Opinion: Sundquist often understimated in six House terms and two as governor

AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist is sworn in by Lt. Gov. John Wilder, right, for his second term in Nashville on Jan. 16, 1999. Holding the Bible at left is Gov. Sundquist's wife, Martha.

Don Sundquist, the two-term Tennessee Republican governor and six-term United States House member who died Sunday, was often underestimated.

With the smiling, unassuming look of Mr. Nice Guy, he was not favored to win the seat in Congress he took in 1982 and kept for six terms and at best was an even bet to win the governorship he captured in 1994 over popular Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen.

Although he left office in 2002 without the popularity he once had because of his failed advocacy for a state income tax, he left with his Republican Party much stronger in the state — with the exception of being succeeded by Bredesen, no Democrat has won statewide office since — and with the knowledge he'd tried to use conservative principles to make things better for all people in the state.

In Sundquist's first term, mimicking a successful federal program worked out by Democratic President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress, he reformed the state's welfare system with a program called "Families First" that was created to move welfare recipients into jobs through job training, job search help, transportation and day care needs.

He also suggested repealing the state sales tax on groceries (an idea current Gov. Bill Lee is using on a temporary basis), instituting a "fair business tax" instead of the franchise and excise taxes, and privatizing the state's prison system (a private company, CoreCivic, now runs four prison facilities in the state).

In Congress, Sundquist helped write and pass a comprehensive ethics code and supported conservative bills like one supporting a capital gains tax cut and another for a balanced budget amendment.

A businessman and grassroots Republican worker before being elected to office, he upset the favored Bob Clement, son of popular former Gov. Frank Clement, in his first race for the House, and, according to polls, was tied with Bredesen just days before his first gubernatorial election that he went on to win by more than nine percentage points.

Sundquist was 87.