Irene Bailey Baker came to Congress as part of the widow’s mandate, succeeding a powerful and well–connected husband who died so suddenly that party leaders were caught unprepared to name a long–term successor. Mrs. Baker had long before established herself as a politician in her own right, serving as a Tennessee GOP national committeewoman and chairing the state’s Grass Roots Organization of Republican Women. An adept campaigner, she nevertheless ran on the reputation of her late husband, Tennessee Congressman Howard Baker, in a special election to fill his vacant seat. “I stand on Howard’s record,” Irene Baker declared, on her way to winning election to a 10–month term in which her chief goal was to provide continuity for her husband’s legislative agenda.
Edith Irene Bailey was born in Sevierville, Tennessee, on November 17, 1901. She attended public schools in Maryville and Sevierville, and studied music. She served in local government as a court clerk from 1918 to 1924, eventually becoming the deputy clerk and master in the chancery court in Sevierville. Her first husband died, and she was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as an abstractor of titles in the early 1930s. She met Howard Henry Baker, a widower, and they were married in 1935. The couple raised Baker’s two children from his first marriage—Howard H. Baker, Jr., and Mary Elizabeth Baker—and one of their own, Beverly Irene Baker.1
Howard Baker was a lawyer who had served briefly in the Tennessee legislature before working as the attorney general for a judicial circuit that encompassed six counties in the northeastern part of the state. He also published the weekly Cumberland Chronicle in his hometown of Huntsville, Tennessee. In the 1930s, he became a powerful player in state GOP politics, working as a party official while establishing his own law firm in Huntsville. He was a delegate to the 1940 GOP convention and, in 1948 and 1952, was chairman of the Tennessee delegation at the Republican National Convention. Irene worked on her husband’s unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 1938 and for U.S. Senator in 1940. When Howard Baker won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1950 in an eastern Tennessee district which encompassed Knoxville, Irene worked in his Washington, D.C., office. Congressman Baker eventually became Tennessee’s leading GOP power broker and the number–two Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In his subsequent six re–election campaigns he never faced serious competition, either within his party or from Democrats.2 Since the founding of the Republican Party in 1856, Baker’s district had always voted Republican.
Though aligned with the conservative wing of the party (Congressman Baker had supported Senator Robert Taft for the presidency in 1952), he supported the Democratic majority on such key issues as Social Security entitlements, the TVA, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The latter two programs were of special interest to eastern Tennesseans, for whom the TVA provided much of the industrial infrastructure. The AEC, which managed the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratories, provided many jobs to the local economy. Baker once described the TVA as “a part of our Second District everyday life.”3 In 1959, Congressman Baker played a key part in the passage of a TVA self–financing act that renewed the agency’s authority to generate power for seven states. He also was instrumental in helping the TVA retain its forestry and conservation programs.4
When Congressman Baker died of a sudden heart attack on January 7, 1964, the Tennessee Republican leadership chose Irene Baker to run in the March 10, 1964, special election. The decision was motivated in part by the desire to stave off intraparty rivalry. It worked exceedingly well. Baker pledged only to fill the remaining 10 months of her husband’s term, allowing GOP leaders to select a candidate for the fall 1964 elections. Irene Baker campaigned on her husband’s reputation. “Why need I say I am for full employment at Oak Ridge, in the coal mining regions, in more industry for the district, for a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility and for a reduction in taxes based on a reduction in federal expenditures?” she said during a campaign rally. She also supported her husband’s resolution to amend the Constitution to permit the reading of the Bible and prayers in public schools. “To say these things could possibly create questions of how I stand, and there can be no question of that.”5 Potential Republican contenders stepped aside, and Baker ran an efficient campaign against her Democratic rival, Willard Yarbrough, the assistant city editor of the Knoxville News–Sentinel. Despite light voter turnout, Baker won the special election by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent, a plurality of about 9,000 votes out of 72,000 cast.6
Congresswoman Baker was sworn in to the 88th Congress (1963–1965) on March 19, 1964. During her short term she served on the Committee on Government Operations. In that position Representative Baker continued many of her husband’s policies: advocating a balanced federal budget, looking to protect jobs in her district’s major industries of coal mining and nuclear research laboratories, and supporting the TVA. She also advocated cost of living increases for Social Security recipients and criticized the Lyndon Johnson administration for risking inflation through excessive government spending. “I feel that we owe it to Social Security beneficiaries to increase their benefits,” Baker explained to colleagues in a floor speech. “It [the economy] is not their fault.”7
As promised, Baker declined to run for the 89th Congress (1965–1967), returning to private life in Knoxville. She was succeeded by yet another family dynasty, headed by the former mayor of Knoxville, John James Duncan. Duncan served from 1965 until his death in June 1988; he was succeeded by his son, John J. Duncan, Jr. Irene Baker served as Knoxville’s director of public welfare from 1965 to 1971. Her stepson, Howard H. Baker, Jr., continued the family political tradition by winning election in 1966 as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. He served from 1967 to 1985, becoming Senate Majority Leader in 1981. Irene Baker died in Loudon, Tennessee, on April 2, 1994.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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