Sundquist and Blackburn: A study in backstabbing

Betty BeanKnox Scene

I was sad to see that former Gov. Don Sundquist has died. I didn’t agree with him about much, but I admired his courage. I’m wondering if Sen. Marsha Blackburn will show up at his funeral, and if she does, I’m wondering if anybody will be glad to see her.

I wasn’t a big Sundquist fan, except for one thing – he had guts. Political courage is a rare commodity in Nashville or Washington, and I never figured Don Sundquist as particularly brave.

But in the end, he proved me wrong. He stepped up and tried to do the right thing and it destroyed him – made him a pariah in the party he’d served most of his adult life.

Gov. Don Sundquist

I used to see Sundquist and his wife, Martha, at Lady Vols basketball games, and I remember thinking he looked lonely. You’d think that a guy who retired from a political career that included multiple terms in Congress and two terms as governor would be kind of a big deal, but not many fans came by to schmooze the Sundquists, who had retired to the foothills of the Smokies after leaving office. They attended all the Lady Vols home games and pretty much kept to themselves in their courtside seats down on the far end of the floor. They were cordial to the occasional well-wishers who’d come by, but they sat alone; no entourage in sight.

Sundquist’s political resume went sideways during his second term as governor because he attempted to reform the state’s antiquated, sales-tax dependent revenue structure. Everybody knew something needed to be done to lift the state out of its woeful financial situation, but nobody in the executive branch ever made a serious attempt at tax reform until Sundquist’s second term. And he was pretty much written out of the Republican Party as a result. Pariah might be too strong a word, but the GOP rejected him when he dared to touch the third rail of Tennessee politics – a state income tax.

They turned on him like a pack of rabid weasels, and there was nobody more willing to join that pack than then-state Sen. Marsha Blackburn – never mind that she owed him her start in state Republican politics.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn

She was an image consultant with a home ec degree from Mississippi State and a job in a Nashville department store when she was introduced to Sundquist by a friend with some clout in Williamson County politics. Marsha wanted a job.

Sundquist obliged her by appointing her executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission. That was in 1995. Four years later she was elected to serve in the state Senate.

But her path was not without obstacles and bad publicity, although she demonstrated finely-honed skills as she clawed her way upward. There were glitches.

The most notorious episode came as a result of her high-dollar spending habits while making a prospecting trip to Hollywood looking to get studios interested in making movies in Tennessee. Blackburn had a big time eating at high-dollar restaurants and being ferried around in a limo after she checked into a five-star hotel in Beverly Hills.

The record is unclear how much business she was able to wrangle, and the arrangement blew sky high when she presented her expense account to the governor’s office.

Flabbergasted state employees passed the invoice up the line, and when it landed on the governor’s desk, Sundquist said something like, “Hell no, we’re not paying this.”

It was returned to sender marked with a big red X.

Sender was not amused and went full diva by burning the invoice and sending the ashes to the comptroller’s office. A year or so later, she pitched a similar fit when she was informed that the state would not pay her way to the Cannes Film Festival. She didn’t make a lot of friends in that office.

She got her revenge after she was elected to the state Senate and Sundquist presented the General Assembly with his tax reform bill.

Blackburn teamed up with radio shock jock Steve Gill to lead the fight against the proposed state income tax. They ginned up the crowd of protesters in the street outside the Capitol into an angry, rock-throwing mob. Sundquist finally gave it up.

Blackburn was elected to serve the Seventh Congressional District in 2002. Her official biography says, “She brought her Tennessee values to Washington, D.C., and became a leader in the fight for small, efficient federal government that is accountable to its citizens.” She beat another former governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, and moved up to the U.S. Senate in 2019.

She’ll have a go at a second term next year, and will probably be opposed by Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson from Knoxville.

But more immediately, she will most likely attend the funeral of the political mentor whom she backstabbed to boost her political career – the guy who gave her her first political job. It will be interesting to see how she is received by the people who cared about him.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for


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