If you are involved in Republican politics in Tennessee, chances are your number is one of the thousand entries in SRW’s phone.
In the almost five decades since she graduated from UT, Susan Richardson Williams has had 16 jobs and raised three children and two grandchildren. Those jobs include being on the TVA board, state Republican Party chair, the patronage queen for Gov. Lamar Alexander and commissioner of personnel for Gov. Don Sundquist. Nowadays, at 73, she runs her public-relations business from her home office in West Knoxville, is a regular panelist on WBIR’s “Inside Tennessee” and cares for her grandchildren.
She began her career of being the ultimate insider in state politics with a teaching job in Maryville. She grew up in Savannah, Tenn., and came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee, where she would one day work at fundraising for the Lady Vols and serve as a UT trustee.
It was an exciting time for Republicans in 1970 as Winfield Dunn was poised to become the first Republican governor of the state in 50 years. Williams’ friend Carolyn Worley urged her to work Blount County for Dunn. When Dunn was elected, Williams went to Nashville, sponsored by Blount County’s state Sen. Carl Koella. She was on Dunn’s transition team, and Koella introduced her to Bill Jenkins, who would serve as conservation commissioner. “Carl told Bill, ‘This girl needs a job.’ Bill asked Carl what I could do. Carl said, ‘She can’t do anything; that’s why she needs a job.’” She laughs recalling that the Republicans had been out of power so long they had to learn how to govern the state. “We sat down with the Blue Book and studied what the departments did.”
Jenkins was to become a TVA board member and a judge, and spend 10 years in Congress. Worley was an aide to Sen. Howard Baker for a number of years and was the doorkeeper for Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe. They were Williams’ first friends in state politics, and as she developed a reputation for competence she was often called on to troubleshoot problems. Along the way she got to know more people. Like Lamar Alexander and Bill Brock and Bill Frist and Don Sundquist, among others.
Williams got a call to go to work for U.S. Sen. Bill Brock, running his press office during his election campaign. She then ran the press office for the state party before becoming special assistant to Gov. Lamar Alexander and becoming the go-to person to handle problems.
She laughs and points out that few people remember that she was assistant commissioner of prisons. Alexander sent her over to be assistant commissioner so she could work to get a prison-reform bill through the legislature. That done, she came back to the governor’s office to sort out all the gubernatorial appointments to boards and commissions, resolving a backlog. “It was a mess.”
In the middle of the 1982 election campaign, the chair of the state party quit. Alexander, who was running for re-election, handed the job to Williams. “The party was dead broke. Some of the big donors had signed for a loan to keep the lights on.” Alexander was re-elected, and Williams set up a monthly contribution program that raised enough money to keep the party running. “God, I hated fundraising.”
Williams says teaching is “the hardest job,” but being state party chair is “the worst job you can have.” You are the mediator between party factions, the legislature and the governor’s office, and you have to keep big donors happy.
She married Dick Williams in 1980. Williams played football for the Vols in the 1960s and was captain of the 1968 team. He works in the financial-services industry. The couple met Joan Cronan at a UT football weekend where Cronan, head of the women’s athletic department at UT, asked Williams to come to work for the Lady Vols. She turned the job down, but over the months she thought about it some more and agreed to take it. She was hired in 1988 at the same time Alexander was being hired as UT president, which raised some eyebrows. But Williams said neither she nor Alexander knew the other was being interviewed.
When Don Sundquist was elected governor in 1994, he offered Williams the job of commissioner of personnel, and she took a leave of absence from UT. When she came back to Knoxville two years later, Sundquist had appointed her a trustee of the university, which precluded her working there.
Lewis Levine, then running the Ingram Group in Nashville, approached her about opening a Knoxville office. She became the managing partner of the Ingram Group’s Knoxville operation. The firm had some familiar names working there – George Korda, James Pratt, Carol Evans, Susan Arp and others.
In 2004, tired of managing such a large firm, Williams went out on her own to form SRW and Associates. She serves on a long list of organizations from the Legacy Parks Foundation to the Knoxville Chamber, Leadership Knoxville and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. She also did a stint on the TVA board, appointed by George W. Bush in 2006.
One of the advantages Williams has as a public-relations person is that she can get most anyone on the phone. And you can rest assured that come the next election she will be consulted, likely asked to host a fundraiser, and there will be some new numbers on that phone list. And some old numbers as well. Among the candidates she expects to see in 2020 is U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander running for re-election.
(This is the third in a series called Our Town Leaders. Check back next Thursday for another.)