Sen. Randy McNally is first Catholic to hold state’s second-highest elected office
By Bill Brewer
When Diocese of Knoxville priest Father Michael Woods delivered the invocation to convene the 110th General Assembly in Nashville on Jan. 10, Sen. Randy McNally was putting his imprint on a longtime tradition in the state legislature.
He was making sure faith would continue to have a place in the halls of Tennessee government – this time with a Roman Catholic flavor.
As the longtime Republican state legislator makes history by becoming Tennessee’s newest lieutenant governor and Senate speaker – and the first Catholic to hold those positions – he will rely on his faith to continue making sound decisions for the people of Tennessee.
Sen. McNally, who succeeds Tri-Cities Republican Ron Ramsey, apparently is the first Catholic to hold the state’s second-highest elected office, according to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
After being unanimously nominated for lieutenant governor in November, the Senate formally voted him into the position Jan. 10 as the legislature convened.
Regarded as Tennessee’s fiscal conscience, James Rand “Randy” McNally III is only the second Republican Tennessee Senate speaker in modern history and the first from Anderson County in nearly 150 years.
As chairman of the Senate’s Finance, Ways and Means Committee for a decade, Sen. McNally oversaw the General Assembly’s only constitutionally required duty: passage of a balanced budget. Recognized across the state as a finance and budget expert, observers say Sen. McNally’s leadership has been critical in keeping Tennessee’s budget in balance.
In addition to serving for more than 25 years on the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, McNally also served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee in the 102nd and 103rd General Assemblies.
As a result of his work in the legislature, Lt. Gov. McNally has been recognized with the American Conservative Union Conservative Achievement Award, National Federation of Independent Business Guardian of Small Business Award, the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police Legislative Award and the Tennessee Press Association Open Government Award.
The Senate speaker received his undergraduate degree from Memphis State University in 1967 and graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy in 1969. He served as a hospital pharmacist at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge from 1979 until his retirement in 2010. He and wife Janice have two adult daughters and three grandchildren.
Lt. Gov. McNally’s long tenure in the General Assembly began in 1978 with a successful run for a House seat representing Oak Ridge. He was elected to the Senate in 1986. Now, nearly 40 years later, he begins his 20th General Assembly.
His senate district includes all of Anderson and Loudon counties and part of Knox County. Since first taking office in 1979, he also has represented Roane, Monroe, Union, Claiborne, and Campbell counties.
He brings to the lieutenant governorship an upbringing rooted in the Catholic faith. He says that faith has served him well in the House and Senate.
“Faith is very important. It serves as a great guidance, and also in real tough times, a great consolation. My mother always impressed on us the Golden Rule, and dad impressed on us that you need to do what is right despite the consequences,” Lt. Gov. McNally said.
The 72-year-old parishioner of St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge, acknowledges being lured on occasion to the “beautifully done” Latin Mass.
“Every now and then I slip over to Holy Ghost for the Latin Mass,” he said, revealing a predilection for traditional Church celebrations.
In the nearly 40 years serving in the state legislature, Lt. Gov. McNally has built a reputation as a lawmaker with a strong moral compass and character. He attributes that to being well- grounded in his faith early on.
As a child, his family relocated to Oak Ridge from Massachusetts in 1948 when his MIT-educated father took a job as a physicist as the United States segued from World War II and the Manhattan Project to the Cold War.
Lt. Gov. McNally was in the first graduating class at St. Mary School and went on to graduate from Oak Ridge High School in 1962 before getting his bachelor’s degree from Memphis State University and a degree in pharmacy from the University of Tennessee-Memphis. While in Memphis, he met his wife, Jan, and they were married there in 1968.
As a precursor to his election to the House a decade later, Lt. Gov. McNally worked on a few political campaigns to gauge his interest.
Long before his elevation to Senate speaker, Sen. McNally made a name for himself – unintentionally – in one of the most highly publicized scandals in Tennessee government history. It was an episode that cemented his reputation as an honest, just protector of the public trust.
While he carries mixed feelings about this chapter of his life, the lieutenant governor said it was a time when he really leaned on his faith to make it through, and he believes it has made him a stronger person and legislator as a result.
The episode began in 1986 when the FBI launched Operation Rocky Top, the code name for a public corruption investigation into state government. The Oak Ridge lawmaker went to the FBI in Nashville after being approached with a bribe and learning that other lawmakers had taken bribes. The investigation centered on illegal activities in charity bingo, including the illegal sale of bingo licenses.
Then-Rep. McNally agreed to secretly work with the FBI, wearing an electronic wire to record offers of bribes. The three-year investigation resulted in more than 50 convictions, including several politicians, and prompted new limits on political contributions and new restrictions on lobbying.
It was a dark period for the lawmaker, who, with the state, emerged stronger by shining light on corrupt practices. His voluntary participation was critical in rooting out corruption and maintaining public confidence in state government.
He said his faith was tested when he was approached by the FBI for assistance after he informed them of the bribe offers.
“I know one thing that brought me closer to the Church was the Rocky Top investigation. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do. Was I overreacting? Should I contact authorities? Or should I turn my head and not participate in what they wanted me to do? I remember I was in a Rotary Club meeting, and something in the invocation caused me to think that I needed to address things that were wrong and to have faith that everything would turn out all right. I went back to the office and called the local FBI office in Nashville. That helped me come back to the Church.”
He acknowledged that there was a time when his faith wasn’t as strong, but the Church always has been a sanctuary for him and he eventually became more active.
“I think coming back into the Church has made me a much stronger person. It has become an important part of my life. It is very helpful in my duties, especially giving me a good guide in working with people.”
Lt. Gov. McNally’s favorite Bible verses, about the centurion’s faith in God, seem appropriate given his new post as the state’s second most-powerful government official.
In that post, the St. Mary parishioner is steeled for the job ahead, with experience forged from hard work, faith, and a determination to do what is right instilled by his parents.
He said faith will continue to play a role in the legislature, whether it is by someone like Father Woods giving an invocation, hearing the inspirational stories of Tennesseans overcoming obstacles, the influx of faithful at the capitol attending Catholic Day on the Hill, or simply keeping the Bible in a desk.
“We have a lot of people who are deeply committed to the Christian religion and individuals from the Jewish faith are deeply committed.”
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said he and Lt. Gov. McNally currently are the only East Tennesseans serving in the legislature who are Catholic. Rep. Dunn has known and worked with Lt. Gov. McNally for 22 years, since the Knoxville Republican was first elected to the House in 1994 and took office in 1995.
“He was there when I was first elected, so I have known him all that time. He and I have carried different bills together. He is an institution. When I first got there, it didn’t take long to realize that he was someone to look up to; he was a man of morals; he was a man of faith. It has been a pleasure serving with him,” said Rep. Dunn, who agrees with Lt. Gov. McNally that faith begins shaping an individual at an early age.
The House member also agrees with his colleague in the Senate that faith has an important role in state government.
“I think people would be surprised at how much faith plays a role with politicians,” Rep. Dunn said, noting that politicians often face negative public opinions. “In Nashville, we have a weekly devotional on Wednesday mornings, there is Bible study, there is a prayer caucus, we begin every session with a prayer, and so many people will get up during announcements and ask for prayers for loved ones who might be sick or going through something.
“So you see a whole lot of faith there, and I think it really helps because there is a certain standard and you don’t want to fall short of those standards. What I find is that the people who are coming to Nashville and serving seem even more passionate about their faith, doing what is right, and serving their community.”
Perhaps the veteran lawmakers like Dunn and McNally are influencing the next generation of legislators.
Rep. Dunn believes they won’t have a better role model than the lieutenant governor.
“There will not be any question about his integrity. In any organization, it is important to have a good person leading it. If you have the right person leading, then good things will happen,” he said. ■