Governor and attorney Hill McAlister began his political career as the city attorney for Nashville. He served several terms in the state Senate, and the general assembly elected him to four terms as state treasurer. He lost close races for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1926 against Austin Peay and in 1928 against Henry Horton. When McAlister won election to the governorship in 1932, his possibilities for action were severely limited. At the time of his inauguration in 1933, the State of Tennessee and the nation were in serious financial straits. The state government faced an operating deficit of $6 million, and banks had failed all over the state, including the Bank of Tennessee, which had held $3,418,000 in state funds. As the administration of Franklin Roosevelt implemented a wide range of New Deal policies, McAlister also found himself in a situation where federal programs had become more important to most Tennesseans than their state government.
His association with Memphis political boss E. H. Crump also limited McAlister’s options. Beginning in 1926, McAlister’s political career was both cursed and blessed by the support of the controversial Crump. In 1926 Austin Peay effectively played on Crump’s endorsement of McAlister and the Memphis boss’s manipulation and use of the African American vote to defeat McAlister in the ostensibly all-white Democratic Party primary. Crump’s support paid off, though, in 1932 when McAlister won a tightly contested Democratic primary by ten thousand votes, primarily due to the twenty-five-thousand-vote majority that Crump delivered in Shelby County. Crump’s support came with a price, however, and throughout his four years as governor McAlister felt tremendous pressure to toe the Crump line.
Despite these handicaps, McAlister was determined to help Tennessee out of the depression. For McAlister and for Crump, this meant strict economy in government. In his inaugural address, McAlister announced: “[W]e do not face a mere desire to reduce governmental costs, but an absolute necessity to do so.” (1) By scaling back expenditures, the governor balanced the budget in his first two years. Along with other governors, he declared on March 6, 1933, a six-day bank holiday that, along with new federal measures, helped restore confidence in Tennessee’s banks. Much of McAlister’s career as governor was spent in coordinating efforts to bring federal money and programs to the state. An avid supporter of the New Deal, he won reelection by a large margin in 1934 on a platform of continued support for Roosevelt.
McAlister’s political career came to a virtual end in 1935 when he broke ranks with Crump and introduced a sales tax measure designed to reduce state indebtedness and aid the ailing public school system. Crump vehemently opposed the revenue bill, marshaled his forces to insure its defeat, withdrew his support from McAlister, and later referred to him as an incompetent governor. Crippled politically, McAlister did not run for reelection in 1936. He retired to his Nashville home but returned to public life a few years later as a bankruptcy referee. He died in 1960.