Craig Fitzhugh has been an elected public servant for over 24 years. He happened into the office kind of by accident. Fitzhugh was first elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1994.
“My predecessor came in and said he was about to retire and ‘you’d be a good person to run. Think about it, I’m going to announce it on Monday.’ This was Friday afternoon,” Fitzhugh said with a smile.
Fitzhugh said that he and his family got together and decided that it might be something good for him to do for a term or two. That was 24 years ago.
“I’ve been fortunate to serve under four governors, all good men, good governors, and all different,” he said.
Fitzhugh has served in the legislature for two Republican governors: Don Sundquist (1995-2003) and Bill Haslam (2011-present), and two Democrats: Ned McWherter (1987-1995) and Phil Bredesen (2003-2011).
Fitzhugh has spent time with the Democrats being in the majority, minority, and super minority.
“While the Democrats were in the majority, I was the chairman of the House finance ways and means committee, which means I handled the budget for the House at that time Bredesen was governor,” he said.
Fitzhugh currently serves as the House Minority Leader.
Fitzhugh feels that that experience is part of what gives him an edge over his competitor, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
He’s proven to be able to reach across the aisle and garner Republican support without losing his Democratic root, earning his nickname ‘Fitz’ from friends and foes.
“We’ve done some positive things and stopped some bad things from happening,” he said.
Fitzhugh says that he didn’t have the want or desire to run for office until after Haslam’s second term.
“I got to thinking. I went back over my background: ‘I’m a rural guy; I’m a veteran; I’m an Eagle Scout; I’m the first person in my family to go to college; I’ve had a great career as a banker; I’ve had a good career as a legislator.
What have I been doing all of this for?’ And I then I looked at my grandchildren and said, ‘You know they may not have the same opportunities I had.’ Not just them, but kids in general.”
Fitzhugh was born and raised in Ripley Tennessee, a small low socioeconomic community with a unique mixture of Black, White, Hispanic and Native American population.
Fitzhugh’s recalls his father coming back from World War II looking for a job and not even having enough money for transportation to Memphis to take advantage of his G.I. Bill.
He was hired at the local bank that had been open for about five years and was known as the ‘bank of the little man’ that would make loans folks who couldn’t get it from other banks. He’d ‘go out on a limb’ with a handshake.
“He started working in 1945. They called him a clerk, but he actually came in at noon and sort of cleaned the place. He was basically a janitor.”
When it came time for his father to retire, he was the chairman/CEO of the bank.
Fitzhugh also recalls when his small town high school became integrated.
“We had two high schools in my town: one called Lauderdale that was totally African American, and the other called Ripley which was White. The first seven African Americans came to our school, and it was integrated I think in 1966 or 1967,” Fitzhugh said. He recalls that it was a remarkable experience.
“They came over because they thought they were good athletes and they could really have a go at it,” he remembers. “So we played football, basketball, and baseball together. We got to be good friends and we had each other’s backs.”
After a few years, the whole school became integrated.
After graduating from high school, Fitzhugh became the first in his family to go to college receiving a finance degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, as well as a degree from the UT College of Law. After college, he served four years as a Jag officer before joining a law firm in Ripley where he took on a lot of pro bono work, before joining the bank.
Fitzhugh has been married to his high school sweetheart for 44 years, and has two kids and four grandkids with one on the way.
One of the main focuses of Fitzhugh’s campaign has been education.
“We have to put our entire support on public education,” he said. “ It’s the most important thing we do. You can tell because it’s where we spend most of our money in the budget, but we’re still 46th in funding. We don’t have the ability to go out there and do vouchers. We don’t have the ability to do charters, or to let the administration of the schools be done by private or nonprofit companies that pay these big salaries. We have got to put every ounce of resources in public education.
“A child in Bordeaux, or Orange Mound in Memphis, or on the north side of Ripley: they deserve the very best teacher and the very best facilities just like a child in Williamson County or German Town. We’ve got to level that playing field, and we have to be fair about it.”
Fitzhugh says that he’s got a plan to fund education without raising taxes, “but we’ve got to get ready to step out boldly and we’ve got to put the assets behind it.”
Fitzhugh also says that he is for expanding government procurement and nondiscrimination programs for government spending.
“That’s something that has been talked about,” he said, “but really hasn’t come to fruition.”
Fitzhugh says that his life experiences are what will make him a good governor.
“I just don’t know about poor people,” he said. “My community is poor. It’s just where I live—my rural upbringing. Public education, life experiences, experience running a business, being in the Air Force, practicing law, serving in the legislature: it’s sort of like my opportunity.
“We’ve got some pockets that need help. It’s booming but it is not booming for everybody. I’m not worried about those folks in the skyscrapers; they’re going to do just fine. It’s the folks in the shadow of the skyscrapers who don’t feel like they have a chance to get out of those shadows.”