Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the 21st Century and Could Save America

Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the 21st Century and Could Save America

by Keel Hunt


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The latter third of the twentieth century was a time of fundamental political transition across the South as increasing numbers of voters began to choose Republican candidates over Democrats. Yet in the 1980s and '90s, reform-focused policymaking—from better schools to improved highways and health care—flourished in Tennessee. This was the work of moderate leaders from both parties who had a capacity to work together "across the aisle."

The Tennessee story, as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham observes in his foreword to this book, offers striking examples of bipartisan cooperation on many policy fronts—and a mode of governing that provides lessons for America in this frustrating era of partisan stalemate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826522399
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,230,506
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Keel Hunt is a columnist for the USA Today Network in Tennessee. He has been a reporter, editor, Washington correspondent, and editorial writer. From 1979 to 1986 he was Special Assistant to Governor Lamar Alexander.

Read an Excerpt


Wild Ride to Washington

The twin-prop King Air bumped, shuddered, and careened its way through a frightening sky.

The VIP passengers were braced for nearly three hours of choppy air, from Nashville to Washington, DC. With every jolt of turbulence, the four elected officials who were on board would grip their arm rests for support, their eyes darting out the round cabin windows.

"If we still had the Lear jet, I guess we could have cut this trip in half," said the new senator, Lamar Alexander, a Republican and former governor, hoping to lighten the anxieties with a little humor. By this time the Lear was long gone.

"Well, I guess you're the one who sold it," Governor-elect Phil Bredesen, Democrat, replied in his own good humor. He would take the oath of his new office in just a few weeks.

The incumbent governor on this day, Republican Don Sundquist, nearing the end of his second four-year term, smiled slightly but otherwise did not respond. Eight years earlier, Sundquist had defeated Bredesen in a bitter 1994 race for governor.

In the fourth facing seat was Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, Democrat. A former state legislative leader himself, he knew what they were talking about.

In the mid-1970s, an earlier Tennessee governor, Ray Blanton, had scandalized the jet, among other misuses of his office. He once took the Lear to Jamaica with his girlfriend, and then insisted to the reporters who quizzed him afterward that he had only used the jet to sell soybeans to the Chinese. The Lear thus became a campaign issue in the 1978 race for governor. Alexander, the winner that year, sold the controversial jet within a week after he took office.

"So, who did sell the Lear?" Purcell asked, knowing the answer. Alexander pointed to one of the rear seats, indicating Tom Ingram, his longtime chief of staff.

* * *

No one was enjoying this flight. As the King Air rocked forward, two other senior staffers were also in the shaking cabin: Tony Grande, Sundquist's economic development commissioner, and Tom Jurkovich, director of Purcell's economic development office.

"It was terrifying — the worst flight I was ever on," Jurkovich told me. "We hit this horrendous turbulence. The plane was shaking. Ingram and I were scrunched in the back two seats, and this ceiling panel fell down over our heads. I remember seeing it dangling by a wire."

Grande, seated forward, remembers vividly: "That plane was rocking and rolling. We were in a band of weather from Nashville all the way to Washington. At one point, I saw Don put his finger under his shirt collar, which I'd noticed he would sometimes do when he was nervous. When we landed at Andrews Air Force Base, I think we were all glad to get off the plane."

At Andrews, two Tennessee state troopers wearing street clothes met them and drove the group through driving rain to the Capital Hilton Hotel, one block north of the White House. Inside the lobby, Tennessee's senior senator met them: Republican Bill Frist, the former heart transplant surgeon. (Within weeks Frist would become the Senate's majority leader. As chairman of the Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was leader of the political and fundraising effort that kept the Republicans in the Senate majority, and his colleagues would soon reward him with their top leadership spot.) Frist walked with the group, in silence, to a private meeting room.

But the most important person inside that room was neither a senator nor a governor nor a mayor, but a man of Lebanese descent. This man — born in Brazil, resident of South Carolina, and fluent in four languages — was Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive officer of Renault and Nissan.

By this time, Ghosn was an international business celebrity. He was the man who had brought Nissan back from the brink of bankruptcy. In 1999, with an aggressive recovery plan he named "Nissan 180," Ghosn had pledged to revive the company, return it to profitability by the end of the next fiscal year, and by 2002 to a profit margin exceeding 4.5 percent with zero debt. He had also promised to resign if these goals were not met.

His goals were met. This is why Ghosn was now being called "Mr. Fix It" across the automobile industry. Confident and determined, he now presided over headquarters in both Tokyo and Paris, and devoted many of his working hours to air travel visiting his manufacturing plants around the world. These operations included the Nissan production facility southeast of Nashville, now twenty years old and the largest and most efficient auto and truck plant in North America.

For the Tennesseans in the room, this meeting had a simple purpose: To carefully hand off — from Republican governor Sundquist to his Democratic successor Bredesen — the state's pursuit of Nissan's new North American headquarters, including Tennessee's financial commitments that would make it possible. They were determined to assure Nissan's supreme leader that there would be a seamless transition of political support when Bredesen took office seven weeks later. In this ultra-private meeting, sitting around a square conference table, Commissioner Grande made a brief presentation, and the VIP discussion followed.

* * *

Nissan had first come to Tennessee twenty-two years before this. In 1980, in Alexander's second year as governor, Nissan became the first Japanese automaker to place a major manufacturing facility in the southeastern U.S., initially producing small pickup trucks. Most other automakers had their leadership offices and production facilities in the Midwest. Now, two decades later, Tennessee was home to Nissan's largest and most successful auto manufacturing facility at Smyrna with engines made at Decherd and components from hundreds of other "just-in-time" suppliers.

This recruitment mission in Washington was a high-stakes bet. If these state leaders were successful, Tennessee would have the first-ever North American headquarters of any major automaker to be established in the Southeast. Sundquist had brokered this private meeting, having overseen the negotiations to date with top Nissan leaders, including Jim Morton, the former Michelin executive who rejoined Ghosn in 2000 and was now Nissan's vice chairman for North America.

"We'd been courting Nissan to move their headquarters here from California," Sundquist told me. "At that time Nissan had some problems, and I'd been talking to Carlos. He'd said to me that whenever he was ever able to straighten things out — he had been brought in to crack the problems at Nissan — that whenever they straightened those out, he was planning to move the headquarters. Earlier in 2002, I had a dinner at the governor's residence for Jim Morton and Carlos Ghosn, and we got a commitment from Carlos that, once he was able to do what he had to do at Nissan, he said, 'It's likely we will move our headquarters to Nashville.' So it was at that dinner that he committed to relocate in Tennessee. The deal was pretty well sealed when we went up to Washington, but the handoff to the next administration was obviously very important."

Bredesen, the Democrat, was elected governor on Tuesday, November 5, 2002, his second run at the office. That same night, Alexander, the Republican, was elected the state's junior senator. When the polls closed across Tennessee, it was already Wednesday morning for Sundquist, who was again in Tokyo on a separate recruiting mission with Commissioner Grande. When he learned who the new governor would be, Sundquist placed an international call to Bredesen to congratulate him.

Grande told me it was on this trans-Pacific call that Bredesen first learned from Sundquist of the ultra-secret Nissan headquarters project. The new governor-elect quickly became part of the state's Nissan HQ planning team. It was Bredesen who phoned Frist, asking him to attend the Washington meeting that would come only seven days after the election.

"I had received a phone call from Nashville from Bredesen about the significance of the meeting," Frist told me. "At the meeting, I sat next to Bredesen."

Frist, elected to the Senate in 1994, had taken a Senate delegation to Japan and, following the Washington meeting with Ghosn, visited with Howard Baker, the revered former Senate majority leader, now the U.S. ambassador there. At the ambassador's official Japanese residence, they discussed the effort to bring Nissan's U.S. headquarters to Tennessee.

Frist had authored the book Transplant, about his career as a cardiac surgeon. He gave Ghosn a copy of this book at the Washington meeting. "It had been translated into Japanese," he explained. "Because heart transplants were not done in Japan at the time — because of no recognition of brain death — it was viewed with fascination by readers there and was reasonably popular, maybe as science fiction!"

* * *

While a move from southern California to Middle Tennessee would certainly be Nissan's decision to make, Ghosn's Washington visit with Tennessee's top political leadership on November 12, 2002, was important to the company's decision-making process.

Sundquist and Bredesen, Frist and Alexander, together with Mayor Purcell, presented a stout bipartisan front. It demonstrated that as administrations changed in Tennessee there would be a smooth transition from the governor of one party to his successor in the other.

This was not the first such bipartisan handoff from one Tennessee governor to a successor of the other political party. Ned McWherter, the Democrat who followed Alexander as governor in 1987, had helped to welcome Nissan to Tennessee in the early eighties when he was speaker of the state house of representatives. In his turn, Governor McWherter took Sundquist with him to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1994 for a visit with top executives of the hospital company Columbia/HCA. The company's relocation to Nashville was announced in January 1995, ten days before Sundquist's inauguration.

And it would not be the last. Such a handoff between governors of different parties, and the private cooperation with decision makers in business that it enabled, has been going on now through five administrations over a quarter-century. During this period, in fact, the Tennessee governor's office has alternated between the political parties at regular intervals since 1970 when the Republican Winfield Dunn was elected. (Since 1977, Tennessee's governor has been limited to two consecutive terms.)

Alexander has suggested that by 2002 this practice of a smooth handoff between governors had become one of the reasons why so many businesses were choosing Tennessee — together with the state's central location in the U.S. market, right-to-work law, modern four-lane highways, and business-friendly environment. When Bredesen was asked many years later to name the most valuable accomplishments of his time in office, he cited two things: the upgrading of modern government, and this tradition of continuity between political leaders of different parties as administrations inevitably changed.

"You didn't have a bunch of governors trying to one-up each other, trying to keep each other from getting the credit for something," Bredesen told me. "That wasn't happening."

* * *

When the 1980s began, Tennessee had the third-lowest family incomes in America. Twenty years later, the practice of Tennessee governors making their end-of-term bipartisan handoffs — bringing new jobs, new capital, rising incomes, and national attention to a state by the turn of the century — had become an important tradition.

It was not always so.

In truth, all this began on a cold and dreary day in January of 1979, with a sudden coup at sundown.


The Six-Hour Boot Camp

"The scene inside the court chamber struck me as something out of All the King's Men."

— Howell Raines

Winter rain dripped through a low fog as darkness fell on the old Supreme Court Building in downtown Nashville.

Deep inside, in the justices' private Robing Room, the state's leading Democrats and one lone Republican stood together solemnly. These men were acquainted but said little, acknowledging each other not with smiles and cordial handshakes but only with their eyes.

• The speaker of the House, Ned Ray McWherter, a man of such massive frame that when they first met, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas had declared, "My God, what a body. The Grand Ole Opry has its own Buddha!"

• Next stood the Lieutenant Governor, John Shelton Wilder, the speaker of the Senate, a genteel cotton ginner who seemed to conduct his legislative affairs in a mystical manner. He would receive constituents and lobbyists in his dimly lit office while sitting behind a desk raised so high that it seemed the visitor was peering upward toward a deity or an apparition.

• Gentry Crowell, the Secretary of State, a man of square build, medium height, and deeply partisan bent. Two days earlier he had formally attested to fifty-two pardons and clemencies that the incumbent governor, Ray Blanton, had granted to state prisoners by his own signature. The FBI believed some of those prisoners had paid cash for their release. "This takes guts," the governor had said, looking up to Crowell as he put his pen to a pardon for a particularly notorious inmate. The Secretary of State had replied in that moment, "Well, some people have more guts than brains."

• The tallest man in the room was the state attorney general, William Leech. He had been the busiest of them all on this dreary, fateful day. Two nights before, on the same Monday night Governor Blanton had signed those fifty-two clemencies, Leech was in Washington — preparing to appear before the Supreme Court of the United States on Tuesday morning. But then his hotel room phone rang, and he learned what was transpiring back home at the State Capitol: a young assistant attorney general had released an opinion saying Tennessee's state constitution would allow the new governor-elect to be sworn in sooner than Saturday's scheduled ceremony. That opinion would, in fact, have permitted an inauguration on this very Wednesday, January 17, 1979.

• The other senior Democrat standing in the Robing Room was Joe Henry, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. A self-proclaimed "yellow dog Democrat," Henry had, eight years earlier, described the election of Winfield Dunn, Tennessee's first Republican governor in fifty years, as the return of "a plague of Republican locusts." On this afternoon he had left his downtown apartment, where he was recovering from a heart attack, to preside at the unusual and rushed ceremony — unprecedented in American history — where he would swear in a Republican.

• One important Democrat who was not in the Robing Room at this tense moment was the man who had initiated all of it at noon: the United States attorney, Hal Hardin. He had set the thing in motion with a phone call not to his superiors in Washington but to a Tennessee Republican, Governor-elect Lamar Alexander, insisting that he be sworn in immediately. Hardin and Alexander had agreed — knowing that the state constitution grants a governor unconditional power to empty the prisons if he chose to. But Hardin declined to attend. He thought it would be inappropriate for a federal official to be present at such an extraordinary function of a state government.

• Also standing in the quiet room, and joined by his young family, was the Republican Alexander. He had not intended for his new administration to begin this way.

* * *

For Bill Leech, this had already been a stressful couple of days. His wife Donna was in Nashville's Baptist Hospital, expecting their new baby. But it was not the imminent birth of his son but a more sinister confluence of events that had him rushing home from Washington on Tuesday night. It was a swirl of scandal and constitutional crisis that would unfold in a five-hour marathon on Wednesday afternoon.

At midday on this Wednesday, in a hotel room across Broadway from the U.S. courthouse, he met secretly with Hardin, who persuaded him that the state's constitution did indeed allow an early swearing in. And also, given the bizarre conduct of the sitting governor, Blanton, that it must happen before the sun went down.


Excerpted from "Crossing the Aisle"
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Copyright © 2018 Vanderbilt University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Jon Meacham, 1,
Introduction: The In-Between Time, 3,
1 Wild Ride to Washington, 10,
2 The Six-Hour Boot Camp, 15,
3 Blue State Turning Red, 21,
4 Picking Up the Pieces, 34,
5 Lamar and Ned, 42,
6 Political Family Trees, 51,
7 Strange Bedfellows, 62,
8 Jobs for Memphis, 77,
9 The Phone Call That Changed Everything, 87,
10 Nissan Arrives, 101,
11 Megatrends Tennessee, 111,
12 Ground Zero Knoxville 1982, 114,
13 Mothers and Babies, 124,
14 Chattanooga: From Dirtiest to All-American City, 128,
15 The Fight for Better Schools, 140,
16 Landing Saturn, 160,
17 The Roads to Better Jobs, 178,
18 The Homecoming, 188,
19 The Prison Problem, 198,
20 The Game Changer, 204,
21 Nashville and the "Civic Furniture", 211,
22 Hockey Skates In, 224,
23 How the NFL Came to Tennessee, 231,
24 History and Handoffs, 255,
25 Fast Forward, 268,
Timeline 1978 – 2002, 281,
The Interviews, 301,
Bibliography and Recommended Reading, 307,
Acknowledgments, 319,
Index, 323,

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