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VOL. 40 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 16, 2016

M. Lee Smith, publisher of Tennessee Journal, dies at 74

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NASHVILLE (AP) - M. Lee Smith, an influential political adviser and newsletter publisher who once broke the news that a Tennessee governor had hired a convicted double-murderer as a state photographer, has died. He was 74.

Smith was an attorney and Republican political staffer to the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and former Gov. Winfield Dunn before launching his own publishing business and newsletter, the Tennessee Journal, in the mid-1970s. Smith's family confirmed he died on Tuesday.

Smith was interviewing the House speaker for the Tennessee Journal in 1977 when Roger Humphreys, a childhood acquaintance from Johnson City, showed up to take photos. Humphreys had been found guilty of shooting his former wife and a man by firing 18 shots at them with a two-shot Derringer, reloading the pistol eight times.

"I almost fell out of my chair," Smith recalled in "Coup," Keel Hunt's 2013 book about the era.

Smith confirmed through the corrections department that Humphreys, the son of a county patronage chief for Gov. Ray Blanton, had been hired on work release two months after he began serving his prison term.

Smith's brief newsletter item set off a storm of controversy around Blanton, who declared that he would not answer "any more negative questions" from reporters. Other controversies also dogged Blanton, who was ousted by fellow Democrats three days before the end of his term, after granting three pardons and reducing the sentences of 49 prisoners, including Humphreys, with an 11th-hour stroke of his pen.

The removal led to the early inauguration of the rival Blanton dismissed as a "choir boy," Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander, who ended up serving two terms and is now Tennessee's senior U.S. senator.

"For a half century, Lee Smith and his Tennessee Journal participated in Tennessee politics in a straightforward way that commanded the respect of both Democrats and Republicans," Alexander said Wednesday. "In between, he found time to be Vanderbilt's most rabid basketball fan."

Longtime reporter and editor Ed Cromer was hired by Smith as editor of the Tennessee Journal in 1997.

"Lee was a straight-shooter, a fun guy to be around and as decent a man as I've known," Cromer said. "He was calm and clear-headed, except at Vanderbilt football and basketball games, where he usually went crazy."

Smith sold his publishing business and newsletter in 2005.

Dunn called Smith "extraordinarily important" in his longshot bid for governor in 1970, a time when Democrats had a firm grip on all branches of state government. Dunn won, and Smith became a senior legal adviser.

"He was counselor, he was a Cabinet-level appointee, and he served me loyally and devotedly for four years," Dunn said.

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