PHOTO: Rep. Craig Fitzhugh inside his office at the Cordell Hull Building n Nashville on Wednesday, June 6, 2018./Brooke Wanser.
By BROOKE WANSER
After 24 years serving in the Tennessee General Assembly, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) says he wants to serve the state in which he has lived his entire life as its next governor.
“For Democrats, we sort of just sit around and wait for the Republicans to pick a governor, lately,” Fitzhugh admitted.
This year, he said, is different.
In the Democratic primary, he faces challenger Karl Dean, the former Metro law director and Mayor of Nashville, who Fitzhugh said he differs from in the scope of his political experience.
“Karl’s experience is sort of in a silo,” Fitzhugh said, drawing a rural analogy to match his roots.
“It’s all been in this city, and he’s done a good job, no question about that. But mine’s been sort of like having that crop not in a silo, but in a field,” Fitzhugh said, explaining how he splits his time between Nashville during the legislative session and Ripley.
“I think I have an experience base that’s a little bit broader,” he said.
From current primary seasons in Alabama, California and Virginia, Fitzhugh said he has sensed a different “energy.”
“There are people that are not just whispering to you that they’re Democrats, they’ll actually tell you in a normal, conversational voice,” he said.
In his tour of local Democratic parties, “The response is more enthusiastic, there are more people that are at the meetings, there are more people that have not been to these meetings before,” he said.
Aside from his political career, Fitzhugh was inspired to pursue finance from his father’s career as a banker after coming home from World War II.
The first person in his family to attend college, Fitzhugh graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s in finance, then a law degree, before serving in the Air Force for four years and in the Air Force Reserve for eight years.
After practicing law briefly, then becoming a banker with his father’s company, Fitzhugh was convinced to run for retiring representative Floyd Crain’s seat.
“He had been in 16 years, which I thought was a lifetime,” then-44-year-old Fitzhugh chuckled. He planned to serve for a few terms. “It just happened.”
Then, the Democrats had a majority, which they maintained until 2010, when Fitzhugh became the minority party leader.
A chairman of the finance committee, Fitzhugh points to key legislation victories like his work on lowering the sales tax on foodstuffs, prohibiting smoking in federal buildings, and the Complete College Act and funding schools through the implementation of a state lottery.
If elected, his top priorities are education, healthcare, and jobs.
“The most immediate need we have,” Fitzhugh said, is the expansion of Medicaid, which he called “a huge moral failure” of the legislature.
Expanding Medicaid, using the same basic structure of Gov. Bill Haslam’s program, would be his first act if elected.
He wants to add a work requirement and co-pay, which he said would not hurt many Tennesseans who qualify for Medicaid, “because, in fact, those people are working.”
“If you took an honest poll of the folks in the legislature right now, they would say if it got to the floor for a vote in the House, it would pass,” he said. “I truly think it’s doable,” notwithstanding the Senate turnover after the upcoming election.
He cited a reduction in the opioid crisis and an increase in jobs in Louisiana after passing Medicaid as benefits of the affordable healthcare.
“To me, there’s really no political reason, there’s no moral reason, there’s no financial reason why we ought not do this,” he said, distancing his proposal from Obamacare.
Education, where the majority of tax dollars go, needs to begin in early childhood, he said.
“The best measurement of that is for a child to have the ability to read at grade level by the third grade,” he said, also pointing to the urban myth that the amount of prison space needed is determined by looking at third-graders’ scores.
He also touched on wanting to work on the problems posed by the opioid crisis, illegal immigration, and school safety in the wake of a rash of school shootings this year.
“I certainly do support them,” he said of the children marching to make schools safer. “But the sad thing is, they shouldn’t have to do that.”
Like in Williamson County, Fitzhugh said he would ideally want each county to have several school resource officers (SROs).
Fitzhugh said several of his colleagues have encouraged him in the gubernatorial run.
Why did they endorse him over another candidate?
“I think they thought that I could get along with both sides,” he said.
Occupation: Banker, lawyer
Education: Bachelor’s in finance and J.D. from the University of Tennessee
Community involvement: Air Force veteran, fourth generation member and deacon at First Baptist Church; Eagle Scout and scoutmaster, Tennessee Banker’s Association
Family: wife Pam; two children; Elizabeth and Tom, four grandchildren; Marley, Hugh, BeBe and Oliver
Visit his website at www.craigfitzhugh.com.