John Thomas Bragg, long-time member of the Tennessee House of Representatives and chair of its powerful Finance, Ways and Means Committee, was born in Woodbury on May 9, 1918, to Minor Elam and Callie Luree Bragg. In his early teens, Bragg’s family moved to Murfreesboro, where his father established a newspaper and printing business. In 1936, Bragg enrolled at Middle Tennessee State Teachers College (now Middle Tennessee State University, or MTSU). There he served as president of the student body, editor of the student newspaper Sidelines, and lettered in three sports. He earned a B.A. in social studies in 1940.
After graduation, Bragg moved to Knoxville, where he did graduate studies in history at the University of Tennessee and worked as executive director of the Tennessee Press Association. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. Upon his discharge from the military in January 1946, he returned to Murfreesboro and joined his father on the Rutherford Courier (sold in 1958) and in Courier Printing. In 1981, Bragg sold his interest in the printing company to his son Tommy (mayor of Murfreesboro from 2002 to the present). From then on, Bragg’s professional life focused on state government.
Bragg’s political career started in 1964 when he won election as a Democrat to represent Rutherford County in the Tennessee House. He traced his interest in politics to Jim Cummings (D-Woodbury), who represented Cannon County in the state House for four decades. The legendary “Mr. Jim,” who had already served more than thirty years in the legislature when Bragg arrived there, mentored Bragg during his early years as a lawmaker.
Bragg quickly emerged as a leader in the push to professionalize the Tennessee legislature, which for several decades had been little more than a rubber stamp for the governor. Soon after entering office, Bragg introduced and helped pass a measure allowing the General Assembly to meet every year instead of only every other year, and to enable committees to meet year round. A few years later, Bragg further increased legislative independence by urging the creation of the Fiscal Review Committee, which acts as the legislature’s watchdog over the executive branch’s spending and program implementation.
In 1968, after two terms in the state House, Bragg ran for Congress but lost to incumbent William R. Anderson in the Democratic primary. Two years later, Bragg regained his former state legislative seat, which he kept until his retirement in 1996. During that time, he became one of the key players in Tennessee politics. Years later, reflecting on his career, Bragg noted that he had been able to do much more in the General Assembly than he would have been able to do had he been elected to Congress.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Bragg spearheaded improvements to Tennessee’s pension system for teachers and state employees, which had been severely under-funded. His work on the issue, which he regarded as some of the most important of his legislative career, earned him national recognition. In 1977, he chaired a task force on pensions for the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL); two years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the National Commission on Pension Policy.
In 1974, Bragg sponsored the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, also known as the “sunshine law,” which mandated that most official meetings of state and local governmental bodies be open to the public. Although Tennessee trailed most other states in that move, Bragg helped convince the state to be the first in the nation to require the use of child restraint devices in automobiles for children under the age of four. Tennessee’s 1977 Child Passenger Protection Act became a model for the nation; by 1985, every other state had passed similar legislation. Bragg also backed improvements to K-12 education, helped create “Chairs of Excellence” at state universities, enhanced the state’s vocational-technical schools, and secured capital improvements for MTSU.
As chair of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee from 1973 until his retirement, Bragg ensured that Tennessee followed a disciplined and prudent approach to its budget. In the process, he became a nationally recognized authority on state finances. His expertise helped lead to his election as president of the NCSL in 1984. Bragg’s other positions included chair of the Southern Legislative Conference, president of the Foundation for State Legislatures, member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, and Deputy Speaker of the Tennessee House.
In his retirement, he spent time with his family and continued his service to MTSU, serving as president of the university’s foundation in 1997-98.
Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee
State University, “John Bragg, State Representative: Documenting a
Political Life.” 2001;
Ilene J. Cornwell,
Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly, vol. 5: