Ray Blanton

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Ray Blanton

Leonard Ray Blanton (April 10, 1930November 22, 1996) was the 44th governor of Tennessee from 1975 to 1979. He was a Democrat.

Blanton was from Adamsville, Tennessee, and was from a farming family with road-building interests. He had a background as a schoolteacher and he had worked his way through the University of Tennessee. After one term in the Tennessee House of Representatives, he ran for Congress, challenging 12-term incumbent and former Crump machine ally Tom J. Murray in the Democratic primary for the 7th Congressional District, which was based in Jackson and included Adamsville. Blanton defeated Murray in a major upset, a victory that was tantamount to election. He was reelected three times.

Tennessee lost a congressional district after the 11970 census, and the legislature decided to eliminate Blanton's district in time for the 1972 elections. Much of the district, including Blanton's home, was merged with the northwest Tennessee district of fellow Democrat Ed Jones. Jones was very popular in this area and would have probably proven very difficult if not impossible to defeat. At the same time, Senator Howard Baker was running for reelection. Even though he was a heavy favorite, the Democrats needed a serious candidate to oppose him. Blanton sought the Democratic nomination and won, but was heavily defeated in November. It is very unlikely he would have won in any case, given that this was also the year of a massive Republican landslide that saw President Richard Nixon carry 90 of Tennessee's 95 counties. However, this race allowed him to increase his name recognition statewide and make enough friends to run for governor in 1974.

Blanton won a nine-way Democratic primary for governor that year, defeating three well-financed opponents including flamboyant East Tennessee banker Jake Butcher, as well as five also-rans (even this list was somewhat impressive, including a former state treasurer and former state attorney general). He then defeated GOP nominee Lamar Alexander soundly in the November general election, receiving the largest number of popular votes ever achieved in running for a state office in Tennessee to that point, 575,205. Blanton's strongest condemnation of Alexander seemed to be that he had served for a time on the White House staff of former President Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace the previous August; this apparently struck a cord, as did the peception that Alexander was a somewhat distant, upper-class individual (despite Alexander's background as the son of schoolteachers).

Blanton's administration was noted for extensive recruiting of foreign industrial and trade opportunities. Also, it was during his term that the state Office of Tourism was raised to a Cabinet-level position, making Tennessee the first state in the nation to do so. Blanton's administration emphasized equality for women and blacks, tax relief for older and fixed income citizens, and penal reform.

Blanton soon displayed an abrasive style that was interpreted by many as arrogance. He was suspected of playing favorites with his family and other highway contractors. He gained considerable negative attention when he told Carol Marin, then a reporter with Nashville's WSM-TV, that he would not be answering any more "negative" questions. His administration seemed rife with "cronyism", and this became more apparent when Roger Humphries, a convicted double murderer, was pardoned for his crimes and it became public knowledge that his father was a county chairman for Blanton. It was later discovered that members of Blanton's staff were involved in the apparent sale of pardons. Several of them were then convicted of selling pardons, in which Blanton was never charged.

Blanton seemed unphased by any criticism. The Tennessee State Constitution was amended in February, 1978 in such a way as to allow Governor Blanton and future Tennessee governors to succeed themselves, which Blanton showed little apparent interest in doing. In January, 1979, with his term expiring, the State's Pardon Board began to make a series of pardons that seemed to be either the product of sheer politics or open bribery. As the Tennessee State Constitution is somewhat vague on when a new governor must be inaugurated, it was decided to swear in Lamar Alexander, who had been elected his successor, three days early to prevent any further pardons. This was done with the acquiescence, and in fact the assistance, of Lieutenant Governor John S. Wilder and Speaker of the House Ned McWherter, both Democrats, in order to prevent further damage to the state's reputation and its judicial system.

Out of office, Blanton found himself in legal difficulties. He was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, among other law-enforcement agencies. Although never formally charged in the pardons matter, he was eventually indicted on charges of selling liquor licenses. He was convicted and sentenced to federal prison. After serving his sentence he returned to Tennessee and later had most charges against him dropped. Attempting a political comeback in 1988, he ran for Ed Jones' Congressional seat, but lost badly, gaining only seven percent of the vote. He sold used cars for a living and died in obscurity of liver failure in 1996, still proclaiming his innocence.

A portion of the story of the pardons scandal was made into a book, Marie: A True Story by Peter Maas, author of Serpico, and eventually made into a motion picture starring Sissy Spacek. Attorney Fred Thompson launched his acting career in this picture, portraying himself.

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