The Tennessee Democratic Party, a once highly influential political body whose domination of Volunteer State government lasted well over a century, died Monday, Dec. 14 in Murfreesboro at the office of one his sons, Congressman Bart Gordon. He was 181.
The cause of death was complications from untreated wounds brought on by self-flagellation and the use of home remedies. Neglect by his primary caregivers also contributed to his passing, according to medical examiners from the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In the 1820s, Gen. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), who is largely credited with paternity, installed the newborn Party as his primary agent toward elected office in what was then the frontier of the United States. Largely an absentee father in Party’s formative years, Jackson nonetheless was a powerful figure in the development of Party and has been honored with annual dinners that formerly were celebrations but in the last few years were regarded as hospice.
Highly influenced during his youth by Victorian-era frontier populism, Party saw great success in all portions of the state with the exception of East Tennessee, which stubbornly refused to bend to his will.
That feud turned bloody in the 1860s, ultimately resulting in Party having his license suspended and placed briefly under the supervision of court-ordered monitors and factions friendly to East Tennessee politicians, known more commonly as Republicans.
After his probation officially ended in 1877, Party went on to control most every aspect of political life in Tennessee for almost the next 100 years. During this time, some of his proudest moments occurred when sons like Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1871-1955) won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the United Nations and more locally when Gov. Frank Clement (1920-1969) passed legislation making the use of textbooks free in all Tennessee primary and secondary grades.
At times during the course of his life, Party did retain influence but was subjugated to the will of others. The most notable example of this was when Edward Hull “Boss” Crump (1874-1954) controlled his machinations for nearly half a century.
Crump was a Democratic Memphis insurance broker and businessman who recognized that, by forging alliances with East Tennessee Republicans and African Americans, he could effectively control state politics. For a number of years, election to the U.S. Senate, Governor of Tennessee or Mayor of Memphis, to name a few, was impossible without the endorsement of Crump.
His power largely ended in 1948 with the election of Gov. Gordon Browning (1895-1976) and Sen. Estes Kefauver (1903-1963), two men who opposed his machine. Although the election of Clement as governor in 1952 was a victory for Crump, the election of Sen. Al Gore Sr. (1907-1998) that same year marked the end of the Crump era.
Party soldiered on after Crump’s death and maintained control of state politics until the late 1960s, when East Tennessee Republican attorney Howard Baker was elected to the U.S. Senate. Party suffered further disgrace, becoming one of the first Southern state Democratic organizations to not have a member in the U.S. Senate or in the governor’s office from 1971 through 1975, when Baker served alongside Republicans Bill Brock of Chattanooga in the senate and Memphis dentist Winfield Dunn became governor.
Party’s fortunes rose again in 1977, when Democratic Memphis attorney Jim Sasser turned Brock out of office, and in 1985, when Baker retired to be replaced by Albert Gore Jr. Party regained full control of the state two years after that, when the Democratic Speaker of the House Ned McWherter was elected governor.
What should have been a high-water mark of Party’s life in 1992 in hindsight marked the beginning of his end.
That year, Gore was elected to the office of vice president of the United States and Party seemed to relish his influence on both the national and international stage. With Gore’s ascension, McWherter appointed Tennessee State Treasurer Harlan Mathews to serve in the U.S. Senate for two years until a special election could be held.
Mathews ended up becoming the last Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. He did not run for office in 1994 and Republicans swept the state and installed actor/attorney Fred Thompson and Dr. Bill Frist in the U.S. Senate. A year later, Congressman Don Sundquist moved into the governor’s office.
Further humiliation came for Party in 2000, when Gore ran for president of the United States. Tennessee went for Republican George W. Bush that year. While Democrats in other parts of the nation made stolen-vote accusations in Florida, Party knew that if he had come through, all of that would have been moot.
It was at this point that Party was given up for dead by his cousins in other states and more importantly in Washington, D.C. Were it not for Republicans putting up an ill-prepared candidate for governor in 2002 on the heels of fielding an income tax-endorsing Republican governor, it is likely Party would have died earlier. But a low-key, savvy businessman and former Mayor of Nashville named Phil Bredesen gave him new life after bringing professional sports to the state’s capital city.
Party tried valiantly to repeat this success in 2006 with the nomination of Harold Ford Jr. to the U.S. Senate, but lost in the end to former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.
Real damage to Party’s health also had been done the year before, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation had arrested seven state legislators — six of whom were Democrats — for accepting bribes. All were found guilty in federal court.
In his death throes in early 2009, Party pulled off one final trick by denying Republicans of the person they wanted to serve as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives after the GOP had gained a majority in 2008. A Republican was elected, just not the one most Republicans wanted.
Party had been looking to rebound in 2010 ahead of elections that will influence redistricting moves and likely draw it out of existence. But unexpected retirements by longtime members of his congressional delegation were asphyxiating.
Democratic Congressman John Tanner of West Tennessee announced on Dec. 1 that he was stepping down. While that move excited Republicans, it was not the death blow it was made out to be. Doctors tending to Party detected a pulse in his Western extremities.
But on Dec. 14, Congressman Bart Gordon announced his retirement, which effectively signaled the end of Party. As a representative of the heart of the state, Gordon had experienced increasing blockage and opted for a euthanasia of his political career that turned out to be contagious.
According to witnesses, Party’s ominous final words to be etched onto his gravestone were: “Moderate Republicans will resurrect me once they get a load of them crazy-ass tea baggers.”
Party is survived by the cities of Memphis and Nashville. In lieu of flowers, it has been requested that donations be made in his honor to support continued research into gerrymandering.
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