Tennessee House majority leader says 'timing was right' to step down

McCormick questions whether would-be successor is 'credible'

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick laughs Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
photo State Rep. Gerald McCormick
photo Sheila Butt

NASHVILLE - Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said he had thought about not seeking re-election to the chamber's No. 2 post for some time, but delayed making an announcement until this week when he felt the "timing was right."

The Chattanooga Republican said there were several outstanding issues he was concerned with that were resolved this month.

McCormick said the first was when one of two House lawmakers that McCormick described as having "misbehaved" - Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville - resigned his seat following a federal conviction on tax fraud charges.

Problem No. 2, McCormick said, was resolved last week when the General Assembly convened in a special session called by Gov. Bill Haslam to fix a DUI law. The House used the opportunity to expel the disgraced Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, from the chamber based on a Tennessee attorney general's investigation over sexual harassment claims involving 22 women.

The third issue was fixing the DUI law, McCormick said.

"One of them [Armstrong] did the right thing and took care of the problem" by resigning, McCormick said. "The other [Durham] we had a very difficult vote on. It wasn't difficult for me, but it seemed to be difficult for some people. We did the right thing and took care of business and proved we could function as a body and really did a good job. I was very proud of our membership for that.

"I felt like that [Durham] was the one thing hanging out there that I felt like needed to be finished."

The Durham scandal hounded the General Assembly all year, with Democrats attacking the GOP majority for not dealing with its problems. Republicans have a 73-26 majority in the 99-member House.

Durham, 32, was ousted Sept. 13 on a 70-2 vote, with 48 Republicans and 22 Democrats voting to oust him. Two Republican female representatives voted against expulsion.

Four lawmakers, including three Republicans, voted present but not voting, while 11 Republicans and a Democrat simply didn't vote at all. Another 10 lawmakers had been officially excused from proceedings for various reasons ranging from health to scheduling conflicts.

McCormick, 54, said that "for some time I've been ready to step down as majority leader and give someone else a chance." He said he'd considered making an announcement last month but postponed a decision after Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, announced he was challenging House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

"That threw my timing off somewhat, too, because I thought it would look like I was worried about walking away from a fight, that I was worried about someone announcing against me at that point and did not want it to look like I was walking away from a fight," McCormick said. "I'm a little bit competitive, so I went ahead and announced that I was going to run, almost daring someone to run against me.

"And," McCormick added, "no credible candidate appeared. So I felt like after our special session that with no credible candidate on the horizon, it was time for me to step down."

Hours after McCormick announced Monday in a letter to colleagues that he won't seek a third term as their majority leader, Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, was firing off an email to GOP colleagues, saying she had been preparing to run against him and engaging in a little trash talk.

"I have known for a long time that we need better communication in every aspect from our Leadership to the Caucus and to the Public," Butt wrote in her email. "We need to drive our own message. You will receive my formal announcement and my goals in a letter in the morning in your email. I would appreciate your support! I will support you!"

Asked about Butt's apparent plans to run against him, McCormick said, "like I said, I had not heard any rumors of any credible candidate who had a chance of beating me. I felt good about my vote totals versus Sheila Butt's."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.