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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Ballot to bullet

Did a Tennessee G.O.P. candidate kill his rival?

By Jodie Morse

TIME magazine

(TIME, Nov. 2) -- By all accounts, Tommy Burks was a shoo-in for re-election to the Tennessee state senate. The five-term Democrat's law-and-order views resonated with the folks of rural Putnam County along with his distinctive country twang. Early last week, though, Burks was silenced, fatally shot in the head on his hog farm while readying his pumpkin patch for an annual visit from schoolchildren. After a few days' search and a night of questioning, police announced an arrest and a murder charge. The suspect: Byron Looper, the local tax assessor--and more important, Burks' opponent in the upcoming election.

Looper was a perennial also-ran in local politics. A candidate in five recent elections, he has switched parties twice; in 1988 he volunteered to work for Al Gore's presidential campaign. This time Looper was running as a Republican, trying to attract attention by legally changing his middle name from Anthony to (Low Tax). The stunt--parentheses and all--did little to disguise his idiosyncrasies. Looper is already under indictment on charges of misuse of office and, in June, had been slapped with a $1.2 million paternity suit by his live-in girlfriend. (He reacted to her charges with a press release saying he had been shocked to discover she was an ex-stripper, and that all she had left him were "heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia and a red G-string.") Looper was not considered a serious contender against Burks.

But Looper is now the only name on the ballot to greet--and unnerve--the voters. Tennessee law mandates that a dead man's name must be removed from the ballot, but that of a man charged with but not convicted of a felony can remain. Burks' wife Charlotte is now running as a Democratic write-in candidate, and some key members of the embarrassed G.O.P. are supporting her. Tommy Burks' only remaining legacy on the ballot is a referendum question he sponsored: a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would establish a crime victim's bill of rights.

--Reported by Elizabeth Kauffman/Nashville


Cover Date: November 2, 1998

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