Sundquist backs Trump; keeps old campaign committee going

Former Gov. Don Sundquist has become an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign while maintaining an interest in Tennessee politics through his old campaign account, still operating 14 years after he left office.

“My campaign days are over. But I can still cheer,” said Sundquist, 80, in a telephone interview from his Townsend home.

He is now cheering for Trump, the former governor and congressman said, because “I like the fact that he’s challenging the status quo.” Sundquist had initially supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a longtime friend, for the presidential nomination.

“Too often in Washington, D.C., people have grown to think they should dominate what’s done everywhere,” he said, citing criticism of Trump by Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who briefly sought the party’s presidential nomination this year.

“I think it’s time to shake up that political bureaucracy and all those people who make money off of campaigns,” Sundquist said, noting he and his wife, Martha, received repeated solicitations for campaign contributions when Romeny was running — “it seemed like two or three a week” — and have received none from Trump.

Sundquist said Trump’s has also shown a willingness to compromise and negotiate on some issues and he sees that as a positive.

“Too many people don’t understand the differences in having a philosophy and principles and having a willingness to compromise,” he said. “Compromise is not violating your principles. Compromise is how you achieve your principles. … The Constitution, the Bill of Rights — they all came out of compromise.”

Sundquist still does some political cheering with financial contributions through The Sundquist Committee, established when he first ran for governor in 1994 and continued through his 1998 re-election campaign. A review of the committee’s reports indicates no fundraising activity — except for drawing interest on the committee’s bank account — in the past decade.

Typically, the Sundquist Committee gives $25,000 per year to Majority Tennessee, a political action committee. State Comptroller Justin Wilson, who served as deputy governor to Sundquist, adds another $5,000 per year, and together they virtually have provided all of the PAC’s funding in recent years. The PAC had $33,100 ready for distribution in the 2016 campaigns at last report, filed in April.

In 2014, Majority Tennessee distributed about $45,000 in contributions, beneficiaries including 16 Republican candidates for the state Legislature, two candidates for local offices and a $2,500 donation to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which bills itself as crusading for conservatism and the free enterprise system.

“We’ve been investing in a lot of campaigns over the years,” said Sundquist.

The Sundquist Committee infrequently donates to candidates, most recently a $1,000 donation in 2015 to the re-election campaign of Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, who Sundquist called “one of the rising stars in our party.”

The Sundquist Committee, which had a $1.5 million balance 10 years ago, reported $279,529 cash on hand in its most recent report, filed in January. Besides political donations and paying salaries of two women working part-time for the committee, the former governor’s old campaign committee has given on average about $30,000 annually to charities — the biggest beneficiaries among many being Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where Sundquist graduated with a degree in business administration in 1957; the University of Tennessee; and other educational institutions.

The Sundquist Committee is the oldest campaign account still active in the state, according to a Registry of Election Finance official. The account’s reports are filed on paper forms, in accord with the law applying at the time it was created, and are not available through the Registry’s website.

In the interview, Sundquist said he supports the state Legislature’s vote this year to repeal the state’s Hall tax on investment income, noting that was part of the tax reform package he proposed as governor in 2001. The proposal, defeated amid much controversy, was widely characterized as a general state income tax plan, but Sundquist says that is not accurate.

“I did not propose a state income tax. I proposed a flat tax,” Sundquist said, adding that his proposal was similar to that proposed at the federal level by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate. It did include a new tax on general income, coupled with repeal of sales taxes on food and clothing as well as the Hall tax and reductions of general sales tax and other state tax revisions. After it was killed, the Legislature voted instead — with support of most Republicans — to raise the state sales tax and other levies that collectively increased state revenue by about $1 billion annually. Sundquist signed the bill.