The 1948 Governor’s Race in Tennessee

The 1948 Governor’s Race in Tennessee

By Ray Hill

The 1948 election in Tennessee was a watershed political event. For two decades, the political partnership of senior United States senator Kenneth D. McKellar and Edward Hull Crump, leader of the Shelby County machine, had dominated Volunteer State elections. There had been numerous challenges to the McKellar – Crump alliance, but none had been remotely successful. Senator McKellar and Crump had thoroughly organized the state in 1938 when they drove Governor Gordon Browning out of office. McKellar had hand-picked A. T. “Tom” Stewart to run for the United States Senate that same year for the special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of Senator Nathan Bachman. Browning had appointed labor leader George L. Berry to serve until the next election, but by the time of the primary, the governor had tried as best he could to distance himself from his own appointee.

Gordon Browning had been humiliated in the 1938 election. A former six-term congressman, Browning had run a credible race against Senator Bachman inside the Democratic primary in 1934. Two years later, he campaigned for the gubernatorial nomination against Burgin Dossett, the candidate selected by Senator K. D. McKellar. Crump and McKellar had parted company when the Memphis Boss endorsed Browning. Many hoped and prayed the split between the two would be permanent. They were to be disappointed.

It was a decision Crump came to regret bitterly, as he and Governor Browning soon fell out. Worse still, Browning made an all-out assault against the Shelby County machine. The injured relations between Senator McKellar and Crump were soon healed when the Memphis Boss had to beg his friend for aid in the fight against Browning.

Jim Nance McCord had first been elected governor in 1944 while the McKellar – Crump alliance was at its peak. McCord had been elected to Congress in 1942 and had faced no opposition in either the Democratic primary or the general election. When he ran for governor in 1944, he faced only token opposition from W. Rex Manning and the eccentric Dr. John R. Neal who was a habitual candidate for office. Reelected in 1946, McCord had faced Gordon Browning, who allowed his name to be entered in the primary, but remained in Europe in the armed services.

By 1948, Gordon Browning had returned to his home in Huntingdon and his seat as Chancellor of the Eighth Judicial District. A veteran of some of Tennessee’s bloodiest political wars, Browning realized McCord was vulnerable and he was running in earnest.

Jim Nance McCord and Gordon Browning were different in temperament and style. McCord had been one of eleven children and had become a successful businessman and professional auctioneer. Governor McCord was often referred to as a “smooth talker” because of his voice, which had made him one of the most sought after auctioneers anywhere. McCord was also highly sought after as a speaker at events, dinners, and commencements. Sixty-nine years old in 1948, Jim McCord was balding, affable and yet dignified.

While he was dignified, McCord was somewhat informal. He was quick to point out his name was not “James”, but rather “Jim.”

“That’s what I was christened – – – after an old family friend – – – and Jim it is,” the governor said.

Both Gordon Browning and Jim McCord had been married for decades and neither had children. Vera McCord and Ida Browning were retiring women, quite content to leave politics to their respective husbands.

Few politicians enjoyed campaigning as much as Gordon Browning. The former governor relished the oratory, crowds, and mixing that came along with campaigning. Tending more toward an expanding waistline, Browning could easily devour several plates of fried fish, barbecued beef or pork or even raccoon. Frequently impetuous and oftentimes tempestuous, Gordon Browning began the 1948 with high name recognition and the strong support of the Nashville Tennessean.

Tennessean publisher Silliman Evans had been frustrated for years by the McKellar – Crump axis and his newspaper was usually the most critical voice in Tennessee against the senator and the Memphis Boss. Evans was supporting Browning and Congressman Estes Kefauver in his senatorial bid. Clearly, Evans liked the idea of replacing McKellar and Crump as the “kingmaker” in Tennessee politics.

Governor McCord had convinced the legislature to institute a two-cent sales tax, 70% of which was dedicated to education. Following the adoption of a state sales tax, school children in Tennessee would receive free textbooks. The benefits of the sales tax would become the centerpiece of McCord’s campaign for a third two-year term.

70% of the sales tax revenue was earmarked for education; 12.5% was dedicated for municipalities in Tennessee; 10% for welfare; 5% was allocated to retire the debt of building bonds, with remaining 2.5% going to administration of state government.

During both his administrations, Governor Jim McCord had steered much larger appropriations for schools, welfare and state agencies. The governor’s biggest hurdle to overcome inside the state legislature was not the idea of imposing a sales tax, but beating back a strong bid by some rural legislators who wanted a 3% tax with the extra 1% to be allocated for Tennessee counties. McCord finally negotiated a compromise with the rural legislators, which gave counties 80% of revenue collected over a certain dollar amount.

Speculation had been rife all over the state about the candidates and the alliances between campaigns and candidates. For years, McKellar and Crump had offered a ticket to Tennessee voters, with the candidates running a “coalition” campaign. Crump’s decision not to support Senator Tom Stewart for reelection ended coalition tickets. Newspapers were admitting even politically minded folks were confused. Ellis Binkley, a newspaper writer in Nashville, declared in an article published on January 13, 1948, “State Politics Appears In ‘State of Confusion’.”

Binkley reported newspaper editors and reporters gathering for their annual winter meeting were having difficulty understanding the political situation. Crump’s decision to back an unknown Circuit Court judge for the United States Senate puzzled them. The fact Senator Stewart refused to step aside puzzled them even more. Congressman Kefauver’s entry into the Senate race caused some to believe 1948 would be the year the McKellar – Crump domination of Tennessee politics would finally be broken. Another point of confusion for professional political observers was the fact Judge John A. Mitchell had evidently declared his own personal political support for Gordon Browning for governor. Both Senator McKellar and Crump were steadfastly supporting Governor McCord. The most logical alliance was one between Gordon Browning and Estes Kefauver, they concluded. And indeed it was. Both Browning and Kefauver would campaign as critics of E. H. Crump.

When asked if there was to be a coalition ticket, McCord replied, “I am running for governor.”

Governor McCord made his reelection bid official on April 24, 1948. The governor felt he could wage his campaign in sixty days, which he considered to be “ample time”, yet McCord said he had been pressed by so many friends he felt it necessary to go ahead and announce his candidacy.

Alluding to the sales tax increase, McCord said, “Tennessee has inaugurated the most magnificent educational program in its history, and in the interest and for the protection of the school children of Tennessee I dedicate whatever ability I have to a program that will give Tennessee’s children an opportunity equal or better than those of any other children of the 48 states.”

The governor added, “To this end I shall advocate the retention of the two per cent sales tax that has made this program possible.”

McCord had difficulty convincing Ed Crump to go along with instituting a sales tax in Tennessee. Governor Hill McAlister proposed a sales tax to help an ailing budget while Tennessee was mired in the Great Depression. Crump had bitterly objected, snarling that Governor McAlister had “kept the sales tax hidden in his stony heart and tried in a sneaking way to put it over us.” McAlister, Crump declared, was Tennessee’s “sorriest governor.”

McCord was able to persuade the Memphis Boss to support the sales tax and it was clear Crump and the Shelby County machine intended to go all out for the governor.

Governor McCord promised to continue to administer state government as he had for the previous four years and from Memphis came the ringing endorsement of E. H. Crump.

“He’ll bring home the pork chops,” Crump crowed.

Governor McCord’s announcement he would be a candidate was likely hastened by Gordon Browning’s own declaration of candidacy. Browning announced on Sunday, March 21, 1948 that he would actively campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

As politicians always do, Browning insisted he was responding to “widespread and persistent urging that I make my political intentions known.”

The former governor pointedly said Tennesseans were profoundly “tired of domination from one source in Tennessee.”

Browning, who had represented a West Tennessee district in Congress for twelve years and had always run well in Middle Tennessee, had selected an East Tennessean with a famous name as his statewide campaign manager. Robert L. Taylor, son of the late Republican governor Alf Taylor, of Johnson City, would run Browning’s comeback bid. Taylor also happened to be the law partner of former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Thad A. Cox, who was especially close to Senator McKellar.

Governor McCord quickly told reporters he had been quite pleased with the reaction his own announcement had gotten from voters. McCord said it was “very gratifying.” The governor revealed his office had been flooded with telegrams, letters and telephone calls from those who were happy he was running again.

Another entrant joined the gubernatorial campaign, James N. Hardin of Greeneville. Hardin campaigned strenuously, especially in the last part of the gubernatorial campaign, but he was never a factor in the race. Hardin would carry only his native county of Greene in the Democratic primary.

Gordon Browning began touring the state and spared the Memphis Boss not at all. Speaking in Blountville, Browning invited his listeners to join him in his “great crusade to end dictatorship in Tennessee and move the capitol from Memphis back to Nashville, where it belongs.”

Browning bragged on his achievements during his previous service as governor and bellowed, “I am willing to stand or fall on the record I made before.”

The former governor scoffed that Jim McCord had tried to enlist him to join the administration.

“I refused to jump on his bandwagon,” Browning snapped, “because I do not choose to ride a hearse. They are going in one direction – – – I’m going in another.”

Browning stressed his theme that Governor McCord was merely the puppet of Ed Crump.

“He can’t draw a breath unless he gets permission from the dictator in Memphis,” Browning huffed.

Gordon Browning described his tumultuous first administration in a far different light than most of Tennessee’s press had depicted ten years earlier.

Browning said his administration had a solid record of “progress in human advancement and economic stability for the State of Tennessee.”

The former governor did cite a real accomplishment in having reorganized Tennessee’s debt, which he said ended the way the state was spending money in a haphazard fashion.

Browning expanded on McCord’s funding of education, saying there should be a retirement system for teachers, more generous base pay and confessed educators had been virtually starved before the introduction of the sales tax.

Gordon Browning hit Governor McCord’s road building program, snorting, “At the rate the present government in Tennessee is going, it will take 50 years before an all weather rural road system is completed in the state.”

At the end of his speech, Mrs. Sidney Whitaker of Bristol, approached the former governor and presented Browning with a bouquet of roses. The veteran politician quickly thanked Mrs. Whitaker and loudly announced he wished the roses to be placed on the grave of a veteran who had sacrificed his life on a foreign battlefield. It would serve as a reminder, Browning said, of “the youth who gave up their lives to preserve the progress and growth of mankind.”

Jim McCord had a real fight on his hands.

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