Booted GOP leader fears legislators risk getting 'Maggartized' by special interests

Monday, December 17, 2012 at 1:02am
121712 Maggart topper.jpg
Debra Maggart (Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)


There is more to Debra Maggart than guns.

As one of the leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, she hammered into law issues like mandating voters show their photo ID to cast a ballot, stripping away teachers’ collective bargaining rights and beefing up the list of convicts who can be added to sex-offender lists.

But what she’ll be remembered for is the gun rights lobby taking her down.

Arguably one of the most powerful women in the state legislature, Maggart lost to a political newcomer by 14 percentage points after the Tennessee Rifle Association and other interest groups poured in more than $100,000 to unseat her in the August Republican primary election.

“You could argue that I took a lot of bullets, in my position as caucus leader, for the caucus. And that was my job, and I did it,” said Maggart.

“No pun intended on bullets.”

Gun rights advocates openly targeted Maggart after the legislature slow-walked and then blocked legislation that would have made it legal for individuals to store a firearm in a vehicle parked on an employer’s property. The measure, advocates said, would have ensured gun owners could safely commute back and forth to work. Many business owners, meanwhile, opposed the bill on safety and security grounds.

Maggart came out as a scapegoat for the bill’s failure. She announced early in the session there would be no room for approving expansive new gun laws in 2012. When the gun lobby pressured her and other Republicans to bring the bill to a floor vote, the caucus secretly voted 44-17 to dispose of the legislation and consider it again next year, she said.

The move enraged gun rights activists, and some tea party forces across the state, who mobilized their money and energy to send a message to the Republican majority:

“Established legislators can be challenged and can be defeated,” relayed Ben Cunningham, president of the Sumner County based Nashville Tea Party. While he sat on the sidelines in Maggart’s race, he said that takeaway is an “important revelation” relevant to all political players on Capitol Hill.

Now that the message has been received and Maggart is out of office, Republican leaders say they want to quickly give the gun lobby at least some of what it wants, despite a new poll from Vanderbilt University that indicates a mere 1 percent of registered voters surveyed see gun issues as a priority next year.

It’s a move Maggart fears could set a precedent that the powerful Republican supermajorities can be intimidated into action.

“All the lobbyists, all the special interest groups, have learned that if you just marshal enough and want to take one person out, you can,” she said.

“They’ve coined a new word called ‘Maggartized,’ ” she said. “If you don’t do what they want, they’re going to Maggartize you.”

That fear reveals something of a crack in the legislative Republicans’ armor as the party grapples with satisfying large swaths of business leaders and small business owners, the philosophical tea party groups disinterested in going along with the GOP’s political strategy — and everyone in between.

“I always said I just didn’t believe that people send us down here for any lobbying group, whether it’s for — I don’t know — any group, to use fear and intimidation to get their way. That goes against the very thing the Tea Party says all the time they’re against. It was just really a strange situation how all of that played out, that the gun lobby would turn on their friends. And they did,” she said.

To Maggart, the political realities of keeping happy an ever-widening Republican base apply not just to the guns-in-lots bill. The opportunities are great for other Republicans thinking long-term on the Hill to lose their seats when those in the far-right wing of their party pin members in uncomfortable positions.

Take former Metro Councilman and state Rep. Jim Gotto. He narrowly lost his bid for re-election to the state House last month to Democrat Councilman Darren Jernigan, a defeat Maggart contends could have been avoided had he not been pressured to vote for a tea party-driven health care compact bill.

The legislation as written, which Maggart said “didn’t do anything,” would ask the federal government to let Tennessee build its own health care program with other states, sending a message to the feds that the state was rejecting the Affordable Care Act. While demanded by tea party groups, the legislation gave fodder for urban Democrats to accuse Gotto of endangering the health benefits of seniors.

“We kept telling that group, the tea partiers, this is what’s going to happen with this bill,” said Maggart. “At the end of the day we had it on the House floor, and it died. I voted for it, but it died. It is one of the reasons why Jim Gotto lost. We lost a good House member because of different factions not listening.”

The risk of interest groups leveraging their power to bend lawmakers to their will has other ripple effects throughout the caucus. Take the $155,000 her campaign shelled out trying to keep her, an incumbent, in office.

“I hate it that we spent so much money on me,” she said, “when we could have spent it to protect Jim Gotto or to have helped a [Goodlettsville Republican] Charles Williamson get elected, or [Nashville Republican] Ben Claybaker.”

With such a large GOP majority — and a large pool of interests — Maggart’s concern for the body she leaves behind is “the Republicans now are going to eat their own,” she said.

“You know, before, the enemy was always the Democrats. We always had to rally to get everyone to try to help us get this majority. And the second we got it, it just seems that the Republicans — or the conservatives I should say, the tea party, the gun lobby — they turned on me, turned on some of the members,” she said.

“Most of the people that are doing the turning, that are leading the charge on taking someone out, did nothing to get us to where we are,” she said.

Not so, said local gun rights advocate John Harris, who has repeatedly launched public attacks against Maggart. Second Amendment folks are voters too, and helped win them management of the statehouse, Harris, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, has said.

But as Republicans begin consider finding a compromise on Harris’ push to OK the guns-in-lots idea, there’s a strong need for the party to close itself off to protect against heavy-hitter critics like Harris or anyone else who can shoot off messages to rile up thousands of people belonging to their special interest group, Maggart said.

“This has to be a place where different points of view, even within the Republican Caucus, can be safely expressed, and that’s what I worry about. I worry that because of some of the tactics, bullying tactics, that these different points of view within our caucus will not be openly and freely expressed, and that’s not good for what we’re trying to do down here,” she said.  

“Do you want to be in a place where even though you know something’s right, you just cannot talk about it because they’re going to go on a witch-hunt against you?” she asked.

Now that Maggart is merely a visitor on Capitol Hill, it’s easier for her to talk freely about political motivations, which she said are usually about money.

“If you remember that about this job, that people are motivated by money, you’ll have a better understanding when you’re down here about what people want and say that they want, what their motives are. Usually it’s about cash money,” she said.

The gun lobby wants to stay employed, as do the hundreds of lobbyists hired to convince lawmakers to support their bills on the chamber floors, she said. They need a reason for being, and following the money will usually lead there, she said.

Following the money is something she was in charge of in her party, too, as she helped raise more than $500,000 for the caucus. Since she’s banned by law from working as a lobbyist fresh out of the legislature, she’ll be continuing her fundraising for someone else while she waits out her re-election chances. She said her plans are to raise money for the Tennessee Medical Association while continuing to work at Compass, a Sumner County-based group that develops relationships between local schools and community organizations.

When the scent of the next primary election returns in 2014, Maggart said she’s not ruling out trying to get back into the legislature. It’s a feat her former ally Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet pulled off this year, regaining her House seat after giving it up to fight a losing election for Senate.

“I’m not going to close any doors at this point in my life. I understand what happened to me is a fluke. It’s the way the ball bounces,” she said. “I don’t like it, but I’m moving forward with my life. There’s a lot of lessons in there.”

“I learned that everybody’s not brave,” she continued, then paused as she sat in an empty legislative committee room where the guns-in-lots bill will likely be debated on account of her legislative peers.

“They said they were afraid of what happened to me. That’s OK. They’ve got to live with their own conscience. I have a clear conscience. I stood up for the rights of every Tennessean in this state. The NRA can’t take that away from me.”

23 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 12/17/12 at 8:11

Funny how things change. Rep. Maggart was ridiculed by this paper often while she
was serving in the House, but since she was defeated, only in part over gun legislation,, she's moved from Goat to another Republican victim. How silly..

Friday's tragedy cancels any gun legislation in the Tenn Legislature for this year.

By: envesta on 12/17/12 at 8:12

It is hard to have pity for a soul-less monster who helped the GOP wage war against the state's teachers and who made it harder for people to vote. I am delighted to see the GOP eat its own, and I am glad Maggart made the appetizer course. Since the voters of this backward state are too stupid to help themselves, maybe the GOP can solve the problem by destroying itself.

By: howelln on 12/17/12 at 8:23

Maggart did not lose because of the gun lobby. She lost because she insulted every teacher in the state.

By: TOPDOG... on 12/17/12 at 8:30

The entire Republican party has become a gang of greedy corporate puppets and corrupt lawyers,whose only interest is how much special interest groups are willing to pay to have their laws passed. Using the law as a rock to hide under, they carry out their anti-American schemes. The entire party needs to be ran from office. America can survive a Republican purge from our political system. It is every Americans responsibility to vote a straight Democratic ticket. Not that their aren't greedy corrupt corporate puppets in the Democratic party as well. At least they are not in open rebellion against the citizens of this country. As soon as any and all corporation votes are outlawed the much better we all are. Lets help get these corporations and their puppets out of our government.

By: WickedTribe on 12/17/12 at 8:35

Here I was being shocked and amazed that the Republicans could be reasonable on one issue. Looks like the NRA has worked to fix that "problem". Next year we'll probably have guns in trunks and anywhere else the NRA wants them. Someone will make the argument that commuters who use bicycles or mass transit are "in danger" because they don't have a way to store their guns at work, then there will be a law forcing all employers to provide gun storage lockers for all employees.

By: bobyounts@comca... on 12/17/12 at 9:02

Make no mistake about it...the GOP is dying. Increasingly, they are out of touch with the American people on every single issue. That one-eyed auctioneer who carries the title of "Speaker of the House" of the Tennessee General Assembly should be the first to go. If there ever was an enemy of the people, it's this clown. Given his way, every teacher at that elementary school would have had a gun in their glove compartment. If he has his way, guns will be welcome in church, elementary schools, city parks, state parks, any place where children gather. Imagine the carnage, if upon arrival at that school, first responders were faced with six active shooters in the school rather than just one! Absolutely asinine. That is what Speaker Ramsey would have us do. This is a call to action: the voters of the state of Tennessee need to defeat every single legislator who has supported Mr. Ramsey and his murderous proposals. The GOP, under the "leadership" of this idiot, is becoming a party of child-killers. Now is the time to remove these criminals.

By: Debra maggart on 12/17/12 at 9:13

envesta and howelln: I hate to let you down but only 113 teachers voted in my district in the primary. Even if they all voted against me with their spouses--which they didn't--the teachers did not beat me. I took the list of teachers and ran it against the list of people who actually voted in the primary to determine this number. I have lots of friends here who are teachers who were supportive of ending collective bargaining.

Debra Maggart

By: frodo on 12/17/12 at 9:19

Yes, bobyounts, you just keep thinking that..."the GOP is dying." We see it all over Tennessee, don't we? Why, you can hardly find a Republican in office anymore around here.

By: pswindle on 12/17/12 at 9:32

Remember Maggart was doing the dirty work of the Governor. He gladly signed all of her inhuman policies. The damage that she and others have done to the citizens of this state will take years to overcome. But maybe, TN is waking up to the extremes. Haslam likes to keep his nose clean and he lets the others take the blame. An exambpe, one of his friends bought a run down building for 5M and he sold it to the state for 10M, some deal. But he acts like this was a shock to him. His Daddy was in on the deal.

By: howelln on 12/17/12 at 9:38

Silly, Ms. Maggart.! Teachers donate to campaigns. And they have friends and students who did not like your stance. And how do you know who was and wasn't a teacher among the voters? Don't you have secret ballots in your district?

By: envesta on 12/17/12 at 10:10

I am glad you are reading these posts, Ms. Maggart. Your party and the greedy, monied interests that you eagerly served have created a Frankenstein monster in this state-- and just like in the movie, the monster destroyed you. Sounds to me like some good old fashioned karma coming down. Maybe the universe is telling you to re-evaluate your priorities. If public service is truly your calling, maybe you should consider standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves -- not the pro-gun, anti-union corporate interests who are standing quite nicely with "vote for sale" legislators like Courtney Rogers.

By: Shadow63 on 12/17/12 at 10:34

"“They’ve coined a new word called ‘Maggartized,’ ” she said. “If you don’t do what they want, they’re going to Maggartize you.”"
Where's the condemnation when Fat Cats and big corporations pump millions upon millions into campaigns of politicians who do THEIR bidding.
More than a little hypocrasy here.

By: cookeville on 12/17/12 at 11:07

You play with the big dogs, you sometimes get bitten. Ms. Maggart got bitten. so sad, too bad. Anyone who thinks teacher unions are a threat to a civilized society needs to be bitten. Collective bargaining is the ONLY thing that has kept this country from staying the way it was from the end of the Civil War to the Depression. China just had 300 workers in one factory burn to death because they had no fire escapes. This is how corporations treat the worker if they can get away with it. The union movement in this country made sure that they didn't. Now we have people like Maggart, who obviously prefers not to know her past, getting unions disbanded. But the people of the state have supported her, thinking that companies will be more compassionate if an employee deals with them one on one. How totally ignorant of the way things work can one be? But Ms Maggart, you just keep on pretending that the past was better than the present and all those that are not a part of your exclusive club of rich pubs don't need a voice, and one day you and your rich handlers will be on the receiving end of their wrath. The oppressed ALWAYS rise up. And on that note, it occurred to me that maybe that is exactly what you really fear and that's why you want everyone to carry heat.

By: jonw on 12/17/12 at 11:37

By: howelln on 12/17/12 at 9:38
Silly, Ms. Maggart. And how do you know who was and wasn't a teacher among the voters? Don't you have secret ballots in your district?


Silly howelin. Don't you know that secret ballot means HOW YOU VOTED, not whether or not you voted?

By: repapyticym on 12/17/12 at 11:55

Well, all is not lost for Ms Maggart. Her time in the state legislature helped her to get a $100,000 a year job in education, not bad for someone who doesn't have a college education.

By: JohnGalt on 12/17/12 at 2:31

Ms. Zelenski could have quite a future writing puff pieces about pastured pols like, oh, I don't know, maybe Debra Maggart.

By: howelln on 12/17/12 at 2:52

How does Ms. Maggart know the occupations of those who voted in her primary?

By: ancienthighway on 12/17/12 at 3:18

Perhaps exit polls.

By: Worriedman on 12/17/12 at 8:15

A point should be made that the grassroots efforts in Tennessee to pass the Safe Commute Bill involved numerous Citizen lobbyist, who receive no pay for their efforts, rather spend their vacation days and their own gas to arrive at the Legislaure to advocate for issues that they consider of vital importance.

By: ancienthighway on 12/17/12 at 9:19

A question that really needs to be answered is how many incidents occur in a year that a gun is needed to protect the victim? What are the numbers for carjackings, road rage, "stage coach", that is bus and truck robberies?

Has this state become so dangerous that I should fear for my life driving to the grocery store or picking up the mail? I don't believe it has.

The NRA and other gun advocacy organizations have done a good job of planting the seeds of fear in the uneducated and low educated. As their fear grows it spills over into the educated. I'm convinced that every gun owner has a secret desire to use his or her weapon to stop a crime to justify their fears.

Please, if you see me being held at gunpoint, don't respond with your gun. I'll survive or not depending on what I do. That is preferable to me than dying because of something you did to save me.

By: Worriedman on 12/17/12 at 10:22

ancienthighway, I challange you to watch the Jackson News each evening, hardly a day goes by that we do not record a robery or home invasion. Jackson/Madison County is now the 9th most dangerous municipality in the Nation.

By: ancienthighway on 12/17/12 at 11:37

In the other article in this publication about Haslam's reaction to the recent mass killing, I do state in my first comment that I fully support guns for home defense. I find legal rulings extending the definition of home to include a vehicle a little far fetched except for unfortunates that actually do live in their car.
But as far as the commute to and from work, to include any convenience stops along the way, I have to question whether the unlikelihood of an incident occurring justifies heavily armed drivers.

By: Badbob on 12/19/12 at 7:17

We are 3rd highest in the nation in gun murders per capita. Lord knows, we don't want to be at the bottom of that list like we are in education. We need more guns in more places to overtake Louisiana and New Mexico for 1st place!