Veteran Tennessee reporters pen book on state’s political scandals
From Gov. Ray Blanton, bumped from office early over his granting of pardons to the FBI’s Operation Tennessee Waltz, “Welcome to Capitol Hill” details the sordid, seamy and corrupt antics of state lawmakers
Eric Schelzig, left, and Joel Ebert, authors of “Welcome to Capitol Hill,” published by Vanderbilt University Press, photographed in the Tennessee Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
In “Welcome to Capitol Hill: Fifty Years of Scandals in Tennessee Politics,” veteran political reporters Joel Ebert and Eric Schelzig review decades of corrupt and sordid behavior in state politics, from bribery to sexual harassment and assault.
The pair cover the single term of Gov. Ray Blanton, whose tenure was marked by a series of scandals, culminating with his issuance of pardons to prisoners — including some who had bribed state officials for pardons, 20 convicted murderers and the son of a Blanton supporter. While Blanton’s sales of pardons are considered to be some of the most serious incidents to have taken place in Tennessee in recent history, Ebert and Schelzig also document 1989’s Operation Rocky Top, in which the FBI worked in coordination with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the IRS to investigate illegal activities in charity bingo.
Ebert, a former Tennessean reporter, led the investigation into former Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham along with former Tennessean writer Dave Boucher. A report from the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office found credible evidence Durham had sexually harassed or assaulted at least 22 women. The book’s title is drawn from a comment Durham made to a woman he approached during his time in office and the months-long investigation into Durham’s actions makes the book.
Schelzig reported for the Associated Press’ Capitol Hill bureau for 14 years before taking the reins at the Tennessee Journal in 2018. The Tennessee Journal, founded in the mid-1970s, tracks Tennessee politics at the state, local and national levels.
Both men have served as chair of the Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps.
Vanderbilt University Press published the book and Ebert and Schelzig will hold a discussion of the book, “centering this historical retelling and critique of Tennessee’s most shameless perpetrators of corruption,” and signing at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Vanderbilt’s John Seigenthaler Center, 1207 18th Ave., S., Nashville, 37212. The event is free but registration is encouraged.
An excerpt from Welcome to Capitol Hill: 50 Years of Scandal in Tennessee Politics, Chapter 1, From “Miracle Man” to “Pardon Me Ray.”
A look at the political landscape in Tennessee today shows a state of one-party dominance.
Republicans maintain control of the state’s two US Senate seats, eight of the state’s nine Congressional districts, the governor’s office, both legislative chambers, the judiciary, including the state Supreme Court, and a plethora of mayors and county-elected offices. Further, when Donald Trump was on the presidential ballot in 2016 and 2020, he received more than 60 percent of the vote and won all but three of the state’s ninety-five counties.
Long before Republicans took over, Democrats had a similarly dominant grip on power that lasted more than a century. Between 1871 and 1969, Tennessee had twenty-eight governors, all but three of whom were members of the Democratic Party. Likewise, both chambers of the General Assembly were controlled by Democrats for all but two years between Reconstruction and the early 2000s.
Despite the Democrats’ success, Tennesseans have long been steered by and rooted in conservative values. Politicians from both major political parties have been rewarded by voters for maintaining a strong influence of religion and morality in lawmaking, as indicated by an official ban on gambling that lasted two centuries and a prohibition on alcohol sales that endures in some areas today (most famously in the county where Jack Daniel’s whiskey is produced).
Tennessee’s conservativism is so well established that much has been enshrined in the state constitution. In 1931, when lawmakers considered adding an income tax to the state, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled it violated the constitution. Following a renewed effort in 2001 by a Republican governor, voters approved new language in the constitution explicitly banning the tax. Lawmakers and Tennessee voters have also amended the constitution to ban same- sex marriage (the amendment was voided after the 2015 landmark Supreme Court case), allow limits on abortion rights, and guarantee hunting and fishing as a personal right.
In many ways, the modern Republican tilt that currently defines Tennessee was long in the making.
Since 1968, a Republican presidential candidate has won the state every four years, with the exceptions of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who were both southern Democrats, much to the chagrin of Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessean who famously lost his home state in the 2000 presidential race. In 1968, 38 percent of the vote in Tennessee went to Richard Nixon while segregationist George Wallace received 34 percent. Democrat Hubert Humphrey finished third with 28 percent. Wallace’s strong performance in the state offered a signal of the changing political landscape in the decades that followed.
When voters sent Howard Baker Jr. to the US Senate in 1966, he became the first Republican in Tennessee history to head to the upper chamber by popular vote. Since then, the state has sent seven Republicans to the Senate, compared with just three Democrats (the last one to win a Senate race being Al Gore in 1990, when he carried every county).
Four years after Baker’s election, Winfield Dunn, a West Tennessee dentist, became the state’s first Republican governor since 1920. At the time, Dunn’s election was largely seen as an aberration. It didn’t help that the GOP’s two- year stint in charge of the state House ended in the same election.
In 2004, Republicans were given their first elected majority in the state Senate since Reconstruction. Even though Republicans had numerical control of the chamber, they voted to keep Democrat John Wilder as Senate Speaker until 2007. Similarly, by 2008 voters had elected more Republicans to the state House, though parliamentary shenanigans gave Democrats two more years of partial control. Since then, Republicans have bolstered their numbers to the present supermajority status in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.
The past fifty years of Tennessee politics is a story of how the fault lines have shifted from one party to another, in part due to the scurrilous actions of Gov. Ray Blanton, a man who divided his own party and helped encourage voters to move from a fluke election of a Republican governor to a full embrace of the Grand Old Party.
The final nail in Ray Blanton’s coffin came more than twenty-five years after the death of the former Democratic governor of the state of Tennessee.
Once described as a highly partisan, vindictive Democrat who was fiercely loyal to those who were devoted to him, Blanton was a governor who ruled with a winner-take-all approach and showed little sign of remorse or regret during his tumultuous four years in office. He and others in his administration were also seemingly unafraid to cross the line of legal limits.
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