He's not fiery. He's not folksy. He's not brainy. So who in the heck is Don Sundquist and why is he going to be governor again?
by Liz Murray Garrigan
Don Sundquist was spending a lot of time planning a race for governor. At the time, he didn't know that the contest would turn into an incredibly bitter race against mega-millionaire Phil Bredesen. He did know, however, that he had a crisis on his hands, and he needed to talk to someone about it.
Sundquist picked up the phone and dialed the number of his close friend and brilliant advisor Justin Wilson. In the early days of the campaign, Sundquist's political operation had numerous problems, from badly mapped strategy to inept communications to just poor politics. Many of those problems were corrected when, in what proved to be a bold tactical maneuver, Sundquist brought in some new campaign team members before the general election. From then on it was easy sailing, but early on there were some rough patches.
"I've forgotten what it was," Wilson says of the phone call. He does remember that there was a particular urgency to it, that the future governor "had to get a hold of me." Unfortunately, Wilson had not been at home to take his call.
Wilson, who is now a top advisor, says that as soon as he came walking through his front doors and got Sundquist's message, he immediately called him. But when Sundquist came on the line, he did not seem interested in talking. Strangely, the urgency had passed. Whatever it was that was so important could apparently wait.
Soon, Wilson figured out why. Sundquist was watching the last episode of Cheers.
"He was surprised that I called him while the last episode...was on," Wilson says. "Of course, he was watching that, so we waited until Cheers was over to have a conversation."
Given his regular-guy kind of tendencies, that Sundquist might be watching Cheers is not so surprising. "Abraham Lincoln said the Lord must have loved the common man because he made so many of us," Wilson says. "Well, I mean, Sundquist would say the same thing."
How did somebody so steadfastly unremarkable become a state governor? And when it comes to creating a strong public image in order to remain popular, how did the seemingly unexceptional Don Sundquist manage to find himself breezing into a second term after four rather uneventful years? The answers may not only be found in Sundquist's mundane approach to governing, but also in simply being in the right place at the right time.
Don Sundquist is a man of common interests, common needs, common obsessions. Before it closed, his favorite restaurant was Lorenzo's, Nashville's blue-collar Italian eatery on Nolensville Road, not the four-star Mario's Ristorante. He reads science-fiction novels. And when it comes to shopping, he likes Wal-Mart and enjoys heading over to Pigeon Forge to shop the outlet malls in the state's tacky tourist mecca.
Don Sundquist hates police escorts. During the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, he lived in a 495-square-foot apartment in Nashville. And while former Gov. Lamar Alexander had the luxurious Blackberry Farms in Blount County for vacations, and Ned McWherter could make a quick getaway to his ranch in West Tennessee, Don Sundquist has a double-wide trailer in Destin, Fla.
"And it's not the fancy part of Florida either," Wilson notes.
When it comes to golfand the governor and his wife are huge aficionadosSundquist is not a man to be found hitting balls at exclusive clubs. In fact, he would rather play at public courses "where most other people play," according to Bob Corker, his former finance commissioner. "He puts on no airs," says Corker. "He doesn't try to be someone he's not."
When it comes to pets, Sundquist and his wife have been known to collect mutts of the stray variety. If Sundquist holds a cabinet meeting at the Executive Residence on a rainy day, his two dogsMillie and Rubymight well come in out of the wetness and shake on the state's commissioners. An evening event at the mansion might find them weaving between the guests' legs and wandering around the food tables, moist noses propped up and sniffing the hors d'oeuvres.
"These are dogs that come from the animal shelter," Corker says. "He truly takes care of them, loves them, has got several of them around all the time."
Friends say Sundquist's rescue a few years ago of a stray dog named Bailey, which became something of a media circus, pretty well illustrates his personality. When a local boy stepped up to claim the pooch, the governor was reluctant to give it up, which did him no good in the newspapers. After state troopers verified that the boy was, in fact, the dog's owner, Sundquist returned him.
"He got completely screwed on that," says Tom Ingram, who, until recently, traveled from Knoxville to Nashville once a week to advise the governor on political matters. "In my mind, that was a classic definition of Don Sundquist. He was doing what he thought was right, and he was going against the grain of advice. His loyalty was to the dog, not to his politics." As it turned out, the same dog got loose again later, was taken to the Metro pound, then put to sleep when the owners didn't claim him.
By physical appearance alone, the governor is a decidedly middle class, average-looking specimen. Of normal height and weight, he wears big, chunky glasses and boring suits. Even in an occupation like politics that requires dull clothing, Sundquist has found a way to accomplish even greater blandness with what appears to be a never-ending cycle of khaki slacks and v-neck sweaters.
Lest his appearance make voters sleepy, they've witnessed nothing until they have actually heard the governor open his mouth. Thousands of Tennesseansand even people in his Illinois hometownhave come to appreciate that what they hear when Sundquist stands behind a podium is neither stem-winding oratory nor brilliant exegesis. "He's not an outstanding speaker, I understand," says Jack Dye, a retired teacher from Sundquist's old high school.
With neither rhyme, nor rhythm, nor any poetry whatsoever, Sundquist mixes a Midwestern, nasal twang with a flat volume and unwavering pitch that is so bland as to be somnolent.
But if voters want a public official who lives out the credo of family values, Don Sundquist is their man. Friends and acquaintances say the 62-year-old Sundquist, his wife, and their three childrenTania, Andrea, and Dekeare a close-knit family, cut from the same cloth as the Bushes of Texas, only without the aristocratic background. Sundquist is very close to his mother, Louise, who still lives in his boyhood home. At the moment, she's in Nashville, spending a few months with her son.
Those who know the Sundquists characterize them as pretty no-nonsense people unfazed by the public attention and grandeur of the governor's office. "It's true about him and Martha that what you see is what you get," Ingram says. "There's no pretense. There's no fancy trim."
Don Sundquist is now running for re-election. He campaigns very much the way he runs the state and, for that matter, his lifethat is, pretty unremarkably. If his interests are bourgeois, his appearance wholly ordinary, and his mind unlikely to produce anything startling, his style of governance can't be much different.
Don Sundquist is, after all, Mr. Unremarkable. He is unremarkable at home, at the office, and on the road. He is unremarkable in just about every way.
Which is not to say that is bad. It's just how it is.
Sundquist's first gubernatorial term has been low-key and not especially interesting. He gets good marks for early passage of a welfare reform program that seems to be working, for convincing a Democratic Legislature to abolish the perennially problematic Public Service Commission, and for consolidating state services for children from several departments to just one. But he is a mostly hands-off, low-profile leader who manages the state with little fanfare.
Just a few weeks before the Nov. 3 statewide general election, Sundquist is running one of the quietest gubernatorial campaigns in recent Tennessee memory, even though he has $4,358,754.92 in campaign money. His motionless re-election bid is in stark contrast to that of his reformist Democratic opponent, John Jay Hooker, who, without spending much more than what it takes to pay for a cellular phone and countless tanks of gas, has managed to get in more than a few good licks.
"He's running a nothing campaign," one unhappy Republican says of the governor. "He's not even on the radar, not even trying to get votes."
Few would have predicted that Donald Kenneth Sundquist, who grew up a Middle-American kid in Moline, Ill., then population 33,000, would ever become the chief executive of a state with a budget exceeding $14 billion. "Donnie" Sundquistas he was called growing up in his neighborhood near the Mississippi River in the 1940s and '50shas likened his childhood to that of Opie Taylor, the endearing son of the Mayberry sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show. He hung around with the other boys where he lived on Seventh Avenue and 53rd Streetthe highest point in Molineand lead a life of small-town normalcy.
His former neighbor Mary Carson, now 81, and still living next door to the Sundquist home at 5337 Seventh Ave., remembers Sundquist as "more quiet than outgoing," not a troublemaker, and very "polite."
Life in the Sundquist home was decidedly working class. His father was a welder, and his mother managed a dry-cleaning business. And they were, incidentally, Democrats. Sundquist remembers a day when he was 12 years old and Harry Truman came through town by train. That, he says, is his first real memory of being interested in politics.
Sundquist's high-school days were pretty ordinary, too. He wasn't a member of the National Honor Society, a class officer, star of the track or golf teams, or a hometown football hero. Instead, the "Activities" section of Sundquist's senior yearbookin which he was pictured with a flat-top haircut and bow tielists him as having been a member of the Civics, Spanish, and Fellowship clubs. "He wasn't an athlete," recalls Dye, the retired Moline high-school teacher who didn't teach Sundquist, but knew him. "But he was the kind of kid you'd trust with your car keys, or to take a test unsupervised."
As there was for all the other more than 270 graduating seniors in 1953, there was a descriptive quotation under Sundquist's senior photo. His read, "He was a gentleman from sole to crown."
When Sundquist walked through the commencement line at his high-school graduation, it marked the first time a Sundquist had ever done so. College had not been a foregone conclusion for him, so he had lined up a job to become a trainee at IBM only to be swayed by his late grandmother, Alma, to continue his education.
"She always pounded education, education, education," the governor remembers of his grandmother, who lived with his family while he was growing up. "She just would not leave me alone until I filled out an application for college."
With his grandmother's money to pay for the first-semester tuition and a full-time job at a local grocery store (where he'd worked since junior high), he was able to attend Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., which is just a few miles down the road from Moline. At the time, it enrolled only about 1,200 students.
At Augustana, Sundquist spent a lot of time with his Rho Nu Delta fraternity brothers, going to parties, studying, andexcept for working full-timepretty much being a normal guy. The only activity that might have foreshadowed a career in government and politics was his role in the college's 1956 mock election as a Tennessee delegate for Estes Kefauver, then a U.S. senator who was nominated as Adlai Stevenson's vice-presidential running mate. He was also a member of the business-minded Commerce Club.
Rev. Richard Swanson, a fraternity brother of Sundquist's who is now the chaplain at Augustana College, remembers Sundquist as a "solid" person who was well-liked on campus. "But he never pushed himself too much. He wasn't trying to be king of the campus or anything."
While alcohol was forbidden at campus functions, there were nevertheless opportunities for students to drink. But Swanson says he never saw Sundquist imbibe, which may have something to do with the fact that Sundquist's grandfather was an alcoholic. "Let's say in the best sense of the word he knew how to go to a party and have a good time, but I don't recall him drinking at all," Swanson says.
Sundquist remembers that he wasn't a particularly good student. "I was an average student," the governor says. "But I worked 40 hours a week, and I had a lot of fun too, so something had to give."
Augustana is where Sundquist met Martha Swansonno relation to his fraternity brotherwith whom he celebrated his 39th wedding anniversary last week. Like many of the other students at the small college, Sundquist was Lutheran and of Swedish descent.
A life of politics apparently wasn't on Sundquist's mind after he graduated from Augustana with a degree in business administration. His first stop was the U.S. Navy, where he spent several years. He then went to work for John Deere Co., and later became a plant manager for the well-known class-ring maker, Josten's.
In fact, it was his job with the class-ring company that brought Sundquist to Tennessee, where he first began to chum around with other young Republicans. In 1962, Sundquist relocated to Josten's in Shelbyville. His interest in organizational politics began soon thereafter. He worked in Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964. In 1970, he became chairman of the Tennessee Young Republican Federation, and in 1971, chairman of the Young Republican National Federation.
Sundquist credits Tennessee's former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. for getting him actively involved in Republican politics around the same time that Goldwater was running for president. Sundquist later went on to manage Baker's presidential campaign in 1979. "He's been a mentor for me," the governor says.
Sundquist's rise within national Republican politics, both with the young Republicans and with Baker, led him to make important connections with the Bush familyGov. George W. Bush calls him "Sonnie"and other prominent Republicans such as Bob Dole.
He departed Josten's in 1972, then went on to own and manage a printing and advertising company called Graphic Sales in Memphis; he also helped found the Bank of Germantown. Even with some other scattered investments, including interest in the Red, Hot 'N Blue barbecue chain, he is comfortable, but not wealthy.
In retrospect, Sundquist's involvement in Republican politics was, for a man who has risen so high, a bit unconventional. In many respects, his life lacks the educational or financial highlights that mark the curriculum vitae of many politically inclined CEOs. There was no law school. There wasn't any massive business fortune. (The Sundquists reported a total income of $189,198 in 1997.)
Besides wealth and status, Sundquist does not have the kind of charisma and star quality that often propels personalities into office. Former Gov. Ned McWherter, for example, didn't have a college degree, but he did play up his earthy, rural side to become an immensely popular statewide darling. In his first year in office, McWherter packed more color and anecdotal richness into the governor's office than Sundquist has in four years.
"He reminded me of a typical Junior Chamber of Commerce kind of guy," says one person who knew the governor in his young Republican days. "He was just a small businessman."
In 1982, Sundquist found the political job that he wanted. A resident of Memphis, Sundquist decided to run for Congress in the state's 7th District. It was a risky move. While Republicans were growing exponentially in the suburbs in and around Memphis, the vast majority of the district was rural, and heavily Democratic. "I was not confident of his chances," says Maclin Davis, the longtime general counsel of the Tennessee Republican Party. "But it was a real pleasant surprise that he won."
At the age of 46, Sundquist eked out a win over Bob Clement, who was able to rely on a still potent Clement family political organization. Sundquist, the underdog, won by about 1,500 votes.
Once in office, politics for Sundquist began to look very much like a job. He became, in some ways, a Republican version of Clement himself, who now represents the state's 5th Congressional DistrictNashvillein Congress. That is, he paid attention to constituent services. He shook thousands of hands. He paid his dues. He was a team player.
If Sundquist didn't have a reputation for advancing policy arguments in Congress, he at least understood the importance of hard work. In many senses, his first-term as governor has been much the same.
"Unlike someone like Lamar [Alexander], who's just driven to public service, with Don, it's just a job," says Tom Ingram. "You get more of a sense that he's there to do what needs to be done and not lose sleep over it than he's there to have some great legacy."
Some Republicans have noticed the apparent lack of drive in Sundquist. "The man's administration is just visionless, motionless, and listless," says one disgruntled Republican. Compared to Tennessee's last Republican governor, Lamar Alexander, the detractor says, Sundquist is simply lackluster. "Lamar was loaded with visions and ideas. You had a wagon that you could hitch to."
His friends and aides defend the governor as hard working and committed to being a good governor. But they admit it's not always clear what motivates Sundquist. "You know, I don't know," says Justin Wilson. "I've asked him that question, and I got a totally unsatisfactory answer."
For his part, McWherter gives Sundquist credit for having continued his education and roads programs and for quietly bringing new jobs into the state. But most of all, McWherter says, Sundquist's Families First welfare reform program will be what he is remembered for. "To his credit, he did that before it was passed in Washington," McWherter says. "No question, it will be the highlight of his governorship."
Sundquist also has beento the consternation of loyal Republicansunusually inclusive in his administration, making appointments and hires that have been controversial because he has passed over hardworking members of the GOP in favor of Democrats.
For example, there's been about a year-long Middle Tennessee vacancy on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, one of the state's most plum and sought-after political appointments. Apparent finalists for the seat are Peaches Simpkinsa Democrat and Sundquist's former top adviser, who already serves on the board of trustees for her own alma mater, N.C. State Universityand Scooter Clippard, a longtime Republican fund-raiser, Sundquist supporter, and graduate of the University of Tennessee.
Sundquist has been sitting on the appointment, and it is widely theorized that he will continue to do so until another vacancy allows him to appoint both Simpkins and Clippard, preserving his relationship with both.
"That worries you a little bit," says Charlie Howell, a member of the Republican executive committee who is also on Sundquist's Davidson County re-election committee. "You ought to be dancing with the people who bring you to the party," Howell says. "And to the extent he's not, I'm critical of him."
By some accounts, Sundquist is too political in the course of his governing, becoming bogged down in the petty political mire of state government that other, more visionary leaders would ignore. "He actually cares who's on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission," one political observer notes, recalling the well-publicized political lynching of commission director Bryant Millsaps two years ago. The overthrow, orchestrated by then-Deputy Gov. Peaches Simpkins, came as the governor was stacking the commission with his people.
Sundquist has taken a particular beating for his political alliance with Simpkins, who is thoroughly reviled in some quarters. But his loyalty is "his greatest strength and his greatest weakness," says Wilson. "His sense of loyalty is just unbelievable. If he makes a commitment, it's a commitment."
Sundquist's rap for being disinterested in the details of state government may have something to do with his fundamental idea that government should be smaller and do no harm. "I think the governor realizes that government has its basic responsibilities, that it does in fact have to execute and perform well," says Corker. "But he approaches it more from the standpoint of letting the private sector be a little more active."
Sundquist, Corker says, is not "extreme" and couldn't be characterized as a "government activist." As a result, he's not the kind of governor who stands out in the public consciousness. "A lot of times, I think people who are government activists can sort of approach things with a little bit more of a flair, and that's not his approach."
Republicans feel confident Sundquist will be re-elected next month, but they are nevertheless wondering why he's chosen to ignore his opponent and abandon the election-year opportunity to toot his own horn.
Even Maclin Davis, the longtime general counsel for the state Republican Party, says he wishes the governor's handlers would get him out more to gain publicity. Sundquist, though, insists he's not taking the race lightly, saying, "For people who think I don't have a tough schedule, they ought to just follow me for while."
But except to call Hooker's lawsuits "frivolous," Sundquist has mostly chosen not to respond to Hooker's barbs that the governor, while a "nice man," is a "bribe taker," meaning he accepts campaign contributions from special intereststhe very issue Hooker is campaigning on. But it is a charge Sundquist has responded to in the past. In fact, as a freshman congressman, Sundquist was among the top of his class in accepting contributions from political action committees. Two years into Congress, he had collected $300,000 from PACs, something he tried to spin as positive. "More money coming in is a good sign," Sundquist said at the time. "It means we have more people participating."
Hooker says that on a personal level he likes the governor. "I talked to him one time after ... about his campaign with Bredesen," Hooker recalls. "We talked just the two of us, and I liked hima delightful, affable fellow. But he's a delightful rascal, and I think we should throw him out."
Along with Sundquist's strange stillness during this re-election campaign, the political intelligentsia in Nashville spends much of its time criticizing him for his lack of charisma and appeal. But Republicans insist that Sundquist appears strong in just about every county in the state. He remains in close contact with small officeholders in remote Tennessee towns, and he is always on hand for chicken dinners and ribbon-cuttings, no matter how small.
The general assessment in the state's capital city may be that Sundquist is a very unremarkable guy, but equally as true is the fact that many Tennesseans see something that they like. Perhaps, in some way, they know Sundquist is one of them. Perhaps they like the fact that he has made it without all the glitter and glitz.
"Sundquist's support," according to Tom Ingram, "is not charismatic," and the governor "doesn't have the appeal or charisma that you associate with the Kennedys or people like that, but it's far from shallow or soft."
Don Sundquist is expected to be re-elected next month as Tennessee's next governor. That re-election is also expected to come with the same lack of glamour voters have seen during the last four years.
This story previously appeared in the Nashville Scene.