John Shelton Wilder

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John Shelton Wilder
48th Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee
In office
January 7, 1971 – January 8, 2007
Governor Winfield Dunn
Ray Blanton
Lamar Alexander
Ned McWherter
Don Sundquist
Phil Bredesen
Preceded by Frank Gorrell
Succeeded by Ron Ramsey
Personal details
Born (1921-06-03)June 3, 1921
Mason, Tennessee
Died January 1, 2010(2010-01-01) (aged 88)
Memphis, Tennessee
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Marcelle (died 2004)

John Shelton Wilder (June 3, 1921 – January 1, 2010) was an American politician who was the 48th Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee from 1971 to 2007,[1] possibly the longest time anyone has served as Lieutenant Governor or a similar position in the history of the United States.[2] He was a Tennessee state senator from 1959 to 1961 and again from 1967 to 2009.

Early life and education

Wilder was from Fayette County, near Memphis. He was from an affluent family with extensive agricultural and agribusiness interests. He attended Fayette County Public Schools and received an undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee College of Agriculture and a law degree from Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis.[1]

He and his family were known for fairer dealings with black farm employees and tenants than was typical of the area during the segregation era. This fact served him very well upon entering into elective politics at about the time that Tennessee blacks in rural areas were first being allowed their constitutional rights to participate in political decisions which had been guaranteed under the Tennessee and federal constitutions but previously unenforced. Wilder was also a prominent attorney in Somerville, the county seat of Fayette County.

Wilder married his wife Marcelle in 1941 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II.[1]

Political career

He was a member of the former Fayette County Quarterly Court (now the County Commission) for 18 years.[3] A Democrat, he was first elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1958, serving until January 1961.

Wilder did not run for reelection in 1960, but returned to the state Senate in 1967. After this time, a state constitutional amendment extended the length of terms in the state Senate to four years. Wilder was elected to a four-year term in 1968 and was reelected every four years thereafter until 2008. He represented Senate District 26, which currently included Chester, Crockett, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy, and Wayne counties.

Lieutenant Governor

Wilder was elected Speaker of the State Senate by his fellow Senators in January 1971, which made him the state's Lieutenant Governor. Under the Tennessee state constitution, the Speaker of the Senate is first in line of succession to the governorship. The title of Lieutenant Governor was granted to the Speaker of the Senate by statute in 1951.

He was the first Tennessee Lieutenant Governor in almost half a century, and only the second since Reconstruction, to serve under a governor of a different political party, Republican Winfield Dunn, who had been elected the previous November.

Prior to this time, the General Assembly had never had its own independent staff, or even its own offices, frequently working out of hotel rooms. Wilder now oversaw a massive building project (which somewhat ironically entailed the demolition of one of the hotels that many legislators had previously favored) which was undertaken to correct this and make the legislative branch of state government more co-equal to the other two.

Wilder defied precedent by seeking to serve as lieutenant governor for an extended period. Previously, no one had served more than three consecutive terms as Speaker of the Senate since Tennessee's current constitution was adopted in 1870. He faced little opposition until the mid-1980s. By then, many of the members of the Senate Democratic Caucus had tired of his leadership. There were also regional issues at stake – by this time the speakers of both houses of the legislature had been from West Tennessee for almost two decades. The dissident faction coalesced around the leadership of State Senate Majority Leader Riley Darnell from Clarksville in Middle Tennessee. When Darnell received the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor in 1987, Wilder's long tenure as Lieutenant Governor appeared to be over.

However, in a surprise (but not entirely unprecedented) move, Wilder was then nominated by the Republican Caucus for Lieutenant Governor. With the support of all 15 Republicans in the chamber, and six dissenting Democrats, Wilder won the vote 21 – 15 and then proceeded to organize the Senate on a "bipartisan" basis, awarding a majority of the committee chairmanships to his Democratic loyalists with the remainder going to the Republicans. This was not out of character for Wilder; in 1979 he had acquiesced in the ouster of Governor Ray Blanton three days before his term was supposed to end after a series of controversial pardons. The state constitution is somewhat ambiguous on when a governor is supposed to be sworn in, so Wilder and his counterpart in the State House, Ned McWherter, supported the early swearing-in of his Republican successor, Lamar Alexander. Wilder called the move "impeachment, Tennessee style."

After this, Wilder, until 2005, continued to be reelected "unanimously" and to award chairmanships to his supporters in both parties, making the Tennessee Senate one of the few legislative bodies in the world to be elected on a partisan basis, but organized on a more-or-less nonpartisan one. Even when two outgoing state Senators switched parties in the mid-1990s, giving the Republicans a short-lived one-seat Senate majority, nothing of consequence changed.

This coalition had made Wilder one of the longest-serving (reputedly the longest) freely-elected legislative leaders in the world. Given his support among many Republican state senators, he long faced little opposition in holding onto his State Senate seat, even though the Memphis suburbs were becoming increasingly Republican.

Unlike many lieutenant governors, particularly in other states, Wilder never ran for governor. In 2009 he said that he had wanted to run for governor in 1974, but had been talked out of it by his family, and was "glad I stayed where I was because the Senate is the Senate."[4] In a now almost-vanished Southern style, he often referred to himself in the third person, as in, "The Speaker likes being Speaker."[citation needed]

Wilder was a cycling enthusiast and was a licensed private pilot for over a half-century, continuing occasionally until the end of his legislative career to fly himself 200 miles (320 km) from Fayette County to Nashville for legislative meetings.[5][6] When Republicans attacked him for this during his 2004 reelection campaign, claiming that the partial reimbursement that he receives for this has cost the state over $250,000 over the past ten years, his campaign's reply was that much of this travel was to enable him to both to attend to his Senate duties and still be involved in the giving of care to his wife of 63 years, Marcelle, who died in the summer of 2004.[citation needed]

On November 2, 2004, Wilder was elected to his 11th consecutive term (and 12th overall) in the Tennessee Senate. However, the Democrats lost control of the Senate, albeit by only a one-seat margin. This meant that if the Republicans could have established true party discipline, they could have chosen either to retain Wilder or replace him; however, since several incumbent Republicans who were either reelected or whose terms did not expire in this election cycle were known to be allies and close friends of Wilder, the outcome that was considered to be most likely by most close observers was that these Republicans would join with the Democratic minority to continue Wilder's working majority and that he would be reelected Lieutenant Governor.[citation needed]

At least one Nashville television station had speculated that Wilder would become a Republican before or at the start of the next session in order to maintain his power.[citation needed] This was not an unreasonable possibility, as Republicans have done very well in much of his district at all levels. However, others suggested that this was unlikely and that he would probably remain a nominal Democrat but would appoint Republicans to all or most of the committee chairmanships; by mid-November 2004 this was regarded to be by far the most likely outcome, despite some telephone calls to Wilder's Republican supporters from United States Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.[citation needed]

In December 2004, the executive committee of the Tennessee Republican Party announced that sanctions were possible for Republican legislative members who cast votes for Democrats for organizational purposes.[citation needed] (These votes are open, not secret ballots). These were potentially to include party endorsement of opposing candidates in future primaries. This was a major policy change, as traditionally the Tennessee Republican Party has made no endorsements in contested primary elections.[citation needed] Nonetheless, two Republican members of the Tennessee State Senate – enough to assure Wilder's reelection provided his traditional unanimous Democratic support in recent years – voted for Wilder on January 11, 2005, and he was sworn in for his 18th term as lieutenant governor. (One of them, Micheal Williams, was then rewarded with the post of Speaker pro Tempore.) Wilder then appointed Republican majorities to seven of the nine committees but left the five existing Democratic chairmen in place; this resulted in Democratic majorities and chairs on two committees, including what is regarded as the most important one, the Finance Committee, which left many Republicans very upset.

Following the November 2006 elections, the Republican Party retained a one-seat majority in the Tennessee Senate. However, Republicans who had supported Wilder in the past, particularly Williams, found themselves under severe pressure to adhere to party discipline, with even the threat of officially-endorsed primary opponents, unprecedented for Tennessee Republicans, for those who failed to comply with the party line, according to a series of columns by Tennessean columnist Larry Daughtrey. Wilder was challenged within the Democratic caucus for nomination as speaker by State Senator Joe Haynes of Nashville. Later articles in The Tennessean and the Nashville City Paper cited the possibility that all 16 Republicans might vote for Senator Ron Ramsey and that 16 Democrats, including Wilder himself, would vote for Wilder, with Democratic State Senator Jerry Cooper, accused of wrongful business dealings with a bank controlled by Wilder, abstaining to prevent any appearance of conflict of interest. Under Senate rules, a 16–16 tie would result in Wilder's retention of the speakership.

However, in the vote held on January 9, 2007, all 17 Republicans voted for Ramsey and were joined by Democratic Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, ending Wilder's tenure as Speaker of the Senate and Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee.[7]

On March 8, 2007, the Tennessee news media reported that Wilder had been seriously injured in a fall and was in intensive care in a hospital in Memphis. He was released from the hospital on March 11, 2007 and returned home to finish his recuperation.[8]

In February 2008, the 2007-08 edition of the Tennessee Blue Book was dedicated to him.

On March 20, 2008, Wilder announced his decision not to run for re-election later that year.[9]


Wilder died early on the morning of January 1, 2010 at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis following a stroke on December 28, 2009.[10] He was survived by his younger brother Wiggins Wilder; his two sons: Shelton (John Jr.) and David; his four grandchildren: John III, Joseph, Jarod, and Whitney; and his five great-grandchildren: Jess (John IV), Suzie, Russell, Ansel and Marcel.



Much of the information contained in this article is from the Tennessee Blue Book.

  • The Tennessean, December 24, 2006; December 31, 2006, January 8, 2007
  • Nashville City Paper, January 3, 2007, January 8, 2007


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Tennessee Senate, Tennessee Blue Book 2007–2008, page 28
  3. Richard Locker, Lambuth institute will salute Wilder's works; College to house papers, train students for service, Memphis Commercial Appeal, May 22, 2007
  4. Bartholomew Sullivan, Bipartisan praise hails Wilder in Washington, Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 3, 2009
  5. AOPA member retains Lieutenant Governor post, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, January 20, 2005
  6. John Wilder: Senate icon, one of a kind, Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 24, 2008
  7. Lucas L. Johnson II, Longest-Serving Legislative Chief Ousted Associated Press, January 9, 2007; accessed on San Francisco Chronicle website, October 19, 2009
  9. "Wilder to retire after nearly 50 years", Knoxville News Sentinel, March 20, 2008
Political offices
Preceded by
Frank Gorrell
Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee
Succeeded by
Ron Ramsey