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.”