State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, center, while campaigning in Columbia for the Democratic nomination to run for governor, is surrounded by Mark Newland and Stephanie Sparks-Newland. Photo by Clint Confehr

Craig Fitzhugh’s campaign for governor this week started with his attendance at two Memphis church services and, at dusk Sunday, he was on a conference call with volunteers and supporters.

“We have an amazing opportunity to put not just me, but to put you all on the first floor of the capitol — folks who believe, as we all do, about folks who need that — folks who don’t have that skyscraper elevator, who are in the shadow of that skyscraper for whatever reason,” he said.

Fitzhugh knows that floor where lawmakers affect or afflict people’s lives. He’s House minority leader.

“This is a state that’s never been a rich state … it’s always had a large middle class and we’re seeing that decimated,” Fitzhugh said, knowing the less fortunate have it worse. “This movement is the answer to that.”

It was Women’s Day at the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ where Bishop Milton Hawkins might normally lead worship, so when Fitzhugh attended, “First Lady Hawkins handled the service and it was a really good one,” Fitzhugh said. “Prior to that I went to the Coleman Street Church of Christ where my friend, state Rep. John DeBarry Jr., is a pastor there.”

Fitzhugh is a member of First Baptist Church, Ripley, Tenn. His family’s worshipped there since his great grandmother’s generation.

Last week, endorsed Fitshugh.

Johnson City Press endorsed Fitzhugh for the Democratic nomination: He “is firm in his belief that Tennessee needs to sign on to Medicaid expansion … to improve the health of Tennesseans and save the state’s hospitals … As a 12-term-member of the … [Legislature], he knows state government inside and out … Since 2011, he’s been in the unique position of navigating through a Republican supermajority … while furthering the priorities of his constituents … As a bank executive and experienced lawmaker, Fitzhugh knows his way around finance and budgetary issues.”

Asked about Trump’s influence, Fitzhugh said, “If I’m fortunate enough to get in the general election, it’s going to help … Everything he does just adds another little weight on that camel. I think he’s going to lose some support in this state by doing some of the things that are not smart.”

He’s asked farmers about subsidies to counteract a trade war over tariffs threatening soybean sales: “They’re alright … getting some kind of subsidy. It’s just one year … [If it] lasts a long time, it could affect them much more … They’re not happy with tariffs … They’re not excited about … subsidies, although it’s better than not having anything, but I don’t think they think it’s a smart thing to do. Why do it in the first place? And, … you use more money to subsidize them.”

Fitzhugh’s campaign started late. Fundraising was suspended when legislators were in session. His name recognition’s increased from 5 percent to “the same level as our opponent,” he said.

“In Memphis people are coming up to me who heretofore would have just walked by … They’ve seen the ad and ask, ‘How do you like to say your name?’ It’s Fits-You, I say, “Do your shoes fit you? If it fits you, it fits you.”

Promising signs for the folksy campaigner emerged near Nashville, Fitzhugh told volunteers. “People who are part of the party structure say ‘I can’t tell you this, but I already voted for you.’

“It is possible to be exhausted and excited at the same time,” Fitzhugh said Sunday of campaign surprises including primary spending by all candidates. It’s nearly $51 million.

Campaign Manager Matt Kuhn said Fitzhugh’s strategy is “different from other campaigns in the gubernatorial election. Instead of throwing money hand over fist … our campaign comes down to people … That’s what’s going to do it … In March, we had volunteers from 59 communities … [now] … we have volunteers from 234 communities.”

Statewide Field Director Rob West on Sunday’s call explained to nearly 100 of 450 volunteers how to reach people who’ve not voted yet: face to face; by in-person phone calls; texts to friends; social media; and campaigning at election polls Thursday.

“People are hustling on their lunch breaks from Johnson City to Alamo, Tenn., … to help Fitz on the campaign trail,” West said.

Fitzhugh said, “This is a doable thing. I think we might get enough … votes to get past this hurdle.”

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...