By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Harlan Mathews, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Gore after he was elected vice president in 1992, died Friday. He was 87.
A family spokesman said Mathews died at a hospice in Nashville with his wife, Pat, by his side. He had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Mathews joined Tennessee government in 1950 as a member of the state budget staff and quickly became a top aide to Govs. Frank Clement and Buford Ellington. The Legislature elected Mathews as state treasurer in 1974, a position he held until resigning to run Democrat Ned McWherter's successful gubernatorial campaign in 1986.
Gore was at the pinnacle of his popularity in Tennessee when he swept all 95 counties in his re-election to the Senate in 1990. But his election as vice president two years later presented McWherter with a dilemma for finding a suitable replacement after his first choice, then-Rep. John Tanner, had taken himself out of the running.
McWherter said at the time that he chose Mathews as a caretaker "because he would be free of any political considerations to vote as he needed to vote."
Mathews agreed that his appointment meant he could spend his time representing the state "without spending a single hour worrying about re-election."
But the timing of the Senate vacancy meant that both of Tennessee's Senate seats would be up in the 1994 election, which proved disastrous for Democrats.
Republican actor and attorney Fred Thompson defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper to serve out the last two years Gore's original term, while Republican surgeon Bill Frist defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser to complete the sweep.
Tennessee Democrats have not won a Senate race since, and Gore's once near-universal support eroded to the point where he could not carry his home state when he ran for president in 2000.
After his time in the Senate, Mathews joined the Nashville office of the law firm Farris Mathews Bobango PLC, and worked as a lobbyist and informal adviser to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen after his election in 2002.
Looking back on his decades in state government in 1999, Mathews credited governors like Clement for focusing on the political aspects while letting aides focus on their jobs.
"We grew up in an atmosphere that allowed us to use our abilities," Mathews said. "I'm not naive enough to say politics didn't influence some of the things that happened. But we weren't constrained by politics."
Lamar Alexander, a former two-term governor who succeeded Thompson in the Senate, said Mathews was a much loved figure in state government.
"Except for his great friend Ned McWherter, no one had more friends around the state Capitol than Harlan Mathews did," Alexander said. "He served our state and our country with distinction."
In addition to his wife, Pat, Mathews is survived by sons Stan and Les Mathews and granddaughters Katie Zipper and Emily Mathews.