Carter County recently lost three of its most dedicated and effective political figures. Haynes Elliott, who served two stints as the county’s economic development director, died late last month. Last weekend, two of his long-time friends — former state Rep. Ralph Cole, R-Elizabethton, and former Elizabethton Mayor Pat “Red” Bowers — also passed away.
Charlie Stahl, an assistant city manager in Johnson City, says the three men all shared a common trait: They truly liked people.
“They were lifelong residents of Carter County, so they understood the history and the needs of the community,” said Stahl, who worked closely with Cole, Bowers and Elliott when he served as city manager of Elizabethton. “Each of them were very much in touch with the community. That’s because they went into local restaurants, churches and businesses to talk to people.”
Elliott was a colorful character who loved to tell stories about his political adventures. And Elliott had a lot of stories to tell. He was an assistant to U.S. Rep. B. Carroll Reece, who later helped get him appointed as head of all U.S. Post Office operations in the Memphis region.
One of Elliott’s favorite sayings came from his days with Reece.
“An informed public is a dangerous public,” he often said.
As economic development director, Elliott brought a number of companies to Carter County largely based on his charm and ability to stretch the truth. He was always quick with joke and a compliment. And I could always count on Haynes for the inside scoop.
“You just leave my name out of it,” he’d tell me.
I got to know Bowers while he was serving on the Elizabethton City Council. Bowers was elected in the “Clean Sweep of City Hall” of 1993. That was the year every incumbent on the council running for re-election was ousted by voters angry with a $3.75 monthly garbage fee they had voted to levy on Elizabethton residents.
Bowers, who promised to repeal the fee, carried a broom with him to campaign events and urged voters to sweep all the incumbents from office. He was elected to office, and true to his word, the new council put an end to the garbage tax. Red would go on to serve 17 years, the longest tenure in the history of the Elizabethton Council.
I knew Ralph Cole the best. He called me friend, and I’m proud to say I felt the same of him. He was a kind and generous man who always treated me with respect. Ralph was a dedicated and professional public servant. Former state Sen. Don Arnold, R-Johnson City, told me last week he was also grateful to have known Ralph as a friend and as an effective representative of his constituents.
“Ralph could stride right into the governor’s office, regardless of who the governor was, and get what he needed,” Arnold said.
It didn’t matter to Cole if the governor was a Republican or a Democrat. Both Cole and his good friend in Congress, the late Jimmy Quillen, were close to the late Gov. Ned McWherter, a Democrat. Ralph also called his Republican successor, former Gov. Don Sundquist, a good friend.
“Ralph followed in the tradition of Jimmy Quillen,” Sundquist told me last week. “There’s something about the honesty of Northeast Tennessee, so he came about it naturally.”
Sundquist said he and Cole worked together on many issues in Nashville, including his efforts to create a “flat tax” in Tennessee. While other Republican lawmakers kept their distance from the governor and his tax reform plan, Cole stuck by his side.
“His word was golden,” Sundquist said. “He was never afraid to do what he thought was right.”
After losing re-election in 2003, Cole went quietly into political retirement. He continued to keep up with his friends through lunches and phone calls. I was fortunate enough to share a few meals with Ralph in recent years to talk about old times in Nashville and to trade political gossip.
I always admired Ralph as a man who was extremely comfortable in his own skin. He always dressed in a blue suit and tie. He never raised his voice, never swore and never let an unkind word about another person slip through his lips.
Ralph was a true gentleman, and I will miss our lunches. My deepest and heartfelt condolences go out to his family, as well as to the families of Pat “Red” Bowers and Haynes Elliott. Carter County has lost three truly great public servants.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.