After a battle with cancer, former Governor Ned McWherter died Monday afternoon at age 80. The influential Democrat shaped Tennessee’s public schools and the pioneering Medicaid program TennCare.
McWherter is being remembered as a conservative who was a politician of the people.
The news swept down the hallways like a cold draft, “Ned has passed.”
“Governor McWherter was like another father to me,” says Estee Harris, a lobbyist who began her career as a legislative liaison from the governor’s office to the legislature.
Persuading lawmakers, Harris says, wasn’t the only skill she learned from Governor McWherter.
“I think he saw that the role of government was to care for those people that couldn’t always care for themselves, within reason,” Harris says. “He was one of the most fiscally conservative men I ever knew in my life.”
“How We Gonna Pay For That?”
Steve Cobb was a lawmaker from Nashville who eventually became one of McWherter’s many allies.
“I can’t tell you how many times he said, “Dr. Cobb, how we gonna pay for that?” he says.
During his 14 years as Speaker of the House, McWherter campaigned on the young representative’s behalf.
“We were at a Christian radio station, about ready to go on,” Cobb remembers. “He looks at me, and he looks off, and sweat breaks out on his brow, and he says, ‘Now don’t tell them I’m against capital punishment!’”
Even as his party ruled the General Assembly, McWherter built a reputation for working across party lines.
Never Forgot Where He Came From
McWherter was elected to the House in 1968, served seven terms as speaker, and was ultimately elected governor in 1986 – all that without a college degree or a high school diploma. David Mills was a young House of Representatives staffer at the time.
“Ned Ray McWherter would be the last man in the history of the state of Tennessee to have a GED and become governor,” Mills says. “He never forgot where he came from. He never did. He never lost his connection to his roots.”
Many of McWherter’s friends found irony in the weather – cold and rainy. They quoted one of Ned’s favorite wisecracks: No matter how important you are, the number of people at your funeral will largely be dependent on the weather.
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