John Jay Hooker
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John Jay Hooker was born to relative wealth and privilege in one of the Nashville area's more prominent families. His father, John Jay Hooker, Sr., was one of the Nashville area's best-known and most respected attorneys, as is his brother Henry Hooker, who became his law partner in the former firm of Hooker, Hooker, and Willis. Hooker is a direct descendant of William Blount, who signed the Constitution of the United States and who was appointed by President George Washington in 1790 to be the "Governor of all the lands south of the Ohio River". In 1796, Governor Blount was elected the president of the Constitutional Convention of Tennessee.
After finishing high school at Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy, Hooker attended college at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He then served two years in the United States Army Judge Advocate General's Corps as an investigator. Upon discharge from the service, Hooker attended Vanderbilt University Law School. He graduated and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1957. He then practiced law with his father in the law firm of Hooker, Keeble, Dotson, and Harris, one of the most prominent law firms in Tennessee. In 1960, Hooker left his father's law firm to start a new law firm and one year later was joined by his brother Henry Hooker, and two years later by William R. Willis, forming the law firm of Hooker, Hooker, and Willis, which eventually became a ten-man law firm. This firm became the general counsel of the Nashville Tennessean and several other businesses by the time Hooker ran for governor in 1966. Struck by the inequalities in the southern society that confronted him at the time, he became identified as a young man with progressive Democratic politics. While practicing law, he also began a series of diverse business investments.
In 1958, Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement asked Hooker and prominent Nashville attorney Jack Norman Sr. to become involved in the state's investigation of Raulston Schoolfield, an allegedly corrupt Chattanooga state judge. Based on the Norman/Hooker findings, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to impeach Schoolfield. Norman and Hooker were then retained to prosecute Schoolfield before the Tennessee State Senate, which convicted him on several counts. At the time, Robert F. Kennedy was general counsel of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, which was investigating labor corruption. In this capacity, Kennedy launched an investigation of Raulston Schoolfield. Kennedy came to Tennessee and testified in the Schoolfield impeachment trial. Thereafter, he and Hooker became close friends and remained so until the time of Kennedy's death in 1968.
In 1959, Hooker married the former Eugenia "Tish" Fort, a member of another socially-prominent Nashville family. They had three children, Dara, Kendall, and, Blount, who was named after his ancestor Governor Blount. The Fort family were co-founders along with other families of the former National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its subsidiaries, WSM radio and the Grand Ole Opry country music program. Hooker also was close friends with Amon Evans, whose family then owned and published the Nashville Tennessean, then as now the most prominent newspaper in Middle Tennessee. Thereafter, Hooker convinced Evans to employ John Seigenthaler as the editor of the newspaper. Seigenthaler likewise had an association with Robert F. Kennedy that emanated from the Schoolfield investigation and trial. Thereafter, Seigenthaler was a major political supporter of Robert Kennedy and of Hooker.
In January 1961, immediately upon the swearing in of Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General of the United States, Hooker was named special assistant to RFK, working on various projects for him during which time Hooker lived with Robert Kennedy and his family in his home in McLean, Virginia.
With the support and backing of the Evans family and John Seigenthaler, Hooker decided to enter the 1966 Democratic primary for governor of Tennessee. His opponent was Buford Ellington, a former governor attempting a return to the office who had the strong backing of the incumbent governor, Clement, and President Lyndon Johnson, who was Ellington's close personal friend and who had appointed him to a prominent position at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ellington was also strongly backed by the other Nashville newspaper, the Nashville Banner. Supported by some of the more progressive members of the Nashville business community, and using innovative advertising such as sponsoring NASCAR driver Buddy Baker's racecar, Hooker underwent a blistering counterattack which was mounted by Ellington's "Old Guard" supporters. Hooker ran fairly well in the urban and rural areas, but lost badly in the suburbs, to which the Old Guard's support had largely moved in the post-World War II era. Ellington went on to an easy victory in November, with no Republican opposition, the last time such a circumstance was to occur in Tennessee.
During this period, Hooker and Tish made a campaign appearance at a Nashville church attended by the very young Oprah Winfrey and her family. Tish, as Oprah recounted later, took the time to speak to the young girl, and told her she was "pretty as a speckled pup." Many years later, Tish was invited to appear on Oprah's television show, where Oprah acknowledged how much those kind words had meant to her.
During the next four years, Hooker divided his time between two major activities – investments and planning to run for governor again in 1970. Politically, he kept up his connection with Bobby Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy political family, and was greatly saddened when RFK was assassinated in 1968. By this time Hooker had many diversified investments including Whale Inc. and a chain of fried chicken restaurants with country comedienne Minnie Pearl and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. His rationale for the chicken restaurants was that just as Pepsi had long made a large amount of money as the primary competitor to Coca-Cola, someone else stood to make a comparable fortune as the primary competitor to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hooker was also closely involved around the same time with the Frist family and others in the formation of what became the first major for-profit healthcare chain, the Hospital Corporation of America.
Hooker won the 1970 Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee over a host of competitors, most notably the candidate of the "Old Guard", Nashville attorney Stan Snodgrass, who had the endorsement of the Nashville Banner. In the past, the Democratic nomination would have assured him victory in November. But many things had changed in Tennessee in the four years since his loss to Ellington. For one, the Republican Party was benefitting greatly from the Southern strategy of then-President Richard M. Nixon to reach out to rural and working-class urban Southern whites who were disturbed by desegregation and other rapid social changes. Tennessee Republicans, only just over two years from failing to field a gubernatorial candidate, had even managed to organize the Tennessee House of Representatives for the first (and only) time in the 20th century in 1969, and they were not about to allow what appeared to them to be a golden opportunity to pass them by. In 1966, Howard Baker had beaten Governor Frank Clement for the United States Senate because the Democratic party was divided between the Clement/Ellington forces and the anti-Clement/Ellington forces, as best exemplified in the heated primary battle that year between Ellington and Hooker, and the absence of a gubernatorial nominee had in fact allowed Republicans to focus almost all of their energies on electing Baker to the Senate seat.
Events as well as people seemed to conspire against Hooker in the fall of 1970. The Republicans had staged a very hard-fought primary race of their own, but had come out of it largely united behind the candidacy of Memphis dentist Dr. Winfield Dunn, former chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party. Many of Snodgrass' erstwhile supporters, including the Nashville Banner, endorsed Dunn. At the same time, the Securities and Exchange Commission had in 1969 announced an investigation into Minnie Pearl's Chicken, and over time as a consequence of the investigation the price the stock had declined from a high of $40 a share to approximately 50 cents a share.
Simultaneously, Democratic Senator Albert Gore, Sr. was running an equally hard-fought and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a fourth term against Chattanooga Congressman William E. Brock. The friendly relationship both Gore and Hooker shared with the Kennedy family became an issue, especially in light of Ted Kennedy's involvement in the Chappaquiddick incident the previous year. Republicans and "Old Guard" detractors alike pilloried the two, leading to a Republican sweep and for the first time in the post-Reconstruction era the Republicans held the Tennessee governorship and both United States Senate seats (although, curiously, they lost control of the state House of Representatives and never regained it until the 21st century).
Hooker was never convicted of any criminal wrongdoing in the SEC/Minnie Pearl Chicken case. Nonetheless, the SEC investigation, which lasted three years, caused the company virtually to liquidate, although a few outlets continued to function into the 1980s. Hooker still claims that the SEC investigation was unjustified and totally politically inspired by the Nixon Administration, which wanted to defeat Albert Gore Sr. and Hooker because they were anti-war candidates. Hooker also claimed that the Nixon political "machine" challenged Hooker and Gore as part of its "Southern strategy".
Hooker served as chairman of STP Corporation from 1973 to 1976. In 1976 he entered the Democratic Primary for Brock's U.S. Senate seat and was at first perhaps favored to win the nomination, but was defeated by the previously-little-known Jim Sasser for the nomination. (Sasser was well known by Tennessee Democratic insiders, however, as the manager of the last, unsuccessful campaign of Albert Gore Sr. six years earlier. Sasser defeated Brock in November and went on to serve three terms in the Senate.)
In 1979, Hooker arranged for the sale of The Tennessean newspaper to Gannett, which had earlier purchased the Banner but preferred to own morning rather than evening papers. At the same time, his own investment group purchased the Banner from Gannett (the two papers were linked by a joint operating agreement) and Hooker became publisher of the very paper that had so tormented him only nine years earlier. In retrospect, he has called this perhaps the greatest single moment of his life. Hooker, however, sold his portion of the Banner in 1982 and became chairman for a period of United Press International, the historical but faltering competitor to the Associated Press in the wire-service news business.
Hooker's fortunes seemed to ebb and flow in the 1980s. At one point, he became rather prosperous again. He promoted a new fast food chain, named for himself, which sold hamburgers from small, drive-by only buildings, operating this venture from 1984 to 1986 before selling it, for $3 million. One of these outlets was built in the Nashville area and several in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. He remained friends with many prominent persons, however, including former heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali and became friends with H. Ross Perot. Hooker always claimed to have been the first and primary counselor in Perot's decision to run for President of the United States in 1992.
Hooker began to file to run for various political offices including governor, Senator, Congressman, and others, for the purpose of acquiring the legal standing to sue all of these persons running for the office for taking campaign contributions from "out of state" contributors, which according to his legal theories were both illegal and unconstitutional, and Hooker continues to bring lawsuits in that regard down through the early part of the 21st century. In 1995 he even sued President Bill Clinton, as well as all of the other presidential candidates, for accepting certain campaign contributions, which according to his theory were unconstitutional. He sued the Tennessee Supreme Court, saying that their elections under the "Modified Missouri Plan" were unconstitutional, eventually forcing them to recuse themselves from their own case and require the empanelment of a special State Supreme Court to hear the charges. (This panel dismissed Hooker's claims.) Although his later campaigns were basically efforts to draw attention to the amount of money which came into Tennessee politics from "out of state" and its alleged corrupting influence, he unexpectedly received the 1998 Democratic nomination for governor. No other prominent Democrat had filed to opposed incumbent Republican governor Don Sundquist, and Hooker defeated a field of other "token" candidates as well as the supposedly "serious" candidate with union backing, Mark Whitaker, who was the selected "sacrificial lamb" of the party leadership.
Hooker won the nomination based on tremendous name recognition among older Democrats, who are in Tennessee generally the most reliable primary voters. He ran best in the rural areas and with urban blacks, who had always provided him with a core support group. While not formally disavowing him, the regular Democratic Party organization did almost nothing to promote his candidacy, and Hooker had disavowed the formal fundraising process as unethical and immoral. Hooker received about 30 percent of the vote in the November general election. At this time Governor Sundquist had a 72 percent approval rating. Hooker remains a political activist, running for Congress in 2002 and again suing all his opponents, and then for Chancery Court judge in 2004 as an Independent against Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman and sued her for taking campaign contributions from lawyers who practice in her court, which lawyers attended fundraisers held by her where she, according to Hooker, gave them food and drink prohibited by Article X Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution.
In 2006 Hooker filed to run for the Democratic nomination for both governor of Tennessee and United States Senator. Despite refusing to raise or spend any money in these efforts, Hooker nonetheless finished third in the senatorial primary  and second in the gubernatorial primary  held on August 3.
- John Jay Hooker Center for Election & Campaign Finance Reform
- Short Hooker biography from Middle Tennessee State University site
- Tish Hooker on Oprah
- John Jay Hooker: The Tennessee icon sits down to talk with Joe, Interview from 2003
- Craig Boerner, Kurtz moves to disbar Hooker, The City Paper, November 22, 2004
|Party political offices|
|Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Tennessee
|Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Tennessee