The most high-quality, consequential Democratic primary in many years returns to Cheatham County on the evening of Tuesday, September 12, as gubernatorial candidate Craig Fitzhugh addresses the special monthly meeting of the Cheatham County Democrats.
Fitzhugh, 67, the state House Minority Leader since 2011, will speak to the local Democratic Party at 6 PM on September 12 at the Ashland City Senior Center, 104 Ruth Drive. His opponent, former Metro Nashville Karl Dean, visited with the Cheatham Democrats and drew a large crowd four months ago.
Though different in many ways, both men are highly respected in the party and in the state, and are expected to wage a civil but hard-fought campaign for the chance to oppose one of the five Republicans also seeking to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam.
While Dean served two terms as a big-city mayor, Fitzhugh--from small-town Ripley in rural West Tennessee--has served in the House of Representatives (District 82) for the last 23 years, the last six as leader of an outnumbered minority that has nevertheless managed to make its influence felt beyond its bare numbers. He has usually been re-elected to his House seat without opposition or by large margins, although he won by a mere 314 votes (out of 13,644) in 2010, a year of dramatic changes in the legislature. A month later, he was chosen to lead a (then) 34-vote minority in the 99-seat House of Representatives.
Fitzhugh had a relatively close call in last year's general election, beating Republican Andy Cole by 2,234 votes out of 18,650 (56%)--in a year, of course, when Donald Trump swept the state in the presidential balloting. This year, the gubernatorial race will be affected not only by who (or what) comes out of the Republican primary, but very possibly by the question of Trump's standing with the electorate at the time, where the "Trump vote" decides to go, and whether there is a Trump vote at all in an off-year gubernatorial election. At present, both Fitzhugh and Dean have to be considered highly viable candidates.
Consistent with the seeming tortoise-vs.-hare, city mouse-vs.-country mouse motif of the 2018 Democratic contest, Fitzhugh announced his candidacy in early August of this year, five months after Dean began his campaign. Dean had raised $1.2 million by June, while Fitzhugh's campaign started with about $12,000 in the bank, left over from his race for the House.
Dean clearly personifies Tennessee Democrats' ability to score heavily in urban areas, while Fitzhugh represents the Democrats' somewhat unknowable potential for reaching working-class and rural voters who went for Trump in 2016. Will these voters act on what might seem to be their substantive self-interest, or on the more attitudinal basis of being "left behind" by Democratic liberals and urbanites in general? And in the primary or in a general election, can Fitzhugh bring them back into the fold?
"The problems and the situations that people in North Nashville and south Memphis find themselves in are not much different than those in Ripley, or Columbia or Etowah or other communities," Fitzhugh told The Tennessean in August. "There are things we can do to give people an opportunity to better their lives....Give people from all walks of life, from all income strata, from cities, from other communities, the opportunity for government to help them with some of the basic tools."
Fitzhugh has said his top issues include education, jobs, infrastructure, and health care (particularly the expansion of Medicaid/TennCare, which legislative Republicans have refused to consider). Dean's list is essentially the same, though neither has yet spelled out detailed proposals in these areas.
Despite his long experience, Fitzhugh was found in a recent Vanderbilt University poll to have just 8% name recognition among registered voters in Tennessee, as opposed to 38% for Dean, although like so many other things this conclusion may have reflected a bias toward urban, easy-to-reach respondents.
On the other hand, last January the man from Ripley won a straw poll at the Davidson County Democrats' holiday party with 26 out of 103 votes, while Dean came in third on his home turf with 20. (For the record, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper finished second with 24 (The Tennessean)). Such straw votes may not be terribly reliable either, but then that is why we hold primaries and elections.
Two of Rep. Fitzhugh's more memorable legislative actions have been voting to increase the cigarette tax from 20 to 60 cents a pack in 2007, and introducing a bill in 2015 (that subsequently passed) terminating the parental rights of a rapist upon conviction of the crime from which childbirth resulted. He is known for being able to "work across the aisle" and deflecting or ameliorating extreme proposals, and is recognized as an effective and entertaining orator.
Born in Brownsville and raised in Ripley, Fitzhugh was a three-sport athlete at Ripley High School and a freshman center-fielder at the University of Tennessee, where more importantly he graduated with a degree in banking and finance in 1972 and a law degree in 1975. He served four years' active duty in the Air Force as a captain in the Judge Advocate General's office, and four more in the reserves, rising to the rank of major. He practiced law in Ripley until 1992, with a two-year stint as municipal judge in Gates, TN. In 1992 he joined the Bank of Ripley, where he is now the chief executive officer. Fitzhugh and his wife of 43 years, the former Pam Chism, have two children and four grandchildren.
Admission to Fitzhugh's speech on September 12 is open to all interested citizens without charge, and
light refreshments will be served at no cost as well.
For further information, contact Michael Lottman, Chair, at email@example.com, or call (615) 714-2702.