Larry Grohn is ramping up his campaign for mayor and searching for ways to rise above the particulars of being a legislator on the city council to a winnable theory about the city and each voter’s place in it.
Mr. Grohn is a detail-oriented former public school history teacher who often goes into the particulars of policy even as he is being pressed about his deepest philosophy about public service and executive government.
His chief opponent among the mayoral challengers, Dave Crockett, is a great one for ideas and cutting-edge perspectives.
Mr. Grohn is more prosaic and perhaps more practical, but much less conceiving of destiny for the River City. If Mr. Crockett thinks in terms of geopolitics and a post-U.S. perspective to escape the propaganda of maps, Mr. Grohn is spider webbed: Pothole budgeting. Data portal faults. CAFR revisions. Neighborhood group tactics.
When pressed for an abstract of his campaign, Mr. Grohn offers instead action steps and policy points. Sweeping ideas about the public weal — those that make up much modern discourse inspired by the faded conceits of Rousseau — are a struggle for Mr. Grohn, but he perhaps sees that as authenticity, an unwillingness to propagandize.
Mr. Grohn’s thinking often seems conventional rather than principled. The city is undergunned with 400 cops and needs 500, he says. But he bemoans the result of their work: Tens of thousands of criminal cases filed against people who, as a result, suffer blighted records that limit their employment prospects and add to a jobs crisis. But de-escalation training, demilitarization and other police reforms are unlikely. He’s another pro-police conservative.
Grohn main planks
Mr. Grohn offers three themes:
Openness and ethics. He plans to publish his schedule every week so that people can easily find him and meet him. Mr. Berke, who runs his office with layers of officials between him and the hoi polloi as if he were a federal senator, requires even foundation heads to fill out a form to get a few minutes of time, Mr. Grohn says. He would tinker on ethics enforcement.
Jobs and housing. The most grandiose Mr. Grohn gets is on his second point. It is a roaring combination of what he calls workforce development and affordable housing, two cliches of municipal government. His language may not be as exactly as a libertarian or anarcho-capitalist free trader would want, but he says his arguments to bring about domestic health in Chattanooga are not a government works project or role as landlord. Rather, a sweeping “public-private” project to encourage people to stay away from police cruiser back seats, courtroom defendant benches and plastic chairs at the probation office.
Getting outside help with policing. The third major theme flows from the second. It’s not really an idea, but again a plan. Improving policing by getting collaboration among agencies whose ostensible goal is fighting crime. It would begin with the Chattanooga police department and stretch all the way to Washington and federal enforcement clubs such as the ATF and the U.S. marshals. No more “hug a thug,” his lampooning of the Berke regime’s violence reduction initiative and pizza parties for young blacks.
Mr. Grohn is a city council member who made a strong defense of marriage in 2013 when queer theory activists won approval of the city council for employee benefits for employees’ bed partners. Mr. Grohn was active in the overturning of the ordinance by public plebiscite. He was consistent and bold enough to oppose 15-year-old gay social theory and defend a basic human covenant existing since roughly Oct. 23, 4004 BC, the date on which Bishop James Ussher says God created the world. Mr. Grohn and his wife, Carol, have two sons in their 40s. Mr. Grohn is a practicing Christian, a member at Stuart Heights Baptist Church.
One of the grievances of Mr. Grohn is the lack of transparency in the regime of the Democrat lawyer. Mr. Berke is a traditional progressive (pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-state), his politics originating in the Marxist ethnic nostrum, “From each according to his means, to each according to his need.”
The Berke administration is incomprehensible and impenetrable. No one can walk up to the mayor's office, wait 15 minutes, pop in and get five with Mr. Berke.
His voice rising to a passion, Mr. Grohn vows no one will have to fill out a form to see him. But he is not excited by my proposal that the mayor have long rows of chairs in the hall outside his office for petitioners, pleaders, favor-seekers, complainers and other members of the public great and small who wish to see him and effectively keep him from his work for hours at a time, because they are more important than any schedule on those set days.
Connected with his objection to nontransparency is Mr. Grohn’s observation on the ethics rules for city government. The city attorney should not oversee the ethics code because of a built-in conflict of interest. The city auditor should have that job, he says, that change striking him as significant.
Stricter ethics — a major plank
Mr. Grohn says he would be available and transparent, and not require people to fill out a form to get his time.
Mr. Grohn, perhaps because of his work as history teacher, gives much attention to detail, and offers a nearly tedious analysis of a reform that is administrative and prospective in its benefit. His reform is effectively a detail: Remove the ethics function of city government from the city attorney, today Wade Hinton, and have it reside with the internal auditor.
Mr. Grohn explains (just bear with him): “The city attorney is the only administrator named by the mayor who cannot be unilaterally removed by the mayor.” Mr. Grohn thinks it would be difficult for the city attorney “to both represent the mayor and also if there is an ethics complaint against the mayor or anyone in his office — the relationship between the city attorney and the mayor’s staff, and the mayor is one that, there is a hint there of impropriety. So how does someone who really owes their job to the mayor bring an ethics complaint against the man he works for? My idea is to remove that from the office of the city attorney” and give it to the auditor. “That would remove any conflict of interest that the public even might perceive emanating from the city attorney’s office.”
A second tinkering of this kind is a little easier to grasp.
It’s on openness.
Mr. Grohn wants a “statement of interest” in which people on boards getting a city subsidy have to unburden all their financial and business interests on a proposed city form “much more enhanced than what we have now.” Volunteer boards do a great deal of good. “But do these individuals have conflicts of interest behind the scenes when they’re sitting on certain boards?” What about developers on planning the planning commission? He sees recusals and abstentions, but that’s not enough. “The public needs to see the cause of those retentions “ahead of time,” Mr. Grohn says.
‘Serious crime issue’
Mr. Grohn laments that the city has only 400 police officers. “We are trying to get to 500.” In an October email exchange he rejects suggestions that police abuse is significant. “I do not agree that "police misconduct is strong in Chattanooga.’”
Mr. Grohn disagrees with a policy move by Mayor Berke to take officers from the crime suppression task force, plainclothesmen, and put them on uniform patrol. Since the Berke announcement of entering the race, these cops “flood the most crime-prone areas of the city with more police cars to cut down on nonviolent crime. Well, they are trying to cut down on violent crime, also, but they are trying to cut down on property crime. And that’s working. But those officers in their capacity in crime suppression can’t operate properly in uniform.” They work best in plain clothes. “For people to talk to them they can’t be in uniform and they can’t be in marked cars.”
This move is a “political decision” by the mayor that has an ill long-term effect on policing, he says. But he follows conventional thinking on this point, which is that the police department is somehow independent within the city. It’s not. It obeys the mayor, the chief executive. When a detective solves a mayor, the mayor should get credit. When a cop performs the doleful duty of a statutorily permitted extra-judicial summary execution of a citizen such as that by Officer Daniel Stephenson in East Ridge, the mayor should take a hit. Such a killing is, indeed, political, because it is part of the state’s management of the citizenry in general as are taxation and licensure claims.
Mr. Grohn is a traditional conservative and does not see the danger police pose to innocent members of the people and those intending to preserve constitutional rights and civil liberties. Niggardly pay stub numbers block his goal of more law enforcement against (or maybe for) Chattanoogans.
“We’re trying to work towards that, but because our pay structure is so bad, Chattanooga ranks among the lowest average pay in the entire state of Tennessee.” $38,850 is average pay, he says, with the state average is more than $51,000.
Mr. Grohn says city chiefs are harassing purported gang members, choking the court system with throwaway misdemeanor charges.
“They will stop them for anything. *** I think it’s harassment. It’s really unproductive. It’s hassling the individuals. Some of them are known gang members. Some of them just happen to be black and driving along with a tail light out. So that’s cause to stop, and ‘Let’s see what we can find.’
“I’ve been on traffic stops to where we walk up to the vehicle. And they’ll always have someone who’s a minor with them in the car. Always. So if there’s a firearm found in the car, guess who the firearm belongs to? A minor, of course. Or, and they also always carry room deodorant with them. So if they have been partaking of marijuana, they can just if necessary snuff it out and swallow it. I have had apple spice and lemon scent waft out of a car so strongly you’d think a janitors have just cleaned the car.”
Mr. Grohn suggests that police arrests and accusations in court are part of the problem of crowded dockets that also bring down commoners such as Mr. Melvin.
38,000 cases a week seen
“It doesn’t help the community and it really doesn’t help the police department when we have 350 gang members cited and over 250 of those are misdemeanors that are meaningless and clog up the court system. Our court system in town — go look at the weekly docket. 38,000 cases might be seen in one week. That’s just in sessions court. That’s not criminal court. In a week.”
I challenge this number as absurdly high, but he insists it is correct. “They handle an unbelievable amount of cases. And you want to throw these misdemeanor cases in there totally meaningless — and you’re just hassling people.”
Mr. Grohn is ready to change topics, to look beyond the knotty problem of abusive policing and the subjugation of blacks and the poor and their induction into the judicial system.
“All this hug a thug, come in and have pizza, and have people who used to be in ‘the life’ tell you how to get out of ‘the life’ — all of that, at least in the black community, hasn’t equated to jobs, really, living-wage jobs.”
He says later, “We need to let the police force do its job without any political intervention.” When he says if you are a criminal, we’re going to take care of you, he supposes that most police interactions are with criminals. Many are with innocent people who are scooped into city or sessions courts by commercial enforcement, racial and power harassment, turf and dignity protection actions, fine nonpayment that leave people cited, jailed, roughed up, tazed, shot, stunned or handcuffed.
I get back to policing, warrantless and causeless arrests and hassling by officers against black residents.
“What we need is for the police work on solving and preventing crimes,” Mr. Grohn says. “The other thing we need is true workforce job development.” I say that’s changing the subject. “No, it’s not changing the subject. It’s both interlocked.”
He says the city needs to ‘re-energize our more disadvantaged communities,” whose members need job training “to get a living-wage job.” Do we want a city government jobs program? “No. No.”
He explains: The mayor brings together everybody to “create a true workforce development initiative that is going to put people to work in a job, give them the training to take advantage of all the economic development that is all around us in the city and revitalize all these neighborhoods.”
I insist he is not making a marketplace argument. He sounds like he wants city government to do things the market alone is equipped to do. Many jobs are going wanting, he says. He says a company in the VW free trade zone that parks new cars. The Scandinavian bosses “cannot keep or find individuals to get up to the standards that they need to take care of the product they’re getting from Volkswagen.”
HVAC companies are “crying for technicians.” For plumbers, welders — “a huge critical need.” A two-year school could create wage-earning power with no college debt and the grad could earn as much as a person with a B.A., if not more.
He envisions a “robust partnership” between city and businesses with a civic interest — but here Mr. Grohn shifts to affordable housing. Pilots, or tax benefit deals, are for being granted for one-bedroom studios and apartments, “workforce housing.” That’s not “affordable housing” for families, Mr. Grohn says.
I ask what the mayor’s office has to do with housing. “The mayor is the one that pulls all these forces together.” He says 30 percent of the people in the city live in poverty.
Hidden cost of police acts
He proposes a “21st century Kirkman,” that is, a school for adults to get them qualified and made attractive for hiring by local business.
The Kirkman trade school concept would help people “out of the school system” who may have a record, may have been incarcerated, but “are hampered by not being able to re-enter the workforce,” Mr. Grohn says. In November voters approved “ban the box,” which alters voter eligibility rules and helps job seekers with felony records survive city government’s job application process.
The ban-the-box idea of limiting application questions about criminal pasts is a Band-Aid that does not help the people marred with criminal record, Mr. Grohn says. “It makes no difference at all.”
His idea is that the Kirkman school would help expunge records. I mention Mr. Berke’s program to expunge records of some criminals, starting with a website, Restoremyrights.com. Yes, Mr. Grohn says, but taxpayer dollars should not help.
He says a business should operate such an enterprise that would help with expungements and give career and trade training, “a free-standing business operation” whose grads could be hired to go teach new students the trades they’d learned. Some students would create or renovate houses or lots seized by the city in tax auctions. The city owns many vacant lots; in 2015 it tore down 137 condemned buildings. A land bank authority board that hasn’t met in a year was supposed to package properties for sale, Mr. Grohn says. Perhaps a city-formed business in an enterprise zone might gain traction.
Trade school students could build houses as class projects on dead lots, he suggests.
Free trade zone concept
Mr. Grohn shoots down my proposal, “Your shantytown is my housing free trade zone,” a free market scheme to benefit — to create — the absolute bottom of the housing market. Squatting areas and spontaneous developments are subject official theft and city demolition.
“That’s not a good idea,” he says. He proposes a nonprofit company, perhaps, that would oversee such a zone for the homeless, but he doesn’t envision my idea of creating a protocol of property ownership and self-made shacks or “tiny homes.” My thinking is that if homeless people can tentatively acquire a small plot of land and build securely on it, and stay 2½ years, they will be able to obtain title and become potentially upwardly mobile residents.
Two insurmountable problems faced by the homeless, says mayoral candidate Chris Long, are that they do not have a fixed address nor means of securing their property.
“There are ways where this can be made to work and actually pay for itself,” Mr. Grohn says, tentatively.
Circling back: The main ideas of Grohn bid
What is the overarching concept of Mr. Grohn’s campaign? I persist in asking.
“No. 1. We have a political system that has gotten totally corrupted in Chattanooga. We need to have some morals and ethics back in the mayor’s office. An elected official should be held up to a higher standard. I fully anticipate that. It’s just a reality that needs to take place.”
No. 2, “we have too much homelessness, too much poverty, too much lack of affordable housing in Chattanooga. We have a dearth of individuals who are trained to be able to do a lot of the necessary work in the city. Yes, that is blue collar jobs.” A UTC grad may leave as an accountant and earn F$45,000 a year. Or you could be trained to build houses” and prosper just as much.
I press him out of analysis back to the main idea of his campaign, the “so what?” and “Who cares?” that every candidate must answer. He finally gets to his point. “We have to create a pathway to success and even entrepreneurship.”
No. 3, a war on crime. “We need to have a new collaboration with all of the pertinent law enforcement agencies at the city, county state and federal level to address the issue of crime and violence in Chattanooga. People are not playing well together. There is a lack of trust between some of these agencies.”
“We have to get back to the point of, where we have to enforce the law. There’s not going to be any more hug a thug, there’s not going to be any more — I’m going to throw the gauntlet down to these gang members and say, ‘Do this or else.’ This is a direct challenge to their status. They don’t see this mayor and this administration as offering a viable — we’ve been slinging mud against the wall hoping certain programs stick. *** ”
Tax hikes? Tax cuts?
Mr. Grohn says taxes would not rise under his administration, and could even go down.
— David Tulis hosts a Noogaradio talk show weekdays 9 to 11 a.m. on
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