The first powerful person to help Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in a political campaign was the governor at the time — Ned McWherter, a Democrat.
That’s because McCormick was a Democrat, which might surprise many followers of the Republican lawmaker, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Capitol Hill.
It was 1992, and McCormick, a Chattanoogan, a University of Tennessee graduate and a Gulf War veteran, was running for the first time. He lost. After his defeat, Republican organizers in Chattanooga, including Zach Wamp, told McCormick a lot of the positions in McCormick’s message sounded like they belonged in the Republican Party. Wamp should know. He had once been a Democrat, a Jimmy Carter supporter.
“It was true. I was a very conservative Democrat,” McCormick said.
So McCormick became a Republican.
“They invited me in. I did it and have not regretted it since. They opened their arms up. The Republican Party in Hamilton County in particular has been really good to me,” McCormick said.
“I saw Governor McWherter several years ago when I was elected to the Legislature. I reminded him who I was. He said, ‘It’s really good to see you. Glad to see you made it to the Legislature finally.’ I said, ‘Governor McWherter, I just want you to know I did make it to the Legislature, but I was elected as a Republican instead of a Democrat.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s all right. Everybody has to be something.'”
McCormick said he felt more comfortable with a limited-government philosophy, and he notes Ronald Reagan, also once a Democrat, is another example of switching to the Republican side. McCormick said he believes former Democratic Gov. Buford Ellington — elected to the office twice, serving from 1959-63 and 1967-71 — would probably have had a hard time today being a Democrat.
McCormick had been campaign chairman for Republican Rep. Bobby Wood of Harrison, and when Wood retired from his seat after 28 years, McCormick ran for it and was elected in 2004. He has since climbed to one of the most powerful positions in the state.
He began to see trends turn Republican in the Legislature after the 2006 election. He had been the assistant majority leader and wanted to run for speaker this year, but after gauging his level of support and recognizing that others, like eventual Speaker Beth Harwell, had more seniority, McCormick went for the majority leader’s position successfully. At 49, he now guides a Republican contingent that includes moderates and conservatives, not an easy mix to control.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with TNReport.com, McCormick talked about the collective bargaining issue that became so prominent in the General Assembly this year, the changing roles of the majority and minority parties in the Legislature, his personal background and his thoughts on Gov. Bill Haslam.
Repeatedly in the interview, McCormick spoke of the heavy responsibility of being the majority party in governing and said the voters could “pitch us out” as fast as they threw the Democrats out of power.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in a separate interview with TNReport, said, “I think Gerald did a really good job this year. It was his first term, as my first term as minority leader, we were sort of muddling through together.”
Fitzhugh said he particularly appreciated the way McCormick handled the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits, an issue Democrats felt strongly about.
Fitzhugh did refer to McCormick as “mercurial” and even compared him to temperamental House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. McCormick readily admits he will mix it up with the best of them.
“Rather than ‘mercurial’ I would say ‘passionate,'” McCormick said. “Mike Turner is the same way. He’s a very honest person. If he’s mad at you, he’ll let you know. I’m the same way. I feel like people need to know. If you’re upset with them, it’s better just to tell them and have the discussion right away rather than letting it fester.
“That’s been my approach to life. It usually works. Sometimes it backfires a little, and sometimes maybe I should count to 10 before I say something.”
McCormick was one of the most notably irritated Republicans on the tumultuous day in 2009 when Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, made a deal with Democrats that resulted in Williams being elected speaker of the House.
“I shared my feelings with Speaker Williams at the time,” McCormick said. “It’s not personal. It’s really not. He broke his word, and he affected a lot of people’s lives.
“We had people who had literally rented apartments on the idea that he was going to vote with the majority and elect Jason Mumpower speaker. We had people who had quit jobs and moved up here, and he didn’t tell us the truth. I thought he needed to hear it very soon and very decisively that I disagreed with what he had done.”
McCormick said he and Williams are on good terms now. He even messaged Williams a happy birthday last month.
McCormick said while he and Fitzhugh have policy differences that Fitzhugh has been very effective for the Democrats, particularly on budget issues.
McCormick admitted he did not foresee the collective bargaining bill — which diminished the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate for the state’s teachers — as becoming the dominant issue it was this year.
“In a broad philosophical sense, I don’t think government employee unions ought to be negotiating with other government employees with the taxpayers’ money,” McCormick said.
“Having said that, I’ve never said that on the campaign trail before and have never been elected on that basis, so I tried to take it slow and analyze it as we went along. In the end, we probably did the right thing, in that we lessened the influence of the teachers’ union over education policy while still keeping the teachers involved.”
The Legislature wound up with a “collaborative conferencing” law that watered down the TEA’s power.
The bill on collective bargaining was resented by teachers who crowded the halls of the Capitol and marched on Legislative Plaza this year.
“I’m surprised at how the volume has turned down so soon after we passed the legislation,” McCormick said. “We had a lot of noise in the beginning. As more people understand it, I think they have become accustomed to it and are more comfortable with it.
“Really the only people who are bitter about it are the union activists, who quite frankly did a better job of taking care of themselves than they did the average teacher out there in Tennessee.”
McCormick said the teachers union had become “virtually a financial arm of the state Democratic Party.”
Times have changed substantially since 2004 in terms of Republican strength in the General Assembly.
“It’s a lot different being in the majority,” McCormick said. “Now, you have the responsibility of actually governing. When you’re in the minority, you don’t, and you can pretty much throw grenades and see where they land and not have to worry about implementing the policy. Now, if we come out for a policy, we actually have the votes to pass it, and we have to make sure it’s a responsible policy and one that we can implement.”
He understands the Democrats’ predicament.
“You have to remember they were in the majority for a century or more. They’re not used to not getting their way,” he said.
“Most of the time we could ignore them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, on a number of levels. They got elected by the people of Tennessee, too. From a practical standpoint, if they get up and walk out, we won’t have a quorum. I don’t think they’re going to do that, as long as we treat them fairly.”
He remembers quite well another time and another political landscape at the Capitol.
“When I started out, Jimmy Naifeh was the speaker of the House. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine a situation where anybody else was the speaker of the House,” McCormick said. “He was so dominant, and so effective, not necessarily doing what I wanted him to do, but the trains ran on time when he wanted them to.”
McCormick was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Gulf War. A sergeant, he was sent to the war soon after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Because of his area of training, which came at Fort McClellan in Alabama, McCormick saw some of the planning for the war and was in one of the first units to go, spending about six months there.
A native of Jackson, McCormick grew up in Memphis, went to Germantown High School and attended the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kim, a Chattanoogan. Upon graduation they moved to Chattanooga. McCormick admits he got homesick for Memphis in college and wanted to go to Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, but his mother insisted he stick it out at UT, where he took a lot of political science and history courses.
He has worked a lot of jobs, including roofing and fast food. He picked up garbage on the side of the road while with a temporary employment agency. He eventually worked for the Hamilton County assessor of property, where he was trained to be a commercial real estate appraiser, and he transitioned into being a real estate broker and developer, his current profession.
When he’s not working on real estate projects, McCormick is in a position now in Nashville that puts him on the front line of government power, including leadership meetings with the governor.
“I’m very impressed by a number of aspects of Governor Haslam’s style of operating. No. 1, I think he is absolutely completely honest. I don’t think we will ever see any kind of a personal scandal or a political scandal surrounding Bill Haslam,” said McCormick, who had supported Wamp in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.
“He acts in a small group exactly how he acts in a big group. He’s a very nice, decent person.”
He cited an example of Haslam’s style, where McCormick was making points about the political aspects of a specific issue.
“He cut me off. There were about four of us in the room,” McCormick said. “He pointed to each one of us, and he said, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to do? Don’t worry about the politics of it.’ I think he really believes that.”