Dunn reflects on legislative service

Frank CagleFountain City, Halls, Powell

Bill Dunn took a seat in the state legislature in 1994, replacing the retiring Charlie Severance. He spent 26 years without a primary opponent, making him the longest serving House Republican in the General Assembly.


The former Republican Leader, chair of Calendar and Rules, and Speaker Pro Tem will be spending this election night as an observer and poll watcher for the Republican Party. He chose not to run again even though he still had a safe seat representing Powell, Halls and part of Fountain City.

He has had Democratic opponents over the years, but he won re-election with 70 percent of the vote.

Dunn’s base for his first run was his involvement with Tennessee Right to Life and his extended family. He has four brother and four sisters. Over the years he and wife Stacy have had some additional support from five children and seven grandchildren.

When Dunn was first elected, his job was trimming trees for a living. A kid named Tim Burchett was operating a mulch pile business. Dunn recalls that the two “blue collar guys” went to Nashville together. Dunn recalls that Shopper News publisher Sandra Clark, commenting on his election, called him “a skinny guy nobody ever heard of.” Burchett is running for a second term in the U.S. Congress.

When Dunn got to the state legislature the House was tightly controlled by a coalition of rural West Tennessee Democrats and the Black Caucus. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry ruled with an iron fist. While the minority Republicans were trying to go along to get along Dunn refused to vote for DeBerry or Naifeh, which didn’t change the outcome but it was a symbolic rejection of “go along to get along.” It did not endear him to House leadership.

“I guess I didn’t know enough to be scared. All I knew is that they could come into a committee and vote against you. Why should I vote for them?”

A bit close to the bank, but R. Larry Smith and Bill Dunn join the Powell flotilla. (file photo)

In the mid-oughts there was a movement to clean up the cesspool of free-spending lobbyists and legislators with a taste for free steaks and liquor. House Republican Leader Tre Hargett had stepped down mid-term and Dunn got the job. (Hargett is now Secretary of State.) Dunn helped shepherd through an ethics bill which put prohibitions on wining and dining and the resulting late-night carousing funded by special interests.

Rather than fight the bill, lobbyists were relieved that they didn’t have to stay out late every night running up credit card bills for the perpetual party to which certain members had grown accustom. “I had lobbyists tell me they wanted to go home to their wife and family at night” rather than hosting legislators. The ethics bill also leveled the playing field between public interest lobbyists and corporate lobbyists with expense accounts.

Dunn has a degree in animal science from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree in extension education. He had been involved in 4H Clubs as an extension agent and had an interest in education. He supported the introduction of the state-testing program and yearly evaluation of teachers. He advocated for tenure reform, which finally was accomplished when fellow Knoxvillian Bill Haslam became governor.

Dunn was the sponsor of Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Accounts which was much amended and finally only applied to Memphis and Nashville. The constitutionality of the bill has yet to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Dunn was born in 1961 in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father worked as an attorney. His father decided it was no place to raise children so they moved to Knoxville and his father went to work for TVA. In recent years Dunn says wife Stacy has told him he was getting too old to climb trees. He now works for Qualpro, business consultants.

When House Speaker Glen Casada was forced out due to scandals, Dunn became acting House Speaker for several weeks until a new speaker was selected. The self-deprecating Dunn says “there were no scandals and I didn’t get to ride in the state plane” during his brief tenure.

The new House Speaker is Cameron Sexton. “Cameron will do a good job. He has the experience to be a good leader.”

Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.

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