Philadelphia Leadership: Dave McCormick, Candidate, U.S. Senate

By Ken Knickerbocker
Philadelphia Today
June 5, 2024

Dave McCormick, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, spoke with PHILADELPHIA Today about growing up in Bloomsburg, where his father was a college president. Sports defined his high school career, and he was nominated to West Point, where he was co-captain of the Army West Point wrestling team.

McCormick discussed how his time in the Army shaped him, his transition from a Democrat to a Republican while living in Pittsburgh, and what he learned from his successes and failures in business. He also shared why he decided to run for the Senate and why campaigning keeps him optimistic.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in WashingtonPennsylvania. My dad was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and my mom grew up in Punxsutawney. We’re western Pennsylvanians. My folks moved around a bit when I was a kid. I lived briefly in Scotland Township outside of Chambersburg. I moved to Bloomsburg in the second grade and went to high school there.

Where were you in the pecking order?

I was the first of two. My brother was four years behind me and followed a similar path. He went to West Point four years behind me and had a very successful career.

What did your dad and mom do?

Both mom and dad were public school teachers. My dad went on and got a doctorate in Education and became the President of Bloomsburg State College, which is now Bloomsburg University, and then became the Chancellor of the State System of Higher Education in Pennsylvania after I’d gone off to West Point.

And my mom, in a remarkable accomplishment, at the age of 50, went back to graduate school and got a doctorate in Education at Lehigh and eventually became the Deputy of Intermediate Unit 16 in Lewisburg.

What do you remember about growing up in Scotland and Bloomsburg?

I remember Scotland Township, outside of Chambersburg, very well. My house, which I just went back and visited recently, was right across the street from the elementary school. And a couple blocks away was a horse barn, where we kept two horses. I remember a horrible incident where my mom was riding one day across the cornfield and got thrown. Her foot got caught in the stirrup and she got dragged a bit.

But I left Scotland Township in second grade. When I went back recently, it all seemed so small compared to how I remember it being so big. I remember moving day and pulling up to the driveway of the president’s residence in Bloomsburg, which seemed massive.

Did you have any jobs in high school?

I had a lot of jobs. My folks lived in town, but we had a small farm that they bought in 1975, so I worked on the farm. Mom and dad had horses and various chores for us.

But during the summers, I did a number of jobs. From age 13 or 14 to 18, I trimmed Christmas trees. Many farms used to take day labor, and you had to meet the rest of the trimming crew at the jail in Bloomsburg. I baled hay, not on our farm, but on neighboring farms. They’d hire a couple of kids to follow the baler along and throw the hay bales up into the wagon. And I was a busboy at the local hotel and a paper boy.

What did you learn from those jobs that stayed with you?

The thing I learned the most was a sense of fulfillment. There’s a lot to be gained by the self-respect and sense of dignity that comes from hard work. Whether it’s bussing tables, stacking hay bales, or trimming Christmas trees, there’s a lot of dignity that comes with work. I learned what hard work is like.

Where does that work ethic come from?

My mom and dad are both incredible role models. My dad did a doctorate while he was working full time. My mom did the same. They were unbelievably hard workers.

When my dad was College President, most weeks we would walk down through the campus at dinnertime and go to the student cafeteria. We’d wait in line with the kids, and then we’d randomly sit with a different set of kids. That was the way my dad saw the campus to make sure it was well-kept. It’s the way he connected with students.

What about music? You can’t have grown up when you grew up without music playing a role in your life.

I’m not very musical, but music played a big role because. With my dad being the College President, we would attend all sorts of events. They would have famous orchestras and bands come on campus. Later, I got to appreciate music even more because all six of my daughters learned to play instruments.

So, music was not a huge part of my life, but being on a college campus was. We had some remarkable people who would come to visit. I remember meeting Alex Haley, who wrote Roots. This was when he had his television series and his book was big. Another one was Sam Ervin, the Senator from North Carolina who chaired the Watergate Committee. And later, I remember Rudolf Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, came. I remember public officials coming, the county commissioners, and the local politicians. It was an amazing place to grow up.

You said you ended up at West Point. Tell me, where else did you look, and why did you pick West Point?

I wasn’t, in the early days, a particularly great athlete, but I had a football coach at the end of my sophomore year who took a real interest in me. He helped me become a pretty accomplished football player. I became the Co-Captain of the team as a junior, I was an All-State linebacker, and I was pretty good at wrestling. I wasn’t a bad student, but sports defined me.

My dream, like most Pennsylvania kids, was to play football at Penn State. I wasn’t good enough to do that. I got recruited to wrestle for Army West Point. There’s no military in my immediate family. My dad said, “Listen, West Point is very special. You have to apply, but you don’t have to go. Everybody’s got to make their own choices. But please apply.”

I applied to Lehigh, Penn State, West Point, and a couple of others. I got into West Point, and my town came alive. It was in the newspaper. It was a big deal. Nobody had gone to one of the academies for a couple of decades. It took on a life of its own. I never remember saying, “I’ve got to go to West Point. I want to go to West Point.”

It was a foregone conclusion that you would go.

Exactly. Thank God I did. It was life-changing for me.

How so, David?

A couple of things. The recruiting line at West Point was, “The history we teach was made by the people we taught.” You’re walking these beautiful walkways. These are giants, presidents, generals. So, number one, it elevated my sense of duty, honor, and country.

Second, you meet kids from all over the place. You’re no longer in a small town in Pennsylvania. You’re at one of the great institutions of the world. And finally, I was the Co-Captain of the wrestling team at West Point. Wrestling defined me there.

But I then had the opportunity to go serve in the Army, which I loved. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division.

When I got into the military — I was a platoon leader — I was 22 and in charge of a small unit.

You’ve got a kid from rural Alabama in your platoon. You’ve got an African American kid from Newark. You’ve got a college dropout from Boston. I never remember talking about religion or politics and who was a Democrat or who was a Republican. We were committed to service. We were in service of our country and in service of one another. It’s a very special thing to be part of. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud of my time in the Army.

Let me take you back for a minute. What did your football coach in high school see in you?

In my sophomore year, I was a benchwarmer. At the end of the game, if we were winning big or losing big, they’d call my number. Whenever I got in — I was on defense — I would be ferocious. I would often make a big tackle.

The coach got fired in my sophomore year, and a new coach was named. This new coach, Coach Lynn, reviewed all the films. And at the end of the games, winning big or losing big, he’d see this kid come in. I wasn’t that accomplished, but certainly, nobody gave more effort. He pulled me aside and said, “We have a defense that we’re going to create. We have a middle linebacker position that’s going to run the defense. I think you can be that person. You’ve got to work hard this summer and in camp.”

And I worked hard. At the end of the camp, which never had happened before, he appointed me and another guy, two juniors, to be co-captains.

He saw something in me, a leadership trait, that I did not see in myself. I started to think of myself differently because if Coach Lynn saw this potential, then there must be something that I’m missing. It made all the difference in my life.

I’m going to jump ahead now. When did you catch the political bug?

I always had an interest in public service. When I left the Army, I went to graduate school and I did a doctorate. I was a Democrat. I wasn’t a very active Democrat, but I was a Democrat. I had two very conservative Professors at Princeton who oversaw my doctoral work. It made me start to question where I was politically.

Then I moved to Pittsburgh and took a job there, and three of my daughters were born while we were living there. I tried to get a little bit involved in politics, and I had a couple of interactions with the Democratic Party, and I was like, “That is not where I am.”

There was this business guy who was running as a Republican for the county executive. I switched parties and helped him, and that was how I became a Republican. I didn’t know if I was ever going to run, but I wanted to serve.

Ultimately, I did get to serve again for President Bush. At the time, I was running a Pittsburgh-based company called FreeMarkets, and then an opportunity came along to serve in The White House. I was the Deputy National Security Advisor for him and the Undersecretary of Treasury during his second term.

When I left there, I thought I was going to move past elected politics, but I always had a bug to serve in some way. It wasn’t until 2021, with the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and what to me was a very disgraceful moment in American history, that I started to contemplate running for office. People had approached me about the open seat when Pat Toomey announced his retirement, so I started to seriously think about it.

So why do you want to become a U.S. Senator?

In a nutshell, I think the country, economically, and in national security terms, and in spiritual terms, is in trouble. I’ve been blessed by America and all that America and Pennsylvania have to offer. And I think, if elected, I can make a big difference in the Senate by being a strong voice for Pennsylvania by flipping the majority in the Senate to Republican.

And I think I can make a big difference just as an American because the issues that confront us abroad and at home are issues that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

With my experience as a Military Leader, as a Business Leader, and as someone at the highest levels of government, I feel equipped to be a very strong voice for our country at a perilous time.

What do you do with all that free time that you have these days?

No free time now. My wife and I have six amazing daughters between us. I spend time with them as much as I can. That’s hard these days because they’re scattered all over the place.

I’ve embraced fly fishing over the last couple of years. There’s great fly fishing in Pennsylvania. The reason I love it is it requires an enormous level of concentration. You cannot think about other things and adequately fly fish. It’s one of the things that you can purge your mind and get into a space and just enjoy nature and the moment.

Two last questions for you, Dave. You mentioned our troubled times. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?

Well, you never know until you do it, but I love campaigning. I love retail politics. I love the stories of those I meet on the trail. That’s what gives me hope and optimism.

The American people are so earnest. They believe in America. They believe in its potential and its promise. They’re troubled by all the things going on, but they believe in the exceptionalism of America. And they believe that brighter days can be ahead. They’re inherently optimistic. They want a better life for their kids, and they’re willing to work for it. It’s hard to meet people on the campaign trail and not be inspired.

Finally, Dave, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know who gave it to me, because it’s been reinforced a couple of different times, but it’s the idea that failure is part of the journey. I’ve had people describe my career and say, “Oh, he’s had this great career.” But throughout, it’s been scattered with failure.

And failure is the gift. It’s the engine. It’s the fuel that creates success. Nobody has a straight line to success. Failure and how you learn and adjust and adapt and persevere is the engine for successful people.

So embrace your failures. Learn from it. If you’re not pushing yourself, you won’t fail. And if you don’t fail, you won’t learn. That’s all part of success. That’s all part of leadership. Success is not a straight line.

But David, you’ve had a remarkable career. What failure comes to mind in your life that you recovered from and learned the most from?

I became the Co-CEO of Bridgewater, which is a big investment firm. About a year and a half later, I was fired from that job. It was prominent. It was in the newspapers. It was in The Wall Street Journal. At the moment, it was a very hard thing to digest. I didn’t agree with it, but I persevered. I learned from it. And ultimately, I became CEO and had a great run as CEO for six years.

I am better because of that experience. There were kernels of truth as to why I wasn’t succeeding the way I needed to. I embraced those things. I learned humility. I learned empathy. When I’m leading people that fail, I now know how to deal with it in a way I didn’t before. It was a gift, but at the time, it was incredibly painful. There’s been many such gifts along the way.