Education was at the top of the list when candidates came to Martin on Thursday night to discuss their priorities if elected governor.
The gubernatorial forum, held at Watkins Auditorium on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin, was sponsored by the WestStar Leadership Program and moderated by Meg Kinnard, a Memphis native and UTM supporter who is an award-winning political journalist with the Associated Press.
Appearing at the event were Karl Dean, former Nashville mayor; Craig Fitzhugh, minority leader of the Tennessee State House of Representatives; Randy Boyd, former Tennessee Economic and Community Development commissioner; Beth Harwell, speaker of the Tennessee State House of Representatives; Bill Lee, president and CEO of Lee Company in Nashville; and Diane Black, Tennessee congresswoman representing the 6th District.
“A critical area is keeping teachers,” Karl Dean said in his opening remarks. “You have to pay to attract the best and pay to retain them.
Democrat Craig Fitzhugh concurred, saying more post-secondary education needed to be stressed, and teachers should be paid more.
Republican Randy Boyd spoke of his support for the Drive to 55, a state campaign to have 55 percent of all citizens with some post-secondary education by the year 2025.
“Right now we don’t have the system down right,” Harwell admitted, as the state once again experienced problems with TnReady testing.
Bill Lee said better education was the key to drawing more industry to rural Tennessee. “We desperately need skilled workers,” he said. “It’s expensive but we can’t afford not to do it.”
Diane Black stressed the need for more technical training, and the opportunity to allow businesses to help provide the training through community and technical college settings.
Kinnard asked candidates directly about how to provide more support for agriculture, and several candidates mentioned supporting and expanding agriculture enhancement grants, a cost-share program for the state’s farmers.
Harwell also said she wanted to promote more ag-tourism, as well as local outlets for farmers’ produce.
A followup question about recently imposed tariffs on soybeans drew varied responses. Only Black offered a strongly positive response.
“I’m happy that he’s doing that,” Black said of President Donald Trump, “bringing China to the table.”
China imposed the tariffs in response to Trump’s threats of a trade war. He has proposed to put tariffs on steel and aluminum from China because those industries are state-supported.
Not surprisingly, the two Democratic candidates were least supportive of the trade wars. Dean said it could lead to increased prices on steel and aluminum, which would boost the cost of farm equipment.
“I don’t think tariffs will really work,” Fitzhugh said.
But even the Republicans expressed concern.
“The tariffs as proposed new aren’t good for Tennessee,” Boyd said.
“I’m gravely concerned [about tariffs],” Harwell said, “but I trust the President that he has a long-term plan.” Bill Lee said he hoped the tariffs were “a leverage point” for Trump.
On the issue of healthcare, Democrats favored the expansion of Medicaid by accepting federal funds, while the GOP candidates stressed more efficient healthcare systems at the state level.
Kinnard managed to surprise all the candidates with a question designed to determine their insight into the West Tennessee economy: What is the break-point price per bushel for a soybean farmer to make a profit?
Only two attempted to answer: Bill Lee said $9.50, while Diane Black said $9.
While Kinnard did not provide an answer to the question during the forum, The Messenger contacted Chuck Danehower, University of Tennessee Extension Service area farm manage specialist, Friday morning. He said the break-point price varies based on variable and fixed costs, as well as land costs. He said accounting for a five-year average of 47 bushels per acre, the break-point price per bushel today would be $8.63.
“It was great for the citizens of this area to be able to meet the candidates for governor personally,” said Deane Arganbright, chair of the Weakley County Democratic Party. “I was happy to hear the strong support from Dean and Fitzhugh for such areas as public education and the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. In addition, it was valuable to hear a common concern expressed by candidates of both parties regarding the adverse impact of tariffs on local farmers and businesses.”
“I thought the forum was very well presented,” said David Hawks, chair of the Weakley County Republican Party. “The questions were excellent; it was very informative. Our state will be in good hands after the election.”
Hawks said he saw attendees from throughout the region, including nearby counties of Dyer, Henry, Gibson, Lake and Obion.
“West Tennessee will play a pivotal role in the gubernatorial race; it is highly probable that the election will be won or lost based on West Tennessee voters,” said WestStar class member Yvette Blue, associate superintendent and chief academic officer of Haywood County schools. “It is very important to learn the unique perspective of each candidate. Being able to make an informed decision is critical to the growth and prosperity of West Tennessee in the next decade.”
“The (WestStar) class felt lucky that we were going through WestStar during an election year, and we jumped on the chance to hold a forum,” added class member B.W. Beasley, mayor of the city of Milan. “As leaders of West Tennessee, it is imperative that we make the issues of West Tennessee known. We have a unique voice, since we come from communities all across West Tennessee.”
Approximately 350 people attended the event and heard the candidates’ views on issues such as agriculture, the opioid epidemic, school safety, economic development, and the quality and accessibility of healthcare, technology and education in rural areas. A wider audience watched the forum live via online webcast or listened via local and regional radio.
The May 15 edition of the Press also includes plans for infrastructure development from candidates for governor and Senator. To subscribe, call 731-587-3144.