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VOL. 40 | NO. 18 | Friday, April 29, 2016

Outspoken McCormick one of the ‘stars’ of the Legislature

By Sam Stockard

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Rep. Gerald McCormick holds plenty of authority in the General Assembly as majority leader of the Republican Caucus, and he’s not afraid to show it.

He wielded that power in the final week of the 2016 session by dropping jaws on the House floor with a verbal spanking of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

McCormick, who grew up in Germantown outside of Memphis but represents House District 26 in Chattanooga, opened a morning session by noting the Chamber of Commerce sent him and other members of the Hamilton County delegation a letter letting them know it opposes legislation requiring students to use school restrooms and lockers based on their birth sex.

He’d forgotten what he was mad about the night before, he said, but this riled him up again.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet, dropped the bill the previous day, amid an outcry from CEOs of several major companies and the country music industry, saying she found out school systems are handling the situation on their own.

“And by the way, for the record, I think we did the right thing yesterday. I’m against men going in little girls’ bathrooms, but I think there are better ways to handle it than the way we were looking at handling it,” McCormick said on the floor.

“And with that on the record, I got a letter from the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. It was a long, self-righteous letter, but it said at the end, ‘simply put, the legislation is bad for business, bad for Chattanooga and Hamilton County and bad for Tennessee.’ So now that they’re on the record for putting men in little girls’ bathrooms, I want to say what else has happened in Chattanooga in the last few weeks.”

McCormick pointed out the city has been caught in a gang war and had four people shot, one while cutting his grass, and Erlanger Medical Center had to lock down because of roving gang members. But rather than raise concerns about a gang war and knock down City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce decided to focus on bathroom legislation instead, he said.

“Now, the reason they’re not all fired up about the city of Chattanooga’s handling of the gang problem is because the city of Chattanooga sends them money and funds their budget. And we don’t. And guess what? We ain’t gonna,” he said.

“So one other thing before I sit down. They got me mad this morning. I appreciate y’all listening to me. One other thing. All these companies who’ve tried to blackmail us over this thing. When they come for their corporate welfare checks next year, we need to have a list out and keep an eye on it.”

The House applauded as he finished going off.

Chattanooga Chamber officials declined an invitation to comment.

Of course, McCormick isn’t always so “animated,” as one opponent of the transgender bathroom bill described him, though he has put rookie legislators in their place, especially if a Democrat.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada says McCormick’s reaction was “just frustration,” because people in their districts overwhelmingly favor keeping males out of females’ restrooms, yet a few “elite” CEOs are trying to take the “moral high ground” on the measure and “just don’t live in the real world.”

Remarkably, Casada, who calls McCormick one of the “stars” in the General Assembly, says McCormick probably didn’t favor the legislation, “but he just got frustrated with a handful of CEOs that were just not reflective of the district. And they were expressing a view that they were just out of touch.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat who considers McCormick a good friend, says his counterpart was “a little blunt” and points out the bill was not unique to Tennessee and those CEOs who felt it was something that could affect their businesses.

“Gerald’s a little mercurial, like my former caucus Chair Mike Turner was,” Fitzhugh says. “He lets off steam pretty quickly and then regathers it.”

Back down to earth

Sitting in his office discussing legislation, McCormick isn’t nearly as fired up, at ease talking about everything from Rep. Jeremy Durham’s banishment to passage of the FOCUS Act, Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan for restricting higher education.

First elected in 2004 and active in Chattanooga’s Republican circles for more than two decades, McCormick, 54, is in his third term as House majority leader and unopposed in the fall election. (Few people want to work so cheap, he says.)

As such, the Germantown High School and UT-Knoxville graduate carries the governor’s legislation and serves as the point of contact for the House Republican Caucus, making him a negotiator between his party, Haslam’s office, the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate, giving him a view of everybody’s opinion.

Insurance debate

When Gov. Haslam presented his Insure Tennessee plan in 2015, McCormick carried the legislation and presented it to one committee but no vote was taken. The market-based proposal would use more than $1 billion in Affordable Care Act taxes paid by Tennesseans to catch about 280,000 in a coverage gap.

“I did not want to put the members on the spot, to tell the truth. I didn’t think it was gonna pass, but I did want to present it and see if it grew legs. But it didn’t. I didn’t think it was a bad bill. I thought it was a common-sense thing to do, and it got caught up in a political situation and it just wasn’t gonna pass,” he says. He saw no reason to keep pushing it.

Despite purple-clad supporters backing Insure Tennessee throughout the 2016 session, the measure made no progress. A bill to put it before Tennesseans in a referendum failed in a House committee. A group of people also bought billboard space across the state challenging House Speaker Beth Harwell to lead the measure to a floor vote.

Instead, Harwell presented a 3-Star Healthy Project calling for a two-month study of pilot projects on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to be presented to the federal Center for Medicaid Service for approval.

McCormick doesn’t consider that a copout, even though Haslam’s administration studied the topic for 18 months.

“I think it’s the best she could come up with in a difficult situation,” he explains. “We need to keep working on the issue. It’s not going to go away. But I think realistically we need to wait and see who’s elected president later this year and react to that, because federal policies can change very quickly.

Higher-education renovation

McCormick also sponsored the governor’s FOCUS Act, largely removing six state universities from authority of the Tennessee Board of Regents and setting up local boards to oversee them.

TBR’s main responsibility will lie with community colleges and colleges of applied technology, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission will take on more administrative roles with universities such as MTSU and the University of Memphis.

State Rep. Gerald McCormick

(R), House District 26, Chattanooga

Age: 54

Family: Wife, Kim; two daughters, Cooper and Scottie

Religion: Methodist

Career: Commercial real estate broker; U.S. Army Gulf War veteran, nuclear, biological and chemical specialist

Education: Germantown High School; bachelor’s degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Government: Former Hamilton County Planning Commission member; elected to state House in 2004; three terms as Republican Majority Caucus leader

Committees: House Business and Utilities, Calendar & Rules, Finance, Ways & Means, Government Operations

Midway through this session, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover raised opposition to the bill, saying it could create inequity within higher education and put TSU and other universities at an individual disadvantage against the University of Tennessee system.

McCormick acknowledges he’s concerned about the possibility of inequities, as well, and says he spoke candidly with the governor, who gave him assurances that won’t happen. Legislators are aware of the snares, too, he adds.

“And that’s the big concern,” McCormick says, “that the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis are sort of these big pillars on each side of the state that’ll suck in all the capital investments, and it’s partly the Legislature’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Appointing strong boards of trustees at each school will be important to the plan’s success, rather than putting “very influential, wealthy people” on the boards of the University of Memphis and University of Tennessee and allowing them to “dominate” the governor, McCormick points out.

At the same time, the FOCUS Act should help the state emphasize the importance of job training at its community colleges and technical schools.

“The one big challenge we have and the thing we hear from companies is they want to expand and can’t find enough qualified workers, and that’s our big challenge and that’s what we’re working on,” he says.

Dealing with Durham

The 2016 session opened with most of the emphasis on how to handle Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin, who initially was under fire for allegedly forging a prescription and writing a letter for a former youth pastor who pleaded guilty to statutory rape.

McCormick voted to keep a Republican Caucus meeting open to the public to discuss whether Durham should be allowed to keep his leadership position as party whip. He held on by his fingernails after a procedural vote.

But just days later, reports surfaced he made inappropriate late-night text messages to legislative interns, and not long afterward, McCormick said two women came to him with complaints about Durham months before the situation went public.

McCormick says he went to Speaker Harwell both times with the information, and Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley got involved. Ultimately, Harwell appointed a committee to review the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy and asked for an attorney general investigation into Durham, which led to his banishment from the Legislative Plaza because of the danger he posed to other women. He remains in office and is running for re-election.

No love is lost between Durham and McCormick, and it predates the current dilemma.

“Actually, (Durham) went on the radio and called for my replacement as majority leader, and we had a very frank discussion and that’s when I confronted him on this issue,” McCormick adds.

“But also, maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do, I was actually very careful not to publicly go after him because I didn’t want it to look like I’d gone after him because he’d done that. So it put me in a funny situation from that standpoint.”

Early on, in fact, McCormick says, Durham told him he couldn’t prove any of the allegations were true, and he couldn’t. It was later alleged that Durham had an affair with a former West Tennessee lawmaker who resigned last year.

“I’m certainly not trying to circle the wagons and cover up for this guy. I think whatever happened needs to come out, and he needs to be held responsible for it but not because I’m irritated with him. It needs to be because it really happened and it can be proven.”

McCormick also contends Harwell handled a “difficult” situation the best way she could. Although several key legislators and the governor said Durham should leave office, McCormick points out he is not an employee of the House and is, instead, elected by the voters of his district.

“I wouldn’t cover up anything for anybody, much less a guy who seems to have given me a hard time from the day he got elected, so I have no reason to do that,” McCormick explains. “But I do want to treat him fair. There’s no reason not to treat him fair and let him either hang himself or redeem himself on his own terms.”

Mundane but important

Amid the cacophony, the Legislature’s most important move this session was passing a $34.9 billion balanced budget without adding new debt, McCormick notes.

Using a hefty surplus of $850 projected from this and the next budget, the Legislature bolstered the rainy day fund and maintained its AAA bond rating. It also increased spending in K-12 education by about $250 million and gave teachers a pay increase, he points out.

“We’re on good financial footing. We’ve got a good plan going forward in the education area. We’ve got some good economic development projects going on, and those are good things,” he says.

Legislators started digging in to Tennessee’s problem with addiction to prescription drugs, including passage of legislation designed to restrict “pill mills.” Last year, the number of prescription drug overdose deaths in Tennessee passed traffic accident fatalities, McCormick notes, and he predicts the problem will receive more emphasis in coming sessions.

Such issues were eclipsed, however, by talk surrounding Durham, in addition to social measures such as the transgender bathroom bill and legislation allowing therapists and counselors to decline treating patients they feel violate their “sincerely held principles.” Counselors would be required to refer them to someone else for treatment.

McCormick disagrees with the notion this type of legislation “punishes” transgender and gay people.

In regard to the restroom bill affecting schools, systems are already handling matters on a case-by-case basis, but the American Civil Liberties Union sued a school district and forced the issue, he says.

The Tennessee Equality Project, an advocate for the LGBT community, disagrees with that description of the bill’s genesis. But Executive Director Chris Sanders says the most important thing is whether the bill will be dropped.

In regard to the counseling measure, which opponents say should be vetoed by the governor, McCormick says if he had a gay child or family member who needed counseling he wouldn’t want them to see a therapist who didn’t want to counsel them.

The American Counseling Association adamantly opposes the legislation, calling it “discriminatory by nature” and an “unnecessary government intrusion that will likely result in costly unintended consequences.”

The group contends the code of ethics followed by some 60,000 counselors also prohibits them from refusing to work with people based on their religion or sexuality.

Despite that opposition from counselors and CEOs, ultimately, McCormick sees a “double standard” in how some opponents of these two measures are reacting.

“If they disagree with it, it’s OK to boycott people or boycott states or businesses, but if a certain person or business doesn’t want to do business based on their political or religious views, then they set out to ruin them,” he says.

“And I think it’s gone way beyond tolerance. It’s gone toward using the power of the government to force other people, not just to agree with you, but to advocate for your case. And I think that goes against our best traditions, and it’s a bad idea.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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