Lamar Alexander Biography

Lamar Alexander is the only Tennessean ever popularly elected both governor and United States Senator. He served twenty-six years, longer than any other Tennessean who has held both jobs. He won six statewide primaries, twice as many as any other Republican. In between being governor (1979-1987) and senator (2003-2021), he was President of the University of Tennessee, U.S. Education Secretary for President George H.W. Bush and served on the faculty of Harvard’s School of Government. He co-founded a Nashville law firm and two successful businesses.

When Alexander retired from the U.S. Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called him “hands-down one of the most brilliant, most thoughtful, and most effective legislators any of us has ever seen. …For 18 years, there has been Lamar Alexander, and there’s been the rest of us.” Writing in Harvard’s Education Next, Chester Finn said, “No one living today has had more far-reaching influence on American K–12 education.” The Knoxville News Sentinel said, “[Alexander] is leaving with more influence on every corner and aspect of the state than anyone you can name. . . His presence is greater than Dolly's, his accomplishments more impressive than Manning's. The impact of his political career on this state equals or exceeds Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, as well as longtime mentor and friend U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.”

During just his final year in the Senate, Alexander was the driving force behind the Great American Outdoors Act, the most important law since the Eisenhower years to support national parks and conservation. He wrote the law to reduce from 108 to 33 the number of questions on the FAFSA, the complex application form that has become a roadblock for 20 million students seeking federal student aid to attend college. His legislation ended surprise medical billing and increased transparency for health care costs. Another law set up a $2.5 billion “shark tank” at the National Institutes of Health that created two dozen new ways to make diagnostic tests for COVID-19. And for the sixth consecutive year the appropriations subcommittee he chaired provided record funding for the Office of Science, national laboratories, supercomputing and waterways, including restarting Chickamauga Lock.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from 2015 to 2021, Alexander shepherded 91 bills that became law. He was principal sponsor of many of these, including the 2015 “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama called “a Christmas Miracle,” and the Wall Street Journal said was the “largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century.” For this, the nation’s governors and the National Education Association gave Alexander their highest awards. In 2016, Alexander sponsored the “21st Century Cures Act,” which Majority Leader McConnell said was “the most important law of this Congress.” In 2018, Alexander authored the Opioid Crisis Response Act, which McConnell called “landmark legislation.” In 2019, Alexander wrote the law providing permanent funding for historically black colleges and minority institutions.

He was also a principal sponsor of important laws including the 2007 “America COMPETES Act,” a 2015 law that reformed student loans, and the 2018 law changing copyright laws to ensure songwriters will be paid fairly.

In 2016, the nation’s governors created the James Madison Award to recognize members of Congress who support federalism and the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing states’ rights. The governors named Sen. Alexander as the first-ever recipient of the award for his work to fix No Child Left Behind. In 2013, the National Conference of State Legislatures gave Sen. Alexander and three other senators its “Restoring the Balance” Award for protecting states’ rights, the first time in 10 years the organization had given this award to U.S. senators.

In his 1978 campaign for governor, Alexander walked 1022 miles across Tennessee spending the night with 73 families. On January 17, 1979, Democrat legislative leaders swore him in three days early because of scandals surrounding the incumbent Democrat governor.

As Governor, he helped bring the auto industry to Tennessee, recruiting Nissan and Saturn and sponsoring three major road programs to attract auto parts suppliers; led Tennessee to become the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well; and left office with fewer state employees, third-lowest per capita taxes, a AAA bond rating, and zero road debt.

His colleagues elected him Chairman of the National Governors Association (1985-1986) and of U.S. Senate Republican Conference (2007-2012).

When not in public office, co-founded a Nashville law firm (1972) and two successful businesses: Blackberry Farm, Inc., (1976) and Corporate Child Care, Inc. (1987).

He is a classical and country pianist and the author of seven books.

Lamar Alexander is a seventh-generation East Tennessean, born July 3, 1940, in Maryville. His father was an elementary school principal and his mother was a pre-school teacher.

He married Leslee (Honey) Buhler on January 4, 1969. They live outside Maryville and have four children, nine grandchildren and a dog named Rufus.

Biographical Highlights

  • Only Tennessean ever popularly elected both Governor and United States Senator;
  • Served 26 years as either governor or senator, longer than any other Tennessean who has held both jobs;
  • Won six statewide primaries, twice as many as any other Republican;
  • Elected U.S. Senator in 2002 (54% vs. Bob Clement, 44%); re-elected 2008 (65% vs. Bob Tuke, 32%); re-elected 2014 (62% vs Gordon Ball, 32%);
  • As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from 2015 to 2021, Alexander shepherded 91 bills that became law. He was principal sponsor of many of these, including the 2015 “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama called “a Christmas Miracle,” and the Wall Street Journal said was the “largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century.” For this, the nation’s governors and the National Education Association gave Alexander their highest awards. In 2016, Alexander sponsored the “21st Century Cures Act,” which Majority Leader McConnell said was “the most important law of this Congress.” In 2018, Alexander authored the Opioid Crisis Response Act, which McConnell called “landmark legislation.” In 2019, Alexander wrote the law providing permanent funding for historically black colleges and minority institutions.
  • During just his final year in the Senate, Alexander was the driving force behind the Great American Outdoors Act, the most important law since the Eisenhower years to support national parks and conservation. He wrote the law to reduce from 108 to 33 the number of questions on the FAFSA, the complex application form that has become a roadblock for 20 million students seeking federal student aid to attend college. His legislation ended surprise medical billing and increased transparency for health care costs. Another law set up a $2.5 billion “shark tank” at the National Institutes of Health that created two dozen new ways to make diagnostic tests for COVID-19.
  • As chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee over fiscal years 2016 through 2020, Alexander provided six years of record funding for the Office of Science, national laboratories, supercomputing and waterways, including restarting Chickamauga Lock;
  • He was also a principal sponsor of “The America COMPETES Act” (2007), of legislation reforming student loans (2015), and of the new law helping songwriters be fairly paid (2018).
  • In 2016, the nation’s governors created the James Madison Award to recognize members of Congress who support federalism and the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing states’ rights. The governors named Sen. Lamar Alexander as the first-ever recipient of the award for his work to fix No Child Left Behind. In 2013, the National Conference of State Legislatures gave Sen. Alexander and three other senators its “Restoring the Balance” Award for protecting states’ rights, the first time in 10 years the organization gave this award to U.S. senators.
  • Chairman of the National Governors Association (1985-1986) and U.S. Senate Republican Conference (2007-2012);
  • President, University of Tennessee (1988-1991); U.S. Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush (1991-1993); Professor of Practice in Public Service, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (2001-2002);

Personal:

  • In 1967, Alexander met Leslee (Honey) Buhler at a Washington, D.C. softball game when she was working for Texas Senator John Tower, and he was working for Tennessee Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. Nashville’s Family and Children’s Services home is the “Honey Alexander Center,” recognizing her work for that institution and for her leadership of Tennessee’s Healthy Children Initiative during the 1980’s.
  • After eight years in the Governor’s residence, the Alexander family moved to Australia. He wrote a book, “Six Months Off,” which Dick Estell read in its entirety on National Public Radio. Alexander has written six other books.
  • Alexander is a classical and country pianist who has performed on the Grand Ole Opry, with the Billy Graham Crusade and with Tennessee symphonies.
  • Member of 440 yard relay team setting Vanderbilt University’s school record (1961); member, Vanderbilt Athletic Hall of Fame; one of NCAA’s 100 Most Influential student-athletes (2006).

Education:

  • Maryville High School (1958): Governor, Tennessee American Legion Boys State; winner, state VFW Oratorical contest; winner, Buxton and Jaco Cups in statewide piano competition.
  • College: Vanderbilt University (BA, 1962): Phi Beta Kappa; Editor, campus newspaper; President, Sigma Chi.
  • Law School: New York University (JD, 1965): editor, law review; Root-Tilden Scholar

Political and Civic:

  • Messenger and law clerk, Honorable John Minor Wisdom, U.S Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit (1965-66); Legislative Assistant to United States Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (1967-68); staff assistant to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970); Manager, Winfield Dunn’s general election campaign (1970); Republican nominee for governor (1974); Governor of Tennessee (1979-1987); Chairman, National Governor’s Association (1985-86); Chairman, President Reagan’s Commission on Americans Outdoors (1986); President, University of Tennessee, (1988-1991); U.S. Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush (1991-93); Candidate for President of the United States (1995-1996, 1999-2000); Elected to U.S. Senate in 2002, reelected 2008, 2014; Chairman Senate Republican Conference (2007-2012).

Business and Professional:

  • In 1972, Alexander co-founded Nashville’s Dearborn & Ewing law firm; In 1976, co-founded Blackberry Farm, Inc., (sold interest in 1993); In 1987, co-founded with Marguerite Sallee (Kondracke), R. Brad Martin, Honey Alexander and Bob Keeshan (television’s “Captain Kangaroo”) Corporate Child Care, Inc., which became publicly traded in 1997 and later merged with Bright Horizons, Inc., becoming the world’s largest provider of worksite day care. (sold interest in 2008).