Harlan Mathews, a longtime state official and right-hand man to a governor, a man who preferred to work behind the scenes but was briefly thrust into the limelight as a U.S. senator, died this morning, a family spokesman said. He was 87.
The cause of death was brain cancer. He died about 6 a.m. this morning.
Mr. Mathews was a fixture at the Capitol for all but a couple of years from 1950 into the 1990s, serving under four Democratic governors and holding the constitutional office of state treasurer — a position elected by the General Assembly — from 1974 to 1987.
His years as treasurer coincided with most of Ned McWherter's 14-year run as speaker of the House of Representatives. When McWherter decided to run for governor in 1986, Mr. Mathews joined him as the campaign's chief fund-raiser, public relations executive Katy Varney said.
After McWherter was elected, he named Mr. Mathews deputy governor.
"He was definitely Ned's most trusted confidante," said Varney, who worked on McWherter's campaign and then in his administration as legislative liaison. "They understood each other better and were closer friends than anybody. I definitely think he was Ned's best friend."
Listening much more than he talked, Mr. Mathews knew everything that happened in the governor's office and "had an amazing ability to do a very succinct assessment of all that was happening around him," Varney said.
"In his quiet way, he was command central," she said. "He inspired people to do great work, but he was just calming. You felt there was an adult in charge. He didn't ever scream and yell."
Jim Hall, who ran the McWherter campaign and then worked in the administration as head of the state planning office, called Mr. Mathews "Ned's monitor," the official who "oversaw all the projects."
Hall said Mr. Mathews brought a practical sensibility to everything he did, combining two of his abiding interests — finance and government — to run an operation with the right priorities.
"He was conservative in many of his views, liberal in others, but always adhered to the bottom line and the impact on taxpayers."
Stepping into public view
Larry Daughtrey, who covered the McWherter administration for The Tennessean, said Mr. Mathews was "the consummate insider," most comfortable when he was quietly supporting the high-profile leader he worked for.
But Mr. Mathews held a very public role himself when he represented the state in Washington, D.C., at the end of his long career in public service. After U.S. Sen. Albert Gore was elected vice president in 1992, McWherter — who died in 2011 — appointed his top aide to fill the Senate seat.
Mr. Mathews served for about two years until Fred Thompson, a Republican, won a special election in 1994. Hall, who served in the Clinton-Gore administration as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Mr. Mathews was "the most electable Democrat we had" in Tennessee and would have given Thompson a tough race.
But Mr. Mathews didn't want to create a "fractious primary" and decided not to run against U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who became the Democratic nominee, Hall said from Signal Mountain, Tenn.
Varney said she was in Washington years later when a sedan driver, upon learning she was from Tennessee, asked if she knew Mr. Mathews. The foreign-born driver called Mr. Mathews "the finest man I've ever known." Varney, after saying that she used to work for him, asked why.
When he first came to the United States, the man explained, he was driving a cab and picked up Mr. Mathews. After he told the senator about his difficulties bringing his wife and children to America, Mr. Mathews gave him a business card and told him to call if he could help. The driver told Varney his family had since joined him, and he said he owed their reunion to the former senator from Tennessee.
Roots in Alabama, life in Tennessee
Mr. Mathews, who grew up in Alabama, came to Nashville for graduate school at Vanderbilt University after earning his undergraduate degree from Jacksonville State University in 1949. He served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946.
In 1950 he started working on Gov. Gordon Browning's planning staff. He then worked as a budget official and state finance commissioner under governors Frank Clement and Buford Ellington from 1955 to 1970. He also found time to earn a law degree from Nashville School of Law in 1962.
After Republican Winfield Dunn won the governor's office in 1970, Mr. Mathews joined Amcon International as senior vice president. He returned to the Capitol in 1973 as legislative assistant to Comptroller William Snodgrass. He was elected state treasurer the following year and served until McWherter took office as governor in 1987.
Mr. Mathews is survived by his wife, Pat; their sons Stanley and Lester, and two granddaughters, Katie Zipper and Emily Mathews. He was preceded in death by another son, Richard Mathews.