Early voting in the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries began July 13. Election day is just around the corner on Thursday, Aug. 2.
There are four leading candidates in the Republican race including Congressman Diane Black, businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee, and Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is challenging House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh on the Democratic side.
Fitzhugh has represented Tennessee’s 82nd legislative district as a member of the State House of Representatives since 1994.
He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law.
He served four years active duty in the Air Force Judge’s Advocate General Crops.
In 1992, he joined the Bank of Ripley where he continues to serve as chairman and CEO. He’s been married to wife, Pam, for 40 years. She is a retired consultant for hearing-impaired children with the Lauderdale County School System.
Children include daughter, Elizabeth Molder, and son-in-law, Chaz Molder; and son, Tom and daughter-in-law Windy.
Since Fitzhugh also has four grandchildren, it was little surprise that the topic of education came up.
Through the Bank of Ripley, he created a grant program that has provided more than $300,000 to supplement classroom resources for local teachers.
Fitzhugh echoed the idea that perhaps traditional college is not for everyone. He commended Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on “following through” with the Tennessee Promise – an educational initiative which allows students graduating high school to attend two years at a community college or trade school free of charge.
“We need those 21st century jobs, and we need affordability of post-secondary training,” he said, before noting that the Tennessee Promise started many years ago as a Democratic idea.
He pointed to former Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, who was in attendance at Thursday’s meet and greet.
“(That man) is the reason we have it. Democrats came up with that plan, but the recession hit, and we couldn’t fulfill it. I do give him (Haslam) credit for picking it back up,” Fitzhugh explained.
He next said that teachers nowadays are neither “respected” nor paid enough.
“I have some ways I think we can pay our teachers more. This governor we’ve had for eight years (Haslam), is probably the first one in 100 years who hasn’t faced a recession …. (in those conditions) it isn’t hard to pay teachers more,” he said. “There are other ways when we hit that recession again, and we will, that we can still pay our teachers.”
Medicaid expansion is another top priority, both politically and morally, for Fitzhugh.
“We’ve tried and tried and at this stage in the game there is no reason why we shouldn’t do this. I think I know how to get Legislature to do this,” he added. “We have to work on opioid (addiction), prescription cost, medical care for rural folks and getting those nurses in rural areas and making it more affordable.”
He said that the state of Louisiana expanded Medicaid two years ago.
“They have had 16,000 new jobs in that state directly or indirectly because of Medicaid expansion. We would have more. In the states that have expanded Medicaid, there has been a 16 percent reduction in opioid problems. It would help us tremendously,” he continued.
Finally, he discussed higher paying jobs for Tennesseans.
“We have more people in this state working at minimum wage than any other state in the union. Now there isn’t much American Dream in that,” Fitzhugh said. “We can do better than that. I am not talking about kids who get a summer job at McDonald’s. I’m talking about people who are trying to raise a family, working three jobs at minimum wage.
Fitzhugh isn’t worried about professionals who work in skyscrapers, although he wishes them well.
“They are going to do just fine. It is the people in the shadows of the skyscrapers that I’m concerned with,” he said. “I don’t care if the shadow is here in Mt. Juliet or in Ripley. We have to make sure we give those folks an opportunity … I’m going as hard and fast around the state as possible to let people know that it is ‘people first.’ That is what my mother taught me.”