The chaotic swearing in of a Tenn. governor and how both sides of the aisle came together

Then Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander worked together with the other side of the aisle to protect Tennesseans during a period of scandal in the state’s history.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 7:21 PM EDT|Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 3:28 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Former Gov. Ray Blanton’s term as the 44th governor of Tennessee was anything but ordinary.

Up and coming politician, Lamar Alexander started in Maryville and campaigned across the entire state, with the goal to become Blanton’s successor.

“I literally walked across the state,” he said. “I started in Maryville, walked to Mountain City, turned around in three feet of snow and headed towards Memphis. I got there July the 6th. I walked along the road, waving to people. Some people thought I was nuts, but it helped me get to know people and become a better governor.”

He beat out Jake Butcher, a Democrat from Knoxville, by 100,000 votes. With Blanton not seeking re-election, Alexander had successfully swayed Tennesseans to vote a Republican into office.

During Alexander’s election campaign, Blanton’s actions as governor were catching the attention of the FBI.

Under Codename Tennpar, Special Agents Richard Knudsen and Hank Hillin investigated Blanton’s administration for selling pardons and commutations for cash.

Then United States Attorney Hal Hardin was working with the FBI and had evidence that Blanton was about to release a large number of prisoners who paid cash for their release.

One of the big names suspected to be released was James Earl Ray, the man convicted for assassinating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Alexander’s inauguration was set for Jan. 20, 1979, but just days before, he was in his office writing his acceptance speech when he got a call from Hardin.

“I’m not calling as the U.S. attorney, I’m calling you as a Tennessean and I’ve got some knowledge that I think you need to know,” Hardin told Alexander.

Alexander was Hardin’s best chance to stop what was happening but Alexander wasn’t convinced just yet.

“What I thought was, I’m not going to do that. That’s not the way we do things in our country,” Alexander said. “The most unique thing about our country, about our democracy, is the peaceful transition of power with grace from one party to another.”

That night, Blanton granted executive clemency to another 52 prisoners, including 26 murderers.

“It was a surprising move,” Hardin said. “He did this at midnight and it went national. It was a national story.”

The notion that Ray was going to be set free stood out to Alexander and he decided he couldn’t just sit and watch as more dangerous criminals were released back on the streets of Tennessee.

“So I set about spending the entire afternoon trying to figure out how can we accomplish this coup in the most appropriate way that’s never been done before in our country, so far as I know,” Alexander said.

That Wednesday night, seven men spent hours locked in a hotel room in Downtown Nashville, trying to figure out how Alexander could legally take office early.

“This is the kind of thing where 50 things can go wrong and 49 of them probably will,” Alexander said.

Democrats and Republicans came together for the sake of the citizens of Tennessee.

They worried about the legality of the action and what would happen if how they did it was illegal. That worry was outweighed by the consequences of if they didn’t do it.

“Finally I came to the conclusion and said ‘Look, we can debate this forever but time is running out, we don’t have any time,” Hardin said. “Let’s do it and if we’re wrong, then the courts will tell us we were wrong, and you shouldn’t have done it, and we will take the medicine that way. But let’s go do it and get it over with,’ And that’s what we did.”

On Jan. 17, 1979, Alexander became the 45th governor of the state of Tennessee, three days early.

Later that night, Hardin got the call that made it all worth it. Hardin said the agent told him that there was a stack of commutation papers on Blanton’s desk, waiting to be signed.

“One of the best phone calls I’ve ever received in my life was later on that night. The FBI agent called me from the governor’s office and said you’d be glad to know that those names and what I told you, I’ve got a list of them right here and we were right, spot on. So there wasn’t any question after that.”

Hal Hardin

Blanton was never charged in the cash for clemency scandal, but three of his top aides were arrested in connection to the investigation.

In 1984, Blanton was convicted and served 22 months in prison on charges of mail fraud and extortion for selling liquor licenses.

“It certainly was no fun. For 30 years none of us even talked about it. It was like going to war, you just don’t talk about those things,” Hardin said. “Lamar Alexander and all these Democrats got together and showed that they can work together.”

To this day, no one knows if Blanton was involved in the scheme. In total, he issued pardons and commutations to 650 people, according to a CBS report.

Without the phone call between a citizen of Tennessee and a then-governor elect, that number might have been a lot different.