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Don’t count Dennis Ferguson out yet.
The longtime state House of Representatives member may not be returning to Nashville for Tuesday’s convening of the Tennessee General Assembly, but he’s far from finished with public service.
“I’m young,” Ferguson, 49, said Wednesday. “My political career is not over. I’ll be back. Soon.”
The Midtown Democrat had represented Roane County in the state House for the better part of 20 years when he lost his re-election bid in November as part of a nationwide trend that sent incumbent Democrats packing up their offices in all levels of government.
Ferguson was among 14 Tennessee legislators defeated that day, and though his voice broke during his concession speech, his determination soared in anticipation of the next race.
“I knew I was going to run again that very moment that I got beat,” he said. “I knew that I just got caught up in a political storm that I couldn’t stop. There was nothing I could have done to stop it. Nothing.”
Determination and tenacity have served Ferguson well in his political career. His persistence on Capitol Hill has reaped big rewards for his native county, which has seen highway expansions, bridge replacements and the completion of the Interstate 40 interchange at Midtown.
The hard work he put into the job and each successive re-election campaign is doubly reflected in two separate ventures. The annual Fishing Rodeo for Kids attracts throngs of youngsters and their families for a day of fun along the county’s riverbanks. Coats for the Cold, a charity he spearheads, collects outerwear from the public and distributes it to those in need. Ferguson vows both ventures will continue.
“I love to help people,” he said. “It’s part of that Eureka raising my mama had and that Midtown raising my dad had. They raised me to be good to people and care for people.”
The desire to help people was what pushed Ferguson, then 29 and virtually unknown on the political scene, to first seek the office that would be his for almost two decades. It was a daunting task; Republican incumbent Jim Henry of Kingston was a political force who looked to be on the fast track for the governor’s office, and businessman John Smith, a longtime Republican stalwart, was running on the Independent ticket.
“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle all the way — and it was,” Ferguson remembered of that 1990 race in which he claimed victory. “Jim was a very powerful political person in Roane County.”
The former political foes have since established a heartwarming friendship. Ferguson looks to Henry as a mentor and adviser, and he’s thrilled that Gov.-elect Bill Haslam has chosen his predecessor to head up the state’s
new Department of Intellectual Disabilities.
“He’ll be an outstanding commissioner,” Ferguson predicted. “He did Roane County well as a legislator, and he’ll do the state well as a commissioner. That Wednesday after the election, the best call I received was from Jim. He’s a good man.”
He admits that first day in Nashville was intimidating, but he found a kindred spirit in John Mark Windle, a Livingston Democrat elected at the same time to serve Morgan County.
Veteran legislators queued to show the new kids the ropes. Anna Belle O’Brien, the beloved state senator who represented both counties, took both men under her wing. And Jack Bowman, a Rockwood Democrat who had himself served as Roane County’s state representative, provided invaluable assistance.
“Jack went to Nashville with me the first day I went down there and introduced me to Gov. Ned McWherter,” Ferguson said. “I never will forget when Jack walked into Ned’s office. He said, ‘Jackson, how are you doin’?”
He has a special fondness for McWherter, who previously had served a long stint as House speaker. And he doesn’t hesitate in naming the West Tennessee Democrat as his favorite of the three governors he’s worked with.
“He was a rural legislator, like I was,” Ferguson said. “When you go to Nashville, it goes down to rural vs. urban — or it used to be. Democrat, Republican — it didn’t matter. Ned was a real guy. He knew how things worked.”
It’s obvious Ferguson misses those days and prefers them over the way he sees state government operating today.
“It’s more partisan,” he noted. “I don’t like partisan politics. It’s not good to have a super majority, whether it be Democrat or Republican. You’ve got to have that bipartisanship — you’ve got to reach across the aisle to get things done.”
Bowman and O’Brien introduced Ferguson to Shelby Rhinehart and I.V. Hillis. Both veteran House members, they also represented rural areas and helped him learn the workings of the legislature. He also made fast friends with a young Russell Johnson, a Loudon County Republican who left state politics and now serves as District Attorney General for Roane and Loudon counties.
But Ferguson knew he wasn’t sent to Nashville to form friendships. He immediately set to work on finishing the I-40 interchange at Midtown. He freely admits that was the first project on his plate, and it’s his favorite.
For years, the interchange sat half completed. Only westbound motorists could exit there, and an onramp was provided for eastbound motorists only.
“It was what they called half a diamond,” Ferguson explained. “I grew up in Midtown, and I knew that was important. I never will forget the day when we opened it up. Don Sundquist was governor. He flew in on the helicopter, and they landed on the new interchange. We got ready to open it up and do the ribbon cutting. He had the scissors in his hand. He looked at me and he said, ‘Here, Dennis. This is your day.’”
The growth that’s followed that completed interchange makes Ferguson proud. It led to retail development, such as Lowe’s, Kroger and Walgreens, and the health-care community is making a move to that part of the county with plans for a new hospital and construction under way for a new physicians’ plaza and dialysis center.
He made sure state leaders never lost sight of projects Henry spearheaded and saw them to completion. They included the four-laning of Hwy. 27 northward from Dayton to Rockwood and construction of the Rockwood railroad overpass and the Humanities Building at Roane State Community College.
A road builder by trade whose family has been in the paving business since 1962, Ferguson realizes the value of good roads for a rural community’s progress.
That’s why he pushed for highway expansions and transportation improvements that include the four-laning of Kingston’s Gallaher Road and Hwy. 58 from Oak Ridge into Roane County, new bridges over the Tennessee and Clinch rivers in Kingston, a reconfigured intersection at Hwys. 58 and 72 that’s ready to get under way, construction of the I-40 interchange to Roane Regional Business and Technology Park in the eastern part of the county and the four-laning of Hwy. 70 from Midtown to Rockwood. The latter project is set to start soon, with work to begin from the Rockwood end.
“Seeing roads paved — that helps your district,” he said. “That’s infrastructure. That’s jobs. That’s progress.”
Only days before the November race, Ferguson met with state transportation officials to solve a bottleneck problem that has arisen on the I-40 westbound interchange at Midtown. He said expanding the interchange to include two left turning lanes and possibly putting in a traffic light were among the solutions discussed. State officials have since contacted Harriman leaders about installing the traffic signal.
“You’ve got to remember everything you ask for you can’t get, but I just kept asking,” Ferguson said of the projects completed during his tenure. “I didn’t take no for an answer.”
It helped Ferguson’s case that all three governors with whom he served took special interest in Roane County. Outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen greenlit a number of projects for the area — and it didn’t hurt that he had a native Roane Countian as his right-hand man.
“Dave Cooley’s a great guy, and a great friend,” Ferguson said of the Rockwood native who served as Bredesen’s deputy in his first term. “We were able to do a lot of these projects with his help.”
Ferguson seemed to be fitting in well in Nashville and was making great strides in the legislature and with his constituents when he decided to switch tracks in 1994. That failed bid for county executive is the only hiccup in a career of perfect House attendance and various committee appointments.
So why the switch?
Ferguson flashes a sheepish grin. “I was young, and I had some folks, I think, who was mad at Ken [Yager, the incumbent county leader at the time] for whatever reason it may be,” he said. “They just kept on and kept on and talked me into running.”
The result was Ferguson’s first defeat in an election bid. It was, until last November, also the only one.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he declared. “That humbled me a lot and made me think about a lot of things. That wasn’t the job for me.”
He has high praise for Bruce Cantrell, the Kingston Republican who served in the House until he reclaimed the seat in 1996. And he and Yager were able to mend their friendship to work toward their common goal of making Roane County a better place to work and live. They collaborated on a number of projects while Yager was county executive and have worked in tandem since he was elected to the state Senate.
“I have enjoyed serving with Ken so much,” he said. “We had a great working relationship. We always had Roane County first at hand. We didn’t always agree on everything, but we got along great — and we still talk.”
He added, “Ken’s a good man, and we’re blessed to have him. He’s going to do right for Roane County.”
Ferguson doesn’t plan to sit still now that he’s no longer in an elected position. He and his wife, Jonell, are settling down as full-time Roane Countians.
He’s working for his family’s company, Professional Asphalt and Ferguson’s Paving.
And he’s still prepared to help those he once served — whether it’s merely listening to a problem, guiding toward the proper agency or individual who can provide service or picking up a phone to make a call.
“I’m still a public servant,” he insisted. “Just because I’m not down there doesn’t mean I’m not going to help people.
“If I can help somebody, I will.”