Former 2-term Republican Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist dies at 87
Aug 27, 2023, 9:58 AM | Updated: 12:00 pm
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Don Sundquist, a Republican who was twice elected governor of Tennessee and also served 12 years in Congress, died Sunday. He was 87.
Sundquist died at Baptist East Hospital in Memphis on Sunday morning, according to a family spokeswoman. He died peacefully, surrounded by family members, following surgery and a short illness, according to a statement Sunday morning from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office.
“He took great pride in bringing people together, regardless of differences, to work together for the common good,” Lee said in the statement.
Sundquist never lost an election in eight tries in Tennessee — six for Congress and two for governor — but he emerged as a divisive figure during his final years in office as the state feuded over whether to create an income tax.
Sundquist was elected to Congress in 1982, representing parts of West and Middle Tennessee.
He kept the seat until running for governor in 1994 when he became Tennessee’s 47th chief executive. He easily won re-election in 1998.
During his first term as governor, Sundquist reformed the state’s welfare system through a program he called “Families First.” It was designed to move welfare recipients into jobs by offering them training, job search help, transportation and day care needs.
In return, recipients were required to spend time each week in job-related activities and were limited to 18 months of welfare at a time with a lifetime ceiling of five years.
“It’s a highly successful program of preparation for work,” Sundquist said in 1998.
Additionally, he favored privatizing the state’s prison system, but the General Assembly balked.
In his second term, Sundquist proposed repealing the sales tax on groceries, saving each Tennessee family of four nearly $500 per year. He also recommended repealing the franchise and excise taxes and replacing them with a “fair business tax” that treats all companies the same. The levy was 2 1/2 percent on profits and 2 1/2 percent on salaries for all companies.
His popularity began to wane, though, as state financial troubles emerged during soaring costs for TennCare, the state’s effort to provide health care for the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. He proposed a state income tax, an idea usually associated with Democrats that set off a long-running battle over state finances.
Sundquist was so unpopular among Republicans that he avoided nearly all public appearances with GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush in 2000. Sundquist stayed out of the limelight for years after he left office in 2003, but began to resume appearing at party events after Gov. Bill Haslam was elected in 2010.
In Congress, Sundquist voted against banning assault weapons, helped write and pass a comprehensive ethics code and supported a capital gains tax cut and a balanced budget amendment. He opposed the 1990 Civil Rights Act.
In his first race for Congress, he upset Democrat Bob Clement — the son of former Gov. Frank Clement and the heir to a famous name in Tennessee politics.
After winning the seat, he rarely had serious opposition for re-election.
The son of a welder, Sundquist was born March 15, 1936, in Moline, Ill.
Before serving in Congress, Sundquist founded Graphic Sales of America Corp. of Memphis, a printing and advertising company. He also put together investors to establish a bank in Germantown and later joined with others in opening a Memphis-style barbecue restaurant in Arlington, Va.
He was national chairman of the Young Republican National Federation from 1971 to 1973 and spent almost 20 years doing grassroots work for the GOP.
Sundquist was the first member of his family to attend college, bagging groceries to help pay for tuition at Augustana College in Illinois.
After graduating from Augustana in 1957, he served two years in the Navy. Upon leaving the Navy, Sundquist went to work for Jostens, Inc., a scholastic products company in Shelbyville, where he rose to division manager before moving to become partner and president of Graphic Sales.
He defeated Phil Bredesen, then mayor of Nashville, for governor in 1994. In 1998 he had token opposition, defeating John Jay Hooker Jr. in the general election.