Remembering Jake Butcher
By Ray Hill
For those wanting an opportunity to bask in the limelight, it would be well to remember the glare burns far more frequently than it shines. That thought was rekindled yet again in my mind with the passing of Jake Butcher. Media across Tennessee have recounted Butcher’s public career; his time as twice candidate for governor, as well as a banker.
My own experience with Jake Butcher came not with campaigns, finance or politics. Jake and I became friends due to my column in the Knoxville Focus. The first time I received an email lauding a particular column signed ‘Jake Butcher’, I thought someone was playing a practical joke. That first email was polite, but slightly reserved as if the writer was not entirely sure of precisely what sort of response he might receive. I replied in kind and soon enough another arrived from Jake. Emails led to conversations and Jake and I had planned to have lunch when he was in Knoxville next, but something came up on his part and we promised to reschedule. We kept up our emails and conversations and I was startled at the details Jake noticed in a particular column, nor was his interest confined to Tennessee; he had a serious interest in people, places and history.
Reflecting upon his passing, I have yet to see any reminders just how very close he came to winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1974. There were a plethora of serious Democratic candidates that year, all vying for the nomination. Ray Blanton, a former congressman who had been the nominee for the U. S. Senate against Howard Baker in 1972, was running, as was Hudley Crockett, a former newsman and one-time press secretary to Governor Buford Ellington, who had run Senator Albert Gore a close race for renomination in 1970. Former congressman and U. S. senator Ross Bass was making a quixotic bid for the gubernatorial nomination, as was Stan Snodgrass, who had lost to John Jay Hooker in 1970. Tom Wiseman, a former state legislator and Tennessee’s State Treasurer, was a candidate along with several others. Nor was Jake Butcher the only financier seeking the Democratic nomination; most have forgotten Chattanooga entrepreneur Franklin Haney ran hard that year. Many folks have also forgotten Jake Butcher only just barely lost to Ray Blanton. Blanton managed to eke out the narrowest of victories, beating Butcher by just over 16,000 votes to win the Democratic nomination for governor. Blanton won the nomination with less than 23% of the votes cast in the Democratic primary, while Jake Butcher was a close second with just over 20%. 1974 was a notoriously bad year for Republicans following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, and Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Republican candidates fared poorly and Ray Blanton beat Lamar Alexander, making his first bid for public office, decisively. One can easily make a compelling case that had Jake Butcher won the gubernatorial nomination in 1974, he would have become governor instead of Ray Blanton. Butcher made a strong bid despite coming from East Tennessee, where most folks voted Republican. Blanton had the good fortune to come from West Tennessee, which was then more Democratic. Such are the little “what ifs” of history that make such fun topics for contemplation and discussion.
Jake Butcher ran again and few people recall he beat two serious and respected candidates inside the Democratic primary. Butcher won almost 41% of the vote against Bob Clement and former congressman and Nashville mayor Richard Fulton in 1978. Butcher’s impressive victory in the primary and ample financing made him the frontrunner against Lamar Alexander who was running again as the GOP nominee in the general election. Many were stunned when Alexander won with more than 55% of the vote.
Jake Butcher resumed his banking interests and remained an important figure in Knoxville’s local politics, Tennessee’s Democratic party as well as the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Jake Butcher’s fall was as spectacular as was his rise to the top. Jake was able to put his life back together again after that fall and it seems to me one has to have a strong will and perhaps even greater faith to be able to do that. Jake Butcher seemed always ready to make a new friend and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from him and visiting with him by telephone. I was always interested in his observations and shared his love of history.
When I stopped hearing from Jake, I knew something was wrong and recently I heard he wasn’t doing any too well. I will always deeply regret we didn’t get around to having that lunch together.