As 1992 wound to a close, Randle Richardson was recruited to become chairman of the state Republican Party. Accepting the job was akin to taking over the sinking Titanic. Then again, the Titanic had lifeboats.
The lobbying had been formidable. Gubernatorial candidate Don Sundquist had come calling. Former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker had paid court. Lamar Alexander, who was plotting a race for the presidency, implored Richardson to climb on board. One of the most effective pitches came from Tom Beasley, the Corrections Corporation of America mega-millionaire and a former party chairman. “He told me why it would be good for the party and how it would make me grow personally,” Richardson says.
The record now speaks for itself. When Richardson took over in early 1993, the GOP was a financial train wreck. It now boasts an embarrassment of riches. The state GOP has gone from holding no statewide offices to occupying the governor’s office and two U.S. Senate seats. The state Senate is in Republican hands. At a more intangible level, the spirit of the party has turned from dour pessimism to riotous positivism, and Richardson deserves much of the credit.
When he took over the job, Richardson was seen as a top-notch manager. No one expected him to be a rabble-rousing orator, given to making front-page pronouncements in Tennessee newspapers. Indeed, during his regime, he has conducted most of his business quietly, out of public view.
While Richardson has never foisted his political opinions on the party, it is probably safe to describe him as something of a mainstream conservative. As a political tactician, his strength lies in understanding the rural vote in Tennessee. He grew up in a farming family in the small West Tennessee town of Alamo, and he talks to voters in the hinterlands on a daily basis.
Richardson holds an undergraduate degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His first big political experience came as state director of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign in Tennessee. When Richardson got the call to take over the Tennessee Republican Party, he was state director of the Farmer’s Home Administration.
On the wall of Richardson’s Green Hills office is a large photograph of a black child standing in front of a tumble-down shack. Another large photograph shows the same child standing in front of a nice, new brick home. The home was built with funds from the Tennessee Farmer’s Home Administration during Richardson’s tenure. Despite the fact that he has been photographed with numerous nationally known Republicans in grip-and-grin poses, the only pictures on Richardson’s wall are the ones of that young child and his new home.
This past weekend, the state Republican Party Executive Committee elected Nashvillian Jim Burnett as Richardson’s successor. As Richardson prepares to leave, he spoke with me about the Grand Old Party in the ’90s.
Bruce Dobie: Tell me what the Republican Party was like when you got here three years ago.
Randle Richardson: The situation was this: We were a party that was broke and divided. We had a $155,000 debt and delinquent payables. Our bank line was $100,000 of that, and our guarantors were being notified by the bank to pay up. A couple of our guarantors were Ted Welch and Fred Thompson. They had been generous enough to support the debt of the party, but I don’t think they really wanted to pay a debt they did not incur. The first day I was here, I had a couple of creditors wanting to sue us. It was not a pleasant task at the time.
The worst thing about that time is that we were focused on our failures rather than our opportunities. We were arguing about why we had not been successful. We were pointing fingers and assessing blame. What we realized we needed to do, first of all, was survive. We needed to keep the doors open.
This was not the fault of my predecessor [Tommy Hopper]. He inherited $100,000 of that debt. He made the best of the circumstances. I just wanted to get people paid and get unified. When you are a minority party and you are divided, you aren’t going to be successful.
BD: What did you do to end the bickering?
RR: We had to make places for everybody. After talking to a lot of people we created a simple message: That GOP stands for Great Opportunity Party.
The opportunities were to elect a governor, two U.S. Senate seats, win a majority in our congressional delegation, and pick up seats in our Legislature. I started this mantra on the first weekend in February of 1993. And I spoke every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night across the state. Back then, there were only two people speaking. That was Don Sundquist and me. We were the Lincoln Day circuit of 1993. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist and the others weren’t there yet. I’m sure people got sick of hearing me say it, because I got sick of saying it myself, but I talked about the Great Opportunity Party. You could see people coming along. All of sudden, there was something for us to strive for, which hadn’t been there before.
The Republican Party had forgotten who we were and what we were about. A political party’s main goal is to elect folks. When I would ask people what we were about, people would say, “gun control,” or “abortion,” or “taxes,” or whatever. And I would say, “What about the party?” and they would talk about their personal views on issues, not about the party. In November of 1993, I wrote a mission statement, which said the mission of the Republican Party is to elect Republicans, to build the party. That sounds real simple, but we weren’t there at all.
We could all agree on this mission. It was hard to achieve, though, because everybody had an ax to grind with past Republican leaders. I’d say, “That was in the past. This is what we are now, and what we are going to be.”
BD: Was Sundquist closely involved with this at the time?
RR: No, because he was out there running for governor, and that was what he was supposed to do.
BD: But did the efforts work together?
RR: Oh yes. Although we knew there would be another person in the governor’s race, we didn’t know who. And the party had to be neutral. Sundquist supported the effort and came to anything we asked him to. Frankly, he was the only person out there statewide who people had identified as a candidate. He was very helpful. But was he over here every day? No.
What he wanted was to have an environment in which he could run. In a statewide race, the party can’t elect anybody. Both parties have a base, but neither is big enough to win without the swing vote. You can’t win if you’re divided.
When I took over, 600 people received our newsletter. Our newsletter is now mailed to 50,000 people. It’s the simple things that get results. You look at opportunities, and you make that the message.
BD:What about the Republican message struck such a chord?
RR:Several issues drove the elections here in ’94. People were against Bill Clinton. He ran as a centrist and then started governing way from the left. We started coming together as a party and agreed to agree. We recruited good candidates who talked about principles. People identified with our principles like, “The government that governs least governs best.” Principles of personal responsibility and accountability. Principles of giving people opportunity rather than a lifetime handout.
What people don’t like about us is, at times, we appear to lack tolerance and compassion. In my office there are no political pictures on the wall. You will notice that one over there, which is the most gratifying thing I have done. That little boy lives in that home, in Fayette County. When I asked his mother what was better about the new house, she said, “It don’t rain on my kids in bed anymore.” That is worth doing. The taxpayers didn’t give her the house. She is paying for it, and she has an opportunity to give her kids a better life. She has an incentive now. There’s a lot right about that.
BD: What is your personal style?
RR: I’m not very colorful, but I am effective. I have strong personal opinions about issues, and I have a temper. But we didn’t need to play that out in the press. You have to keep peace and create unity in an organization to make it effective.
BD: In the past, Republicans have avoided contested primaries in which Republicans run against one another. Last year seemed to prove that contested primaries are good for the party. Do you agree?
RR: It depends on the circumstance. In ’94, no one had name identification except Don Sundquist. Having six people out there every day raising questions about Jim Sasser all over the state was very helpful. It got their names out and drove his negatives up. If there hadn’t been a primary, Bill Frist wouldn’t be a senator because no one would have paid attention. He couldn’t have competed as well for people and money. Frankly, Don Sundquist having a primary opponent [former Chattanooga state Rep. David Copeland] was a good thing, because it made Don work harder and go into the Chattanooga area and lock things down. Competition brings out the best in you.
Fred Thompson was not a very good primary candidate. He’ll admit to that. He did not have the kind of competition he needed. It didn’t make him sharpen up. Then, when he realized things weren’t going as well as he wanted them to, and others realized it, they decided on tactics to get him focused on the general election. We had conversations about that, and others did too.
BD: Was it Thompson who figured out that he wasn’t doing well early on?
RR: Sure, but he was out in the state campaigning and raising money. In July we looked at the bank accounts of Jim Cooper and Thompson, and I said if Cooper were smart he would be putting money in phone and TV and trying to end the thing now. But he went on TV only one week before Fred did, and when Fred got on TV with those commercials, it was over. Fred can dominate a TV screen better than any guy in Tennessee we have.
The truck created a circumstance, a prop, for people to come to Fred. Fred would be at the courthouse in Dickson on Saturday morning, and 300 people would show up. Not everybody could do that. He has presence. My concern was that I knew what Cooper had in the bank, and had Cooper gone up on TV, it would have been difficult. I was sitting there going, “This won’t be good.”
BD: What were your fears about Frist versus Sasser?
RR:It was hard for me to believe that Jim Sasser, who had been in the Senate for 18 years, could lose. He understood the power of government and how he could use all those things, and he understood the power of the rural vote, which is the swing vote in Tennessee. It was hard for me to imagine he couldn’t turn it his way. But the numbers showed he was stuck at 43 or 44 percent, and he couldn’t get over that. You could see it was doable, but it was hard to imagine that this guywho I perceived as someone who appreciated his political power and governing power extremely wellcould lose.
Sasser’s father was an administrator of the Soil and Conservation Service. I couldn’t believe Sasser would not get his field people up and going to remind the county commissioners and county executives what he had done before. But it never got up and running. I couldn’t tell whether or not he tried. I do know the folks in the Tennessee Farm Bureau were very much behind Don Sundquist.
BD: Talk to me about your fears in the Sundquist-Bredesen race.
RR: I always thought Don Sundquist would win. I knew that the power of Phil Bredesen’s money would make it difficult and would suppress the Sundquist vote. But I simply could not believe that a non-Tennessean with a northern accent who had made $100 million and was mayor of Nashville could win. People tend to resent Nashville because they see it as having all the power. I believed firmly that he would not sell in rural Tennessee. The rural vote didn’t buy him, and they’re not going to buy him.
BD: Were there any other Democratic candidates who could have beat Sundquist?
RR: I do not know. Don had been doing his homework for a dozen years and had helped people outside his district for a long time. He had gotten to know people throughout Tennessee. They didn’t know him as Congressman Sundquist. They knew him as Don. Ned McWherter, when he made the rounds in the summer of ’85 in East Tennesseewhich is when he really won the 1986 gubernatorial race against Winfield Dunnwent through all the hills and hollows. I was involved in the ’86 race, and I am a rural Tennessean, and when I went there they said, “I met Ned, and he’s just like us.” I knew we were in trouble. Phil Bredesen couldn’t do that because he couldn’t relate. I think Phil Bredesen is very effective here in Nashville and is leading this city in the direction he wants to go.
BD: A lot of the polls showed Frist and Sundquist losing. Why was that?
RR: You can’t poll rural Tennessee well. They tend to be more private when you call them on the phone. They say to a person taking a poll, “That’s none of your business.” You can’t reach as many in the rural area as the urban area. You get more hits in urban Tennessee. That’s why I contest Mason-Dixon’s polling method [which is used by the state’s Gannett daily newspapers].
Mason-Dixon doesn’t get it. I sent them two certified letters telling them their polling method was flawed. They have an urban bias in their polls. They will always be 3 to 5 points off.
BD: But Sundquist and Frist were behind for much of the race, right?
RR: With Frist, it was picture perfect. You could look at a calendar and see him going up and up and up, and see Sasser staying flat; you just needed the right timing. At eight days out, he passed Sasser.
Don’s race tightened up just once, about a month out. I still couldn’t believe it, because I was on the phone with rural Tennessee all the time. They were saying they didn’t like the Kirby Pines stuff, and when we got the message out about Sundquist only being a volunteer with Kirby Pines, and we got the message out about Bredesen’s lawsuits, people started making up their minds and things got a lot better.
BD: If you had been running Bredesen’s campaign, what would you have done that they did not do?
RR: I would have spent some money telling people what Bredesen was about. When I asked people about Sundquist, they would say, “We like him, but we’re concerned about Kirby Pines.” When I asked them about Bredesen, they said, “We don’t know much about him.”
BD: When are people going to be comfortable running as Republicans for local office like Metro Council in Nashville?
RR: I think three or four of them did that in Nashville the last election. But I think it would be to the Republicans’ advantage to get a partisan primary here, because I think you would get a significant number of them elected. In Memphis, they went to partisan elections. In the past, almost all the officeholders were identified as Democrats. Now, though, things are going Republican. So it helps.
BD: How do you assess Alexander’s presidential campaign?
RR: Something has to happen to Bob Dole. Lamar has positioned himself to be the candidate if Dole slips. But he doesn’t have control of his destiny. Nor does Phil Gramm or Pat Buchanan or any of the others. Bob Dole has been there for 30 years, and a lot of that time has been spent with his wanting to do this.
BD: Is Newt Gingrich an asset or a liability to you all?
RR: Right at this moment, he’s both. He’s an asset to those true believers who really believe that what he’s doing is the right thing. He’s a liability from the point that the press can beat on him and the Democrats can beat on him. He’s like Clinton was in ’94. I personally think he’s very bright, and I will give him credit for saying, “Here is where we are. This is our Contract With America. We are going to go after it the first day.” And he did. He did not get all 10 of the points, but he got seven or eight. I’ll always think highly of him for just one thing, which was passing legislation that stated that the laws that apply to you and me also apply to Congress.
But Newt tends to get overexposed every day. People can’t absorb all that. He needs to pick his spots. If you walk after a microphone every day, you start to lose your effectiveness.
BD: What are your personal plans when you leave your post?
RR: I am here until the first of the year. Or as long as I am needed for a transition. Then I will try to figure out my plans. It is not going to be government or politics.
BD: Who are some rising stars in the Republican Party?
RR: I think [state Finance Commissioner] Bob Corker is doing a really good job here. There are no open slots now, but we need people coming up through the pipeline. Politics is cyclical. People with ambition need a way to channel their energies.
Politics is a selfish business. If you don’t have a strong ambition and ego, you aren’t going to make it. The beating you take is considerable. We have some of these people, and we need to make a place for them.
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