Roy Exum: My New Best Friend

Sunday, September 20, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I have found my instincts for measuring up people have served me well. This isn’t to say I pass judgement on anyone, but I’m pretty good about knowing which ones not to make any eye contact with. I’ve learned people who act strange usually turn out to be strange. A kook on Monday is still a kook on Sunday, and there simply ain’t no cure for stupid. I also avoid braggarts and those who are just downright crazy.

That established, I am humbled yet pleased to admit one of my greatest mis-reads in my 71 years of living. My ‘newest’ best friend is Kim White. Frankly, I have never had reason to be around her. When she babbles about “partnerships” which, to me, are almost as unsavory as committees, I turn the channel, and as she noted when I spent a good part of Friday afternoon with her, I was against her downtown development district, because I thought (at the time) it was an expensive folly.

I am telling you; I was flat-out wrong.

Now that Kim, just days before her 60th birthday, is running for mayor of the fourth worst-run city in America, our paths are unavoidable. I am ashamed of Chattanooga and what it has been allowed to become. Per capita, the FBI tells us we are in the Top 20 ‘Most Dangerous’ cities in the United States.

Our No. 1 asset – Erlanger Hospital – is floundering. Our public schools are precisely what nobody wants them to be, our children in our poverty areas are hungry, our black-on-black shootings the Black Lives Matter crowd has clearly shown don’t matter, and our bike lanes are an ever-embarrassing flop. The city is dirty with grime, it costs more to park than eat downtown, and you can buy heroin anywhere you want. The list is darn-near endless.

Yet the biggest problem I had, when I left her soon-to-be-bustling campaign headquarters for the March election, was a problem she herself just created. The old adage is “When something is ‘too good to be true’ it usually is,” and, for the life of me the only thing I’m not ecstatic about is that she won’t share her favorite cuss word.

Before we met, I saw a list of her campaign’s finance committee and it was freaky! Of the 32 names listed, I know all but five, and, if I were tasked to prepare a list of the people who I most respect in our city, the other 27 would be on my list. Sure, many are personal friends, but I am talking about true leaders, those who have earned my respect and admiration. It’s a stronger lineup than the ’27 Yankees…and they had “Murderer’s Row”! (Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri.)

When I shared that with Kim, she beamed. “I am very, very fortunate for someone who grew up loving Chattanooga but then moved away for such a long time. I actually made a ‘cold call’ on Bob Corker when he was mayor, looking for a job. I didn’t know anybody!”

Actually, that’s not entirely true. A graduate of Hixson High School, she worked her way through UTC where her biggest lesson learned was as president of her sorority. “It taught me that if you can get good people with the same hearts and same goals you can accomplish anything.”

Kim explained she knew no one in business. “I’d never met Bob Corker…really. And politics was the last thing on my mind. I knew nothing about it until I started working at River City. Then I became fascinated by it, particularly when a group of people can do more than you can alone.”

A fast-rising star at Alltel Communications, she was in Augusta when she met and married her husband, Joe Dan. “He’s a country boy with a double first name and he’s who I live for. He’s my delight. He’s also 21 years older than I am!” What, you have an 81-year-old husband? “We’ve been married for 31 years,” she laughed.

“Soon after he retired from a concrete-forms company, Alltel wanted me to move to another city and we moved all over to the point he told me he had a hard time keeping up with his underwear drawer. We were in Chattanooga one really pretty weekend. There was an outdoor concert and Chattanooga was such fun we suddenly looked at each other and he said, ‘This is it. This is where we are going to live,' and for me, coming back home? It is the greatest decision we’ve ever made.”

But, Kim, look at what we have become? “No,” she replied, “Let’s look at what we CAN become," and there began her vision for the journey ahead. Here are some of the things we talked about:

* -- CRIME: “The City has to form a much better partnership with the black community. They can do more to eliminate the shootings than the police department can. When I have visited so many different areas of the city, the No. 1 thing every neighborhood wants is a greater police presence. Chief David Roddy is a real prize. The most pressing thing for me is to keep him. (The Police Chief works at the whim of the mayor, not the City Council.) The same is true for our Fire Chief (Phil Hyman) and I want to keep both of them. We must add police officers and we must succeed to make Chattanooga among the safest cities in America.”

* - METRO GOVERNMENT: Tennessee’s three largest cities have some kind of “home rule” that ties city and county resources together, eliminating millions of dollars of overlap. “Sure, we ought to look into that but COVID changes the landscape. I have talked to County Mayor Jim Coppinger and we need to partner on a lot of things. It will take years for us to recover from COVID, but the city and county can partner anytime about anything and still celebrate our individual identities. Mayor Coppinger and I have already talked about this. Should our fire department ‘roll’ when there is a fire just outside the city limits. That’s what good neighbors do. Our police think the world of our county police. Both are begging to work together. That’s what good neighbors do. If I get the chance, Chattanooga will be a much better neighbor. And you want to know something? That's what the citizens of the city really want."

* -- COMMUNICATION: The question made Kim pause, quickly saying, “Yes” before laughing. “My office door will always be open. If anybody needs to be seen, come right away. Obviously, some appointments must be made to assure the right people will be available, but anyone who shows up will be welcomed and, if not by me, I’ll have staff available to handle almost anything. Listen, we will be totally transparent, and we’ll soon bore people with the information we want to share. Our communications will be dynamic and we will gladly serve each and every citizen."

* -- ERLANGER: "I served on the Erlanger Board of Trustees when Jim Brexler was president so I know how crucial Erlanger is to the community. I most certainly do not wish to sell Erlanger but also believe Erlanger needs to take dramatic steps – in a hurry – to get back on track. The fact an outside group of investors wants to buy it assures me they think the hospital can make money, so what must be done for the city and county to do the same thing? Right now, that is a huge problem, but it is such a safety-net we can’t allow it to fail. It requires immediate action because of the Chattanoogans it serves every day."

* -- PUBLIC SCHOOLS: "If 60 percent of our children cannot read, and if inner-city school children have nothing to eat on weekends, I am open to almost anything because life centers on education. I’ll listen to any idea – 12-month schooling, after-school tutoring, summer programs, fall-break, and spring-break in-school classes…anything. But when a father or mother is recruited to move to Chattanooga, the very first thing they ask is about the schools their children will attend. Right now, we don’t have a good answer – that is not acceptable."

* -- BUSINESS RECRUITMENT/JOBS: "Sure, it’s flat. Blame it on the virus, unemployment, whatever. Chattanooga is dead. We have all kinds of office space because COVID has forced employees to work remotely. I get that. But I have developers who have told me to my face they refuse to bring ideas to the city until there are drastic changes. I mean, real changes. You wrote about the travesty Publix endured at the hands of the Planning Commission. That was not only horrible, it sent up a bright-red flare that Chattanooga will drive you away, that Chattanooga will fight any company with its leadership. No, we can’t have that! I believe we need to take a very hard look at the whole infrastructure because the damage was incredible."

* -- DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT DISTRICT: "I’ll concede the presentation was lacking, but the idea was a good one and I can prove it because it is working! We weren’t complaining about existing city services; we wanted to pay for more from other service companies. And it’s worked! We had 82 percent of all businesses and residents who wanted “better” and were willing to pay for it. Right now, we have 12 “ambassadors” in the district every day. Do you want to hear about the homeless man we reunited with his sister in Ohio who immediately took him in? Would you like me to tell you about another who we got him his medicine, clothes, and a place to stay? Downed tree limbs are gone, gutter repairs are made, potholes are repaired. We partner with the city’s social services and the public works. Members of the Downtown Development District are very pleased because things are much better. How can anybody oppose that if they are the ones paying the bill for “better?” So, go ahead. Ask them. Any of them. We don’t get many complaints."

- - -

Kim and I talked about a bunch of other stuff. At one point I told her that discipline in the public schools was a huge problem, no matter what the HCDE Office of Propaganda might say, and she said she was well aware of that. “You need to shore up our Hamilton County Juvenile Court because Judge Rob Philyaw and Gary Behler, his top clerk, are giants who will soon need help.”

Kim laughed and then said, “You may be low in your estimation of those two…I just spent the morning with them, and each is greater than you think!”

So, tell me, where’s the wringer? Where is the monkey that’s going to jump out at the end and show me why it isn’t possible for anything to be “too good to be true?” Until then, Kim White is my ‘newest’ best friend and my hunch – which has only let me down once that I can recall – is poised and purposed to become the best mayor in our history in the wake of Ron Littlefield and Bob Corker.

* * *


TREASURER: Mary Kilbride, Co-Chairs Alexis Bogo and Mitch Patel

MEMBERS: Darlene Brown, Lewie Card, Allen Corey, Fred Decosimo, Ken Defoor, Hiren Desai, David Devaney, Kurt Faires, Zan Guerry, John Healy, Jim Haley, Craig Holley, Matt Hullender, Karen Hutton, Dr. Harish Manyam, Bubba Morgan, Glenn Morris, Johnny O’Brien, Matt McGauley, Brett Rousch, Emerson Russell, Keith Stanford, Roger Smith, Mike St. Charles, John ‘Thunder’ Thornton, Greg Vital, Amy Walden, Miller Welborn and Jimmy White.

And remember this: it was in 1927 that The Babe smacked 60 homers for the Yankees. No matter, this is still a deeper line-up.

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