Politics

Dave McCurdy, a Retiring Optimist Pushing Back on ‘Disciples of Declinism’

Former Intelligence chairman and current head of AGA reflects on two public careers

Former Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy, president of the American Gas Association, will retire in February 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After nearly four decades in Washington, former Rep. Dave McCurdy is still an optimist.

Even as the former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma and current head of the American Gas Association prepares for retirement, he says there is a lot Congress can learn from the swamp so easily derided by public officials who struggle to step out of their partisan foxholes.

“Associations have their own culture, just like companies have their own culture,” said McCurdy, who has led the AGA for the last seven years. 

“Within American Gas, to me, the leadership from our CEOs, members, the board, is exemplary,” he said. “They are community-focused, customer-focused, and they’re not hyper-partisan. They really do focus on delivering good.”

When McCurdy retires in February 2019 from the association that represents scores of utilities, it will mark the end of a second career in which he has strived to stay outside of typical partisan lines. “It’s all about leadership, and what you can bring to that role,” he said.

McCurdy was narrowly elected to the House in 1980 in a district that went strongly for Ronald Reagan. He spent 14 years there as a self-described “budget hawk, defense hawk and social/personal libertarian” and worked in the early days with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

McCurdy in his office during his days in Congress. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
McCurdy in his office during his days in Congress. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Earning the trust of Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts and his successor, Jim Wright of Texas, McCurdy served on the Intelligence Committee and chaired the panel in 1991 and 1992.

He ran for the Senate in 1994, losing to Republican James M. Inhofe, who still holds the seat.

From there, he led three associations, the Electronic Industries Alliance, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and finally the AGA.

According to McCurdy, each job built on his time in Congress, gave him a front seat to momentous changes in the respective industries, and indulged his inner tinker.

The science, security and tech policies that defined his committee assignments on the Armed Services, Science and Intelligence panels provided a bridge to working in electronics, cars and energy.

“There’s a common thread here,” he said. “I’m fascinated with how things work.” 

“It’s been fun to be part of the digital revolution, the transformation of the auto industry, and now, the shale revolution, which is transforming the global energy environment and the geopolitical environment as well,” he said, in a nod to how low energy prices have altered the balance of power among oil producing countries like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. 

David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, shakes hands with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., before the start of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on the "Pending Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Legislation" on Thursday, May 3, 2007.
McCurdy, back when he was president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, shakes hands with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein before the start of a 2007 Senate Commerce hearing on legislation on Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

McCurdy’s Oklahoma lilt mixed seamlessly with his wonk enthusiasm as he showed off the almost-done remodel of AGA’s North Capitol Street offices on Monday, reciting the new conference rooms he named after the country’s oil and gas shales: Bakken, Marcellus, Permian and so on. 

When it comes to the Intelligence Committee he used to chair, McCurdy just shakes his head. 

“I’m an optimist. I’m a positive person. I have very little that I can say positively about the actions within the committee right now,” he said. 

McCurdy recalls when O’Neill approached him about serving on the panel and established the ground rules, per the panel’s chairman at the time, Democrat Edward Boland. “Eddie wants you because you’re young, you’re smart, hard-working and will keep your damn mouth shut,” he said O’Neill told him.

California Republican Devin Nunes, who chairs the committee now, isn’t shy about impromptu news conferences and speaking to the press, a description that also works for the panel’s ranking Democrat, California’s Adam B. Schiff

“The nine years I was on the committee, the two years I chaired, I didn’t hold a press conference,” he said. McCurdy was chairman during the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

“When I see the trend in recent years, it just highlights how much politics has changed. How they deal with the media. And I don’t think it serves the nation’s interest,” McCurdy said.

Getting back to his current role, McCurdy, who turns 68 this month, thinks it’s a good time to go, and he said he will head out on a high note.

The AGA is celebrating its centennial this year, hosting the World Gas Conference this summer, and the spiffy remodel of the office is almost done.

“For CEOs, the best time frame is seven to eight years. Ten? Stretching it,” he said, adding it was important to maintain passion for the job. 

“For a country boy from Oklahoma to be able to do what we do for so long, it’s because of the passion for learning and teaching.”

As for the swamp? He has little patience for its detractors.

“Washington, D.C. People call it a swamp. But [we are] still the world’s greatest nation in history, and I really deplore the disciples of declinism, on both extremes. That includes Bernie Sanders and probably a Donald Trump, who preach that things are really bad and that only they can fix them. By almost every indicator in the world today, humankind is better off,” he said.

Watch: Bears, Broken Podiums and Poster Malfunctions: Congressional Hits and Misses

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