Former Governor Ned McWherter Dies At 80

Monday, April 4, 2011
Ned Ray McWherter
Ned Ray McWherter

Former two-term Tennessee Gov. Ned Ray McWherter has died in a Nashville hospital at the age of 80.

The Democrat was governor from 1987-1995.

He had served 19 years in the state House prior to that and was House Speaker.

He was on the board of governors of the U.S. Postal Service from 1995-2003.

His son, Mike McWherter, made an unsuccessful run for governor last year.

Governor Bill Haslam said, “This is a sad day for Tennessee. 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 in 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.”

Senator Bob Corker said, “I join my fellow Tennesseans in mourning the loss of one of our state’s finest and most beloved public servants.

“Ned was always upbeat, looking for the best in people and situations. He was incredibly kind to me when I came in as commissioner of finance. I never forgot that and continued to seek his counsel throughout my career, as recently as the past few weeks. He was a great friend to me, and I will miss him.”

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney said, “Tennessee lost a true legend today in Governor Ned Ray McWherter.

“Governor McWherter left his legacy across our great state, and there is no doubt that we are better for his leadership, his vision and his compassion.

“Governor McWherter never hesitated to do what he believed was best for all Tennesseans, whether that was raising up our children through education reform, or creating jobs in rural areas through infrastructure improvements. Under his direction, Tennessee set a national standard for fiscal responsibility that endures today.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the McWherter family and all Tennesseans. We have lost a great leader and an even greater friend today.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell said,
"Tennessee lost a true statesman today with the passing of Governor McWherter. He understood the role of the legislative body, and he carried it out to the fullest. He will be missed, and my heart goes out to his family during this difficult time."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who served on Gov. McWherter’s first campaign gubernatorial campaign, said, “I’m saddened by the loss of one of Tennessee’s great Democratic leaders. I had the high honor of serving in his first campaign for governor and count him as one of my true political mentors. His gift of understanding what working people cared about and his vision for what Tennessee could become has inspired me my entire political career. Gov. McWherter was every man and he was bigger than life. We have a lost a great one."

House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and former Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis) said,

"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.

"Today is a truly sad day for the state of Tennessee. He will be sorely missed, though he will always be here with us as we continue to work for the betterment of the wonderful state of Tennessee and the United States of America.

"He was a governor of and for the people."

Senator Lamar Alexander said, “When I became governor, Ned McWherter said, ‘I’m going to help him, because if he succeeds, our state succeeds.’ He was true to his word. That bipartisan spirit symbolized Ned’s entire career. He was one of our state’s finest public servants and a close friend. I will greatly miss him.”

Senator Roy Herron said, "Governor McWherter was our greatest governor during my lifetime, and I believe he was our greatest governor during Tennessee’s lifetime.

"Governor McWherter led Tennessee to set records in the economy, job growth, education, building roads, criminal justice, healthcare, lowering taxes and debt.

"When Rep. Ned McWherter was elected governor, I was elected to McWherter’s House seat. When Governor McWherter was leaving office, I wrote the following column summarizing his accomplishments as governor.

A 'Tennessee Treasure'

At this ''Tennessee Treasures'' exhibit you will learn of historic leaders. But what about the one who brought the exhibit to us, who served the last 22 years as speaker of the House and governor? When future historians create another exhibit, what will they say about Ned
McWherter's years as governor?

-- Strongest economy. Historians should note that for the first time in history, Tennessee's economy was rated ''the strongest in the South.'' That's what Dow Jones said and the Corporation for Enterprise Development ranked our economy not only ''the best in the South'' but also ''the fifth strongest in the nation.''

-- Most jobs. But when Ned McWherter became governor, almost half our counties - 42 out of 95 - had double-digit unemployment. As a candidate for governor in 1986, Speaker McWherter talked about a ''95-county jobs program.'' And he had one. Now Tennessee has the lowest unemployment since we started keeping records. Instead of 42 counties with 10 percent or more unemployment, today there is but one.

-- Better education. This self-described ''college drop-out,'' whose two children and their spouses earned nine university degrees, including three doctorates, saw education as crucial to our economy and our children's future.

He promised his second term was ''for the kids'' - and it was.

He took our schools back from the courts and gave them to the kids in a way children, especially rural children, had never had them. He created a funding mechanism that finally is fairer to rural schools while he helped urban schools, too.

In the last three years, Tennessee's K-12 schools have had the nation's greatest growth in state funding, an increase of 49 percent. Our 21st Century Schools program has put those dollars directly into classrooms to buy textbooks and computers and add teachers, investing more than three times as much in classroom improvements in three years as was spent the previous 16 years.

With historic classroom funding has come historic accountability. For the first time, all school boards are elected by the people and accountable directly to the citizens. Tennessee taxpayers can see schools' strengths and weaknesses in published report cards. In another first, Tennessee leads the nation with a new system measuring how much students learn.

-- Record roads. There was another crucial part to Governor McWherter's economic development plan. As he often says, ''Schools plus roads equal jobs.'' As speaker and governor he created and
carried out the largest road-building program in Tennessee history. A thousand miles of roads.

Middle Tennessee long has enjoyed its three interstates, as has East Tennessee, while West Tennessee had only I-40. Governor McWherter once noted that every governor is accused of building roads in his home area and, if he was going to be accused, he sure wanted to be guilty!
So now, instead of riding back roads, West Tennessee is becoming a crossroads.

It is true all across Tennessee. A man born near Palmersville and from Dresden knew we had to connect rural counties to city neighbors, to the commerce and opportunities of this entire country. Now all of us, country and city alike, benefit. Schools and roads have equaled jobs.

-- Criminal justice. Before Ned McWherter became governor, the prisons had exploded in riots and escapes. Inmates and a federal judge had taken over.

To control criminals and protect Tennesseans, Governor McWherter built six prisons with 7,000 beds. He built more cells than all the governors since the Depression - combined.

His high-tech prison management system cut operating costs in new prisons by almost half (46 percent). Today Tennessee has the only fully accredited prison system in the country. He's taken control of the prisons back from criminals and courts.

Governor McWherter also enabled this century's only comprehensive revision of our criminal code, making protection from violent criminals the first priority.

Under his administration the legislature created the punishment of life without parole, which makes a life sentence mean exactly that.

Our families are never as safe as we want, but they are much safer because of these enormous changes in criminal justice.

-- Better health care. Ned McWherter knew our families were threatened by killers, not only criminals but also killing diseases and illnesses. And our state budget was threatened by a Medicaid system with costs soaring totally out of control.

We had three options: 1) continuing a government-dictated Medicaid system that either was going to suck hundreds of millions of dollars from schools, or drive taxes out of sight, or both; 2) catastrophic cuts in coverage for our neediest children, women and senior citizens; or 3) radical reform.

Tennessee in a year has done what Washington talks about doing in a decade. Washington aims for 95 percent of our citizens to have health insurance in the next millennium. Tennessee will achieve it next month.

To get that coverage, Washington talks about employer mandates; Tennessee did it without them. Washington talks about government cost controls, while Tennessee slows spiraling costs with reasonable reforms and free-market competition. Other states aren't calling on
Washington to lead; they're calling Tennessee and asking how they can follow our lead.

Is everything perfect with TennCare? Certainly not. Federal bureaucrats blocked reforms the governor wanted, while a year's experience shows other changes we now can implement. But is Tennessee better off than if we had kept Medicaid? Tennessee taxpayers sure are. So are 390,000 members of working families who could not afford health insurance before but who have it now. So are former welfare mothers who no longer have to choose between a job and health care for their kids, but now can afford TennCare and are working taxpayers instead of

-- Lowest taxes. What's all this costing us? What's the bottom line on taxes after Governor McWherter? Tennesseans now pay less in state and local taxes per $100 of personal income than citizens in any other state.

That's right. When you look at our income and our taxes, our combined state and local tax burden is 50th of 50 states.

-- Lower debt. If our taxes are the lowest, then did Governor McWherter finance these changes like Washington with enormous deficits, or like states with ballooning bond debts?

No. He balanced all eight budgets. The state's bonded indebtedness, when adjusted for inflation and measured in real dollars, is substantially lower than when he took office. Furthermore, he'll leave a record ''rainy day fund,'' probably triple what it was when he took office.

Then how did he do it?

-- Best management. The last two years City and State magazine recognized Tennessee as ''the best managed sate in the nation.'' Number one among 50.

Decades in business and 18 years in the legislature, including a record 14 as House speaker, made Ned McWherter the most experienced governor Tennessee ever chosen. He really did only need ''a cup of coffee and two vanilla wafers'' before he was ready to work.

And work he did. He and his team worked like heck from early till late, with weekdays and weekends blurring together.

Governor McWherter is the first to give credit to others for Tennessee's historic records and national marks in jobs, economic growth, education, roads, criminal justice, health care and managing state government. But he was the leader, the chief executive who knew how to work with the General Assembly, his Cabinet and state workers, private citizens, all of Tennessee.

He is right to say Tennesseans accomplish these things together. But we are right to say that few, if any, of these achievements would have happened without his leadership.

Now Governing magazine has judged Ned McWherter the nation's best governor.

When historians put together the next exhibit of Tennessee treasures, they ought to recognize that America's best governor today, and the best governor in Tennessee's first 200 years, was our own Ned McWherter.

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