Freeman won’t run for governor; endorses Fitzhugh

Millionaire Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, a major donor to state Democrats, tells The Tennessean he won’t run for governor himself and is instead endorsing House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh for the Democratic nomination.

Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he is “leaning toward running,” but hasn’t made a final decision. If so, he will join former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in a contested Democratic primary. Dean declared himself a candidate over the weekend. (Previous post HERE.)

“I don’t want to pit myself against the mayor (Dean). He’s done a great job and has a great reputation, but the fact of the matter is I’ve been now in state government for over 20 years and even I can learn a lot in 20 years. I know state government pretty well. I’m a rural guy. I think our party needs to reach out to rural folks like we used to. We have to get back to that.”

“I think he will be a great candidate,” Freeman said. “We’re a long way from a race but right now I’d say Craig is the guy with the most statewide appeal, the most rural-urban appeal, the most Democratic appeal. He’s been a longtime supporter of Democrats around the state.”

Note: On Friday, Freeman distributed an interesting but rather rambling statement to media on the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races coming up next year, notably including speculation that Bob Corker might run for governor rather than reelection to the Senate. It’s below.

Statement from Bill Freeman, chairman of Freeman Webb, Inc.

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) – The news that Governor Bill Haslam has publicly stated that an upcoming Senate run is not out of the realm of possibility has important repercussions for any candidate who might be considering joining the upcoming Governor’s race.

From what all of us know right now, there simply isn’t an open Senate seat coming up. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are both currently planning to remain in office and continue to seek their same seat. Neither of them have said anything to the contrary. Alexander has not announced his retirement. Corker, while he has been considered for other positions by President Trump, has not yet been asked to accept a position in Trump’s administration.

What this means to those of us who review and analyze such public comments, however unprompted as they may been made to appear, is that this was a strong indication that Haslam is not finished with his public service and is looking onward and upward for a place to continue his political career. As a term-limited governor, there are few positions left to seek, other than a position representing one’s state in Washington.

This is what makes us all conjecture that Haslam and Corker have had a conversation in which they have foreseen a situation where they can simply swap jobs. Haslam will support a Corker run for governor, while Corker would support Haslam in taking his place in DC. For these two individuals, who have close ties going back to young adulthood, this scenario is not at all unlikely. After all, it was a young Bob Corker and a young Jimmy Haslam who were college fraternity roommates at UT back in the day. And as we all know, being college roommates and frat brothers is practically tantamount to being blood brothers. Haslam certainly wouldn’t entertain a Senate bid without first discussing and mapping out a game plan with his brother’s college buddy first. That much we know is true!

Having such a conversation is likely enough between two elected officials from the same political party who represent the same state. But when you add the fact that these two men go back decades and have a close personal relationship, it makes it exceedingly unlikely that they didn’t have such a ‘war room’ strategy session. If political pundits are correct that there has been a conversation such as I’ve described, this forecasts a tough uphill climb for any Democrat who is considering throwing his or her hat into the ring for the Governor’s race in 2018. It would make it difficult for any other Republican to enter the race, for that matter.

With both Corker and Haslam’s financial means, both personal and professional, and their clear statewide name recognition, it would be quite a challenge to any other GOP candidate to consider starting out on that uphill climb.

Between Haslam and Corker, they have a serious election machine, well-oiled and with proven success. But the Republican party has a number of viable candidates who have shown they have the qualities necessary to consider a run at the Governor’s office, including Tennessee’s Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, former Army flight surgeon and state Senator Mark Green and Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

Fellow Democrats in Tennessee will face a serious competitor in the Governor’s race in Bob Corker, no doubt about it. However, it will not be the first time in Tennessee history where one candidate for office was not at all expected to win but did indeed emerge victorious. No one gave Governor Ned Ray McWherter a good chance of beating Governor Winfield Dunn in 1986. And no one really gave Sen. Bill Frist a fighting chance against Jim Sasser in 1994. However, in each of these races, the underdog won and went on to become a well-regarded civil servant with decades of service, admired by their political party and respected by the opposing party.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh would offer a worthy challenge, given his years of service and background and proud Democratic appeal. While his name isn’t well known in middle Tennessee, his role as the current House Minority Leader and his history as a local attorney, banker and Air Force captain certainly would serve him well in introducing himself to all of Tennessee.

Regardless of who does decide to enter the race to become Tennessee’s next Governor, it will certainly be an important election. With some serious contenders with decades of public service as possible candidates and if the scenario plays out that Haslam and Corker decide to trade jobs, if you will, it will be quite a race. It will certainly be one for the history books.

Tennesseans deserve leaders who will represent our varied population and ideals both here at home and in DC. It is up to the voters to choose. As President Abraham Lincoln said, whose humorous but quite direct statements continue to impact us still today, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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