McWhorter to return and replace Rolfe as Economic and Community Development commissioner

By: - June 7, 2022 4:12 pm
Gov. Bill Lee, third from right, with Ford Motor Co. CEO, to his right, and Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, to Ford's right, at Monday's announcement of the Ford Blue Oval Campus. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

Outgoing Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, second from left, with Gov. Bill Lee and representatives of Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

For the third time in little more than a month, Gov. Bill Lee is seeing shakeup within his cabinet, as his chief economic recruiter prepares to leave and open the way for a former chief administrator to return.

The governor announced Tuesday that Commissioner Bobby Rolfe is exiting the Department of Economic and Community Development after a tenure stretching from the former Haslam Administration and making way for former Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter to return after two years and take over as the state’s main economic recruiter.

“Bobby has played an invaluable role in my cabinet by recruiting new businesses and industry to our state, supporting existing companies and expanding economic opportunity across Tennessee, particularly in our rural communities,” Lee said in a Tuesday statement. “I commend his service to Tennesseans and wish him much success as he enters the private sector.”

Stuart McWhorter, new commissioner of Tennessee Economic and Community Development. (Photo:
Stuart McWhorter, new commissioner of Tennessee Economic and Community Development. (Photo:

Rolfe played a key role in bringing Ford’s electric truck and battery manufacturing plant to the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County in 2021, years after the state lost a bid for a vehicle manufacturing plant that went to Alabama because the state-owned tract 45 miles from Memphis wasn’t prepared for a major manufacturer.

McWhorter, who co-founded Clayton Associates in 1996, a firm that set up FCA Venture Partners, was among the first to back Lee in his gubernatorial campaign four years ago. He then became Lee’s Finance and Administration commissioner before taking charge of the governor’s unified command group at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

McWhorter left the administration in 2020 and became an advisor for Clemson University where he earned his bachelor’s degree and was the Tiger mascot. In February 2021, McWhorter and his wife, Leigh Anne, pledged a Cornerstone Partner Gift of $2.5 million to support the softball program at Clemson University.

“Stuart has been a tremendous asset to the administration, and his knowledge of both the private and public sectors will ensure Tennessee continues to lead the nation as the best place to do business,” the governor said in his statement. “I appreciate his service and am confident Tennesseans and our economy will thrive under his leadership.”

McWhorter also served as chairman of a panel the governor appointed to determine how to handle the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust, which was subsequently moved to the Tennessee State Museum from the second floor of the State Capitol.

The Rolfe-to-McWhorter transition marks the third major move within the governor’s cabinet within the last five weeks.

In early May, Lee announced he was appointing Deputy Governor Butch Eley to serve as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Jim Bryson to replace him as commissioner of Finance and Administration. Eley continues to advise the governor as deputy.

In addition, the governor last week named Dr. Morgan McDonald as interim health commissioner to step in and run the department after Dr. Lisa Piercey departed.

Piercey became a key figure in the state’s battle with COVID-19 in 2020 but suffered bad public relations last year when she fired Michelle Fiscus, director of the state’s immunization program, under pressure from lawmakers who complained that she was trying to force children to take the vaccination without their parents’ permission.

State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, threatened to try to dissolve the Department of Health if it didn’t reverse its efforts on child vaccinations.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.