Tommy Burks’ murder was nearly 25 years ago

Published 10:15 am Tuesday, March 15, 2022

It’s been nearly a quarter century since I was in the Legislative Plaza office of State Senator Tommy Burks. We talked about his proposal for Tennessee to go back to elected, rather than appointed, school districts. I’d gotten the quote I needed, then stood up to walk out of the office. Wanting to make small talk, I asked him if anyone was running against him the coming fall.
“Yeah,” he said. “Low Tax Looper.”
“What’s his real name?” I asked.
“Low Tax Looper,” Burks said.
He explained. The property assessor in Burks’ home county of Putnam was, Burks told me, “nuts.” Burks told me that Looper was about my age (I was 33 at the time), and to make clear his position on government, he had changed his middle name to “Low Tax.” This, Senator Burks told me, was his opponent in his upcoming reelection campaign.
Only a few months later, I remember hearing the news that Tommy Burks had been found dead on his farm, slumped over the wheel of his pickup truck. In the weeks and months that followed, as Looper was accused and later convicted of murdering him, I remembered what Tommy said about Low Tax Looper.
Burks was killed on October 19, 1998. In the years since I’ve come to realize that, to the best of my knowledge, he’s the only serving politician in Tennessee history to be assassinated. (If I’m wrong about this, please email me at bill@tnhistoryforkids.org and I’ll correct this in a future column.) Burks’ murder, his wife Charlotte’s election to the senate on a write-in ballot, and Looper’s conviction are well-documented. Right now I’d like to tell you some of my memories of the man.
We reporters categorized Burks as a “conservative Democrat.” He consistently argued in favor of restrictions on abortion, while he argued against prison privatization, gambling and the lottery.
“Tommy wasn’t the type of person to mislead you or try to hide his opinion,” said longtime Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey. “He was as candid and honest a fellow as you could ever meet.”
Burks loved his farm and his family. Rather than stay at a hotel in Nashville during legislative session, he typically slept at home in Monterey, woke up early enough to milk his cows and then drove 95 miles to Nashville, arriving in time for 8:30 a.m. committee meetings.
“Tommy Burks was someone I really admired,” former Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, a Republican, once told me. “He was as rock solid as an oak tree, this farmer from the Cumberland Plateau who drove all the way in from his farm every day to the senate. I really looked up to him. Talk about integrity.”
Burks was the senate sponsor of the so-called “Victim’s Bill of Rights,” which was added to the constitution in November 1998. I remember sitting through about two hours of Senate Judiciary Committee debate on that measure, and remember Tommy’s exasperated statement to the committee about why he brought the proposal. “Heaven forbid that we do something for the victims of crimes!” he said.
However, during his year in the General Assembly he got more publicity for proposing two bills that eventually failed. One had to do with the teaching of evolution, which Burks didn’t care for. The other would have required drunk driving offenders to pick up trash on the side of the highway wearing a vest that said “I am a drunk driver” as punishment rather than just spend 48 hours in jail.
As I remember it, Burks’ evolution proposal never made it out of committee. His drunk driving proposal was passed by both chambers but vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist, something that angered Burks quite a bit.
In any case, the senator from Putnam County did a have sense of humor. During the waning hours of what turned out to be his final legislative session, one of his fellow senators brought him to the front of the chamber and gave him a “gag” gift of sorts, a T-shirt he was “sentenced” to wear while he picked up trash on the side of the road that said, on the back of it, “I am descended from a primate.” I still remember the bemused look on Burks’ face when he walked to the podium on that day.

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