Despite Tennessee Democrats' turmoil over losing their statehouse majorities, the governor's office and confidence in their leaders at the state party in recent years, Craig Fitzhugh was still surprised his right-hand man wanted out.
For some, working in the legislature is no fun anymore.
"When you've been fighting and struggling, you tend to have your feelings a little closer to your sleeve," says Fitzhugh, the top Democrat in the state House of Representatives, about his No. 2 Democrat Mike Turner's surprise announcement that he wants to retire from leadership, serve out another term or two, then leave the legislature. "I know how he feels."
After three years in the minority, following decades of serving under Democratic rule in the legislative branch, Fitzhugh is finding more of his comrades looking for an exit. And with district maps redrawn to favor the GOP, Republicans are clamoring to take their places.
Three of the remaining seven Senate Democrats plan to leave the legislature at the end of this term. A fourth, leading Democrat Jim Kyle of Memphis, is trying his luck at a judgeship before deciding whether to get out.
"The people aren't as fun as they used to be," Kyle says, laughing and refusing to name names. "It's a pretty isolated environment. It's a job, it's a business. When I first came here 30 years ago, it was more of a hobby. You did your job, you did your service, and you enjoyed it. It's not the fun that it was."
This year was rough for Kyle. With Republicans controlling 26 of 33 Senate seats, the Democratic caucus is small enough to fit into a single minivan. With the GOP running the legislature, only five of his 45 bills moved out of committee. Kyle's backup, Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson, says he won't return next year. He described the move as a family decision, although he hasn't ruled out a mayoral run back home. That's what Democrat Andy Berke did, leaving the legislature in 2012 after two terms to seek local office as Chattanooga's mayor.
Finney's absence leaves his seat as a possible grab for Republicans, as does Sen. Charlotte Burks' retirement next year from serving her rural East Tennessee district. Two Republicans have already announced intentions to seek out her seat. Nashville Sen. Doug Henry also plans to retire, attracting three high-profile Democratic candidates vying to replace him, although Republicans have all but promised to put up a candidate.
North Nashville state Sen. Thelma Harper is also up for re-election next year, but doesn't feel driven out by frustration like some of her peers.
"If there's nobody here but me, I'll still be here," Harper says. "If they want to go, that's their problem."
Republicans are more productive for their districts than Democrats in the legislature right now simply because of the party politics, according to Jim Gotto, a Republican who lost his Nashville district by 95 votes, less than 1 percent, in 2012. "That's the way that game's played down there, right or wrong. It's a very partisan group," says Gotto, who has considered another bid for that seat. "If you are not part of that party that's in power, sometimes it's very hard to get something done."
Of the 34 Democrats in the 99-member House, only former U.S. Marine Charles Curtiss has said he'll leave the legislature at the end of this term, citing harsh campaigning by Republicans last cycle that saw him squeak out a win by 1.5 percentage points. "When an old Marine like Charley Curtiss says he's had enough, that's pretty bad," caucus leader Fitzhugh says.
Turner is the latest to indicate a desire to get out. The Nashville firefighter representing Old Hickory is one of the top leaders in the House Democratic Caucus. Known for his booming voice and tendency to lose his temper, Turner says he was fed up with the direction embattled state chairman Roy Herron was taking the party. He says he wants to go a different way and plans to step down from leadership so someone who works better with the party chairman can take the helm.
Fitzhugh says he understands. He thinks he can talk Turner off the political cliff or at least convince him to delay his decision, with next year's legislative session about to restart in January and elections around the corner. Turner will talk with the caucus about his plans Saturday, Nov. 16. Fitzhugh says he too has "lost it" at times, although without the press around.
"We all have the sense of frustration, because we really are trying to do what's best for Tennessee," he says. "When you find yourself in the minority like we do, it is frustrating, and it's not fun anymore."