Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist dies at 87 – Tennessee Lookout

Don Sundquist, former U.S. Congressman and two-term governor of Tennessee, died Sunday at the age of 87 in Collierville. 

At the request of the Sundquist family, Gov. Bill Lee’s office announced the Republican leader’s death. 

“Gov. Sundquist was a connector. He delighted in bringing people together from all walks of life to work for the common good. It was a  hallmark of his governorship,” said Beth Fortune, a former Tennessean reporter who was Sundquist’s communications director.

“Similarly, he brought many really young people together almost thirty years ago to serve in his administration, entrusting us with great responsibilities and giving us opportunities to learn and grow at the highest levels of government and public policy,” said Fortune, who later served as vice chancellor of public affairs for Vanderbilt University.  “His support of and faith in us never wavered, even when others may have urged otherwise. He mentored and guided us and treated us like family, which to this day, we all, by and large, remain so. It was an honor to serve in his administration, and Tennessee is a better state because of his leadership.”

Official portrait of Gov. Don Sundquist, painted by Tom Donahue, in the Tennessee Capitol.
Official portrait of Gov. Don Sundquist, painted by Tom Donahue, in the Tennessee Capitol.

A native of Illinois, Sundquist moved to Memphis in the early 1970’s and became active in Republican politics. He was chair of the Shelby County Republican Party, a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1976 and 1980, and managed Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker’s short lived 1980 presidential campaign. 

In 1982, Sundquist ran for Congress in the newly-drawn 7th District, beating Bob Clement by 1,476 votes. Clement, son of the late four-time Gov. Frank Clement, and the youngest person to be elected to statewide office in his role on the Tennessee Public Service Commission, was considered the frontrunner. 

The election was a bitter loss for Clement, who won a 1987 special election to serve as U.S. representative to Nashville’s 5th House District: the walls of his campaign office that year were adorned by staffers with the number “1,476” in markers as a reminder.

In 1994, Sundquist defeated then-Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen to become governor. In his first term, he created the Tennessee Department of Children’s Service and eliminated the Public Service Commission, replacing it with the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

He won reelection in 1998 handily but his legacy was marred among conservatives during his second term, in which he proposed a state income tax. Months of protests resulted from his legislative bid to pass the tax, with protestors — amplified by then State Rep. Marsha Blackburn — vandalizing the Capitol and circling in cars, horns honking.

Bill Phillips, former deputy mayor to Nashville Mayors Bill Purcell, who was elected during Sundquist’s second term, and John Cooper, remembered Sundquist from the latter’s early political roots. 

“I met Don Sundquist during his national Young Republican days. It was a pleasure to work with him then, later when he was in Congress and I was at the Republican National Committee,” said Phillips. 

“Then, serendipitously, I got to work with  him and his team when he was Tennessee Governor and I was Deputy Mayor of Nashville,” Phillips said. “Through the years I watched as he would put good public policy ahead of his political career; a quality we sorely lack today in some elected officials.”

“His was the soul of a public servant. I already miss our occasional telephone conversations.” 

Sundquist will lie in state at the Capitol; funeral arrangements are pending.

(Note: The editor worked on the 1987 Bob Clement congressional campaign.)