,” Fitzhugh said. “We have to have better training for our staff and our teachers to make sure we sort that thing out and be cognizant of the fact that we have children that are learning and growing at different levels.”
The debate took a break from the serious and candidates were asked how they proposed to their wives.
Fitzhugh, who has been married for 44 years, proposed in his trailer while in law school. He remembered during the proposal that he dropped the ring off the side of the bed.
“It was the most romantic thing you’ve ever seen,” Fitzhugh said.
Dean recalled how he met his wife while they were in law school. They went to a law school dance together because they were both on crutches.
“I realized pretty quick that she was someone special and someone I wanted to live my life with,” Dean said.
The candidates were given a chance to make closing statements.
“I’m running for governor because I believe the people of this state want a pragmatic, common-sense person to be their governor,” Dean said. “The state is not looking for an extremist or somebody who only looks at thing through partisan lenses.
Dean added that the state needs to work on public education, economic opportunity and healthcare.
Fitzhugh closed by saying he is the right candidate for education, Medicaid expansion and better jobs.
“This is my home, I love this state, I’ve lived here all my life,” Fitzhugh said.
The debate, moderated by WATE 6 On Your Side anchor Kristin Farley, was broadcast statewide in Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, the Tri-Cities and Huntsville, Ala.
Panelists for the debate included Local 24 News Memphis anchor Katina Rankin, Local 24 News managing editor and anchor Richard Ransom and WKRN News 2 Nashville anchor Bob Mueller.
A debate between Republican gubernatorial candidates, also slated for Sunday, was canceled after three of the four candidates withdrew from the event.