Former Democratic Tennessee lawmaker Roy Herron dies after jetski accident

Herron served 26 years in the legislature as a champion for rural Tennesseans

By: - July 9, 2023 12:58 pm
The Tennessee Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Roy Brasfield Herron, former state lawmaker and former chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, died in Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Sunday, one week after sustaining injuries in a jetski accident on Kentucky Lake. He was 69. 

“Roy loved his family with all his might,” said the Rev. Nancy Carol Miller-Herron, Roy’s spouse of 36 years, in a statement. “He passed doing what he loved most—spending time with our sons and their friends in the Tennessee outdoors where his spirit was always most free.”

A native of Dresden, Tenn., Herron graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin before getting a joint Master’s of Divinity and law degree from Vanderbilt University. 

Roy Herron. (Photo: Herron Law)
Roy Herron. (Photo: Herron Law)

He was first elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1986 as a state representative, taking the seat held by Ned Ray McWherter, who was elected governor the same year. In 1996, he was elected to the Senate, where he rose to become chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus — at a time Democrats held solid majorities in both the House and the Senate.  

In 2010, he was the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, losing to Crockett County farmer Stephen Fincher. The Tennessee Democratic Party executive committee elected Herron chairman in 2013, where he served one two-year term. He authored four books and numerous articles. 

Herron was known by friends and colleagues to have a strong moral compass, a fierce work ethic,  unparalleled debating skills and devotion to his Methodist faith and to his family. His brand of Democratic politics was centered around improving life for Tennesseans and particularly through shoe leather work in his district for working men and women. 

His interest in politics came early and even before he held electoral office, he worked tirelessly to assure Democrats were elected — including, in his successful 1984 U.S. Senate run, former Vice President Al Gore. 

Many of those who knew Herron thought him invincible. A marathon runner, he also finished numerous Ironman Triathlons, legendarily grueling races consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile full marathon.

In 2011, Herron landed in Vanderbilt Medical after a bike accident while training for an Ironman cost him nine broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a bruised lung. He missed no portion of the legislative session while recovering, telling a West Tennessee news outlet he had missed once for the birth of his son. 

“No one of our generation got up earlier, ran more miles, put in longer hours, covered more ground, listened to more people, took more notes and wrote and spoke more eloquently,”  said Nashville lawyer Tom Lee, a longtime friend of Herron’s.  “You might beat him, but you weren’t going to outwork him. And you weren’t going to worry about whether you still had a friend in him when it was all over.” 

In recent years Herron, along with McWherter and former Democratic lawmakers Craig Fitzhugh and Mark Maddox, formed the Volunteer Center for Rural Development, an organization that developed educational programs with an emphasis on Tennessee issues, and he lobbied the legislature on behalf of public education issues.

“I will miss my dear friend. My seat mate in the House, he was a remarkable human, passing strong and reforming legislation in so many areas: crime victims, education, school religious liberty, ethics, healthcare, predatory lending,” said Fitzhugh, now mayor of Ripley, Tenn.

“His accomplishments are legion, top among them his love and concern for family and others. His counsel, his strong faith, his tireless efforts will be missed. And yes, even his early, early morning phone calls.” Fitzhugh said. “His family is on my heart.”

Randy Ford, who helped Herron start his 1996 state senate campaign, said Herron was reluctant to mix politics and religion but had agreed to preach one last sermon at a Methodist church before launching his campaign.

“He felt like he needed to honor the commitment he had made,” said Ford. “I remember listening to him that day, thinking that I would not want to run against him. It’s ironic that when he ran for the U.S. House, his opponent refused to debate him.”

In addition to Nancy Carol, Roy is survived by his three sons, John, Rick, and Benjamin; his brother, Ben; and many beloved cousins, nephews, and nieces. Funeral arrangements are pending, but services are expected to be held on Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Martin, Tennessee.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.