NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Lamar Alexander recently reflected on the changes he has seen during a 40-year plus political career in Tennessee that was highlighted by the role he played with bringing high paying auto jobs to the state.
Beginning in 1978, he served two-terms as governor, was later a two-time presidential candidate and is finishing three-terms as U.S. Senator.
Last year at this time, Alexander announced he would not run again after his Senate term ends in January.
It’s been said by those close to him that Lamar spoke of presidential ambitions even while growing up in Maryville, Tennessee but there were other things to do first.
Lamar Alexander ran for governor in his thirties. In a trademark, red plaid shirt Lamar Alexander understood personal brands long before they seemed fashionable in all walks of life.
Along with his trademark plaid shirt and piano playing, there was a walk across Tennessee.
“I tried to shake a thousand hands a day and I spent the night with 73 different families across the state,” Senator Alexander recently told WKRN-TV. “You could not do that today,” he chuckled.
It was a time when Tennessee was a one-party Democrat state.
Today, Tennessee is a one-party Republican state, but its governors alternated between the GOP and Democrats from the 1970s until Republican Bill Lee replaced fellow party member Bill Haslam in 2019.
“Look at the state,” said Alexander on how its changed since he entered office. “I mean the auto industry is here. The roads are better. We have had forty years of Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican—you know, pretty good leadership in the state.”
It was not always that way.
Alexander was sworn in as governor a few days early because there were fears outgoing Democratic governor Ray Blanton would pardon inmate after inmate in the state’s prison system.
“But my good fortune. I was working with Ned McWherter who is the Democratic speaker and John Wilder the Lt. Governor, Bill Leech and Hal Hardin—all Democrats—and they thought it was important for the state to do it.” added Alexander.
That bipartisanship eventually helped bring the auto industry to Tennessee with then Governor Alexander spearhearding the effort.
“So if they could get started here, it would be a big boon for us,” reflected Alexander.
He was governor in the early 1980s when Nissan announced it would build a manufacturing plant in the Nashville suburb of Smyrna. It was followed by the GM announcement a few years later that that the automaker would build a plant south of Nashville near Spring Hill.
Both manufacturing sites would create supplier jobs and roadways far beyond the plant gates.
“Today, the Nissan plant is the largest plant in North America for autos,” said Senator Alexander. “The General Motors plant is the largest GM plant in the world and we have auto jobs in virtually every county in the state. And it led to the road system, what we found out you had to have a much better four lane highway system so you could get the parts to the plants.”
With that success leading to rising incomes in Tennessee and inroads for education through a “Master Teacher” plan, Alexander eventually looked to the nation’s highest office—twice.
“[In] ’96, I came closer than most people think. The last ten days of the New Hampshire primary I got ahead, but it’s like being a cornerback and saying I could have intercepted that pass if I could have been one foot over there,” said Alexander. “2000, I did not do very well. I was kind of like the Wright Brothers airplane. I got a little off the ground and here came George W. Bush, but I am glad I did it.”
Three years after that, Alexander began a Senate career where he passed key bills helping Nashville songwriters with royalties, and there was also his work to keep a funding stream for national parks.
Alexander’s career also included a stint as U.S. Secretary of Education in-between being governor and his first run for the presidency.
Alexander and his wife Honey plan to sell their Nashville home and move to a house they have owned in Maryville.