GOP candidates for governor tackle crime, sports betting, medical marijuana in statewide debate

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Four Republican candidates faced off on some of the issues facing Tennessee voters in a debate that aired on television stations across the state.  

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-TN56), U. S. Congressman Diane Black (R-TN06), former state Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Randy Boyd (R) and businessman Bill Lee (R) took the stage Wednesday night at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville. 

These candidates who all describe themselves as Conservatives share many views. They all support President Donald Trump and his agenda, starting with illegal immigration. Each talked about securing the border, but all were alarmed by images of children separated from their parents. 

“I will support President Trump,” said Harwell. “We elected him to take care and protect our borders and he is trying to do that. Of course, it is gut-wrenching to see what’s happened to families”

“I can’t imagine children being separated from their parents. It has got to be a terrible situation for those children. But those parents came here willingly,” said Black. She blames Democrats in Congress for failing to fund a border wall. 

Lee said the state should avoid programs that attract illegal immigrants, “like driver’s licenses which we did but don’t do anymore, or sanctuary cities which we should never have, or in-state tuition for illegals which we should never do.”

Boyd said the problem belongs in Congress, “This is an issue for Congress to solve. We need new immigration policy that is sound and will protect our borders while providing legal pathways for legal immigration. 

All four candidates gave Governor Haslam a grade of “B” when it comes to handling crime in Tennessee, then offered some of their own ideas. 

Lee cited his work with a faith-based program that mentored convicts getting out of prison to reduce recidivism. 

Harwell said schools need armed guards. “The legislature set aside $30M for school safety for distressed areas that can’t afford school resource officers. They now can apply for that grant and receive money. 

Boyd honed in on mental health. “We need to make a big investment in mental health. Teachers and principals I’ve talked to ask for mental health resource officers as well.”

 “Mental illness is at the root of this. In every situation, we see a young person who is mentally disturbed. Until we address that we’re not going to address the root cause.”  Black said, adding, “We need to give law enforcement more power to remove weapons when there’s an identification of someone with mental illness”

On the issue of sports betting, which has some bipartisan support in the legislature, Black, Boyd and Lee are all opposed. 

Harwell took a different stand. “If it’s constitutionally sound and the legislature takes action this is the peoples’ house. If the people back home want it I would not veto it.” 

All four candidates agreed that pro-football players who kneel during the national anthem are disrespectful of the flag, of veterans and particularly those who sacrificed their lives. When asked what they would do if Titans players took a knee, each candidate vowed to walk out. Black added that she gave up her Titans tickets last season and her family goes fishing instead. 

One of the hotter issues in Tennessee is medical marijuana. Black, Lee and Boyd all oppose the legalization of medical marijuana. 

Black, who is a nurse, believes it’s not safe. “The science does not tell us if medical marijuana is effective or safe. What scares me is the THC component can be different from one plant to another.”

Boyd won’t support it until the FDA approves it. “We’d also need to know what the dosages are. As it stands today we don’t know what type of dose for what person. I believe all of that has to be determined before we approve it.” 

Lee thinks there are other solutions. “We have yet to fully expand the use of low THC CBD oils.”

Harwell is the only candidate who supports medical marijuana. “I have heard from too many people that have talked to me that medical marijuana would help them.  And I think it’s cruel to withhold that from someone who needs that help.” She adds, “I am not for recreational use. It is a mind-altering drug just like alcohol. I think it should be used with care.” 

Wednesday’s debate was the second in the Tennessee Governor Debate Series, produced by the Nexstar Media Group and carried by WKRN-TV in Nashville, WATE-TV in Knoxville, WJHL-TV in Johnson City, WANT-TV in Memphis, WJKT-TV in Jackson, WZDX-TV in Huntsville, Ala. And WFLI-TV in Chattanooga, along with radio stations and Spanish language stations across the state. 

The third debate will include Democratic candidates for governor. It takes place in Knoxville on Sunday, July 22 with a focus on education and health issues. 

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