Sunday column: On McCormick stepping aside

Gerald McCormick’s decision to step to the sidelines in the legislative theater probably will add another bit of drama to a developing political play over leadership of the Tennessee General Assembly, but it may not be as entertaining as some of the Chattanooga businessman’s past performances.

“You’re a disgrace to this state, pal,” McCormick told then-Rep. Kent Williams on the House floor back in 2009, just after then-Republican Williams had teamed with Democrats to be elected House speaker.

Just a couple of weeks ago, then-Rep. Jeremy Durham declared in an eight-page letter to legislators that McCormick had — during a “heated phone conversation” — used some rather explicit language to suggest that Durham had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. The letter was a prelude to the House floor vote expelling Durham from his House seat, a move in which McCormick was otherwise instrumental.

McCormick announced last week he will not seek another term as majority leader, a position held since 2011 and one second only to Speaker Beth Harwell in the House power hierarchy. In personal life, he runs a commercial real estate operation and recently took on a new role in investment banking. While keeping his seat in the House, McCormick says he needs to leave leadership to spend more time at work and with the family.

In the years between denouncing Williams and denouncing Durham, former Democrat McCormick has often been controversial and always refreshingly candid in his commentary while regularly displaying a lot of common sense. The same could be said for forever-Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who announced awhile back that he’s leaving the Legislature while arguably at the peak of his power.

In the Senate, the script appears already written for replacing Ramsey as speaker. Senate Finance Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, has no announced opposition to taking the gavel in January.

Not so in the House, where Harwell is being challenged by Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, for the star leadership role. Matlock seems widely viewed as an underdog in the House Republican Caucus voting, which will come after the November election, but he has enough support to make for a show.

There’s a growing list of prospective successors to McCormick as majority leader. Rep. Shelia Butt, R-Columbia, a sometimes combative conservative, was the first to announce. In a letter to colleagues, Butt suggested she had been contemplating a challenge to McCormick before his announcement because “we need better communication in every aspect from our leadership.”

Asked about this, McCormick quipped to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that he hadn’t heard of “any credible candidate who had a chance of beating me” if he had decided to seek another term.

Others said to be eyeing a run for majority leader include House Republican Caucus Chairman Glenn Casada of Franklin, whose current position makes him No. 3 behind McCormick in the House hierarchy; Assistant Majority Leader Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland; and Health Committee Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville.

The list could grow, but given the GOP factions in play, that lineup might give Casada an edge at the starting point. Generally speaking, Butt is probably tops in appealing to the most staunchly conservative legislators, Sexton to the more moderate members, while Brooks floats somewhere in between.

McCormick has been somewhere in the moderate middle of GOP internal squabbling, staunchly loyal to Harwell and supportive of Gov. Bill Haslam — agreeing to sponsor Insure Tennessee, for example, when his counterpart in the other chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, got cold feet as many Republicans denounced Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan as an endorsement of Obamacare.

Norris, of course, is eyeing a run for governor in 2018 — or maybe for Senate speaker after McNally serves a term or two or three. Harwell, who dodged taking a position on Insure Tennessee, is also eying a run for governor.

McCormick, by stepping aside from leadership, has perhaps shown once again that he cares less about political wind shifts than others. Presumably, he’ll be offering commentary from the sidelines as the various coming dramas unfold. It would be out of character for him to be quiet.

But you have to figure that the political audience will not be paying as much attention.