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Blanton, (Leonard) Ray

Blanton, (Leonard) Ray

(b. 10 April 1930 in Hardin County, Tennessee; d. 22 November 1996 in Jackson, Tennessee), governor of Tennessee (1975–1979) whose scandal plagued administration led to his conviction on criminal charges of conspiracy to sell liquor licenses to his friends.

Blanton was born on a farm in western Tennessee, the second of three children of Leonard A. Blanton and Ora Delaney Blanton, who were sharecroppers. Despite the family’s Great Depression—era poverty, Blanton always recalled a happy upbringing. The Blantons bettered their lot in the late 1930s by acquiring a small farm of their own. Book learning was not a priority of families in these circumstances, but Blanton was a good student and won a Danforth Foundation Award for outstanding scholarship at Old Shiloh High School. He earned a degree in agriculture at the University of Tennessee and taught this subject for a few years at a high school in Indiana.

In 1949, while still an undergraduate, he married Betty Littlefield, his high-school sweetheart. During his years away from home, Blanton’s father and younger brother, Gene, borrowed enough money to start a roadbuilding company in nearby Adamsville. The business thrived, and Blanton decided to leave teaching and join the family enterprise. The construction business in Tennessee in those years was riddled with corrupt practices including bid rigging and political kickbacks. This way of life was bred into the Blanton brothers as their route to realizing financial success and stature in their community. Blanton’s father was elected mayor of Adamsville, and, from their humble beginnings, the Blanton family became one of the most prominent in the community. However, Ray Blanton and his wife and children lived for the next decade in a mobile home, traveling from one job site to another.

In 1964 the incumbent state representative for the Adamsville district did not stand for reelection. Urged by a number of people to run, Blanton agreed, easily winning the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to election. Two years later he opted for a tougher race, for the U.S. House of Representatives. The incumbent was a popular twelve-term veteran and dean of the Tennessee delegation. Blanton and his family spent the summer of 1966 on a bus, traveling from town to town, shaking hands and talking to voters one-on-one. Although tending to stoutness, the dark-haired Blanton was a good-looking man when he smiled. Unfortunately, his distaste for the media usually induced the scowl that many people recall from news photographs and television interviews. With strong financial backing from his family and from various business groups, Blanton pulled off a startling upset victory, winning by barely three hundred votes. He also faced an unusually strong opponent in the general election, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, who had public support and financial backing. Again, he won narrowly.

Blanton’s record of his three terms in Congress reflected the conservative rural attitudes of the district he represented. He worked successfully for major industrial development in farm areas and job training for Vietnam veterans. He opposed busing for racial balance and, in general, was not responsive to the concerns of black voters. Blanton believed in staying in touch with his district, mandating to his staff that constituent mail be answered within twenty-four hours. In 1972 Blanton took on another uphill race. He ran for the U.S. Senate, opposing the Republican senator Howard Baker. This time, he suffered a stinging defeat, losing by 300,000 votes, in part because he was unable to muster the black support normally available to a Democratic candidate. However, the race gave him statewide name recognition and resulted in a campaign organization that could be called upon again.

In 1974, after the Republican Party had been devastated by the Watergate scandal in Washington, D.C., Blanton ran for governor, defeating eleven other candidates in the Democratic primary. Facing the Republican Lamar Alexander in the general election, Blanton successfully linked Alexander to President Richard Nixon and Watergate and won by a handy margin. Soon after his inauguration, Ray Blanton learned that a political career cannot be run the same way as a small-town construction company. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began an investigation following allegations that he had violated campaign finance laws during his run against Howard Baker.

Blanton named advisory committees in all ninety-five Tennessee counties; critics immediately derided these committees as nothing more than old-fashioned patronage conduits. Media reports surfaced of other questionable activities including state purchasing irregularities involving a firm owned by Blanton’s family. In December 1975 Republicans began an investigation in the hope of garnering enough evidence to impeach Blanton. The most notorious scandal of the Blanton administration involved the sale of pardons and sentence commutations for prisoners. Two of Blanton’s aides were found guilty of these charges as well as illegally selling surplus state property.

Blanton declined to run for reelection, citing family reasons, but concerns about his honesty had discredited him as a public official. In his final days in office, he scandalized the state by pardoning fifty-two inmates, including convicted murderers. Governor-elect Lamar Alexander was sworn into office three days early at the behest of federal officials hoping to head off further pardons and commutations. Throughout, Blanton denied any wrongdoing.

In 1981 Blanton was convicted on federal charges of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion. He spent twenty-two months in prison from 1984 to 1986. He devoted the rest of his life to trying to clear his name by getting the convictions overturned. In 1988 he was successful in getting the mail fraud conviction reversed. After his release from prison, Blanton became a radio commentator for a time and later sold prefabricated metal buildings and used cars and trucks. Long rumored to be an alcoholic, Blanton died of liver disease while awaiting a liver transplant. He is buried in Shiloh Church Cemetery in Shiloh National Park, Tennessee.

Blanton’s achievements as governor are frequently overshadowed by the scandals that flourished during his administration. However, he did succeed in extending civil-service protection to state workers, raised the state Department of Tourism to a cabinet-level agency, and encouraged foreign business investments in Tennessee, paving the way for the Nissan Motor Company of Japan to open an assembly plant for light trucks in Tennessee in 1980. By most accounts, Blanton was an able administrator with a warm personality. But the clannishness bred into him during his small-town upbringing made him suspicious of those outside his circle and unable to say no to those within it.

The seamier aspects of the Blanton administration are detailed in Peter Maas’s MarieA True Story (1983), which was the basis for a 1985 motion picture of the same name starring Sissy Spacek, and FBI Code Name TENNPAR by former FBI agent Hank Hillin (1985). Blanton’s record in Congress is analyzed by Richard Sandier in “Ray Blanton, Democratic Representative from Tennessee” (1972), a part of the Ralph Nader Congress Project Citizens look at Congress. Extensive coverage of Blanton’s years as governor appeared in Tennessee newspapers, notably the Nashville Tennessean and Memphis Commercial Appeal. An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Nov. 1996).

Natalie B. Jalenak

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