Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist dies

Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist signs a bill shortly before midnight in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on June 30, 2002 to avoid a government shutdown for five more days. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Former Gov. Don Sundquist died Sunday morning. He was 87.

Sundquist was governor from 1995 to 2003 and previously served 12 years in the U.S. House.

Sundquist alienated may fellow Republicans by spearheading tax reform efforts in his second term. While he called his proposal a fair tax, the proposal was criticized as trying to create an income tax in Tennessee. The legislature’s debate over such measures led to heavy protests around the state Capitol. In the end, Sundquist’s effort failed and lawmakers instead passed a 1-point increase in the state’s sales tax rate in 2002.

“Don Sundquist was a loyal friend and a man with a good heart,” Lamar Alexander, a former governor governor and U.S. senator. “He helped our state prosper and expanded health insurance for Tennesseans. He put the state ahead of his own political interests. The Alexander family sends to Martha and their family our sympathy and respect for Don’s life.”

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s statement:

Governor Sundquist was an impactful leader and principled statesman who devoted his life to public service. As Tennessee’s governor for two terms, he contributed to our state’s legacy of fiscal responsibility and expanded opportunity for Tennesseans through historic economic development. Maria and I join all Tennesseans in honoring Governor Sundquist’s remarkable life, and we pray God’s comfort over Martha and their family in the days ahead.

Here is U.S. Rep David Kustoff’s response:

Roberta and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Don Sundquist. Over his long and successful career, Don Sundquist has served as a business leader, Member of Congress, and Governor. In public office and out of public office, Don Sundquist cared greatly and profoundly about the people of Tennessee and worked tirelessly for their betterment. Don was a true friend to both Roberta and me. He will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, former First Lady of Tennessee, Martha and their children, Tania, Andrea, and Deke.

And from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis):

I was a State Senator for the eight years that Don Sundquist served as Governor of Tennessee, and we had a very fine relationship. I respected him and developed a friendship, unlike many others with whom I served. We had the ability to find common ground on important issues, such as the public voting on the state lottery, tax benefits that helped with the funding of AutoZone Park, a wildflower program along our interstate highway system, as well as a 70 miles-per-hour interstate speed limit.

Read the Sundquist family obituary:

Gov. Don Sundquist, who was instrumental in building the Republican majority in Tennessee, died on August 27, 2023 in Memphis, TN. Though he was a successful businessman, six-term U.S. Representative, and the 47th Governor of Tennessee, the titles he most cherished were husband, father, grandfather, and loyal friend. His 87 years of life are a testament to his oft-quoted quip, “There are workhorses and show horses; I’m a work horse.” 

Born in Moline, Illinois on March 15, 1936, to Louise and Kenneth Sundquist, he was the first in his family to attend college. While at Augustana College, he met the love of his life, Martha Swanson. After the two married, he went on to serve his country in the United States Navy before joining Jostens in Illinois, where he gained valuable corporate experience and was eventually transferred to Shelbyville, Tennessee. He fell in love with the land and the people of West Tennessee and set out on his own to start a printing and advertising firm, Graphic Sales of America in Memphis. 

While raising his young family and running his business, Sundquist never lost his desire to serve his country and remained active in local and national politics. He was an organizer for the Goldwater for President campaign and was elected as the national chair of Young Republicans in 1971. He served as a delegate to both the 1976 and 1980 Republican National Conventions and managed the presidential campaign of Sen. Howard Baker in 1980.

In 1982, Sundquist entered the race for the 7th Congressional District. His opponent had high name recognition and significant coffers, but Sundquist’s belief in the power of grass-roots politics and tireless campaign stops to meet voters led him to victory by a mere 1,476 votes. He went on to be easily re-elected five more times and served on the House Ways and Means Committee where he earned the reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative. 

In 1994, Sundquist entered the Tennessee gubernatorial race. Once again, he ran against a well-financed opponent but swept to victory in the historic Republican landslide of that year. He was re-elected for a second term in 1998 by a record-setting margin. During his tenure, he implemented Families First, the welfare reform program that reduced the number of Tennessee families on welfare from 70,000 to 30,000 in just four years and passed a comprehensive crime bill that focused on victim’s rights. Through the ConnecTen project, Tennessee also led the nation in connecting all public schools and libraries to the Internet.

Gov. Sundquist led Tennessee through seven years of successful economic development, topping $6 billion in capital investment in 1999 and garnering “State of the Year” honors for outstanding job creation and investment efforts. As governor, he was instrumental in bringing two national sports franchises, the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators, to the state. 

Sundquist loved every part of Tennessee, and he and Martha moved to the mountains of East Tennessee after the end of his term as governor. In 2005, he was asked to lead a national panel of experts to improve Medicaid and served as co-chairman of the committee. An entrepreneur at heart, he also co-founded the first Red Hot and Blue barbeque restaurant and created the Sundquist Group, where he represented several public policy interests in Washington, D.C. 

In 2018, Sundquist was awarded the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, 2nd Class Gold and Silver Star, conferred by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, for his leading role in growing the economic and cultural relationship between the people of Tennessee and Japan. 

Don Sundquist’s life was guided by a profound faith in God’s providence and a dogged belief in the promise of America and the greatness of Tennessee. He took great pride in bringing people together, regardless of differences, to work together for the common good of the common man. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, former First Lady Martha Sundquist, and their children: Andrea, Tania (David) and Deke and his beloved granddaughters: Gabby (Markos) and Alex.

Funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Foundation to Eradicate Duchenne MD — duchennemd.org

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