GOP field for Tennessee governor soon to become more crowded

Friday, May 26, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 21

CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Businessman Randy Boyd will happily talk at length about his role in creating Tennessee's free community college tuition program and his plans to attract more companies to the state and cut regulations to keep others from leaving.

But he's less eager to discuss the crowd of candidates likely to join him in the Republican field seeking to succeed term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam next year.

So far they include multiple state legislators, a businessman and a congresswoman, and there could be more.

"I'm not really going to pay a lot of attention to the opposition," Boyd told The Associated Press from behind the wheel of a new Volkswagen SUV he had purchased for his campaign. "I have a really world-class team on my campaign that will think about those kinds of things."

Boyd, founder of Knoxville-based invisible fence maker Radio Systems Corp., got his start logging thousands of miles selling pet products in a van without air-conditioning. He says his sales experience shares something in common with campaigning.

"You just sell the features and benefits of your product. I had a dozen competitors then, and I doubt I'll have a dozen this time," said Boyd, whose company now has annual revenues of $400 million and more than 700 employees. "I learned from that experience that it's better to focus on your product."

Since officially announcing his bid in March, Boyd has had the Republican campaign mostly to himself. State Sen. Mark Green of Ashland City had put his bid on ice while unsuccessfully seeking confirmation as President Donald Trump's pick for Army secretary, and Franklin businessman Bill Lee didn't announce his plans to run until late last month.

But with the legislative session done, a new phase in the campaign is likely to unfold. Green has set a Monday deadline to announce whether he will re-boot his tea party-style campaign, and state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville both say decisions are imminent.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, winner of several bare-knuckle congressional primary contests, is still mulling a bid, too.

For his part, Norris says he'd welcome a large field of candidates.

"The more, the merrier," said Norris, who so far is the only western Tennessee Republican to voice an interest in running.

Norris was a main proponent of this year's most contentious legilative issue: Haslam's road funding plan that included a 6-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, Tennessee's first since 1989. But the measure also included greater cuts on taxes on groceries, manufacturers and earnings from stocks and bonds. Norris has been running billboards in the Memphis area touting the tax relief in the new law.

Harwell, who unsuccessfully sought an alternative to the gas tax before ultimately voting for the transportation bill, said she wants to take the rest of the month to decide whether to run.

"We have a lot of good people that are interested in it," she said. "Our state's headed in the right direction, and I've been part of the leadership team getting the state headed in that right direction."

Harwell said she's made up her mind about one thing: She'll remain House speaker if she joins the governor's race.

"I'm not going to give up the speakership, that would be foolish," she said. "I'm serving a valuable role here, and I suspect the next session will be an easier session that this one, so I think we're in good shape."

Green's nomination as Army secretary fell apart earlier this month amid bipartisan criticism about his past comments on LGBT issues and Muslims. But those positions may not hurt him as much in a Republican primary campaign in Tennessee that they did on the national level.

Green told The Tennessean he'll announce by Memorial Day whether he plans to re-boot his gubernatorial campaign. He said he was encouraged by support from "strong conservative leaders" after more than 100 tea party-aligned leaders signed a letter urging him to run.

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is the only Democratic candidate to announce so far, though state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley appears to be leaning toward joining the race.