Tennessee legislators looking to move up, out

State Legislature could see nearly 13 percent turnover in 2018 as lawmakers retire, seek new posts

Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000

NASHVILLE - When state Rep. Marc Gravitt announced this week plans to run for Hamilton County register of deeds, the East Ridge Republican became the latest Tennessee lawmaker to declare he won't seek re-election to his current legislative job in 2018.

From House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, the chamber's No. 1 leader now running for the GOP's nomination for governor, to House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who's running to win Democrats' gubernatorial nomination, 17 of Tennessee's 132 state lawmakers have already made their intent clear some 15 months before the 2018 election.

That amounts to a potential 12.8 percent turnover of House and Senate seats.

Twelve representatives in the 99-member House, including Gravitt, have announced interest in running for other office, although at least two of their decisions depend on what happens to a top Senate leader's presidential nomination for a West Tennessee federal judgeship.

Two others, Reps. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, and Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, have simply said they're retiring.

And in Tennessee's upper chamber, four senators already aren't aiming to come back. One of them, Sen. Mae Beavers, Mt. Juliet, is running for the GOP's 2018 gubernatorial nomination.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has plans for two other senators. The president recently nominated Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, for a U.S. District Court judgeship in the Western District of Tennessee.

Norris had planned to run for governor.

Trump also nominated Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Sevierville, to become U.S. district attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Senator No. 4 is Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, who plans to run for mayor of Rutherford County next year.

So at this early stage, the Tennessee House could see a 14.1 percent turnover in 2019 before the first November 2018 vote is even cast.

And if Norris and Overbey are confirmed as expected, the 33-member Tennessee Senate is looking at a 12.1 percent turnover.

As with many things in politics, Gravitt's decision to shoot for higher elective office boiled down to a few factors, including interest, timing, friends' encouragement, belief in his ability to do the job and the necessary dash of ambition.

Incumbent Hamilton County Register Pam Hurst, a Republican, said she intends to call it quits next year after 24 years in the post. Hurst's deputy clerk, Sheldon Wright, has announced he is running to succeed his boss.

Gravitt said that as "a real estate broker for 20-plus years, I know what the [register] office does." And as a former East Ridge city council member and vice mayor, he's always enjoyed serving in local government.

First elected to the General Assembly in 2014, Gravitt said that while serving in the House has been "one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences in my life," his first elected post was at the local level and that's where he'd like to serve.

And finally, there was Hurst's plan to retire - along with several Gravitt friends urging him to run. "That's the third part," Gravitt said, "it becoming an open seat."

Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean, who preceded Gravitt as House District 30 representative and took the plunge for countywide office in 2014, said he's been watching developments in the General Assembly and noted "there's a lot of [legislators] bailing.

"I can't say I blame them. They pay their dues and serve in Nashville." Dean said. "Quite honestly, it sometimes is a thankless job. You're spending a lot of time away from your family and your home."

Still, Dean said, legislative service is also an invaluable learning experience that provides a good grounding in any number of areas, including how Tennessee policy is developed and made into law.

Besides Gravitt, a number of other legislators are looking to move up, ahead or out. The list includes:

* State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, has announced he will seek the GOP nomination in Tennessee's 2nd Congressional District to succeed U.S. Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. of Knoxville, who announced his retirement.

* State Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, has announced plans to run in Tennessee's 6th Congressional District. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, a former state senator, is competing against Harwell and others for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination.

* Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, now vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, has announced he intends to run for Franklin County mayor.

* Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, has announced he is running for the Knox County clerk post.

* Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, is running for the Senate District 19 seat, which is now held by Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville. Harper hasn't publicly stated whether she intends to run again.

* Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, has said he intends to run for Overbey's District 2 seat if Overbey is confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the U.S. attorney post.

* Senate Majority Leader Norris' nomination may pit two West Tennessee lawmakers against one another should Norris get confirmed. Rep. Debra Moody, R-Tiptonville, is showing interest and Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said last week he is exploring running.

* Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, has announced he is running for the Senate District 17 seat that Beavers is giving up as she runs for governor.

* Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, has indicated her interest in seeking the Senate District seat now held by GOP Caucus Chairman Ketron.

* Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, has announced he won't seek re-election.

* Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, has said he will not seek re-election to his Middle Tennessee House seat.

* Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, has publicly shown interest in running for Jackson mayor in 2019 but has made no definitive announcement.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.