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VOL. 132 | NO. 44 | Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fitzhugh Talks About Race for Governor Without Formally Committing

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh hasn’t officially entered the 2018 race for governor, but he has a “gut feeling” it’s a step he should take.

CRAIG FITZHUGH

“Maybe that’s a little Pollyannaish, but I just think that I’ve got some experience, and I know this state, I know the issues,” says Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat with more than two decades in the General Assembly.

If Fitzhugh decides to enter the race, joining recently announced former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, he’ll be doing so with the backing of longtime Democrat Bill Freeman, a Nashville business magnate with deep pockets.

Freeman decided this week he will not run for governor and will endorse Fitzhugh instead of the two-term Nashville mayor.

“He’s a Democrat’s Democrat,” Freeman says of Fitzhugh. “He’s just a hard-working rural Democrat, and I think that will sell well around the state, and I’m 100 percent behind him.”

Freeman points out he and Fitzhugh have been involved in Democratic politics for decades, raising money and trying to help Democrats win elections.

“I just respect that, and I think it’s what we need, and others have not shown that interest,” Freeman says. He also notes that Fitzhugh and other Democratic Party leaders were visible in the recent presidential election while others “were AWOL.”

Pocketing that early endorsement, Fitzhugh says he is “overwhelmed” by Freeman’s decision to “defer” to him, saying it’s more than he could ask.

“It buoys you a little, as do the comments that people have made to me otherwise, folks from East, West and Middle (Tennessee),” says Fitzhugh, 66.

But as he tries to reach a decision, with family, children and grandchildren in mind, he points out his priority in the midst of the 110th General Assembly session is serving as leader of the House Democrats.

Rural roots

While Dean comes from a Massachusetts town and helped vault Nashville into its position as the “it city” with construction cranes dotting the landscape, Fitzhugh represents one of the most rural districts in the state, representing Lauderdale, Crockett and Haywood counties in West Tennessee.

Except for four years in the Air Force, he’s lived his entire life in Tennessee, including Ripley, Knoxville while earning two degrees at the University of Tennessee, and Nashville as a legislator.

Fitzhugh says Dean recognizes, as he does, that Democrats have to reach out to rural people if they want to reclaim the governor’s office.

“We as Democrats gave up on our rural folks, and we shouldn’t have done that, because the issues that rural folks have are Democratic issues, they’re people issues,” Fitzhugh says.

He lists jobs, education, health care, public safety, community development and infrastructure as key issues Democrats started getting away from as far back as the days of Gov. Ned Ray McWherter.

Fitzhugh wants to renew those themes with rural Tennesseans.

“Maybe that’ll be a little impetus for me to do this,” Fitzhugh says.

With an eye toward the middle class, Fitzhugh led House Democrats Monday, Feb. 27, in unveiling a People’s Bill of Rights with a legislative focus on working-class themes. He is sponsoring legislation to create a K-12 education fund using $250 million, and he’s backing a 10-year phase-out of the state’s 5 percent grocery tax to counter-balance Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed increase in fuel taxes.

Tough sledding

With Democrats struggling to win seats statewide, holding only 25 seats in the 99-member House and five positions in the 33-seat Senate, Fitzhugh acknowledges it’s difficult for Democrats to gain traction across Tennessee.

The winner of a Democratic primary could face the likes of Republicans such as Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville, who has announced his candidacy, U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, former Economic and Community Development commissioner Randy Boyd and possibly Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville.

With Donald Trump winning more than 60 percent of the vote statewide in November, Republicans clearly hold a commanding lead at the ballot box. Fitzhugh points out that Democrats have had trouble getting a foothold in Tennessee during the Obama, Bush and Clinton presidencies for the last 20 years. Their loss of control in the House and Senate didn’t come until after Obama took office eight years ago.

“But I think this may be an opening,” he says. “The Republicans are in power in this state, from the governor to both houses, and it’s an overwhelming majority. I’m just thinking people want a little balance. I think we need a little balance in government, and this may be the time that we can find that seam and slip in there and go for a few yards.”

Money could be another stumbling block. Dean isn’t expected to have any problems funding a statewide campaign. But Fitzhugh has only $42,686 in his House campaign account and can’t raise money for a gubernatorial race during the legislative session. He also says it doesn’t “ring true” to him to use his House money to run for governor.

“I guess now I wish I’d been like some and have a couple million dollars in my campaign account,” Fitzhugh said. “I guess it shows I haven’t been working toward running for governor all my career.”

Nevertheless, he believes he can raise enough money and gain enough statewide name recognition, traveling and using social media, to make a serious run.

And while the moderately positioned Dean has been a proponent of charter schools, Fitzhugh is part of a Democratic Caucus that largely opposes vouchers and increases in charter schools statewide, thus his effort to bolster K-12 schools financially.

Those types of stances on meat-and-potatoes issues could give him a boost, along with his efforts to cut the grocery tax while raising revenue for road and bridge construction.

“I just feel like it’s not my ideas I’m putting forth, it’s ideas that resonate with middle-class Tennesseans,” Fitzhugh says.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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