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.”