Roy Exum: Our District 4 Problem

Monday, April 1, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Next Tuesday will be a big day in determining what happens in Chattanooga for the next four years. The voters of District 4 will select either incumbent Jack Benson or newcomer Larry Grohn in a runoff election for the City Council and, while it doesn’t at first appear to be a crucial decision, political insiders believe there could be some rough water ahead if the dean of the council – Benson – suffers an upset.

Think about this; we have four bright faces who will assume office on April 19 who have never served the people. We have two more who have just served one term. Moses Freeman, the District 8 winner, is coming back after not being involved in city government for a while, and in District 9 there is still a question. Peter Murphy, the incumbent, has sued after Yusef Hakeem was declared the winner but with either the experience level is small.

Benson, who has served for 12 years and is noted as a voice of stability and experience on the City Council, had 53 more votes than Grohn in the general election but, with Andy Berke as virtual shoo-in as Mayor, voter apathy was noticeable. Only 16.3 percent of voters registered in Chattanooga went to the polls. Election workers say the number of voters in the District 4 runoff could be even worse.

In my view there is no contest. Benson has a long history of service to the community while Grohn is a mystery man. He’s lived in one place after another and a Google search reveals he has never held office, never been a community activist or volunteer, nor served Chattanooga and its people in any way. He may be a fine guy but, according to news reports, he’s backed by the ruffled Tea Party and an irked developer. That’s not how a candidate should be chosen.

“The problem with Jack is that he isn’t like other politicians. He has never, not once, done anything for personal gain or reward. I have known him for 50 years and the best thing I can say is that he serves the city in a way that has brought dignity, honor and accountability to the City Council,” said a close friend.

“Jack’s decisions are good ones. He turned down a fast-food restaurant bid not long ago because he wants Erlanger to have a greater presence in a mixed neighborhood. That makes great sense unless you want to build a restaurant. The people who operate Hamilton Place know that a long-range vision will prevent what eventually happened to Eastgate Mall. If you were to canvas our city, Jack Benson is one of the most respected, trusted politicians we have ever had.

“Sometimes his tough decisions make a few people angry. That’s natural. But if you study any one of his three previous terms, you can see a very proud record of doing what is right for everybody. We have got to call on every friend he has to either vote early or be at the polls on April 9.”

Asked about Grohn, my insider shook his head. “Nobody knows much about him. He’s got no history of anything. I hope he’s a good guy. I hope that he’ll get involved in the community, but he’s pretty much a stranger. He’s not lived here long and what I can’t see is what his ultimate goal might be. We know Jack. He’s proven.”

After serving in education for 35 years (he went from a teacher to assistant superintendent), Benson was the executive director of the Chattanooga Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association. He is a past-president of the Association of United Way Agency Directors.  He has also served on the boards of the National Education Association; Tennessee Education Association; Southern Association of College and Secondary Schools; Chattanooga/Hamilton County Planning Commission; Tele-scripps Cable Access; Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services; Chattanooga Education Association; United Way Allocation Panel; Armed Forces Committee; Camp Ocoee; and Boy Scouts Exposition.

That’s an entire lifetime of service to others. Not long ago Benson told me, “I’ve done my time. If the Lord decided I should step aside I would understand that, but I also feel very strongly that I am needed as a new mayor and a young City Council are seated. I am proud of what I have done with my life but I want to serve one more term.

“I think it is important that I fulfill my obligation. In the general race there were five candidates (for District 4) and I think Ryan King, Tom Tomisek and Scott McColpin should find out ways to serve the community so they can learn if they want to run again. They are good people.”

Asked about his adversary in the runoff, Benson said, “I wish him well. I am like everybody else – I don’t know a thing about him – but right now our city needs institutional stability and people with experience. The future is going to be exciting, especially in District 4, and I think I need to have a hand in it one last term.”

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