The Woman Behind the Curtain: Susan Richardson Williams

Long before Tennessee had its first female United States Senator, before it had its first female Speaker of the House, before the national arms race to recruit female candidates for public office, Susan Richardson Williams was shattering glass ceilings in Volunteer State politics. She has attended nine Republican National Conventions. She was the first woman elected to a statewide party office in Tennessee. She helped win eight statewide races. She redefined the role of a woman in Tennessee politics.

A native of Savannah Tennessee, Williams was working as a school teacher in Blount County after graduating from the University of Tennessee when she got her first big opportunity in a political campaign. 1970 was a watershed year for the Tennessee Republican Party, and for SRW it was the beginning of a long climb from the entry level to the executive suite. That year, Winfield Dunn became Tennessee’s first republican governor in nearly five decades, while Bill Brock defeated Al Gore, Sr. to join freshman republican senator Howard Baker in the upper chamber of the United States Congress. This was the first time since reconstruction that republicans had control of both senate seats and the governorship in Tennessee. When election season kicked off in 1970, the schoolteacher turned politico quit beating erasers and started beating the competition all over the state. A friend got Susan a job working for the republicans on the statewide ticket. A veracious campaigner, Susan earned the recognition of Dunn campaign manager Lamar Alexander.

After Governor Dunn’s victory, Alexander called Susan to Nashville to work on his transition team. There she met Bill Jenkins, the new Commissioner of Conservation for Tennessee, who hired her to be his administrative assistant.

She stayed in the Dunn administration until Jenkins left, and then joined Senator Bill Brock’s field office in Nashville. This was her first media oriented job, serving as his press secretary for Tennessee. When Brock was defeated in 1976 as a part of the democrat Watergate Wave that elected Jimmy Carter, Williams found herself out of a job, discouraged and out of politics. She had no idea that her first big break was right around the corner.

She spent most of 1977 at home caring for a newborn baby, but by 1978 she was right back in the middle of the fight. She took a job as political director of the Tennessee GOP, and oversaw over 78 state legislative races. She personally managed the campaign of Ronnie Crowe, who defeated an entrenched democrat incumbent state senator in large part due to an ingenious mailer Williams cooked up. The incumbent was drawing a government check through his legislative salary, his pension from his time as a superintendent of schools, and his wife’s state job. Williams designed a mailer entitled “Triple Dip,” with a photo of three scoops of ice cream that outlined just how much the incumbent was making off of the taxpayer. It worked like a charm and he was defeated. During her tenure, her stock really began to rise as a political consultant. In the 1978 cycle under her leadership republican’s netted 9 seats across both houses of the legislature. That was huge in a purple state like Tennessee.

After the ‘78 campaigns, newly elected Governor Lamar Alexander called upon Susan for a number of different jobs. First, he put her in charge of the ever important patronage machine as assistant commissioner of personnel. In this role she faced a significant new challenge.. Disgraced Governor Ray Blanton had instituted civil service protections, and thusly did away with the age old practice of patronage in Tennessee politics. It seems dirty now, but that’s just the way business was conducted then. Williams remembers in the early 70s each county had patronage committees, and if the governor wanted to hire someone from that county, the patronage committee had to sign off on the hire. Who would have thought that Ray Blanton, a name synonymous with crookedness would be the one to reform civil service in our state?

After her tenure in personnel and a short stint in the Dept. of Corrections, Williams found herself summoned once again to the Governor’s office, fearing another difficult reassignment. When she called up Chief of Staff Tom Ingram, he would not divulge what the governor had in mind. She knew she was in for it.

Alexander asked her to take the most dreaded, but most important, of jobs; state party chair. Party chairman are caught in a constant balancing act, stuck trying to please everyone and often pleasing no one. The chair is the referee of all party politics in a given state, and usually bears the blame when things go wrong and gets little credit when they go right. However, the position is crucial to the success of the party. The chair is the chief fundraiser for the party, and has a great deal of power and influence. Williams regretfully agreed to campaign for the job, on the condition that she could have any job she wanted when she was finished. And just like that, once elected, she was the first female party chair in Tennessee history.

The Party was in worse shape than anyone thought. It had virtually no cash in the bank with $100 thousand in debt. Susan got to work and quickly got the party back in good fiscal shape.

When asked what it’s like to be state party chair, she relies on a story as an illustration.

“The women’s groups were the worst for me. They were hard on me because I’m a woman,” Williams recalled. “There was a women’s Republican club in Samburg, Tennessee near Real Foot Lake. That’s as far north and as far west as you can go in Tennessee. They kept calling and calling me to come to one of their meetings until I finally agreed. It took most of my weekend just to get to their town, and there were six people at the meeting. That’s what being party chair is like.”

Williams says of the sixteen jobs she had in politics, this was the worst. But undoubtedly, it’s where she really made a name for herself and did some of her most important work, and it wasn’t all bad. During this time she became friends with national players like Lee Atwater, and rubbed elbows with Roger Stone. Atwater, who she immediately hit it off with after a meeting in the Executive Office Building in Washington, was one of the most successful campaign managers in history. Williams believes if her friend had lived, Bill Clinton would have lost the 1992 Presidential Election.

Also during this time, she was one of only a few chosen to attend the very intimate second inauguration events for President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Negative ten degree weather and a driving snow caused all public events to be canceled, but Williams and her husband Dick were invited, by friend Lee Atwater, to a private prayer service in Washington before the inauguration. They had to be driven to the private event because conditions were so snowy. The reverend Billy Graham preached, and the Marine Corps chorus performed gospel tunes as a symbolic white sheet covered the dark and twisted corridors of Washington, D.C.

In 1987 Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave office, Pat Summitt had just won her first national championship, and Susan Williams had wrapped up her two terms as party chair. It was then that she met Joan Cronan, who convinced her to take what Williams remembers as her favorite job she’s ever had; associate athletics director for development at the University of Tennessee.

With the Lady Vols, Williams put her fundraising prowess to good use, only this time she had an even better product to sell. Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols wrote the book on women’s sports, and from 1988-1995, Susan was a part of it. As she recalls when teased that she didn’t earn her four national championship rings, “you try raising millions of dollars for women’s sports in the eighties and nineties and tell me I didn’t earn those rings.”

During her time at UT, Williams and Cronan were hauled before the State Education Committee by a state senator hellbent on extracting his pound of flesh from Susan. During this display, she was famously pictured on the cover of the Knoxville News Sentinel raising her right hand and “swearing off of politics” during the duration of her tenure at UT. It was an oath she kept for her seven years on Rocky Top, but she couldn’t stay out of politics forever.

When newly elected Governor Don Sundquist called in early 1995, he made a familiar promise. Run my personnel department for just six months, then you can have any job you like, he told Williams. Again, she dutifully accepted. She stayed not six months, but eighteen, navigating the civil service to fill the government with competent loyalists who would look out for Sundquist’s interests. But before her tenure expired, this time she cashed in and asked for the job she really wanted – University of Tennessee Board of Trustees Member. She served on the BoT at UT for 12 years, much of it while also serving as a TVA Director. She is the only person I could identify who served on both the TVA and UT boards congruently.

After her days in government were over, she came back to Knoxville to direct the East Tennessee division of Tom Ingram’s Ingram Group, the premier consulting, public relations, lobbying and political firm in Tennessee for many years. After her mother passed away in 2003 – at 86, she was still Republican Party Chairwoman of Hardin County – Susan reevaluated and decided to open up her own shop. Since then she’s been the principle at SRW & Associates, a multipurpose government and public relations firm. Her clients over the years have included Merit Construction, Gulf and Ohio Railway and the Volunteer Landing development.

Across five decades in politics, almost no Republican got elected statewide in Tennessee without Susan’s help. Her clients and associates include: Governor Winfield Dunn, Senator Bill Brock, Governor Lamar Alexander, Senator Bill Frist, Governor Don Sundquist, Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Bob Corker and Governor Bill Haslam. The most painful loss of her career since Bill Brock’s defeat in 1976 came in last year’s Republican Senatorial Primary, when her good friend Manny Sethi was defeated by now Senator Bill Hagerty.

“I’ve won a lot and I’ve lost some, but both are important. You learn a lot in your losses.”

She was a pioneer for women in politics in the state of Tennessee, accomplishing more over the last fifty years than most any of her contemporaries. She shattered glass ceilings, formed public policy, elected statewide officials and built an iconic brand.

Susan remembers that before the 1970s women’s roles in politics were limited to stuffing envelopes and acting as receptionists for the men. She came along right as the shift in our culture allowed for more opportunity for a woman in a field historically marked by boys clubs. Lamar Alexander, Bill Brock and Winfield Dunn were champions of the value women bring to a campaign and an administration long before others caught up, and they gave Susan the opportunity many women before her never had. As she reflects today on her career, she is amazed by the number of women seeking public office today. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that without her contributions, that wouldn’t be the case in Tennessee.

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