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The Legacy of Ned McWherterPosted Saturday, October 1, 2011, at 1:52 PM
Governor McWherter will be remembered Saturday at the annual Jackson Day Celebration in Nashville.
This week I want to take a break from my regular column and talk instead about my friend, former Speaker of the House and Governor Ned Ray McWherter. Earlier this year, Tennessee suffered a great loss when Governor McWherter passed on, but this weekend his friends from across the state will gather in Nashville to honor the looming legacy he leaves behind.
Ned McWherter was truly a Governor for all Tennesseans. Growing up in poverty in rural northwest Tennessee, he understood what it meant to be a member of the class he termed the "working poor." This group consisted of individuals like his parents who worked hard from sun up to sun down, but still couldn't seem to get ahead. Throughout his career, Governor McWherter fought for this group championing causes in healthcare, infrastructure and education.
Growing up poor, Governor McWherter knew what it meant to be without proper medical care. He also understood that every child-regardless of economic circumstances-deserved the chance to live a happy, healthy and productive life. When children don't have access to proper medical care early on, their chances at success in life are severely diminished. Keeping this in mind, Governor McWherter created TennCare to help working families give their children a chance to succeed. This program has not always been perfect and we have made some necessary changes, but today it still ensures that every child in Tennessee has the chance to start life from the same, healthy place.
Governor McWherter was the first real champion for rural Tennessee. When he became Speaker of the House, rural areas of this state were still relatively inaccessible. Most rural communities like Ripley, Dresden, Alamo and the like didn't have any four lane roads. This lack of proper roads and bridges made it very difficult for rural areas to recruit industry. Since the time of Governor McWherter, we have seen tremendous new roads constructed in our rural areas. This has allowed us to create megasites and recruit industries that otherwise would not have been available. It's also helped us lure companies like Quaprotek which will create 126 new jobs in Lauderdale County next year. Without Governor McWherter's road building initiatives, none of this would be possible today.
Governor McWherter was also a champion of education reform. When he became Governor, our schools were suffering from a funding crisis. In particular, rural schools with small tax bases were struggling to survive, while suburban districts with large tax bases were doing just fine. Knowing that this funding inequity was leaving many rural students far behind their urban and suburban counterparts, Governor McWherter created the Basic Education Formula. The BEP used state dollars to make sure students in every corner of the state were getting an equal, quality education. People forget this contribution today, but without it our education system would look much different.
This weekend the friends of Ned McWherter will gather in Nashville to remember the legacy he leaves behind, but Governor McWherter's legacy can't be captured by a single event, newspaper article or policy. Rather his legacy lives on in the thousands of children who have healthcare today because he was Governor, the thousands of people who have jobs today because of the roads he built while Speaker of the House and thousands of rural Tennessee children getting a quality education because he recognized and fixed a glaring inequity.
The leaders of Tennessee today could learn a lot from Ned McWherter. His policies on healthcare, infrastructure and education are as true today as they were 20 years ago. We still need healthcare for our children to give each of them a fair start in life. We still need good roads and bridges to recruit manufacturers and good paying jobs. We still need to improve our education system, not by punishing our teachers but by partnering with them to give students the vocational, technical and academic skills they need to succeed in a global economy. We still need to follow Ned McWherter's example of working across party lines so that Tennessee, not a particular political party, can succeed.
As the bumper sticker says, 'I Miss Ned' and I intend to follow his legacy for as long as I'm in the General Assembly. I hope my colleagues will do the same. At this critical time in our state's history, the people deserve nothing less.
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