Dean expresses regret as Lee misses governor’s forum

September 20, 2018

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean, right, talks to reporters, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Dean and GOP opponent Bill Lee were scheduled to speak at a forum, but Lee canceled at the last minute. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean said Thursday that he’s disappointed GOP opponent Bill Lee was unable to attend a forum where the two were set to appear together, but stopped short of accusing the Republican of actively avoiding him.

“It would have been good to have him here, I would like to see him and discuss the issues,” Dean told reporters after the event. “One of the good things of having a campaign is that it provides a service to the public in that you get to see the candidates and get to hear their different opinions ... and that helps formulate how they’re going to vote.”

However, Dean demurred when asked if he thought Lee was intentionally dodging events where the two would have to share the same stage.

“I wouldn’t say that, but you can,” said the former Nashville mayor, pointing to reporters and adding he has accepted every invitation so far to events including both him and Lee.

Lee and Dean were scheduled previously to appear at the gubernatorial luncheon, but organizers say they were alerted an hour before the event kicked off that Lee had a conflict in east Tennessee and would be unable to attend. Lee spent Thursday making multiple campaign spots, including swinging by Kingsport to speak at the Hospitality and Tourism Association Conference and stopping at Lincoln Memorial University in Clairborne County as part of his commitment to visit every county in Tennessee before the general election.

“This was an unfortunate miscommunication, and we regret not being there for the event,” said Laine Arnold, Lee’s spokeswoman, in a statement. “We apologize to the organizers and attendees for any error.”

Lee’s campaign also disputed they were forced to “cancel” the forum despite organizers characterizing the announcement as such.

“Our campaign has always agreed to three debates, sticking with Tennessee tradition and that has been well known for weeks...We did not ‘cancel’ any forums slated for today,” Arnold said later in a followup statement. “Insinuations to the contrary are inaccurate.”

Earlier that day, Lee said in a tweet he valued being on the same stage with Dean while wishing the Democrat a happy birthday.

“I appreciate the opportunity to share the stage with you and I hope you get to take a minute from the campaign trail to celebrate today,” Lee wrote.

The event was sponsored by Farmers Insurance Group, Middle State Tennessee University and the League of Women Voters. Originally, both gubernatorial candidates were scheduled to participate in Thursday’s luncheon and then an evening forum. Yet roughly three weeks earlier, the evening event was spiked after Lee’s campaign cited scheduling conflicts.

Lee’s abrupt announcement he would be unable to attend Thursday’s luncheon became the main theme of the event — with speakers apologizing to the packed audience they had not planned for a candidate to unexpectedly drop out and a Q&A portion was limited to just three questions where Dean reiterated his endorsement of expanding Medicaid and improving education across the state.

State Rep. Ron Travis, a Republican from Dayton, was tapped by Lee’s campaign to speak on behalf of the candidate. He read a brief statement provided by the Lee campaign but told the audience he wouldn’t answer questions on behalf of the candidate.

“Bill Lee is not avoiding anyone. He has a good heart,” Travis later told reporters. “This was just an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Lee is chairman of a Franklin mechanical contracting, facilities and home services company. Dean is the former Nashville mayor. They are competing to succeed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who is hitting term limits. In October, Lee and Dean will face off in three debates before the November 6 election.

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