The Unknown Congressman

The Unknown Congressman

Tom Murray of Tennessee

By Ray Hill

Lest anyone believes being elected to Congress is glamorous and allows one to bask in the limelight of attention by the press and the public, there are far more congressmen slogging through the daily chores that make up a congressman’s day.  Even today one only has to listen carefully to a telephone townhall, like that sponsored by our own congressman, Tim Burchett, and one will hear a myriad of complaints and problems that have little or nothing to do with the federal government.  Oftentimes, congressmen become indispensable to their constituents merely for being willing to help on any given matter, large or small.  A willingness to listen and point one in the right direction usually goes a long way.

Thomas Jefferson Murray of Jackson, Tennessee was one who listened and was always willing to help.  For twenty-four years, Tom Murray was the congressman from Tennessee’s Seventh or Eighth Congressional District.  Murray came from a politically prominent family and his brother David was a colorful local district attorney for an astonishing forty-seven years before he retired in 1977.  Tom Murray’s nephew Roger was a highly respected state legislator who eventually ran for governor.

Short and pudgy with a full head of white hair, Tom Murray has to be one of the least photographed members of Congress in history; locating a photo of Murray is nigh unto impossible, but the congressman, unlike many of his peers, did not have a press agent on his staff.  Congressman Murray had a miniscule staff, especially when compared to those of his colleagues.  Even while he served as the chairman of the House Post Office Committee, Tom Murray’s staff was very small.  Murray employed Jack Woodall as his district director and the congressman’s primary assistant in his Washington, D. C. office was Mrs. Sara Ward, who had gone to work for the congressman in 1953 following the defeat of U. S. senator Kenneth McKellar.  Mrs. Ward had worked for decades for Senator McKellar and had been the senator’s personal secretary.

Murray had been in the U. S. Army during World War I, but was always careful to point out, he had not seen any combat.  After his discharge, Tom Murray hurried home to Jackson where he established a law practice.  In 1923, Murray became district attorney for the 12th judicial district and served until his resignation in 1933.  Murray would be succeeded in office by his brother, David.  Tom Murray’s service as district attorney did not apparently preclude his involvement in local politics, as he was also the Chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party from 1924 until 1933.  Murray had resigned as district attorney to accept a federal appointment arranged for him by Senator K. D. McKellar as an attorney in the Solicitor’s office in the Post Office Department.

Murray was a federal employee before the passage and implementation of the Hatch Act and was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1928, 1932, and 1936.  The congressman from Tennessee’s Seventh District was Herron Pearson, first elected in 1934.

Murray announced his candidacy for Congress in 1942 just hours before Congressman Pearson revealed he would not be a candidate for reelection.  Either Tom Murray had information the incumbent would not run again, or he intended to challenge Pearson inside the Democratic primary.  Joe Hatcher, political columnist for the Nashville Tennessean, wrote Murray had been talking about running for Congress for some years and Pearson decided he did not care to undertake a hard fought and costly primary battle.  Evidently Herron Pearson was never all that impressed by being a Member of Congress and, according to Joe Hatcher, had told friends should it become necessary for him to have to fight to keep his seat in the House of Representatives, he would rather go home and practice law.  Hatcher wrote that Pearson was “well-to-do” and had given up one of the largest law practices in his region of the state to serve in Congress.  Nor did Herron Pearson really have the kind of personality that served most congressmen well; Pearson was “quiet and rather retiring” although he was “a serious and earnest worker at his job.”  Herron Pearson had once served as the city judge for Jackson, Tennessee and had the kind of personality that made a very good jurist.

Although Joe Hatcher opined there was little doubt Herron Pearson could hold his seat despite an onslaught from Tom Murray, “backed by the Crump-McKellar and state administration forces”, it made little difference in light of Pearson’s announcement he was leaving Congress at the expiration of his term of office.

S. “Scott” Daniel, who had been secretary (Chief of Staff) to Congressman Pearson, announced he would oppose Tom Murray for Congress. As the Democratic primary approached in August of 1942, Murray announced he would spend the last of the campaign at his headquarters in Jackson.

The Eighth Congressional District was then comprised of eleven counties and Scott Daniel, a resident of Paris, Tennessee, carried his native Henry County and one other; everything else went to Tom Murray.  Murray won by a two-to-one margin over Daniel while a third candidate won just over 1,000 votes district-wide.

The Nashville Tennessean lamented the election of Tom Murray that November, claiming the congressman-elect was “a McKellar man through-and-through.”

For the next twenty-four years, Tom Murray would easily win reelection from his West Tennessee district.  A bachelor, Murray spent virtually all of his time tending to the needs of the people of his district.  Locally, Murray became known for his activities while Congress was out of session.   Decades later, the Jackson Sun wrote Tom Murray was “about as familiar a figure as a town could have as he seated himself daily on a park bench in front of his brother’s offices on Baltimore Street” when not in Washington, D. C.  The Sun thought Murray sitting on a park bench in front of his brother’s office was “more meaningful than casual.”  The newspaper thought it was “an index to the man’s personality and character and a symbol of his approachability as his constituents’ representative in Congress.”

The key to Tom Murray’s political success, at least, in the opinion of the Jackson Sun, was the congressman’s “amiability, straightforwardness and concern for the district” that kept him in Congress.

Tom Murray, perched upon the park bench “was an inviting and highly successful spot to talk about whatever people do talk about with Congressmen, or simply to ask about the folks or otherwise brings things up-to-date.”

Murray was an old-fashioned Democrat and in later years critics like the Nashville Tennessean would lament the congressman’s inherent conservatism.  The Sun believed Tom Murray remained in Congress precisely because he was conservative and opposed “extremism” and fought for economy in government instead of backing “extravagant” programs.”  Murray had oftentimes frustrated his colleagues, most of whom had families to support, by routinely opposing pay raises for congressmen, but it had suited the folks back home just fine.  The parsimonious Murray could live in a hotel or apartment in Washington and get by, while living in the family home when he returned to Jackson.

Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization, complained Murray had voted “wrong” in 11 out of 12 votes it used to rank members of Congress.  One other member of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation matched Murray’s conservative record: B. Carroll Reece, a Republican representing upper East Tennessee.  The ADA huffed Congressman Murray was a “right-wing” member of the Democratic Party.  The previous year, Murray had earned a perfect score from the ADA, voting “wrong” every time on nine recorded votes.  Murray’s hometown newspaper, the Jackson Sun, opined that while the ADA might think Murray’s votes were wrong, the people in the congressman’s district most certainly thought he had voted quite right.  The Sun boasted Tom Murray “is a true liberal, a true American, a true exponent of the ideals of the people he represents in the Congress.”  It was a valid point, like most congressmen who stay in office for a lengthy period time, Tom Murray largely reflected the views and opinions of a great majority of the people he represented.

Tom Murray never really changed with the times; the congressman had represented a largely rural and agricultural district and kept in touch through the mails and was accessible to those who wished to see him either in Washington or Jackson.  Yet Congressman Murray was not immune to time and as he got older, he became more frail.  The first sign of Murray’s vulnerability at the ballot box occurred in 1964.  Murray had opposition inside the Democratic primary, but beat challenger W. K. Brooks soundly, winning quite nearly 75% of the vote.  It was the general election that was a shock, as Republican Julius W. Hurst won almost 37% of the vote, while an Independent candidate polled quite nearly 10%.  Congressman Tom Murray won in a strongly Democratic year under 54% of the ballots cast.

It is usually a sign an aging incumbent is politically vulnerable and it was generally acknowledged Congressman Murray was not as effective as he had once been.  Murray was fortunate to have an excellent staff, small though it might be.   Mrs. Ward, a veteran of congressional service, kept the Washington office functioning smoothly.  Tom Murray was also plagued by an affinity for alcohol, which further diminished his effectiveness.

For those who thought Murray might opt to retire at age seventy-two, they were sorely disappointed.  When journalists inquired why the congressman had not announced whether he would be a candidate for reelection, a cantankerous Tom Murray snapped he was “always running” so he never needed to make an official announcement of candidacy.  Murray would run yet again.

Congressman Tom Murray was challenged by three serious opponents in the Democratic primary in 1966.  Worse still, redistricting added several thousand new voters from Shelby County to his largely rural district.  That would make the difference in victory and defeat for Tom Murray who remained in Washington during the campaign.  The congressman relied upon family and friends to wage his reelection campaign against Ray Blanton, a state representative from McNairy County, and Henry Sutton and Jack McNeil, candidates with an electoral base in the Shelby County portion of the district.

Murray carried six of the eleven counties comprising what was then the Seventh Congressional district.  Murray’s margins were much diminished in many of the counties where he had once been unbeatable, but the congressman ran a very poor fourth in the Shelby County portion of the redrawn district.

The Jackson Sun published an editorial noting the passing of the former congressman in 1971 pointing out Tom Murray had never lost inside the confines of his own congressional district.  “Although he was beaten by a bare margin of 384 votes (half of one percent) in the 1966 Democratic primary by Ray Blanton, Mr. Murray had a lead six times that large in the counties which had been in his district during the 12 terms he served.”  The Sun lamented it had been the congressman’s “fourth place finish in Shelby County” that had ended “a long and distinguished career.”  The Sun readily confessed Tom Murray’s health and “physical condition” had effectively “prevented his taking part in an active campaign” for reelection in 1966.

Murray’s successor in Congress, Ray Blanton, eulogized his predecessor as “one of Tennessee’s foremost legislators and one of the most powerful figures in Washington for a number of years.”  Blanton attended the former congressman’s funeral rites in Jackson.

Dr. Paul J. Lyles, pastor of the First Methodist Church in Jackson, described Tom Murray as a public servant “whose highest joy and greatest good was representing his people.”  Murray “was a man without pretense” and “had a humility approaching shyness,” Lyles said.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Tom Murray and his service to his people was published in the Jackson Sun which believed the congressman had been truly appreciated by his constituents, “And many a man told him so sitting and talking on that bench on Baltimore Street.”

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