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McWherter Outlived By Influence on Tennessee Politics

From education, to health care to criminal justice, many of Tennessee’s present-day policies still bear the fingerprints of the two-term governor who left office in 1995.

Ned Ray McWherter, whose work decades ago as Tennessee’s 46th governor reverberates in the halls of the State Capitol even today, died Monday at age 80.

McWherter served as governor from 1987-95 after serving 14 years as Tennessee Speaker of the House. He served two House terms representing Weakley County prior to his time as speaker. He died in a Nashville hospital where he was battling cancer.

McWherter’s work on education reform and his reshaping the state’s Medicaid system into TennCare have left more than lasting memories on the state. They are the basis of many of the issues the Tennessee General Assembly is working on now, 16 years after McWherter left office.

Both efforts were seen as innovative when they began. McWherter is still hailed as a champion of education reform with his foresight, a contrast to the more problematic revamp of the Medicaid system.

A statue of McWherter was unveiled at the courthouse in his hometown of Dresden in Weakley County last October to commemorate his 80th birthday. The day came at a time McWherter’s son, Michael Ray McWherter, was running for governor, attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps as the Democratic nominee.

Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, lost the election to Republican Bill Haslam, but Haslam, in one of the most unorthodox moves in state political history, used the image of Ned McWherter in his television advertising as an example of one of Tennessee’s great leaders, even as Haslam campaigned against the son.

Ned McWherter also leaves a daughter, Linda Ramsey. His wife, Bette Jean Beck McWherter, died in 1973.

Haslam issued a statement Monday expressing his gratitude to McWherter for his service.

“This is a sad day for Tennessee,” Haslam said. “Governor McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens. He had a long and distinguished career in the legislative and executive branches as well as in business.

“I will always be grateful for his personal kindness to me and the wise advice he gave me during my first months in office. Crissy’s and my thoughts and prayers go out to Mike and the entire McWherter family during this difficult time.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who preceded McWherter as governor, affectionately referred to McWherter on the Senate floor Monday as “a big, burly, Hoss Cartwright sort of fellow” and praised McWherter for acting in a bipartisan way when Alexander was governor and McWherter was speaker.

McWherter served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. The two had a long friendship, and Clinton made a stop in Nashville last year to campaign for Mike McWherter for governor.

As governor, McWherter ushered in the Education Improvement Act in 1992, which simultaneously provided a big boost in funding for education and a demand for accountability in schools. Its echoes can be heard in Legislative Plaza now as the state weighs even more reforms in education.

The accountability under McWherter came in the form of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (pdf), drawn from a model by William Sanders at the University of Tennessee. The data measured student and school performance and was seen as a major advantage in 2010 when Tennessee fashioned its successful application for federal Race to the Top funds for education.

McWherter was driven to create fairness in funding for education in the state’s 95 counties. The impetus began when McWherter and aide Billy Stair attended an education summit in 1989 in Virginia for governors held by President George H.W. Bush, who urged raising standards.

McWherter and his lieutenants conducted meetings across the state. The result was a plan that offered more funding and flexibility in exchange for accountability. A bipartisan effort produced the funding. At first McWherter took a stab at implementing an income tax. It didn’t get far. The Legislature implemented a one-half-cent increase on the sales tax instead.

TennCare has been a different story, but at its inception it was viewed as a new way of dealing with the increasingly difficult issue of health-care costs. The state’s (then) $2.8 billion Medicaid program was seriously jeopardizing the state’s financial stability. McWherter proposed a system where 12 managed-care organizations took on the task of health coverage.

It was a monumental change, but McWherter had bipartisan support and managed to implement the plan by executive order. But it required a waiver from the federal government, and there was considerable resistance in Washington. McWherter’s finance director, David Manning, spent a great deal of time in Washington on the move, and McWherter met with Clinton at least once in the Oval Office to get it through. The federal government approved the plan Dec. 23, 1993.

Doctors didn’t like it. The plan reduced their rates, and they were made to take TennCare patients if they wanted to care for state employees in the Tennessee Provider Network. But TennCare was a new reality. The costs of care plagued McWherter’s successors, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, with Bredesen substantially cutting the TennCare rolls. The program continues to be a source of controversy, as in every state dealing with Medicaid cost issues.

McWherter responded to federal court demands and revamped the state’s prison system beginning in the 1980s. In seven years, the state built more than 8,000 new beds. It was also a time when the “three strikes and you’re out” approach to sentencing took hold, when three or more felonies put convicts in prison without parole. McWherter called it “three strikes and you’re in.”

McWherter had said one of his most difficult times as governor came in 1989 when a bridge over the Hatchie River in West Tennessee collapsed, where eight people died.

Despite his folksy charm, McWherter was a wealthy man. He grew up the son of sharecroppers in Palmersville, Tenn. He worked in a shoe factory but went on to head various businesses including a beer distributorship and nursing homes. He was first elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1968.

McWherter defeated a former governor, Republican Winfield Dunn, in the gubernatorial race in 1986. In the campaign, McWherter enjoyed unusual popularity in normally Republican strongholds in East Tennessee, most notably in Upper East Tennessee, where Republican U.S. Rep. Jimmy Quillen had clashed with Dunn over building a medical school at East Tennessee State University. McWherter won a second term in 1990 by handily defeating Republican Dwight Henry.

With his first campaign for governor, McWherter famously said, “Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and I’ll be ready to go to work.” The line caught on, and vanilla wafers became a staple of his years as governor. When Mike McWherter was formally endorsed for governor by Bredesen at Swett’s restaurant in Nashville, with father Ned looking on, there was a box of vanilla wafers on hand to remind the faithful.

News of McWherter’s death drew reactions of sadness Monday.

The Tennessee Democratic Party issued a statement from Chairman Chip Forrester, himself grieving the sudden death of his 19-year-old son over the weekend: “I had the high honor of serving in his first campaign for governor and count him as one of my true political mentors.”

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said, “I believe all Tennesseans, regardless of political affiliation, appreciate his years of service to our state even after he served as speaker of the House and governor.”

The House Democratic Caucus issued a release from House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh of Covington and former Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry of Memphis, saying “Ned McWherter was our House speaker. He was our governor. And, he was our friend. He taught us how to bring new business, better education and prosperity to our state while taking care of those Tennesseans who many times went without. Most of all, he taught us what it was about to be a Democrat while working with our friends on the other side of the aisle.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said, “Few men have meant as much to as many Tennesseans as Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. This state has lost a true statesman and a true original. My heart and the hearts of all Tennesseans go out to the McWherter family today.”

Sen. Roy Herron, a Democrat from McWherter’s hometown of Dresden, said in a formal statement, “Governor McWherter was our greatest governor during my lifetime, and I believe he was our greatest governor during Tennessee’s lifetime.”

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