Otis Sanford: Lewis Donelson among county’s most influential leaders

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When modern day Republicans are looking for one major reason the party is successful winning elections in Shelby County, they need look no further than to the life and legacy of Lewie Donelson.

The GOP was basically an afterthought before Donelson infused new blood and new energy into the local party starting in the early 1950s.

Since then, Republicans haven`t just been competitive in local elections, they have overtaken Democrats countywide, and now hold almost every elected county office.

And it's no stretch to say that the party owes a huge debt of gratitude to Donelson, who passed away Thursday at the age of 100.

Donelson had been a Democrat before switching party affiliation in 1951. He then organized a group called the New Guard Republicans and eventually took control of the local party from longtime African American Republican leader George W. Lee.

In 1966, Donelson orchestrated the election of Dan Kuykendall as the first Republican to represent Memphis in Congress. The following year, Donelson was elected as a charter member of the Memphis city council. He also was instrumental in the election of Tennessee Republicans to the U.S. Senate and the governor's office.

Beyond partisan politics, Donelson ran a highly successful law firm and served tirelessly on several local boards.

So when the list of all-time influential local leaders is compiled, Lewie Donelson should be near the top.