He Sees Old Friends
And Supporters, Gives
Interesting Comments About His Long Career
BY TOM YANCEY
Former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter was in Greeneville on Friday to promote the candidacy of his son, Mike McWherter, of Jackson, the only Democrat running for governor in the Aug. 5 state primary.
The former governor, now 79, a state Democratic leader for decades but a popular figure with Tennesseeans of both parties, received not only a respectful hearing for his comments about his son but also a cordial, even affectionate welcome from well-wishers who included old friends and allies from 1980s and 1990s campaigns.
Those who came to the General Morgan Inn to greet him in friendship even included former state Sen. Tom Garland, a Greeneville Republican who was state senate minority leader when the former governor was serving as Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
McWherter, who served as governor from 1987 to 1995, is perhaps best remembered in Northeast Tennessee for his support for locating a medical school at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City in the 1970s.
His strong backing for the bipartisan effort to win state support for the medical school, which proved decisive in the success of the drive, came despite the opposition of then-Gov. Winfield Dunn and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
McWherter met here Wednesday morning with dozens of old friends, supporters, officeholders and officeseekers for a "coffee" hosted by former Greeneville Alderman Ginny Kidwell.
On hand to greet him were, among others, state Rep. Eddie Yokley, D-11th, of Greene County, who is seeking re-election; 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell, also a Democrat; former Sheriff Terry Jones, the Democratic nominee for sheriff in August; and Jack West, the former Greene County Democratic Party chairman who is a candidate for the state senate in August.
BACKING REP. YOKLEY
"My son has been up here," McWherter told the group. "I'm here on behalf of him, and I'm here on behalf of Eddie (Yokley)," the former governor said.
"Everybody likes Eddie," McWherter said at another point, adding, "He does a good job."
Yokley noted that he attended the recent opening of the Tennessee Welcome Center on Interstate 26.
One of the speakers at the opening said that the welcome center would not be there at all, Yokley said, were it not for McWherter and his commitment to building the four-lane, limited access highway from Johnson City to Sams Gap at the North Carolina border that is now I-26.
McWherter said his son needs to get about 35 percent of the vote in East Tennessee in November against the winner of the Republican primary in August.
"If he gets out of [East Tennessee] with 35 percent of the vote, he will be able to make it up in West Tennessee," he said, and the decisive area will be Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
The GOP candidates are Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, state senator and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-4th, of Chattanooga.
'HE'LL TELL YOU YES OR NO'
Characterizing himself as "an old-timey Democrat, conservative," McWherter said his son is conservative as well, but "more like Harry Truman -- he'll tell you yes, or no."
He also said his son is opposed to a state income tax, as is every candidate in the race.
"Mike is probably anti-tax," McWherter said, opposed to any state tax increase of any kind, adding, "I don't know if that is a smart thing."
He said he is very concerned about the possibility of a national value-added tax, and his son shares that concern.
In response to a question, he said his son is also a supporter of the Second Amendment and is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association.
McWherter said he thinks Bill Clinton was a good president and a good manager, though he added that he did not approve of Clinton's "immoral activities."
He said Clinton told him he learned as governor of Arkansas that everyone who supported him had a niece or nephew who needed a job. For that reason, he said Clinton had advised him to "seal off" state employment immediately after taking office, which he said was good advice.
McWherter said George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, "was an excellent president," but noted that he thought George W. Bush, his son, "was over his head" in the presidency. He did not comment on President Barack Obama.
When Mike McWherter said he wanted to run for governor, his father said, he told his son, "First, I think you're crazy for trying to do this now. Things are tough. Revenues are going to be down. I think this is a very unusual time."
When his son told him he has "been fairly suc cessful" in banking and the family beer distribution business, "The good Lord has been good to us," his two children are now in college, and that he is looking for a challenge, his father, with two successful runs for governor under his belt, said, "You're getting ready to get a good one (challenge)."
McWherter said his son will face an even bigger challenge if he wins.
He said he has asked his son to consider financial incentives for companies that locate and generate new jobs in rural areas especially. McWherter said there are very few jobs left for unskilled workers in this country.
WORKED WITH REP. QUILLEN
McWherter, who in his younger days towered head and shoulders over most crowds, is stooped now, recovering from having eight spurs cut out of his spine last year.
He also said he suffers from macular degeneration, causing vision problems.
Still he took command of the room as soon as he entered, skipping the introductions.
"I've had good luck in East Tennessee," McWherter said. "I like the people, and I hope they like me. I did some things and made some difference up here, especially at East Tennessee State," a reference to the success of the bipartisan effort to win state support for the medical school.
That effort was headed by the late U.S. Rep. James H. "Jimmy" Quillen, longtime GOP congressman from Kingsport. "Bless his heart," McWherter said of Quillen.
He also mentioned Quillen's role in locating a state prison in Johnson County that is now that county's biggest employer.
McWherter, a West Tennessee Democrat, and Quillen, an East Tennessee Republican, worked together closely on the medical school.
Many observers at the time credited Quillen's off-the-record endorsement of McWherter as a key that led to his election as governor with unusually strong support from East Tennessee, traditionally a heavily-Republican region of the state.
"We didn't have as much partisanship" then as is evident today, McWherter said. He mentioned "a Republican friend up here," the late former state Rep. Joe Bewley, noting, "He was a good fellow."
"Personally, I think we've got two good U.S. senators" right now, McWherter added, referring to Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
"You know Bob Corker is up there," because the first-term senator has been so active in financial issues, and "Lamar has always been my friend."
"I'm not nonpartisan," McWherter said, because two parties are needed, "but I don't believe in all the partisanship. We ought to be Tennesseans and Americans."
OLD FRIEND STOPS BY
The reality of McWherter's non-partisan attitude was underscored when former Republican state Sen. Garland came by to say hello near the close of the event.
Spotting Garland, McWherter said, "This was a great senator."
Garland said, "Ned and I have been friends for 45 years," starting even "before I went to the House."
"This [visit] is not a conversion!" Garland said with a broad smile to the predominantly Democratic crowd, whose members responded with laughter and applause.
Garland said he and McWherter would "fight on partisan issues, but most of the things were in the interest of the citizens of the state."
Garland also said that, when he was campaigning in West Tennessee for a seat on the Public Service Commission after he retired as state senator, McWherter came to hear him.
McWherter then said of Garland, "I want you to know that this is a good friend," though they have been competitors in the natural gas business. He also noted that Garland asked him at one point to serve on an advisory board to Tusculum College.
"I've always supported Greeneville," McWherter said. "This old hotel is a beautiful old place," he said, and "something to be proud of."
Gregg Jones, co-publisher of The Greeneville Sun and the leader of the Morgan Square Downtown Revitalization effort in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, replied, "Governor, this hotel wouldn't be here, but for you.
"You put $1.5 million (of state funding through the federal ISTEA program) into this hotel and made it possible. You and several others helped with that." Applause followed.
McWherter later asked Jones, "How's your daddy?" speaking of John M. Jones, publisher of The Greeneville Sun and a longtime McWherter friend.
"Ornery as ever," Gregg Jones replied, triggering laughter. Jones added that his father and mother are both 95 now.
McWherter said, "He's had a good life," adding, "He was always ornery, but he was always a good man, and always shot straight."
McWherter said John M. Jones told him in one campaign for governor that he could not support him, but the next time he said he could. "Big Boy -- that's what he called me," McWherter recalled.
Sun Editor John M. Jones Jr. noted that McWherter was involved in one of the most dramatic bipartisan moments in Tennessee history, when newly-elected Republican Gov. Alexander was sworn in a few days early to prevent outgoing Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton from pardoning large numbers of convicted criminals, including murderers who had only served short portions of sentences.
The early ceremony was initiated by state Attorney General Bill Leach, who advised McWherter of his constitutional duty as Speaker of the House and pointed out the constitutional mechanism.
"That was a tough day," said McWherter, who said he and Blanton had known each other "all our lives."
Both Leach and Alexander vacillated about the early swearing-in ceremony, he said, but ultimately went ahead.
Minutes before the swearing-in took place, McWherter told the group on Friday, he asked if Blanton had been notified. Some said he had not, for fear that the sitting governor might "call out the national guard" in an effort to stay in office.
McWherter said he asked someone to dial Blanton's phone number, and Blanton's wife, Betty, answered.
The House Speaker asked for Blanton. "Then Attorney General Leach walked by, and I said, 'You tell him,' " handing an apparently-unsuspecting Leach the phone.
McWherter said Blanton's words to Leach were, "I'll be damned."
OPEN MEETINGS LAW
John Jones also said "the Tennessee Open Meetings Law would never have happened if not for you." McWherter was House Speaker at the time of its enactment.
McWherter said that law was "hard legislation" to enact, but was the right thing to do, and much appreciated by the press.
The press also reacted favorably when McWherter took the door to the governor's office off the hinges soon after moving in, he said. When the publicity died down, he said, he put the door back on its hinges, but kept it open most of the time.
"What I did every day was the public's business," he said. "The policy has changed a little since then," he said, but added that he is confident that his son will also "keep the door open."