When was area's last gubernatorial debate?

Hank Hayes • Updated Oct 9, 2018 at 9:41 AM

Leading up to the Tennessee gubernatorial debate between Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Karl Dean at the Toy F. Reid Eastman Employee Center, I kept asking myself: When was the last gubernatorial debate in our neck of the woods?

I could only come across a record of one debate in the last century.

The state historian, Carroll Van West, didn’t know.

West said in an email: “I wish for this reason and many others that (the late Sullivan County historians) Hal and Muriel Spoden were still with us. They would know!”

City Archivist Brianne Wright responded: “I've scoured the archives and the newspaper archive and haven't found anything on a debate being in Kingsport.”

Former Times News Columnist Vince Staten forwarded us a record of a gubernatorial debate held in Rogersville in 1872 and one in Greeneville in 1908.

The last debate I could find in Sullivan County was during the famed “War of the Roses” gubernatorial campaign between brothers Robert Taylor and Alf Taylor in 1886.

The book, “Bob and Alf Taylor: Their Lives and Lectures,” told of a debate they held near the end of their campaign in Blountville. Robert Taylor was the Democratic nominee and Alf Taylor was the Republican nominee.

They fiddled, spoke and shook hands through “four score counties … seeing about a million people,” the book said.

“Never had a state election awakened the voters so,” the book noted. “The smallest county turned out no less than 6,000 persons to hear Bob and Alf speak. In Nashville, 25,000 gathered at the public square for the great debate.”

Robert Taylor, according to the book, had suggested the “War of the Roses” theme because the brothers were “roses from the same garden … Alf was a red rose … Bob was white.”

At the Blountville debate, Alf Tayor closed his remarks with this: “I say to you now that after all these eventful struggles, I still love my brother … but politically, my friends, I despise him.”

Robert Taylor responded: “The memorable campaign of 1886 will indeed soon be closed, but let me assure you that I today love the man. … I’ve never seen the hour when I would not willing lay down my life to save him nor have I seen the dawn of day when I would not lay down my life to destroy his party.”

Robert Taylor won. Alf Taylor fell 13,000 votes short.

Robert Taylor served two terms as governor and later served in the U.S. House and Senate. Alf Taylor, after serving in the state legislature and three terms in Congress, won the governor’s race in 1920 and served one term.

Hank Hayes covers business and politics for the Times News. You can reach him at: hhayes@timesnews.net.