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VOL. 132 | NO. 138 | Thursday, July 13, 2017

Legislature Losing Some Powerful, Familiar Members

By Sam Stockard

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A shakeup in leadership is looming for the state Legislature, though it may portend more of a change in personalities than party strength.

In the House, longtime Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the affable Democrat from Ripley in West Tennessee, is preparing for a 2018 gubernatorial run, a move that would knock him out of his House seat, at least temporarily, and the position as Democratic Caucus leader.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, is running for Rutherford County mayor in 2018, a post he’s wanted for more than 25 years.

He made three unsuccessful campaigns for the job in the 1990s before landing the Senate seat in 2002, four years after switching to Republican from Democrat.

MARK NORRIS

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville in southeast Shelby County, is either running for governor in 2018, taking a U.S. District Court judgeship or standing pat.

Norris can’t comment on the judge seat for which he’s reportedly being vetted.

But he says consideration of a gubernatorial run is not on hold because of the potential judgeship.

“It’s really more in the forefront of my mind than ever,” he says.

But while Norris’ immediate future is in limbo (it’s amazing his head doesn’t spin around every morning like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist”), Ketron is definitely bowing out following the 2018 session.

After months of twisting and turning over the decision, Ketron says he woke up one morning and took the leap. Just two years after battling back from cancer, he’s ready to trade in the Senate seat for the mayoral post.

Ketron acknowledges the mayor’s job will deal with more HR situations than the Senate seat does. One wonders if he realizes how much time the county mayor spends putting out fires.

But he won’t have to worry about raising funds for the caucus or finding candidates to fill seats.

And after helping the Republicans gain a 28-5 edge in the Senate, really, does he have anything left to prove at that level? (He also won’t have to make the dreadful drive up I-24 to Nashville from Murfreesboro every day for half the year.)

As leader of the Senate Majority Caucus, Norris usually carries the governor’s legislation, in addition to several other complex bills.

And when Democrats from Shelby County need his help, he’ll comply, sponsoring legislation this year with Rep. Johnnie Turner of Memphis establishing a joint legislative committee to look into unsolved civil rights criminal cold cases.

Norris is clearly a conservative, though, supporting a lawsuit against the federal government to reshape the Refugee Resettlement Program and declining to carry Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan in 2015. He also opposed the Metro Council’s effort to pass sanctuary city-type legislation recently, but points out it had little to do with the refugee resettlement issue.

Calling himself a “policy wonk,” Norris, an attorney and farmer, sits on countless governmental and civic committees, enough to keep him moving from meeting to meeting every day.

He enjoys getting into the tedium of issues ranging from juvenile justice to workforce development and broadband access.

But he considers himself a tax cutter as much as anything, rolling back the Hall income tax, estate tax and gift tax, in addition to writing the amendment to Haslam’s IMPROVE Act early this year to make it an overall tax reduction, instead of a gas-tax and vehicle registration increase.

Norris took some hits from opponents, too, when he included a measure to renew property tax breaks for veterans and seniors.

Some accused him of using veterans as pawns to raise the gas tax, but he said nothing could be further from the truth and argued it was the only way to get Haslam to agree to the veterans’ tax reduction. The IMPROVE Act wouldn’t have passed either without his work.

This studied approach would make Norris seem well-suited for a judge’s job. But it also means the Republicans will have to find a replacement next year, someone who’s willing to do more than take on emotional issues, which often grab the spotlight in this Legislature.

Where do we go from here?

The Senate Republican Caucus could lose three horses in two years, if Norris and Ketron join former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in departing.

Leadership didn’t appear to lose much this past session, with Sen. Randy McNally elevating to the lieutenant governor’s post, but the group will have to find two more solid replacements.

“It really all depends on bench strength for both parties. Any time someone in senior leadership steps down, it creates both a vacuum and opportunity for other people who’ve been waiting their turn to step up,” says Kent Syler, Middle Tennessee State University political science professor.

“In legislative bodies, sometimes it works out for the better, sometimes it doesn’t. It really depends on the quality of the person who is willing to take on the extra duties. And it depends on each member of the Legislature making good decisions on who the leadership is going to be.”

Replacing Ramsey’s fundraising and political ability was probably more difficult than finding someone to run the Senate, Syler adds. Ramsey is considered the father of this Republican supermajority movement, because he could raise money and find candidates. It didn’t hurt either that Tennessee voters had little appetite for former President Barack Obama.

“Every leader has certain assets, and when you are looking to replace them, the caucuses have to look at what kind of individual they are needing right now, what kind of specialties they want them to bring to the job,” Syler points out.

McNally, an Oak Ridge pharmacist and legislator for nearly four decades, isn’t quite as outgoing or bombastic as Ramsey, preferring his humor a little drier to go along with a conservative eye on the state’s money after years as chairman of the budget committee.

McNally isn’t doing too badly, either, on the fundraising end, bringing in $123,502 in the latest reporting period, including $500 from Friends of Megan Barry, and doling out $63,257, much of it to fellow Republican senators’ campaign funds, from Richard Briggs to Doug Overbey, Todd Gardenhire, Joey Hensley, Mike Bell, Janice Bowling, Bo Watson, Ed Jackson, Brian Kelsey and Jim Tracy, according the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Democratic quandary

If Fitzhugh, as expected, follows through on a gubernatorial run, the minority party will lose a longtime leader, a quick thinker and visionary who holds respect on both sides of the aisle.

The Ripley Democrat has been in just about every key position in the House, and even though he’s the glue holding this caucus of 25 together, his potential departure could give someone else an opportunity to shine.

Certainly, Fitzhugh will be hard-pressed to defeat former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Democratic primary in August 2018.

Dean reportedly has $1.2 million on hand, so Fitzhugh will have to get to work, especially with one more session in the Legislature to worry about.

But possibly the bigger question is this: Where would Fitzhugh’s exit leave legislative Democrats?

Democratic Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville is stepping away at the end of the 110th General Assembly in 2018. His departure could spell even bigger trouble than Fitzhugh’s, because while Davidson, Shelby and Lauderdale (Fitzhugh territory) counties had the state’s only Hillary Clinton majorities in 2016, Montgomery County is liable to turn completely red.

That could mean another lost Democratic seat in the House, dropping the caucus to 24 or even 23.

Fitzhugh says not so fast.

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen, No. 1,” he notes. “And I understand there may be as many as 15 or so Republican seats that are gonna be open next time. And I think the mood is changing, at least at the grassroots level a little bit. There are a lot of quality candidates out there that are being trained and are ready to run and ready to go.”

The words “eternal optimist” should be added here to describe Fitzhugh, because even though Democrats are in danger of losing every rural district in Tennessee, including Fitzhugh’s West Tennessee seat, he says he believes hope is alive for Democrats out in the country.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in getting in this (gubernatorial) race. I’m a rural guy, I’ve lived in a rural area all my life, and I know that what is important to Tennesseans are things like education, jobs and health care. That’s what we ought to talk about.

“That’s what maybe we’ve gotten away from a little bit, and that’s what I’m going to talk about, specifically what we can do for those and other areas just like those that the Tennessee Legislature can make a difference in.”

Led by Fitzhugh, Democrats have been harping on health care and Medicaid expansion for the last few years. With Congress ready to dump Medicaid spending on the states, the issue will be “at the forefront” as Tennesseans finally realize what could happen, Fitzhugh points out.

Instead of covering more people, giving the economy a chance to grow and bolstering hospitals, the proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act and adopt a new plan threatens to send Tennessee “to the bottom again,” Fitzhugh continues.

Republicans, including Norris, Ketron and McNally, have been in waiting mode on the federal government, opposing Medicaid expansion because of the potential increased cost.

It’s a debate they’ll likely have in 2018.

But whether Democrats can garner some votes from the looming Medicaid predicament remains to be seen.

Syler says he believes they need leadership with certain skills to make headway.

“Well, they need a Ramsey,” he says. “They need someone who can raise money, find good candidates and try to increase their numbers. They’ve got a pretty obvious need.”

The opening is likely to be there in both chambers.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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