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In debate, GOP Tennessee governor hopefuls align with Trump

Republican GOP Candidates Diane Black, Randy Boyd, Beth Harwell and Bill Lee debate each other at the Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (Lacy Atkins/The Tennessean via AP)

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — The leading Republican candidates for Tennessee governor tried not to second-guess President Donald Trump during a debate Wednesday night, including pledging support for his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

At the debate, House Speaker Beth Harwell, ex-state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd and businessman Bill Lee blamed congressional inaction for the migrant family separations that have sparked recent public outrage. The statements likely took aim at U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who instead took a stance similar to Trump by blaming Democrats. She said Democrats are not supporting construction of a border wall.

The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, have said the separation of families was a new policy by the Trump administration, and applauded the administration for ending it. They have called for the Republican-led Congress to negotiate a larger immigration solution.

The four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls expressed concerns and sympathies about the families that have been split, and said they support Trump’s policy change to keep families detained together.

“Those parents came here willingly,” Black, a Gallatin lawmaker, said at the Nexstar Media Group debate. “I can’t imagine being a mother or grandmother and putting my grandchildren or children in that situation. With that being said, I think the president has made the right decision in detaining and deporting the families together.”

The group largely steered clear of attacking each other, and aligned again by saying it’s disrespectful for professional athletes to take a knee during the national anthem and would leave a game if someone did. Black has already dropped her Tennessee Titans season tickets over it.

They expressed some concerns over Trump’s tariffs and their impact on Tennessee’s car manufacturers, farmers and more. But they also largely praised his decision making and negotiating skills.

“He is the president of the United States. He’s in the arena,” said Harwell, a Nashville lawmaker. “And I’m not going to second-guess him.”

In one of Boyd’s TV commercials, he likens himself to Trump. But the former economic development chief wouldn’t levy much in the way of criticism of the president when asked Wednesday.

“I don’t tweet as much,” said Boyd, a Knoxville businessman. “Maybe having a little bit more reserve there would probably be a good thing. But that’s his personality and it’s worked well for him, and so I have no criticisms.”

Lee has aimed to differentiate himself as the conservative outsider and only non-politician in the race, and that claim drew responses from the other three candidates.

“We have a president, who I believe one of the reasons he has been so effective so far, is because he is a businessman and came from outside of government and is not a politician,” said Lee, a Franklin businessman.

Boyd responded that he served without taking pay, and said he is proud of that service and doesn’t want it to be demeaned. Lee responded he didn’t intend to demean, but was touting his executive experience.

Harwell said Tennessee’s General Assembly is part-time, and no one makes a living in it. And Black said experience counts.

The primary election for governor is on Aug. 2.