Jim Sasser is a former member of the United States Senate, a Democrat who represented Tennessee from 1977 to 1995.
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Jim Sasser was a long time Democratic activist, manager of Albert Gore, Sr.'s unsuccessful 1970 reelection campaign. A lawyer by trade, Sasser sought election in his own right and won his party's 1976 nomination for the Senate. He defeated, among others, Nashville, Tennessee 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. Hooker, of course, has since become a somewhat laughable perennial candidate and gadfly (social).
Upon winning his party's Senate nomination, Sasser set out to attack the record of one-term incumbent Sen. Bill Brock, heir to a Chattanooga candy fortune. Sasser emphasized Brock's connections to former President Richard M. 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. Sasser was able to capitalize on the tax issue by pointing out that Brock had paid less than many Tennesseans of considerably more modest means.
Sasser's campaign was also greatly aided by the efforts of ex-Senator Gore. Brock had defeated the elder Gore for the Senate in 1970 largely upon the basis of Gore's support for civil rights, his friendship with the Kennedy political 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 United States Republican Party opponent was a virtual political unknown named Bill Andersen, whose underfunded, essentially token campaign never stood a chance.
With the retirement of Senator Lawton Chiles in 1989, Sasser became Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. In that role, he served as a key ally of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine. Sasser helped negotiate the 1990 budget summit agreement with President George H. W. Bush. And in 1993, he engineered passage of President Bill Clinton's first budget, which reduced the deficit by $500 billion dollars over 10 years, but passed without any Republican votes.
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. With Leader Mitchell 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 national health-care system largely put together and advocated by Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. 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 (who never voted until he was 36) 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 Al Gore had resigned to become Vice President of the United States. 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, which would become increasingly ruthless as he gained power in the Senate (see Tom Daschle). Another factor in Frist's favor was that Sasser was never seen as possessing much charisma of his own. In one of the largest upsets in a night of political upsets in the November, 1994 U.S. general elections, Frist defeated the 16 years older incumbent Sasser by a comfortable margin, approximately 14 percentage points.
Sasser went on to serve as ambassador to China during the period of alleged nuclear spying and the 1996 U.S. campaign finance scandal that involved possible efforts by China to influence domestic U.S. politics during the Clinton Administration. Sasser again gained media attention 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.
Preceded by: J. Stapleton Roy US Ambassador to China 1995-1999 Succeeded by: Joseph Prueher Preceded by: Bill Brock U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Tennessee 1978-1995 Succeeded by: William H. Frist