Politics is full of colorful characters, especially when you look down ballot. These characters often lead to interesting stories. There are few that are more interesting than Byron “Low Tax” Looper. The election that Low Tax Looper made his mark in was the 1998 election for the 15th district of the Tennessee State Senate, and it wasn’t in a good way.
Byron Looper was a Republican from Putnam County, Tennessee. In 1996 he ran for the position of Putnam County Tax Assessor, beating a 14-year incumbent on the back of negative campaigning. Looper was always one for advancement and theatrics. He issued numerous press releases slandering his political opponents and legally changed his middle name to “Low Tax” while in office. Ever one looking for advancement, he decided to challenge the longterm incumbent of SD-15 in 1998.
Senate District 15 had long been occupied by Democrat Tommy Burks. Burks was beloved in his community. He was known for being down-to-earth and having great constituent services. He rarely missed votes even though he was a fulltime farmworker tasked with moving agricultural products throughout the state. Burks was also an old-school southern Democrat. He opposed teaching evolution in schools and he wanted to ban abortion. He also was one of the key voices on statewide agricultural issues.
This election looked like a cakewalk for Burks. This became even more likely after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations indicted Low Tax Looper on multiple counts of official misconduct, theft of services, and official oppression for theft, misuse of county property, and misuse of county employees. The Republican Party of Putnam County moved to oust him from his position of Tax Assessor. They could not, however, remove his name from the ballot for Burks’ seat. The odds stacked against him, Low Tax Looper looked headed for a blowout. Then tragedy struck, which gave him a lifeline.
Early in the morning, Tommy Burks awoke to start his work on the farm. Before he left he stopped to talk to one of the farmhands, Wesley Rex, about what Rex needed to do that day. The day was a normal day on the farm. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was a black car that had been lurking around. Suddenly, Burks stopped talking and the black car sped away. Rex turned to look back at his boss and he saw him slumped against the steering column, a bullet in his head.
Rex called the Cumberland County authorities quickly to report the assassination of Burks. Police found that no one had a motive for the killing. That night Wesley was watching the evening news. The newscaster was reporting on the election and how Burks’s death made Looper a shoo-in. Under state law, a dead person can’t appear on the ballot. While explaining this, the newscast flashed an image of Looper. Rex recognized him immediately. He was the man in the black car. He was the man that killed Burks.
Local police arrested Looper for the assassination of Tommy Burks. He was convicted after prosecution produced a key witness: the man that sold him the gun that killed Burks. The mystery over who killed Burks was over. Justice prevailed, but there was only one problem: state law.
An Outdated Law
State law said that a candidate’s name could not be replaced from the ballot once the ballots were printed. The assassination of Burks occurred within 30 days of the election. This meant that there was no way that the state could replace him on the ballot.
Disgusted at Low Tax Looper, the local Republican parties wanted him off the ballot. They argued that being indicted for murder counted as moral turpitude, which allowed people to be removed from the ballot. That argument failed for the same reason: Burks could not be replaced on the ballot. In a last-ditch effort, Democrats and Republicans drafted Charlotte Burks, Burks’s widow, as a write-in candidate.
With less than a week to run an election, Both parties set up volunteers and staff for her campaign. This was reminiscent of the support national parties gave Edwin Edwards in Louisiana when he faced David Duke. Like Edwards, she won in a landslide.
Charlotte Burks would serve in the Tennessee Legislature for 16 more years before retiring in 2014. Her successor in the Senate was State Representative Paul Bailey, a Republican. She was the first write-in candidate to win in Tennessee and is one of the most successful write-in candidates in US history.
Low Tax Looper was later convicted of the Murder of Tommy Burks. He was removed from his position as county Tax Assessor for a different scandal regarding financial irregularities. After that, he would be accused of rape by his former girlfriend in a civil suit.
Looper died in prison in 2013 of a heart condition, exacerbated by an overdose of antidepressants. Looper was a candidate that tried to win an election by violence, and he paid the price for that. Regardless, he is still one of the more colorful characters that have ever engaged in politics.