Tennessee is governed by its constitution, unchanged since 1870 when it was revised in light of emancipation, the Civil War, and reconstruction.
Tennessee has a governor who is elected to four-year terms, a legislature, and court system. The Lieutenant Governor is not elected statewide; he or she is chosen by the Senate and also serves as its Speaker.
The legislature, or General Assembly, is made up of the 99-member House of Representatives and the 33-member Senate. The Tennessee State Supreme Court is made of five members, no two of whom can be from the same Grand Division. The Supreme Court chooses the state’s attorney general.
The executive branch consists of 21 cabinet-level departments, which employ some 39,000 state workers. Departments are led by a commissioner, who is appointed by the governor and serves as a member of his cabinet.
Tennessee has 95 counties; the largest is Shelby County, which contains Memphis . The smallest county by size is Trausdale, with 113 square miles; the smallest population is in Pickett County.
The state has 11 electoral college votes in U.S. presidential elections.
Like other Southern states, Tennessee has seen a gradual shift to the political right since the 1960s. The shift began in 1966 with Howard Baker’s election to the U.S. Senate, and continued with Tennessee’s support for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Despite a few exceptions, the shift has continued into the 21st century, although Nashville , Memphis , and other parts of Middle and West Tennessee remain Democratic territory.
East Tennessee holds the distinction as one of a handful of Southern territories that has consistently supported the Republican Party since the Civil War. Today, Republicans outpoll Democrats in this region by as much as three to one.
The statewide trend towards the Republican party continued in 2008, with Tennessee being one of only a handful of states where Democrat Barack Obama received a lesser proportion of votes than did Senator John Kerry four years earlier. State Republicans also succeeded in gaining control of both houses of the state legislature. The lone Democrat on the scene is Phil Bredeson, who will finish his second four-year term as governor in 2010.
Andrew Jackson may still be the most prominent Tennessean in American political history, but Tennessee politicians continue to play a role on the national stage. Albert Gore Jr., elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976, served as vice president under president Bill Clinton from 1992 until 2000, and lost the highly contested 2000 presidential contest to George W. Bush. Gore famously lost his home state to Bush, further evidence of Tennessee’s move to the right. Gore went on to champion global climate change and win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee, was appointed secretary of education by the first President Bush in 1990. Alexander—famous for his flannel shirts—ran unsuccessfully for president and was later elected senator from Tennessee. Bill Frist, a doctor, was also elected senator and rose to be the Republican majority leader during the presidency of George W. Bush, before quitting politics for medical philanthropy.
The most recent Tennessean to seek the Oval Office was former senator and Law and Order star Fred Thompson, from Lewisburg in Middle Tennessee.
One of the most persistent political issues for Tennesseans in modern times has been the state’s tax structure. The state first established a 2 percent sales tax in 1947, and it was increased incrementally over the years, eventually reaching 7 percent today. With local options, it is one of the highest sales tax rates in the country. (The state sales tax on food is 5.5 percent.) At the same time, the state has failed on more than one occasion—most recently during the second term of Republican governor Donald Sundquist in the late 1990s—to establish an income tax that would provide greater stability to the state’s revenues.
In 2008 Tennessee faced a serious budget crunch that led to the elimination of thousands of state jobs, cutbacks at state-funded universities, and the scaling back of the state health insurance program.