Hill McAlister had finally achieved his dream of serving as governor of Tennessee after two hard fought failed campaigns. The descendant of two governors, McAlister had run a strong race against incumbent Austin Peay when the latter was seeking a third two-year term in 1926. Peay had died suddenly in 1927 and McAlister ran again in 1928 against Henry Horton, who had succeeded to the governorship when Peay died. Once again, it was a bitter and close campaign, but Horton won narrowly.
McAlister had tried a third time in 1932 when Governor Horton was discredited and highly unpopular; in fact, Horton had only barely survived being impeached after the fall of Caldwell and Company just after the 1930 election. Caldwell and Company held almost $7 million in state funds, which were lost after the banking empire collapsed. Rogers Caldwell had very close personal and business ties to Luke Lea, former U. S. senator and owner of a publishing empire that extended across the State of Tennessee. Lea was rightly considered by many to be the power behind the throne in the Horton administration and the fall of the House of Caldwell ruined both men, personally and politically.
McAlister enjoyed backing from Tennessee’s senior United States senator, Kenneth D. McKellar, as well as McKellar’s political partner, E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political organization in each of his campaigns. McKellar was personally closer to Governor McAlister; as a member of the state legislature, McAlister had strongly backed McKellar to serve in the U. S. Senate. McAlister had also enjoyed the support of another effective political machine, that headed by Nashville Mayor Hilary Howse.
The Memphis Boss had no real personal ties to the governor, nor did he especially esteem his ability. By 1936, Tennessee was still in the throes of the Great Depression and the state’s finances were hurting. As a remedy to Tennessee’s financial woes, Governor McAlister had proposed a sales tax, which was anathema to Crump. The Memphis Boss immediately broke with Governor McAlister.
McAlister had wanted to seek a third two-year term, but the Memphis Boss was adamant in refusing to support the governor for reelection, although Senator McKellar was quite willing to back the governor for yet another term. McKellar attempted to change the Memphis Boss’s mind, but was unsuccessful. McAlister was, Crump snapped, “Tennessee’s sorriest governor,”
When it became clear McAlister would not be a candidate again, McKellar began considering other possible candidates. The McKellar – Crump alliance had consolidated its dominion over Tennessee politics, but the Memphis Boss had little to say about the coming gubernatorial race.
It was readily apparent Gordon Browning was off and running for the Democratic nomination. Browning had served twelve years in Congress and had considered running against McKellar in 1934. Senator McKellar proved to be too formidable a figure to challenge and Browning later admitted he could not secure a single commitment of support from an influential individual in Tennessee. His senatorial ambitions, however, burned brightly and he resolved to run for Tennessee’s other senate seat. Nathan L. Bachman of Chattanooga had been appointed to the United States Senate in 1933 following Cordell Hull’s resignation to serve as Secretary of State in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Bachman had sought election to the United States Senate in 1924 and run a poor third and seemed to be an inviting target for a serious challenge inside the Democratic primary.
Browning ran an aggressive campaign to defeat Bachman and complained that the junior senator’s own campaign seemed to be run out of McKellar’s Washington office. Bachman had the full support of his senior colleague and won comfortably, although Browning made a credible race of it.
Despite having lost the primary election to Senator Bachman, Browning had established a statewide organization for himself during his unsuccessful campaign, as well as having considerably increased his name recognition amongst the voters.
It was Senator McKellar who settled upon the candidate to oppose Browning: Burgin Dossett. Dossett was from Jacksboro, Tennessee and had been the Superintendent of Education for his native Campbell County. The McAlister administration moved behind Dossett’s candidacy, yet E. H. Crump made it quite clear he had not agreed to support any candidate.
Gordon Browning was an old-fashioned orator and excelled in not only speaking from the courthouse steps and improvised platforms, but was excellent at meeting and greeting prospective voters. Browning, a veteran of World War I, had strong support from veteran’s organizations, many of whom had supported him against Senator Bachman in 1934.
Browning was an expert in the art of invective and was a colorful speaker at a time when there were no slick campaign commercials designed after extensive polling. Browning shrewdly tried to turn the McAlister administration’s support of Dossett into a liability rather than an asset.
The former Congressman told audiences that “the people of Tennessee are paying the campaign expense of Burgin E. Dossett.”
Browning admitted “they may not know it, and they are certainly doing it unwillingly, but before this race is ended it will cost a million dollars to defeat that crowd.”
Gordon Browning was quick to point out he was opposed to a sales tax, a stand Burgin Dossett assumed himself, yet there were few informed people in Tennessee who did not realize Governor McAlister had been all too willing to ask the legislature to impose just such a tax.
Browning delighted crowds who came to hear him speak with his denunciation of the McAlister administration and the state employees who were allegedly working hard on Burgin Dossett’s behalf. Browning described lazy state employees who used state owned automobiles and other property to campaign for his opponent.
Browning was usually cheered lustily when he thundered, “I am going to put them out when I am elected governor!”
Two years later when he sought reelection, Gordon Browning would be charged with utilizing state employees on his own behalf.
Both Gordon Browning and Burgin Dossett praised the Tennessee Valley Authority and pledged to do whatever they could to help it along. Yet, Browning scoffed that Dossett was attempting to ride into the governor’s mansion by firmly grasping Franklin D. Roosevelt’s shirttail.
Browning told audiences Dossett “has done everything but claim to be Roosevelt’s daddy.”
“I’m expecting him to do that next,” Browning added.
Gordon Browning drew laughter from folks when he told the story of the fly who “rode on the chariot wheel in the fable of old. That fly looked down the road and said, ‘Look at the dust we are raising.’”
There were rumblings, many of them hopeful, that Senator McKellar and E.H. Crump had parted company in the gubernatorial race. While McKellar had not made an open endorsement of Burgin Dossett by early summer, Bert Bates had come out for Dossett. Bates was McKellar’s appointee to serve as the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Tennessee. Bates was very close to the senator personally, but he was positively loathed by Crump.
McKellar had appointed Bates to office over the strenuous objections of the Memphis Boss. Bates’ endorsement of Burgin Dossett was thought by many to be a prelude to a similar endorsement by Senator McKellar.
Many of McKellar’s appointees followed suit or were working to elect Burgin Dossett.
Dossett opened up a line of attack charging Browning, despite his public utterances, was not fully committed to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
- H. Crump waited until July 18, 1936 before releasing a statement that changed the nature of the gubernatorial campaign. Crump gave his own endorsement to Gordon Browning. It was an announcement that stunned just about everyone.
The Memphis Boss pointed out he had served in Congress with Browning and found him to be a “fine, high-minded, upstanding man…” The Memphis Boss defended Browning’s record on the Tennessee Valley Authority, noting they had almost identical voting records on the issue.
They were words Crump would later bitterly rue, as he soon fell out with Gordon Browning and the two men would engage in one of the fiercest political brawls in the annals of Tennessee’s political history.
Crump’s endorsement was followed by similar endorsements by Mayor Hillary Howse of Nashville and George L. Berry, president of the Pressmen’s Union. Howse headed a potent political machine of his own in Davidson County. Berry was closely associated with the national union movement, as well the Roosevelt administration.
Burgin Dossett replied to Crump while campaigning, saying he did not regret getting “down on my knees” to beg for Crump’s support and pointed out the Memphis Boss had strongly supported Governor Henry Horton in 1930 and then turned around and urged his impeachment. Dossett reminded voters that Crump had turned against Governor McAlister, whom he had supported no less than four times. Dossett picked up his attacks on Browning’s record on the Tennessee Valley Authority while serving in Congress. Dossett said, not without justification, Browning was tied to the predatory private power interests.
As the campaign wound down to its close, Dossett cried, “No fair, honest, and just governor, who has the interest of the common man at heart, can please Crump.”
Crump certainly pleased Gordon Browning when the election returns from Shelby County came rolling in like a tide. 60,208 votes were tallied for Browning, compared to a paltry 861 for Burgin Dossett. Still Browning would have won without the vote from Shelby County, winning 243,463 votes to 109,170 for Dossett. Even without the huge vote from Shelby County, Gordon Browning would have won the Democratic nomination for governor.
At least one Nashville newspaper opined that E. H. Crump had supported Gordon Browning to make a point to Senator McKellar that it was Crump who ruled in Shelby County. 1936 was pretty much the nadir of Kenneth McKellar’s long political career and for many, the gubernatorial election that year demonstrated that Crump could elect his favorite in a statewide election. That notion was little more than a myth, but it persisted and some relegated Senator McKellar to the role of merely Crump’s lieutenant, which was not at all true.
It took only some five months before Governor Browning and E. H. Crump had an acrimonious falling out. Senator McKellar, who rightly believed Browning intended to win reelection as governor in 1938 and challenge him for reelection in 1940, prodded Crump’s misgivings about Gordon Browning, and would find himself closer to Crump than ever by 1938.
- H. Crump, who had so lavishly praised Gordon Browning in 1936, would denounce him in the bitterest terms in 1938. The 1938 gubernatorial and senatorial elections in Tennessee would prove to be one of the hardest fought political contests in the state’s history.
Burgin Dossett would go on to serve with distinction as Commissioner of Education in the administration of Governor Jim Nance McCord, as well as the beloved president of East Tennessee State University.
Gordon Browning would remain a towering figure in Tennessee politics for almost two decades.