Political notebook: When did Tennessee last have a ‘cardinal’ in the U.S. House?

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Rep. Chuck Fleischmann speaks during the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Collegedale Commons in Collegedale on Nov. 11.

NASHVILLE -- This much was already known: When U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was appointed earlier this month by his Republican peers as chairman of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, the congressman from Ooltewah who in January began his seventh term broke a long-time drought for a Tennessee congressman heading a powerful Appropriations panel chairmanship.

But how long? Better crank up your wayback machine: It's been 46 years since a Tennessee congressman last occupied one of the dozen appropriations subcommittee chairs, a position dubbed "cardinal" for the powers they wield.

The last Tennessean who served as an appropriations subcommittee chairman was Joe Evins, a Smithville Democrat who represented the then-4th Congressional District. Evins, first elected to the House in 1952, served as an appropriations subcommittee chairman from 1969-1977. He left Congress in 1977.

"He helped build so many dams that if he had stayed in Congress much longer you could have navigated the district in a boat," observed Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University who served as a chief of staff for one of Evins' successors, then-Congressman Bart Gordon, a 5th District Murfreesboro Democrat.

A former Evins staffer, who preferred her name not be used, was amused by the term "cardinal," saying she had never heard it used to describe a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman during her time working for the congressman in the 1970s.

Fleischmann's immediate predecessor, Republican Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, also served on the House Appropriations Committee but left Congress to make an unsuccessful run for governor and never served as an Appropriations subcommittee nor full committee chair.

Few other Tennesseans have risen high on Appropriations, according to the House Historian's Office. One was Congressman Joseph W. Byrnes, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, who first came to Congress in 1909, rose to become full Finance Committee chairman and in 1935 became House speaker and died a year later, according to the Historian's Office.

Fleischmann, who gained a seat on Appropriations after his 2010 election, was a member of the then-Democratic-run panel last year as it presided over a record $7.4 billion in federal dollars for the federal Oak Ridge Reservation, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex and the East Tennessee Technology Park in the northern part of Fleischmann's 3rd Congressional District in East Tennessee.

He's also fought in the past for dollars to rehabilitate the Tennessee Valley Authority-run Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, joining with former U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who served on the Senate Appropriations Committee before not seeking re-election in 2020.

Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, who replaced Alexander, was named this year to serve on the upper chamber's appropriations panel.

While House majority Republicans say they want to curb federal spending, Syler said regardless of whether it's more or less money, "We still know there's going to be a lot of money being spent. And he [Fleischmann] is going to have input on where that money goes. It's good for Tennessee, and it's great for Oak Ridge."


The Tennessee Senate on Thursday honored the late Bryant Millsaps, a Daisy, Tennessee, native who became Tennessee secretary of state and helped steer the office back to respectability in the aftermath of the suicide of his predecessor, Gentry Crowell, who was caught up in one of the state's worst modern political scandals, the Rocky Top charitable bingo scandal.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 43 for Millsaps, 75, who had been living in Hendersonville when he died in June. State lawmakers began their annual session earlier in January, and it was the first time Gardenhire was able to file a resolution and get it acted on.

Millsaps was hired by then-House Speaker Ned McWherter as an assistant chief clerk. He rose to become chief clerk in 1983. He served until 1990 when the General Assembly elected him to replace Crowell, whose office oversaw charitable bingo. The industry had been largely taken over by professional gamblers who secretly purchased or "rented" IRS-certified nonprofit groups' charters in Chattanooga and elsewhere, raking in millions of dollars statewide over years.

Crowell's chief bingo inspector, W.D. "Donnie" Walker of South Pittsburg, was at the epicenter of the conspiracy along with Walker's longtime friend, Jim Long, who ran the Bingo Association.

While secretary of state, Millsaps began eyeing a 1992 gubernatorial bid to succeed Crowell, which put him crossways with House Democratic leaders as well as McWherter, who by that time was governor. While the term-limited McWherter wasn't running, he and other top leaders weren't thrilled with a potential candidacy. Lawmakers later replaced Millsaps with Riley Darnell, a former Democratic state senator.

Millsaps later became a high-profile member of "Democrats for Sundquist" in 1994, winning an appointment as executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. But he had an apparent falling out with the Sundquist administration and was ousted.

A social and religious conservative, Millsaps soon found a new calling, in 1998 becoming the top assistant to the then-president of Tennessee Baptist Children's Homes. Millsaps later became president of the organization itself as well as treasurer. He spent the next 15 years through a period of "tremendous" growth, according to Gardenhire's resolution.

In his remarks on the Senate floor, Gardenhire noted that Millsaps had attended Central High School with the senator's sister where he played on the 1961 state and national championship team which went undefeated and won the Liberty Bowl.

"I knew him because when they dedicated the field and the memorial plaque at McCallie Avenue, all the Central High alumni showed up," said Gardenhire, who had attended Central but graduated elsewhere.

"[Millsaps] stopped the ceremony, and he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we have a celebrity in the crowd.' And this was before I was in the state Senate," Gardenhire told the chamber. "Well everybody was looking for a mayor or a congressman or somebody. And he said, 'Todd Gardenhire, stand up!'

"So I stood up, I couldn't think what it was," Gardenhire recalled. "He said, 'Todd was the only guy my dad [Hobart Millsaps], who was principal of Central High School, the only person my dad kicked out of Central. Everybody else got kicked into Central."

The chamber erupted in laughter.

Gardenhire, who said he got to know Millsaps better over the years, called him "a good guy and a great friend."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.