Don Sundquist, a Republican who was twice elected governor of Tennessee and earlier served 12 years in the United States House of Representatives, died on Sunday in Memphis. He was 87.
His death, at Baptist East Hospital, was confirmed by a family spokeswoman. A statement by the office of the state’s current governor, Bill Lee, said the death came after surgery and a short illness.
Mr. Sundquist never lost an election in eight tries in Tennessee — six for Congress and two for governor — but he emerged as a divisive figure during his final years in office as the state feuded over whether to create an income tax.
He was elected to the House in 1982, representing parts of West and Middle Tennessee. He kept the seat until running for governor in 1994, when he became Tennessee’s 47th chief executive. He easily won re-election in 1998.
During his first term as governor in Nashville, Mr. Sundquist reformed the state’s welfare system through a program he called Families First. It was designed to move welfare recipients into jobs by offering them training, job search help, transportation and day care needs. In return, recipients were required to spend time each week in job-related activities and were limited to 18 months of welfare at a time with a lifetime ceiling of five years.
“It’s a highly successful program of preparation for work,” Mr. Sundquist said in 1998.
He also favored privatizing the state’s prison system, but the General Assembly balked. In his second term, he proposed repealing the sales tax on groceries, to save each Tennessee family of four nearly $500 per year. And he recommended repealing the franchise and excise taxes and replacing them with a low “fair business tax” that treats all companies the same.
His popularity began to wane, though, as state financial troubles emerged during soaring costs for TennCare, the state’s effort to provide health care for the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. He proposed a state income tax, an idea usually associated with Democrats, which set off a long-running battle over state finances.
Mr. Sundquist was so unpopular among Republicans that he avoided nearly all public appearances with the party’s presidential nominee, George W. Bush, in 2000. He stayed out of the limelight for years after he left office, in 2003, but began to resume appearing at party events after Gov. Bill Haslam was elected in 2010.
In Congress, Mr. Sundquist voted against banning assault weapons, helped write and pass a comprehensive ethics code and supported a capital-gains tax cut and a balanced-budget amendment. He opposed the 1990 Civil Rights Act.
In his first race for the House, he upset the Democrat Bob Clement — a son of former Gov. Frank Clement and the heir to a famous name in Tennessee politics. After winning the seat, Mr. Sundquist rarely had serious opposition for re-election.
The son of a welder, Donald Kenneth Sundquist was born on March 15, 1936, in Moline, Ill. Before serving in Congress, he founded Graphic Sales of America Corp. of Memphis, a printing and advertising company. He also put together investors to establish a bank in Germantown and later joined with others in opening a Memphis-style barbecue restaurant in Arlington, Va.
He was national chairman of the Young Republican National Federation from 1971 to 1973 and spent almost 20 years doing grass roots work for the G.O.P.
Mr. Sundquist was the first member of his family to attend college, bagging groceries to help pay for tuition at Augustana College in Illinois. After graduating in 1957, he served two years in the Navy. He then went to work for Jostens Inc., a scholastic products company in Shelbyville, where he rose to division manager before moving to become partner and president of Graphic Sales.
He defeated Phil Bredesen, then mayor of Nashville, for governor in 1994. In 1998, he had token opposition, defeating John Jay Hooker Jr. in the general election.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, the former first lady Martha Sundquist; their children, Andrea, Tania and Deke; and two granddaughters, Governor Lee’s office said.