Fresh Face, New Focus for House Democrats

Tennessee Democrats need to make the political moves necessary to reserve a seat for themselves at the legislative table next year. Otherwise, they may find they’re on the menu.

That’s what Rep. Craig Fitzhugh said shortly before the House Democratic Caucus voted that he lead them through the next two years in a Legislature controlled by a nearly two-thirds Republican majority.

“We can’t win all the battles anymore. But we can certainly fight the fight,” said the 60-year-old Fitzhugh just prior to the vote. “But we don’t have to fight every fight, ladies and gentlemen, we got to pick our fights.”

In two rounds of secret-ballot voting, Fitzhugh first beat out Black Caucus Chairman John DeBerry Jr. and then unseated two-time Democratic leader Gary Odom.

His leadership further changes the complexion of the state House of Representatives.

In a year when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say voters want change, the makeup of both parties’ House leadership now is substantially different than a year ago.

The lower chamber now will be managed by Republicans, who last month nominated Rep. Beth Harwell to replace Kent Williams, an independent, as House speaker. Republicans have already named Rep. Gerald McCormick as the new majority leader. He replaces former Republican Caucus Leader Jason Mumpower, who didn’t seek reelection to the Legislature, and was recently hired to join Comptroller Justin Wilson’s staff.

Now that Odom is out of the leadership picture, Fitzhugh’s election puts a new face on the Democratic Caucus, which now has 34 members to the Republicans’ 64.

But despite being heavily outnumbered, Fitzhugh says Democrats will make their voices heard. “Don’t count us irrelevant because I believe we represent millions of Tennesseans who believe the same thing. No matter what the numbers are, as I said, we’re going to try to have a seat at the table,” he said.

If the caucus energetically engages in discussions over infrastructure improvements, jobs, education, health care and environmental protection, they’ll ensure their core values and political views don’t get drowned out in the GOP tide, said the Ripley Democrat.

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, who Wednesday won reelection as his party’s caucus chairman, predicted that if Democrats stay unified — while at the same time reaching out to Republicans when prudent — they’ll be able to capitalize on intramural ideological disputes and disagreements over legislative priorities within the majority party.

“We’ve got 34 votes. I don’t think they’ve got 34 votes right now. They may end up with 64, but I think there’s division over there. I think our guys are more together now,” said Turner.

“They have a very conservative base over there that will probably go against a lot of the traditional Republican values, but we’re willing to work with those people for the best interest of the people of Tennessee,” Turner continued, adding that any attempts by the GOP caucus at furthering a “real extremist agenda” will be met by vocal Democratic opposition.

Jim Kyle, who was reelected Senate minority leader Wednesday without opposition, said Democrats will embrace the role of “loyal opposition” to the Republican legislative majorities and governor, Bill Haslam.

Democrats should not, however, simply “oppose things just because they’re offered by the other side,” said Sen. Kyle.

“We’re going to work with this administration on the matters that we see eye to eye on. But if we do have differences of agreement, we will express that,” he said.