ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff File Photo / Former 3rd District Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd shares a laugh with former Tennesseer Gov. Phil Bredesen at the Hamilton County Democratic Party's Estes Kefauver Dinner several years ago.

Fifty years ago Friday, burglars broke in the Watergate complex headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. The subsequent actions stemming from that break-in, as students of history know, brought down a presidential administration.

But the dust shaken from the events that played out over the next two-plus years affected politics throughout the nation, including in Tennessee.

Closest to Chattanooga, it played a par in the 1974 3rd District congressional race.

But the day the break-in first hit the hometown Washington Post, June 18, 1972, Democrat Richard Winningham was quoted in the Chattanooga Times as having told members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party Executive Committee the November election "may be the last call for the Democratic party in Tennessee if we don't defeat [Republican U.S. Sen.] Howard Baker."

After some 40 years of Democratic dominance in the state, Baker had won one of the state's two Senate seats in 1966 and was facing re-election. Worse for Democrats, the state had elected U.S. Rep. William E. Brock III, R-Chattanooga, as its other senator two years earlier.

Despite the advice of Winningham — the 3rd District Democratic congressional nominee in 1970 — Tennesseans overwhelmingly re-elected Baker, who would go on to make a name for himself as the ranking minority member on the Senate Watergate committee. On the same day as Baker's re-election, the country voted to return Richard Nixon as president of the United States in a landslide.

Two years after the break-in, the Watergate burglary, cover-up and subsequent hearings were gradually winnowing Nixon's support in Congress.

In Tennessee's 3rd District, U.S. Rep. LaMar Baker, who had replaced Brock in the House, was angling for a third term. Only two months before the Aug. 1 primary election, his opponents were finalizing their plans.

One of those was WDEF-TV anchorman Mort Lloyd, who said in his June 4 campaign kickoff announcement: "I cannot recall such a critical, sordid situation in Washington. A deterioration reaching into every state, city, town and household of our beloved nation."

One of Lloyd's Democratic primary opponents, Howard Sompayrac, added in July that Republicans would likely be hurt as much by Watergate that year as he was in 1972 by having to run on the same ticket, in an essentially conservative district, with liberal Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. The same Chattanooga Times article that paraphrased Sompayrac said Lloyd had been campaigning against inflation and the Watergate scandal.

Lloyd won the primary over Sompayrac by more than 10,000 votes, and a week later Nixon resigned.

Baker, who called for the president's resignation the morning he made it and later was one of 45 members of Congress to meet with him shortly before his resignation announcement, nevertheless did not see himself as being tarred by the scandal.

Any attempt by Lloyd to hang Watergate around his neck in the campaign, he said, would be "an insult, really, to the voters of my district to think that they would want to convict me for a crime that anyone else might have committed. I just think we have more objective and intelligent voters than that."

Without the scandal, Baker likely would have kept his seat in the increasingly conservative 3rd District, and the popular Lloyd may not have run. And had the two met in November, the race might have been tantalizingly close. But fate had other ideas.

On Aug. 20, Lloyd was killed in a crash of the plane he was flying in Middle Tennessee.

Several days later, local Democrats held what was tabbed the First Annual Estes Kefauver Memorial Foundation dinner. At the dinner, former Chattanoogan Floyd Kephart, editor of The Tennessee Report, exhorted the crowd by saying, "Not all of the [Watergate] arrests in Washington have been made yet. LaMar Baker is going to be arrested for impersonating a congressman."

One of the keynote speakers at the dinner was outgoing Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who praised the "honesty and integrity" of new President Gerald Ford and vice presidential nominee Nelson Rockefeller and referred to them as "fine men." As such, he said, morality would be removed as an issue in future elections and the basic principles of the parties would be presented.

Two years later, making morality an issue in the campaign and vowing "I will never lie to you," Carter was the Democratic presidential nominee against Ford, eventually edging him in the 1976 race.

Ultimately, Lloyd's widow, Marilyn, offered to run in her late husband's place. Following Ford's pardon of Nixon for crimes he may have committed, she took up the mantle of Watergate.

Calling Baker "a staunch survivor of the Nixon team," she said "the hasty pardon, possibly time to avoid further disclosures during this year's elections, prevents the American people from ever knowing why Watergate happened."

In November, she tumbled the incumbent from office, winning by slightly more than 6,000 votes out of 117,000 cast and becoming the first congresswoman elected from Tennessee.

Lloyd, outside the shadow of Watergate, would go on to serve 10 terms in Congress, retiring in 1995.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT