Updated at 6:54 p.m. on Monday, July 2, 2018.
Democrats and Republicans are loudly accusing each other of trying to hijack the state House District 26 seat that Rep. Gerald McCormick is giving up.
On Monday, Hamilton County election commissioners agreed to let Robin Smith run in the Aug. 2 GOP primary in place of McCormick.
The Chattanooga lawmaker has been elected every two years since 2004 — mostly without opposition — and was angling for the most powerful House post, that of speaker. Instead, in mid-June McCormick abruptly announced he was stepping down because he has taken a job that will require him to live in Nashville.
Kerry Steelman, the Hamilton County elections administrator, said state law allowed McCormick to withdraw and let the commission reopen qualifying through June 28. Smith, a business consultant and former county and state Republican party chief, was the only Republican to qualify. Election commissioners voted to put her name on the ballot and rush it to the printer. Early voting start July 13.
But the Tennessee Democratic Party claims McCormick's withdrawal doesn't meet legal requirements to reopen qualifying. Party officials filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to stop the GOP from using a ballot with Smith's name on it.
That, of course, would hand the seat over to Democrat David Jones in the November election. But Democratic Chairwoman Mary Mancini said the fight isn't just about picking up a seat in a chamber where the GOP has a supermajority.
"It's actually about following the rules, and that's what we're seeing, is a blatant attempt to discard the rules and try to rig an election," Mancini said by phone from Nashville. "There's no denying this would mean we would have an extra seat, but when you're in politics there's a right way of going about winning and there's an incorrect way."
Republicans said Democrats are the ones breaking rules.
"As Tennesseans in all corners of the state continue to reject their liberal policies, Democrats have once again resorted to lying and cheating to try to win an election," said Rep. Glen Casada, House Republican Caucus chairman. "As [Democratic Caucus chairman] Mike Stewart and his Democrat allies refuse to adhere to state law and attempt to disenfranchise Hamilton County voters, Republicans are focused on cutting taxes, supporting businesses, and removing the bureaucratic red tape that has caused our health care costs to skyrocket under Obamacare."
Smith's campaign manager, Vince Butler, said state Democrats have "repeatedly demonstrated their inability to win elections based on ideas, so stunts seeking to disenfranchise voters when it serves their political needs are now their tactic."
The issue wasn't discussed at Monday's election commission meeting, where the three commissioners present — Ruth Braly, Chris Clem and Secondra Meadows — voted to approve replacement ballots in Districts 26 and 27. In the latter case, Democrat Danielle Johnson moved out of the state and disqualified herself as a candidate. The only Democrat now in the primary is Brent S. Morris.
And just to maximize the District 26 mess, a second Democratic candidate has withdrawn from the race, but voters will see her name on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Steelman said Jean-Marie Lawrence left the district but not the state, so she remains qualified and her name will stay on the ballot.
Attorney Benjamin A. Gastel with the Nashville firm of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings missed the meeting but arrived shortly after it ended and gave Steelman a letter protesting Smith's inclusion. He then filed suit later Monday.
The Democrats claim McCormick had gone to a lot of trouble just a few days earlier to prove he lived in Hamilton County and could run for re-election in District 26. Just three days before he withdrew, McCormick produced a letter from state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins affirming that property, business and other records prove his residency.
His residency was questioned when news broke that he and his wife, Kim McCormick, had bought a $487,000 home in Nashville last August.
McCormick said his wife, a top aide to Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings, mostly lives in the home, while he stays in their Big Ridge house and runs his real estate brokerage business when the Legislature is not in session.
Mancini said McCormick's explanation doesn't wash.
"You have to look at his residence and the fact he bought a house in Nashville much earlier than last month," she said. "If that hadn't been brought to light he would have let that slide, he would have been duplicitous and hope no one notices. But someone did notice and he's being held to account for that."
That's nonsense, McCormick said.
"They're afraid to face the voters so they're trying to suppress the vote and take people's right to vote away," he said. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, and they're pretty desperate. We'll embarrass them in court and then we'll embarrass them at the ballot box."
The lawsuit asks the judge to set aside the election commission's act allowing McCormick to withdraw and stop the GOP from using the Smith ballot. The Democrats want to to interview McCormick ahead of an expedited hearing on July 11.
Gastel said by phone Monday he expects a judge to rule in the case before election day on Aug. 2. Local Republicans had not yet seen the suit as of Monday night.
District 26 includes Lakesite, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy and part of Chattanooga.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.