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Don Sundquist

Governor of Tennessee from 1995 to 2003, Don Sundquist was born on March 15, 1936, in Moline, Illinois, and was the first member of his family to finish high school and attend college. He graduated from Augustana College and then served two years in the U.S. Navy. In 1962 he began his business career by joining Josten’s, a scholastic products company. Married in 1959, Sundquist and his wife, Martha Swanson Sundquist, also a graduate of Augustana College, moved to Shelbyville, where Sundquist rose quickly to become plant manager of the Josten’s factory.                     

In 1972 Sundquist left Middle Tennessee to establish his own company, Graphic Sales of America, a printing and advertising firm, in Memphis. There he became active in the growing Republican Party of Shelby County. He was the chairman of the county Republican Party from 1976 to 1979 and managed Howard Baker, Jr.’s, presidential candidacy in 1979. Sundquist won a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1982, serving a large, mostly West Tennessee district with distinction until 1994, when he left Congress after twelve years to launch his gubernatorial candidacy. In Congress Sundquist established solid conservative credentials in his service as a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Along with other committee work, he served as chairman of the House Republican Task Force on Trade and as a member of the House Republican Task Force on Ethics Reform.

In 1994 Sundquist defeated Nashville Mayor Phil Breseden by 807,104 to 664,252 votes to become Tennessee's forty-seventh governor. Sundquist campaigned on a platform of welfare reform, law enforcement, and increased governmental efficiency. He pushed for the elimination of the Public Service Commission, and his "Families First" welfare reform package received national recognition for its attempt to save taxpayer money and to provide better care for needy and troubled children. He also pushed through the General Assembly a twenty-bill law-enforcement package that focused on tougher sentences, capital case reform, domestic violence, and victims’ rights. As Sundquist remarked on the State of Tennessee Web page (May 26, 1997), “[W]e want to get government out of people’s business and the people into the business of government.” His program met with legislative success and popular approval. He won reelection in 1998 by a comfortable margin.

In 2000 Sundquist surprised his own party, as well as the political establishment of Tennessee, by courageously proposing new income sources for the state, including a state income tax. Sundquist received heavy criticism for his proposals, although both parties admitted that the state would find it difficult to balance its annual budget without more secure, dependable sources of income than its customary reliance on a state sales tax. In the 2001 legislative session, Sundquist again called for tax reform to provide Tennessee with the money it needed to compete with its southern neighbors in education, economic development, and improved infrastructure. One evening in July of 2001, the proposal seemed likely to pass a key Senate vote, but a groups of protesters, characterized by some as a “mob” and numbering in the thousands, broke into the Capitol complex, chanting and banging on the doors of the legislative chamber—the Senate did not vote that night. The governor’s push for tax reform would fail again the next year before he left office—considered “radioactive”—in his own words, by the state GOP.

Because of the income tax saga, Sundquist has been relatively quiet in the political arena since leaving office. In 2005, he was appointed head of a national task force focused on streamlining and improving the Medicaid program. Afterwards, he worked as a lobbyist for a short time before retiring.

Don and Martha Sundquist have three children: Tania Williamson; Andrea Jeannet, and Donald Sundquist, Jr., of Nashville. The couple retired to Townsend, a small town in the Smokey Mountains.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » March 21, 2017