A recurring theme over the past several years has been sparring between the Republican-controlled state legislature and Tennessee's more liberal big cities. They've staked out positions on issues like LGBT rights, living wages and immigration, only to have them undone by lawmakers.
The disputes have frequently put Governor Bill Haslam in the middle. So we asked the candidates to follow him:
Do you feel the state legislature has meddled in the affairs of Nashville and other cities? If so, as governor, what would you do about it?
Republican Randy Boyd notes that he worked a lot with local governments when he was the state's commissioner for economic and community development, and he says he has a healthy respect for the work that's done by local officials.
So he says he'd appoint a senior aide whose main job would be to make sure they aren't being steamrolled. He'd give him the title of deputy governor, one of two such officials in his administration: one to fulfill the traditional deputy governor's role of wrangling with state lawmakers and a second to advocate for the cities and counties.
"So it'll be a point of emphasis — trying to empower our local communities," he said. "I just believe government governs best closest to home."
That was the most concrete proposal from the six leading candidates for governor, to improve relations between cities and states. And most agreed they could be better.
Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, who's defended urban initiatives as the state House of Representatives' minority leader, said he'd discourage any effort by the legislature to bigfoot local governments.
"I don't think it's good," he said. "We have different levels of government for a reason and a purpose. And I know the boundaries of state government. I know the boundaries of city government and county government."
House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican, also pledged to respect the powers of local government, even though she didn't quite embrace the premise that lawmakers have been meddling.
She conceded Nashville tends to be more liberal than the state as a whole, and its priorities often diverge from the priorities found in rural communities. Those differences have sometimes sparked fights, including the General Assembly's decision to overturn Nashville's nondiscrimination ordinance in 2011 and this year's dispute over short-term rentals.
"But I think, for the most part, we have certainly respected the rights of local government that's closest to the people, allowed them to make the decisions for themselves," she said. "And that would be my philosophy going forward."
Ultimately lawmakers are the ones who decide which fights to pick. But the governor can sometimes smooth over those disputes, which all the candidates pledge they'd try to do.
QUESTION: Do you feel the state legislature has meddled in the affairs of Nashville and other cities? If so, as governor, what would you do about it?
Beth Harwell: Well, this is a rural legislature. There's no doubt about that. But I am from Nashville. I think we have a wonderful capital city here. It tends to be a little more liberal in its orientation than the Tennessee General Assembly, but I think for the most part we have certainly respected the rights of local government that's closest to the people, allowed them to make decisions for themselves. And that would be my philosophy going forward.
Bill Lee: I think it's important that the state and municipalities have a good working relationship, and I would work to be certain that's the case if I'm governor. (I'd) just create and maintain a good working relationship between those cities and the state.
Randy Boyd: So, an underlying philosophy of mine will be to focus on empowering our local government as much as possible. Every time somebody brings me an issue or an initiative, my first question will be, "Is this something the local government can do for themselves?" And if the answer is "yes" then we're going to defer to the local communities.
And as governor, I plan on having two deputy governors. A second deputy governor will be the deputy governor of local government, to be the voice in the ears for local governments.
So it'll be a point of emphasis — trying to empower our local communities. I just believe government governs best closest to home, and I will actually appoint the first deputy governor of local government to be by my side helping me make sure that we support them every day.
Diane Black: I really have a hard time commenting on that because I haven't been in the legislature for the last eight years, so I don't think that's very fair for me to comment on.
I certainly want to have a partnership between the states and the cities. It's important that as governor that I understand what the challenges are and that we work together to help every community in this entire state. The rural areas do need more help and, I think, haven't been given as much attention. And, so, I do plan on working with them and have been listening as I'm going throughout the state about what their challenges are, and I recognize that there are challenges there, and they will be a priority for my administration.
Karl Dean: Well, I think it's a complicated issue. I think there are times when I believe the legislature has interfered with local government, but at the same time, there are periods where they've been criticized for things that where perhaps state standards were the appropriate way to go. You know, in general, local government is the government that's closest to the people. It hears the voices of the people, and I think has the ability to manage its affairs. I don't think the state should go out of its way to interfere in local affairs, and it really comes down to sort of the wisdom and judgment of kind of knowing what the balance is. In general we should respect the past tradition of where we've allowed a lot of local government to take care of local affairs.
I think what you can do is remind the legislature that local government plays an essential role and there are some issues that are local and there are some issues that are state issues. And sometimes local governments will disagree with that. And sort of the trick is finding that balance and finding the point where you can differentiate the two. But I do have a sense that we should respect wishes, as much as we can, of local governments and the people, and I think the people are closest to the local government.
Craig Fitzhugh: Yes, is the answer to the question, and it's been a bit strange to me. The majority party — and I guess I'm speaking with my hat as the minority leader in the House — but the majority party has traditionally said it's best to govern closest to the people. And that's, you know, at the local level.
But here in the past few years, they have made it their mantra to do just the opposite. If they, speaking again as the majority, don’t like what a particular city's doing, they just take away that city's — or cities in general — the ability to do it. So, no, I believe that the best governance is at the local level and closest to the people, and I have confidence in city and county governments that they will do the right thing under the guidelines given by our state constitution and state laws. If it's good for a city, and they think so and they vote to do it or their city council or county commission … that's OK with me.
I would not as governor propose any legislation that would do that, and I would encourage our legislature not to take that tact, because I don't think it's good. We have different levels of government for a reason and a purpose, and I know the boundaries of state government, I know the boundaries of city government and county government. And I think we all ought to stay within those.