Ned Ray McWherter, 1930-2011

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Former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, the sharecropper's son who rose to the heights of political power in Tennessee and became one of the state's most popular lawmakers, has died. He was 80. Jeff Woods has details in the City Paper:

A leader of the cabal of rural West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislature for decades, McWherter was elected the 46th governor of Tennessee in 1986 after serving 14 years as Speaker of the House. ...

As governor for eight years, McWherter reigned over a legislature with lopsided Democratic majorities and routinely won approval of his initiatives with ease.

He enacted the 21st Century Schools education reform program to increase and more fairly distribute school funding across the state. He replaced Medicaid with TennCare, an expanded health insurance program for the poor. TennCare later came under criticism as wasteful and was dismantled but, in McWherter’s time, it was hailed as a model for states trying to provide universal health care.

Under McWherter, Tennessee twice was ranked as the nation’s best fiscally managed state.

McWherter was elected to the state House in 1968. He was elected speaker after only two terms. He helped write the state’s “Sunshine Law” that eventually brought open meetings to the legislature. At that time, he was the longest-serving speaker in state history.

More details as they become available.

UPDATE, 3:43 p.m.: Former U.S. Sen. Harlan Mathews, McWherter's former deputy governor, later appointed by McWherter to fill the seat of newly elected Vice President Al Gore: "I am at a loss for words. Here is a man that gave his entire life for his state, to make it a better place to live. Tennessee has lost the best friend it ever had."

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