MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Republican candidates for Tennessee governor said Wednesday that Memphis did not do the right thing when it removed statues of Confederate-era leaders from city parks last year.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee squared off in Memphis during the first televised, Republican-only debate during the campaign to replace Gov. Bill Haslam, who faces term limits.
Memphis used a legal loophole in a state law to remove statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from two parks under the cover of darkness in December. The state House voted Tuesday to withhold $250,000 for the city’s 2019 bicentennial celebration, a move that drew accusations of racism from House members from Memphis.
Black and Lee said they thought Memphis did not do the right thing. Boyd said he agreed with his competitors “that we need to preserve our history.”
However, Black and Boyd said it was not correct to punish the city, which some lawmakers said they intended to do.
“Close the loophole” Black said.
The candidates also discussed several issues affecting west Tennessee, including economic development, school safety, immigration and the opioid crisis. Another Republican candidate, House Speaker Beth Harwell, did not attend because of the ongoing legislative session.
Answering a question about economic development in Memphis, Black said the city must improve its education and crime rate if it wants to attract businesses and jobs.
“When there is crime, factories don’t want to move into that area,” Black said, adding that she does see parts of the region that are “ready for growth.”
She also said Memphis sufferers from “Nashville neglect” — in reference to the Legislature in the state’s capital — and added that the state department of economic development has not done a good enough job bringing infrastructure and road projects to west Tennessee.
Lee appeared to agree.
“There’s no doubt the focus has not been put here,” he said.
Boyd served as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development under Haslam. He said he brought many jobs to the region while serving in the state cabinet position and plans to heavily promote the Memphis Megasite, an industrial park that has yet to be completed. His campaign has said his goal is to create nearly 30,000 new jobs in the region.
Lee, who owns a heat and air conditioning company, said incentives to draw companies to Tennessee are valuable, but “greater transparency” also is needed.
All three candidates also said they support giving teachers guns in schools. Arming teachers should be voluntary, Boyd said, and he and Black agreed that they should undergo extensive training.
Democrat candidates Karl Dean, the former mayor of Nashville, and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Minority Leader, were not included in the debate.
The gubernatorial primary is Aug.2, and the general election is Nov. 6.