Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives, says he's running for governor of Tennessee in 2018, setting up a long-anticipated head-to-head race with former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean for the Democratic nomination.
Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, announced his candidacy in an interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee from his home in rural Lauderdale County, calling it the "right thing to do" and important that Democrats have a spirited primary.
His entry presents a contrast to Dean, an urban mayor, and an alternative for Democrats critical of Dean's business-friendly politics and support of charter schools.
It could also mean the state's first seriously contested gubernatorial Democratic primary election in several cycles. On the Republican side, five viable Republican contenders are seeking the GOP nomination in the race to replace Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Fitzhugh, who has made "People Matter" his campaign slogan, said he's concerned Tennessee is falling behind and rattled off education, jobs, infrastructure and health care — particularly the expansion of Medicaid — as his top issues.
He touted his experience: 23 years as a state lawmaker representing House District 82, which includes three West Tennessee counties north of Memphis, and his deep roots in a state where he was born and raised.
"There's some things that I think we can do better," he said. "That's why I'm in it.
"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 said. "There are things that we can do to give people an opportunity to better their lives."
Fitzhugh presents political, rural contrast to Dean
The 67-year-old Fitzhugh, CEO and chairman of a small bank chain in Ripley, population 8,116, had shown signs of entering the race for months and flirted with challenging Haslam in 2014.
His entry will pit the folksy, small-town Fitzhugh — a recreational hunter and one of the last remaining rural Democrats in the Tennessee state legislature — against Dean, the mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, who announced his candidacy for governor in February.
Politically, Fitzhugh has closer ties to traditional Democratic constituencies such as organized labor and the state's teachers union than Dean. The latter pushed education reform and publicly financed, privately led charter schools during his time as Nashville mayor and was allied with the chamber of commerce
Fitzhugh figures to draw early support from critics of Dean's charter school record, in particular, who have urged Fitzhugh to run.
Although Fitzhugh has cast votes in support of charter schools, he said he worries they drain financial resources from public schools and believes that decisions on charters should be left with local school boards.
Still, Fitzhugh refrained from criticizing Dean or his record, and said he doesn't anticipate mounting a negative campaign against his opponent.
"He's a good candidate. He's going to run a good race," Fitzhugh said. "We need to put out the positives of being a Democrat, not go at each other because of any differences we might have."
Fundraising, name recognition pose challenges
Fitzhugh is seen by most as an underdog against Dean, a tag he said he embraces.
Though he has a loyal following, a recent poll from Vanderbilt University found Fitzhugh had name recognition from only 8 percent of registered voters in Tennessee, compared to 38 percent for Dean.
He also faces a major fundraising hole out of the gate. Dean reported raising $1.2 million through June and is expected to be in position to contribute a significant amount of personal money. Dean has said he believes it will take $10 million to compete in the governor's race.
Fitzhugh's fundraising push begins Sunday after he reported a balance of just $12,076 on his mid-year disclosure report for his House seat, which he is allowed to transfer to his gubernatorial campaign.
Fitzhugh said he knows he won't be able to contribute as much personal money as others, but said he's confident his team will have enough to get out their message. His fundraising efforts could get a boost from Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, the state's largest Democratic donor who supports Fitzhugh's candidacy.
"Primaries can go any number of ways, but Fitzhugh certainly has his work cut out for him," Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said.
"It's easy to get well known quickly, but it just means that you probably have to spend a little bit more money, and that's not something he's probably going to have the luxury to have, I suspect."
Geer said he thinks a contested primary is a good thing for Democrats overall because it would help the eventual nominee "hone their message" and prepare for the general election.
"I don't view this as bad news for Dean, per se, and I think that Fitzhugh in a one-on-one race, assuming that no one else is running, he's got to figure this is a decent chance to compete."
'Democrats aren't as bold as they used to be'
Both Dean or Fitzhugh would face uphill races in the general election against the eventual Republican nominee, but Democrats are hoping for a possible midterm revolt against President Donald Trump to boost their chances.
"It's a long shot, and we know that, but it's going to get shorter," Fitzhugh said. "We're going to get in and work hard."
In recent years, beleaguered Tennessee Democrats have struggled to field candidates for governor and U.S. Senate as the state has gotten redder politically. But that's not the case for 2018.
The last time the party had multiple declared viable candidates for governor was ahead of the 2010 election, when Mike McWherter, Ward Cammack, and former state Sens. Roy Herron, Jim Kyle and Kim McMillan had all entered the race for governor.
All but McWherter eventually dropped out before the primary, however. McWherter lost handily to Haslam in November of that year.
Fitzhugh said that while he considers himself a moderate generally, Democrats need to do a better job of being champions for the working class.
"I think there's a dissatisfaction among Democrats because Democrats aren't as bold as they used to be," Fitzhugh said. "Sometimes they don't want to admit they are Democrats, and I think sometimes we've had the issues wrong.
"That's the reason I want to focus on things we can make better. 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."
As a rural Democrat, Fitzhugh has defied state's Republican trend
Fitzhugh, raised in Ripley and born in nearby Brownsville, attended the University of Tennessee for undergraduate and law school. He then spent four years in the Air Force as a judge advocate general before returning to Tennessee.
For the next 12 years, he practiced law in Ripley. He took over as chairman and CEO of the Bank of Ripley in 1992 when his father, who held those titles, retired.
Fitzhugh has been married to his wife Pam Fitzhugh for 43 years, and together they have two children and four grandchildren.
Fitzhugh was first elected to House District 82, which includes Lauderdale, Haywood and Crockett counties, in 1994.
By winning recent elections, he's defied the political trends of his district, which like the state, has seen rural Democrats become Republicans. Though Haywood County narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential race, the other two counties went overwhelmingly for Trump.
He cited his work on budgets as past chairman of the House Finance Committee, back during Democratic control, and passage of the Complete College Act under Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2010 as some of his achievements.
Proud of record leading a 'super-minority' party
For the past seven years, Fitzhugh has served as the House minority leader, where super-majorities of Republicans in both chambers have forced Democrats to play defense on a host of issues.
That's left Fitzhugh and the Democrats with few signature legislative achievements.
Fitzhugh touted his ability to work across the aisle and credited himself with helping lead the fight against school vouchers and pushing for Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act.
"I say we're a super-minority because we do some super things," Fitzhugh said. "We've never given up. We've never thought for one minute that we weren't going to be able to expand. And when I'm elected governor, we're going to expand Medicaid."
Fitzhugh's campaign treasurer is John Morgan, former chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Erick Mullen, managing director of Mercury Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that works with both Democratic and Republican candidates, is serving as general consultant for Fitzhugh's campaign. His campaign's media consultant is J. Tascano, a partner at GMMB. Rick Ridder of RBI Strategies is the campaign's pollster.
Fitzhugh's finance director is April Orange and his campaign coordinator is Brooks Barfield.
His run for governor means that Fitzhugh won't be able to run next year for his House seat of the past two decades, opening it up to a possible pick-up for Republicans in 2018.
Just like House Speaker Beth Harwell, a candidate for governor on the Republican side, Fitzhugh said he doesn't plan to leave his House seat or leadership post next year. That means he would not be allowed to raise money while the legislature is in session.
About Craig Fitzhugh
Occupation: CEO and chairman of the Bank of Ripley; licensed attorney
Home: Ripley, Tenn.; Lauderdale County
Education: University of Tennessee, bachelor’s degree in business administration; University of Tennessee School of Law, J.D.
Military: U.S. Air Force, captain in the Judge’s Advocate General Corp., 1976 to 1980; U.S. Air Force reserves, 1980 to 1988
Family: Wife, Pam; two children; four grandchildren
Religion: Member of First Baptist Church in Ripley, Tenn.