Tennessee Politics 2002: A Year of Historic Change

by Pat Nolan.

Gov. Phil Bredesen

The recently concluded 2002 elections and their aftermath certainly left a historic mark on our state. The winds of change blew strongly, and much of it involved Nashvillians. We have a new governor, Phil Bredesen, a former mayor of our city and the first big city mayor to hold the state’s highest office. We have a new U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander, who is a former governor and who has lived most of his adult life in Nashville. Finally, Bill Frist, our senior Senator, and a Nashville native, has been elevated to Majority Leader of the Senate, a position that arguably makes him one of the most powerful persons in the country, if not the world!

Dr. William H. Frist

The bruising and prolonged fight over a state income tax and a wave of state legislative retirements were also major political developments that led to change in 2002. The summer and fall elections brought the largest class of new lawmakers ever to our incoming General Assembly. But the single biggest factor in all the political change in Tennessee in 2002 came from the decision of Fred Thompson not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. That resulted in a fruit basket turnover of those holding office on the federal, state, and local levels. In fact, there is an almost direct link from Thompson’s decision to the election this past fall of Howard Gentry by Metro Nashville voters as the city’s first popularly elected black Vice Mayor. That’s because it was Thompson’s decision that led Bob Clement to vacate his Nashville congressional post and run (unsuccessfully) for the Senate. That, in turn, led Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine to run for Congress. During the campaign, Steine was implicated in a shoplifting scandal, which led to his resignation and the election of Gentry.

Howard Gentry Jr.

Furthermore, because of the changes on the senatorial and gubernatorial levels, there were very historic and interesting changes in our congressional delegation in Washington. For the first time in our memory, three of the four congressional districts which encompass the Greater Nashville and Middle Tennessee area (the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Districts) have new people now holding those seats. Yet despite all that change, some things remain the same. There has not been an incumbent Tennessee congressman defeated for re-election since 1974. That’s almost 30 years and counting!

Sen. Lamar Alexander (r) with Pres. George W. Bush

One other historic development came out of the last election about which there has been little public comment. A review of the records indicates that Lamar Alexander is the first person in the history of Tennessee to be popularly elected both Governor and U.S. Senator. Now that doesn’t mean we haven’t had people serve as both Governor and Senator. It’s happened several times. But all those occurred before the popular election of U.S. Senators. Back before 1912 and an amendment to the U.S Constitution, it was the state legislature, not the voters, who selected our Senators. Former Governor Frank Clement tried to make it to the Senate, but he was defeated by Howard Baker back in 1966.

This is not the first time Alexander has made statewide electoral history. He was also the first governor elected to two four-year terms. That was made possible again by a constitutional change (this time the Tennessee constitution). Governor Ray Blanton was the first governor to have the option to run again, but he declined.

Tennessee will have no statewide elections for almost four years (except for the 2004 Presidential election). So after a very active period of change, the election trail will be much quieter for a while. But as any student of politics, especially Tennessee politics, knows, it won’t ever be quiet politically around here for long.  (2002)

Author Pat Nolan

Editor’s note: Nashvillians know author Pat Nolan from his years of insightful election-night comments on WTVF television, where he also hosted “Inside Politics” and “Capitol View.” A graduate of Father Ryan High School and Vanderbilt University (where he was elected to the Student Media Hall of Fame for his distinguished career), Nolan later became Senior Vice President of DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations. We were extremely grateful to him for sharing this article with us after the momentous election of 2002.

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