Former State Rep. Robert “Bob” Patton, R-Johnson City, has accumulated many stories from his decades in government and politics. He has included those stories, along with similar tales from friends and colleagues, in his new self-published book, “Tennessee Political Fireworks.”
Patton, who served as a Washington County commissioner before being elected to the state General Assembly, spent nearly four years collecting political stories that he hopes will provide insight into what really goes on in the halls of government from the courthouse to the statehouse.
Readers are privy to the insights and remembrances of a number of local public servants, including former Washington County Mayor George Jaynes and former Washington County Commissioner Margaret Lindley, as well as lobbyists and legislators in Nashville. Patton has also found space in his book for stories from former President Bill Clinton, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and former Gov. Don Sundquist.
“I’m pleased with the results for the most part,” Patton told me last week. “The hardest thing about doing this work was getting people to share interesting stories that reveal how politics really work.”
One such story (and one of Patton’s favorites) is found on page 170 and it comes from Wayne Qualls, who served as education commissioner under the late Gov. Ned McWherter. He tells of a conversation McWherter had with a House member from the Upper Cumberland region regarding the governor’s bold education reform package. The legislator said he could not vote for McWherter’s bill because it required school superintendents to be appointed by school boards rather than be elected by voters.
McWherter picked up a model road grader from his desk and asked the reluctant House member if he knew what it was. The representative replied: “Why sure. It’s a grader.” To which the governor said the lawmaker ought to “take a long look at the grader because you will never see another one in your district if you don’t vote for this reform package.”
Qualls said the meeting ended with the House member shaking hands with McWherter and telling him, “Governor, I’m with you all the way.”
Another of Patton’s favorite stories is one of his own and it proves that in politics it really does matter who you know. Patton recalls on page 103 the time his son, then a deputy in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, pulled over a driver for suspicion of drunken driving. The motorist was belligerent and told Patton’s son, Derek, she was a woman of some influence.
“Young man, I know Representative Patton personally and when he hears about this I’m going to have your job,” she said.
One of my favorite stories in Patton’s book comes from Fred Congdon, a former county executive of Unicoi County who now heads the state’s Association of County Mayors, and it demonstrates what happens when you elect county officials with limited imaginations and even duller reading skills. Congdon retells a story from former Carter County Executive Truman Clark about the time back in the 1980s when Clark presided over a memorable meeting of the Carter County Commission. Clark knew some commissioners didn’t bother to read their information packets until the night of the meeting. Such was true on this particular night, which saw commissioners struggling to set a new budget.
One commissioner wanted to know why $400,000 had been included in the new budget for cheerleaders. A surprised Clark responded, “What?” Again, the commissioner said he had found $400,000 designated in the new budget for cheerleaders. Clark asked the commissioner to bring him his copy of the budget and show him what he was talking about.
Clark looked at it and said: “Commissioner, that is the Career Ladder Program.”
I particularly liked a story from state Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, that demonstrates the lengths some of our esteemed public officials will go to play practical jokes on their colleagues.
Montgomery recalls years ago when he and eight other freshmen House members were thrilled to be invited to the governor’s mansion for a fancy dinner. Unbeknownst to them, they had been duped by former Rep. Randy Rinks, D-Savannah, a legendary legislative prankster. Rinks had used some purloined stationary from the governor’s office to trick them to going to the executive residence. When they arrived, they learned the dinner was not a reception for lawmakers but actually a $3,000-a-plate fundraiser for the Republican Party.
“Randy’s joke backfired since the governor had a separate table set up and served us a good meal,” Montgomery remembers.
Copies of “Tennessee Political Fireworks” can be purchased at the East Tennessee State University Bookstore, Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Johnson City and the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. Patton will be signing copies of his book at Barnes & Noble on Aug. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.