House Dems elect Fitzhugh as leader, unseat embattled Odom

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 1:06pm

Beleaguered state House Democrats voted for change Wednesday by unseating their leader, Nashville Rep. Gary Odom, and replacing him with Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, who declared “I’ve got a fire in my belly” to help rehabilitate his party.

Fitzhugh, who was chairman of the powerful Finance Committee in the last legislature, defeated Odom on the second ballot. The third candidate, Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, won the fewest votes on the first ballot, setting up the Fitzhugh-Odom runoff. The election was conducted by secret ballot.

“After this last election, I just knew we found ourselves in a completely unacceptable position,” said Fitzhugh, 60, who is from Ripley in rural West Tennessee. “We cannot let this stand. We have a message. We don’t need to change our message. We just need to articulate it better. We need to focus on people, I believe. We need to focus on working men and women. We need to focus on healthy, learning children, senior citizens, veterans and those who are in need.

“I’ve got a fire in my belly, as they say, to try to help us get that message back,” he told the Democratic caucus.

Odom had been Democratic leader for four years. His popularity had eroded even among his usual supporters — blacks and urban representatives — not only because of the party’s devastating losses in November’s elections but also because of various PR faux pas and controversies.

Odom got crossways with Gov. Phil Bredesen over a tax bill and, in retaliation, the administration refused to let him handle its legislation — a traditional role of the leader. Also in Memphis, he slammed House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh at a restaurant in the presence of a reporter. When his comments wound up in print, it outraged much of the caucus and he was forced to apologize.

Wednesday, Odom spoke quietly for only a minute to the caucus. “All of you know how I’ve served. I’ve always put this caucus first.,” he said.

Neither Fitzhugh nor DeBerry openly criticized Odom in their speeches, but both implied Odom was refusing to acknowledge the party’s dire straights and need for change. In the elections, Republicans gained 14 seats to take a 64-34 advantage.

“We can’t just say people got up one morning and stopped liking Democrats,” said DeBerry, who would have become the first black House Democratic leader. “We’ve got to take an introspective examination, a checkup from the neck up and look at ourselves and stop being in denial.”

Fitzhugh promised to try to work with Republicans but not to shy away from fights.

“We’ve never been this far into the minority before, so we’re going to have to work a little different. We can’t win all the battles anymore. But we can certainly fight the fight. We don’t have to fight every fight. We’ve got to pick our fights. We’ve got to be in the room. We’ve got to be at the table because if you’re not at the table, somebody said, you’re on the menu. I think I can work with the Republicans, but sometimes I can get fired up too. When it’s time to get fired up, we can put our position out, and I think the people of Tennessee will respond to that, and I think we’ll see a change when this next election comes.” 

5 Comments on this post:

By: metrodude on 12/15/10 at 12:46

No, you need to change your message. This ain't New York

By: govskeptic on 12/15/10 at 12:49

While I know very little of Fitzhugh, it has always bothered me that
an Industry Assoc leader, which is primarily a lobbying organization,
can even serve in the legislature much less be the majority or
minority leader! Mr. Odom's proclamation of no conflict never did
appear absolutely correct, irreguardless of the poor election results!

By: tpaine on 12/15/10 at 9:57

Ha!! Dems still think: "it's the message."
No, we - the voters - got the message. Spend "others people's money" like there's no tomorrow until - guess what - there's no more "other people's money" left.
We tossed you out on your duft and thanks to another trillion dollar budget - with 9,000 earmarks - you're trying to jam down our throats, it's going to be a cold day in July before you're EVER the majority again.
Merry Christmas America.

By: HokeyPokey on 12/16/10 at 7:54

Wow, do the Tootsie Pops and the committee chair that lets you completely disappear when you lean back go with Odom's job?


By: wasaw on 12/16/10 at 2:29

Hey Gary, why didn't you drive up to East TN and see what your Judas could do for you now? Of that's right, he didn't get re-elected, did he? Honestly Gary, the back handed trick you pulled two years ago did nothing but show the voters and your fellow thieves just what you're made of. Of course, most of us already knew that, you being a lawyer; the scum of the scum.