Jim Sasser

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James Ralph Sasser

James Ralph "Jim" Sasser (born September 30, 1936) is a former member of the United States Senate, a Democrat who represented Tennessee from 1977 to 1995.

Originally from Memphis, Sasser was a long time Democratic activist, manager of Albert Gore, Sr.'s unsuccessful 1970 reelection campaign and lawyer who sought and won his party's 1976 nomination for the Senate, defeating, among others, Nashville entrepreneur and attorney John Jay Hooker, then still considered to be a serious candidate due to his strong personality, his (intermittent) wealth, and his connections with the Nashville Tennessean's controlling Seigenthaler family, not the perennial candidate and gadfly that he has since become.

Upon winning his party's Senate nomination, Sasser set out to attack the record of one-term incumbent Sen. William E. Brock III, heir to a Chattanooga candy fortune, who had defeated Gore, Sr. six years earlier. Sasser emphasized Brock's connections to former President Richard Nixon and his use of income tax code provisions that had, despite his great wealth and considerable income, resulted in his paying less than $2,000 in income tax the previous year, less than many Tennesseans of considerably more modest means. Sasser's campaign was also greatly aided by the efforts of Gore, Sr. Brock had defeated the elder Gore for the Senate six years earlier, largely upon the basis of Gore's support for civil rights, his friendship with the Kennedy family, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Sasser won rather handily over Brock, and went on to serve three Senate terms. He turned back a serious effort against him by five-term United States Representative Robin Beard very handily in 1982. That showing was so impressive that his 1988 Republican opponent was a virtual political unknown named Bill Anderson, whose underfunded, essentially token campaign never stood a chance.

At this time, Sasser seemed to be one of the Democratic Party's brighter Senate stars, and he began to work his way upward in the party leadership. In fact, with the Senate Majority Leader, George J. Mitchell of Maine, retiring, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that upon his re-election in 1994 Sasser would be the new majority leader. There were two unforeseen events that negated this scenario. One was the large scale of discontent that the American people seemed to have toward the first two years of the Clinton Administration, especially the proposal for a semi-nationalized health-care system largely put together and advocated by Clinton's wife, Hillary. The other was the somewhat unexpected nomination of Nashville heart transplant surgeon William H. Frist for the seat by the Republicans. Frist was a political unknown and a total novice at campaigning, but was from one of Nashville's most prominent and wealthiest medical families, which gave him name recognition (in the Nashville area, at least), and resources adequate to match the campaign war chest built up by a typical three-term incumbent, a challenge most "insurgent" candidates find to be well-nigh impossible. A further factor working to Frist's advantage was a simultaneous Republican campaign by actor and attorney Fred Thompson for the other Tennessee Senate seat, which came open when Albert A. Gore, Jr. had resigned it to become Vice President. To an extent, Frist was able to bask in the reflected glory of this formidable stage presence, and additionally developed some campaigning skills, which were almost totally absent in the early stages of his campaign, in his own right. Another factor in Frist's favor was that Sasser was never seen as possessing much charisma of his own, with even many of his supporters regarding him as somewhat of a bland character.

In one of the largest upsets in a night of political upsets in the November, 1994 U.S. general elections, Frist defeated Sasser by a comfortable margin, approximately fourteen percentage points. Sasser went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to China, again gaining prominence in the news when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was besieged after U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the U.S. intervention in the Kosovo War. Shortly after the siege of the embassy was lifted, Ambassador Sasser retired (he was slated to do so before the siege, so his retirement was not a direct result) and returned to the United States, where he presently divides his time between Tennessee and Washington, D.C. as a consultant.


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