Rising to the top in the political arena is nearly impossible without committing a few sins along the way. Some in Tennessee’s history stand out for their questionable ethics and have enveloped themselves with cronyism and nepotism. The governorship of Ray Blanton is probably the most atrocious in the modern era.
Blanton’s four-year term in office was marred with numerous scandals ranging from selling liquor licenses to selling pardons and even Chattanooga murder. He campaigned as the people’s governor but his tenure was more focused on high-dollar self-interest deals.
He was born Leonard Ray Blanton on April 10, 1930, in Hardin County near the community of New Hope to Leonard Alonzo Blanton (1909–1981) and Ova A. Delaney Blanton (1910–1993). He grew up on a farm close to Adamsville in McNairy County. His political bio states that his “dirt-poor” upbringing in the cotton fields of West Tennessee permanently endowed Blanton with a rough-hewn populist tendency that endeared him to the working classes and many state employees.
Blanton graduated from Shiloh High School in 1948 and obtained a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee in 1951. He taught school in Mooresville, Indiana, from 1951 to 1953, then returned to Adamsville to work in the family construction business, B&B Construction. In 1964, Blanton was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, representing McNairy County, where he distinguished himself by his habit of sitting in the back of the chamber, wearing his sunglasses, and observing the proceedings.
In 1966, Blanton ran for Congress, challenging 12-term incumbent and former Crump machine ally Tom J. Murray in the Democratic primary for the 7th congressional district, which was based in Jackson and included Adamsville. In a major upset, Blanton edged Murray for the nomination, winning by just 384 votes out of the nearly 70,000 votes cast. He went on to win the general election and was twice reelected.
As a congressman, Blanton had relatively poor attendance, sponsored few bills of significance, and served on just two committees: the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, and the District of Columbia Committee. He instead focused on his constituents, namely by trying to acquire funding for projects in Tennessee, including the state’s first Head Start Program. He spent a great deal of time at his district office responding to voter concerns and frequently spoke to groups of students. Blanton criticized the anti-war movement, voted against extending the Voting Rights Act, and opposed lowering the voting age to 18.
After the 1970 census, the legislature merged most of Blanton’s territory with the neighboring 8th District of fellow Democrat, Ed Jones. The merged district retained Blanton’s district number but was geographically more Jones’ district. Rather than run against Jones in 1972, Blanton decided to run for the U.S. Senate. He won the Democratic primary and faced the Republican incumbent, Howard Baker, in the general election. Baker had supported the Voting Rights Act and the lowering of the voting age, helping him make inroads among two key constituencies, black voters and young voters. Baker tied Blanton to the more liberal Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern and Blanton campaigned as a George Wallace-like pro-segregation populist. On election day, Baker won in a landslide, 716,534 votes to 440,599.
With Blanton’s defeat for the senate, he began to set his sights on other political aspirations, i.e. the governor’s office. Incumbent Governor Winfield Dunn-R could not run for re-election at the time because the term limit was set to one four-year term. The Democrats looked to retake the office but first, the candidate would have to come out of a field of a 12-person primary. Around Thanksgiving 1973 the would-be Democratic candidates made themselves known at a rally in East Tennessee. In the mix were Stan Snodgrass, Treasurer Tom Wiseman, Attorney General David Pack, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, Waverly Mayor Jimmy Powers, East Tennessee banker Jake Butcher and Jim McKinney (McKinney would have been a strong candidate had he not lost his speaker position to Ned McWherter).
In May 1974, Blanton formally announced his candidacy for governor stating, “The people of Tennessee have asked me to seek the high office of Governor.” In his campaign rhetoric, he promised that he would keep an open line of communication and “that policy will never change when I am elected governor because I am absolutely convinced that person-to-person communication is the only source of true representation for the people of this state.”
According to polling numbers in July of 1974, Blanton was in the lead amongst the field of Democratic contenders. On his heels were Jake Butcher and Franklin Haney who were pouring money into media outlets. At various forums and meeting halls, Blanton handled himself fielding questions from views on the death penalty to revenue sharing amongst municipalities. Blanton also campaigned on the fact of his history of working in Nashville and Washington, D.C.
Blanton won the Democratic primary with 23% of the vote, he was closely followed by Jake Butcher with 20%. Butcher would run again and win the Democratic nomination in 1978. In 1985, Butcher was convicted of bank fraud and was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
As for Blanton, he was ready to face off against the Republican candidate, Lamar Alexander. With his close ties to Governor Dunn and Senator Howard Baker, Alexander would be a tough candidate to beat, but Blanton’s camp made use of his ties to Washington and the Watergate scandal from the Nixon administration.
According to Knoxville journalist Ray Hill, “Blanton’s careful handling of his opponents in the Democratic primary helped Democrats unite for the fall campaign. Democrats were also tired of losing and badly wanted to win back the governorship. Ray Blanton dismissed the idea of debating Alexander and avoided joint appearances. Blanton’s attitude cost him the endorsement of Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. Ray Blanton had arrived at a scheduled appearance in Nashville and was annoyed when he discovered Alexander was there as well. The former congressman demanded that he be allowed to speak first and leave immediately following his remarks. When the meeting organizers were slow to accept Blanton’s demand, he snarled that any effort to have him debate his opponent would be ‘impossible.’”
Alexander’s camp wanted to debate Blanton on current issues faced by Tennesseans but the former congressman refused. Then the camp began reminding Tennessee voters of Blanton’s poor attendance record in Congress and the limited number of bills he sponsored. Blanton’s unified Democratic party slowly began to fray as voters began to question Blanton’s ability. Some Democrats felt Blanton was coming across as arrogant and was running not on the issues but rather a negative attack on Alexander.
In response to the attacks on Alexander’s character, Blanton spoke to voters at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, “They tell me I’m not supposed to talk about my opponent. They say I’m not supposed to talk about the mess the Republicans have made of things. They say I’m not supposed to talk about inflation.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve had just about as much Republican prosperity as I can stand. He’s never held a public office in his life. He’s never been responsible to the taxpayers in his life.
“When he first came back to Tennessee he said he was the President’s right-hand man. When the President got in trouble, he said he was an errand boy,” Blanton laughed. “If he had any real responsibility, he would have been among those indicted, so he was an errand boy. I admit that. Well, I’m here to tell you we don’t need an errand boy running for governor.”
Blanton carried both Middle and West Tennessee and showed far better than he did in the previous election against Senator Baker. Blanton defeated Alexander, 576,833 votes to 455,467. This began Blanton’s Reign of Terror in Tennessee.
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