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Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, who led state during income tax fight, dies at 87

From the Tennessean: Don Sundquist, a former congressman and two-term Republican governor who led Tennessee during a time of dramatic changes to i

From the Tennessean: Don Sundquist, a former congressman and two-term Republican governor who led Tennessee during a time of dramatic changes to its social safety net and a fight over a state income tax, died on Sunday. He was 87.


Sundquist died Sunday morning surrounded by family at Baptist East Memorial Hospital in Memphis following surgery and a short illness, according to a family spokesperson. His family confirmed his death in a statement issued through the office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. He had been living in Collierville at The Farms at Bailey Station.


“We are comforted by our faith and friends, and know he is with our Lord and loved ones in heaven,” former first lady Martha Sundquist said.


Sundquist was the 47th governor of Tennessee from 1995 to 2003, and represented Tennessee’s 7th District in Congress for 12 years.


Funeral plans are not yet finalized. The former governor will lie in state at the Tennessee Capitol before he is laid to rest in Townsend, Tennessee, where he lived for many years.


In a statement, Lee called Sundquist an “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.”


An Illinois native, Sundquist was the first in his family to attend college. While at Augustana College in Rock Island, he met his wife, Martha. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.


He moved to Memphis in 1972, and became active in Republican Party politics, eventually leading the National Young Republicans for three years. He was an organizer for Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and served as a delegate to the 1976 and 1980 Republican National Conventions. He managed the presidential campaign of Sen. Howard Baker in 1980.


Sundquist was elected to Congress in 1982, defeating Democrat Bob Clement, son of former Gov. Frank Clement, by a margin of just 1,476 votes. He went on to be easily re-elected five times, and established a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative.


When Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter was term limited in 1994, Sundquist ran for governor, defeating then-Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen by nearly 10 points.


Sundquist’s first term as governor was marked by efforts to reform Tennessee’s welfare system. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services was created during his administration. His “Families First” welfare reform package sought to save taxpayer money while providing better care for needy children. Passed in 1996, the program reduced the number of families on welfare from 70,000 to 30,000.


Sundquist also pushed a comprehensive law enforcement package focusing on tougher sentences, capital case reform, domestic violence and victim’s rights. He also backed the “ConnectTen” initiative, making Tennessee the first state in the country to connect schools and libraries to the internet.


During his second term, Sundquist spearheaded tax reform efforts in an effort to raise more revenue for the state. He proposed a state income tax, a move that alienated members of his own party, including then-state Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Debate around the measure drew significant protests at the state Capitol.


During his tenure, Tennessee saw significant economic development, topping $6 billion in capital investment in 1999. Sundquist’s administration was also instrumental in bringing two professional sports franchises to the state: the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators.


He was succeeded in office by Bredesen in 2003.


After leaving office, the Sundquists moved to Townsend, in the mountains of East Tennessee. He co-founded the first Red Hot and Blue barbeque restaurant, and founded a lobbying firm, the Sundquist Group. In 2018, Sundquist was awarded the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, 2nd Class Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan, for his role in growing the economic and cultural relationship between Tennessee and Japan.


He is survived by his wife of 64 years, former First Lady Martha Sundquist, their children Andrea, Tania (David), and Deke, and their granddaughters, Gabby (Markos), and Alex.


State and federal officials expressed their condolences to the Sundquist family on Sunday.


“Don Sundquist was a loyal friend and a man with a good heart,” former governor and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a statement. “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.”


Former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker served as Sundquist’s commissioner of Finance and Administration.


“My heart goes out to the Sundquist family with the loss this morning of Governor Sundquist,” Corker said in a statement on social media. “He gave 20 years in service to our state which he loved so much. I will forever be grateful to him in allowing me to serve in his first administration.”


House Speaker Cameron Sexton called Sundquist “a passionate public servant.” U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn called him “a good man, who served our country and state faithfully in the U.S. Navy, as Congressman, and as 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,” U.S. Rep. David Kustoff, R-Germantown, said in a statement. “Don was a true friend to both Roberta and me. He will be deeply missed.”


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