By Chip Forrester, Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party
It’s been said that Ned McWherter was born in a house with a dirt floor that he built with his own two hands.
Gov. Ned Ray McWherter
Working on the McWherter campaign in 1986, I heard that quip about a hundred times and most people just chuckled, but with the larger-than-life Ned McWherter, you never knew.
On April 4, we lost a true Tennessee legend whom I was lucky enough to call my boss and my friend.
I first met Ned McWherter at a 7:30 a.m. job interview at the Loveless Café in Nashville. Then Speaker of the House, McWherter was looking for a tech-savvy worker to join his gubernatorial campaign. Well, tech-savvy for 1986.
“They tell me I gotta run a modern campaign, and if I do, I gotta have me some pewters,” McWherter said.
Not knowing if I had heard him correctly, I replied, “Speaker, I’m not sure what pewters are.”
Friendly and plain as before, McWherter explained, “Well, they gotta keyboard and a screen and people type on ‘em.”
“Oh, computers,” I said.
“Yeah, like I said, pewters,” McWherter said.
Luckily, I did know pewters, and I got the job. And, for its time, we ran the most technologically sophisticated campaign Tennessee had ever seen.
In campaigns and as governor, one of McWherter’s unique political skills was being able to envision the whole picture, and the always humble man wouldn’t let what he didn’t fully understand get in the way.
This vision enabled McWherter to accomplish many things as a two-term governor, a 14-year Speaker of the House and a businessman.
People were proud of McWherter’s achievements, and the people loved him because he was a genuine friend.
And in McWherter, the common man had a true ally.
A man who believed struggling people could lift themselves up if they had job opportunity. A man who believed our children deserved the best educators and the best classrooms to learn in. And a man who believed a rich and civilized society would do well to care for the poorest among us.
McWherter was a mountain of a man with an even bigger heart.
Compassion. Care. Nowadays these are dirty words — political taboo — dangerous to even talk about in the halls of government. But it was every bit of who Ned McWherter was.
When Ned McWherter, a lifelong Democrat, became governor in 1987, times were tough. Almost half our counties — 42 out of 95 — had double-digit unemployment.
The son of sharecroppers and a self-described college dropout, McWherter could relate to tough times. So as a candidate for governor, McWherter promised to focus on the one thing that could deliver hope and dignity to struggling Tennesseans – jobs.
And deliver he did. When McWherter left office in 1995, only one Tennessee county had an unemployment rate above 10 percent.
Compare McWherter’s story to today: Tennessee now has 76 counties grappling with double-digit unemployment and a Republican governor who talked about “jobs in every county,” but has been unwilling to tackle the problem with any public show of resolve.
Other conservative leaders in the General Assembly have flat out said, “the government doesn’t create jobs.”
But Ned would have none of that hogwash. He had a vision of what this state could become, and he never lost sight of it, nor would he let others keep him from realizing that vision.
In his time as governor, McWherter championed sweeping education reforms, ushered in 21st century school improvements, brought health care to those who needed it most and built miles and miles of roads that helped us foster business development throughout the state.
We saw government make a difference in the lives of citizens — a tide that lifted all boats.
Arguably the most successful and influential governor in Tennessee’s long history, McWherter shaped the state to be a government of the people, for the people.
The will to mold government to do good in the lives of man is largely missing from today’s conversation.
The majority of the work being done in Nashville today is focused on doing favors for big campaign contributors, stripping away the rights of teachers and other embarrassing distractions.
While there will never be another Ned McWherter, we still have a need for leaders coffee-waferswho will act on Ned’s values and drive the government to do the people’s business.
On the campaign trail, McWherter famously said, “Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers, and I’ll be ready to go to work.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done for education, health care and, most of all, the state economy. And if our elected leaders are willing, I’ve got a pot of coffee brewing and a full box of wafers ready to go.