John Shearer: Random Thoughts About Mayoral Candidates And Past Mayors
Wednesday, February 3, 2021 - by John Shearer
Like many Chattanoogans, I am following the upcoming Chattanooga mayor’s race with interest.
Do I know whom I am voting for, or have I gone through and read every one of the candidates’ profiles or watched any Zoom campaign forums? The answer to both of those is no, but I hope to do some homework between now and the March 2 election.
The same is true for the City Council race. I live on the north end of District 2, and my wife, Laura, and I actually had two candidates stop by our house on successive cold Saturdays in January pitching their qualifications.
One person came by when we were both here, and we decided we would vote for that person primarily on campaigning effort amid the cold alone.
And then the next Saturday, while I was home alone, another candidate came by in a winter coat and seemed like a good candidate as well, so I am actually still debating on that race.
It is always healthy when there are seemingly a lot of good candidates for a local office and who represent a variety of views, as seems to be the case in the mayor’s race.
Part of my interest in the race this year is that this is the first mayor/City Council election I have been able to vote in since Bob Corker was elected in 2001.
I moved to Cleveland in 2003 due to my wife’s career as a United Methodist minister and then spent 12 years in Knoxville before moving back here in 2017 – just after the last mayoral/City Council election. So, I am ready to cast my vote.
And the race has seemed refreshing so far in that there are a lot of upbeat TV ads by those who have enough campaign funds to run them. And there is genuine interest in serving the community by the vast majority of the candidates.
I like Tim Kelly’s ad about fixing a few potholes as well as mentioning his other qualifications, and I find myself trying to guess all the places where Kim White is filming her ads. I have picked out Heritage Park in East Brainerd, Coolidge Park, and the retail alley area between Market and Cherry streets. And I want to guess and say the football stadium is at Hixson High School.
And who cannot like Chris Long’s four-sign storyboard found along busy highway intersections about his candidacy. Or at least you can admire the creativity that went into it.
All the campaigning has been upbeat so far for the mayor’s race, which is nice after last fall’s ridiculously dirty presidential and federal elections. Let’s hope that continues, although who knows if the race appears tight late or goes into a runoff, and what a candidate did in 1993 suddenly comes to the forefront.
Politics can obviously be dirty and brutal, and I admire anyone who sticks their neck out to run for office, although I know running is part ego buildup for many and not just all “serving my community” or “giving back,” as candidates like to always say.
One time when I was living in Knoxville, I saw that former mayor candidate Ann Coulter was to be there in connection with her private consulting/planning work on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” area of Knoxville by the UT campus.
I contacted her about interviewing her while she was there regarding her 2005 mayor campaign against Ron Littlefield that had concluded a year or so earlier. I did end up having a nice interview with her about the Knoxville work, but she was reluctant to go back and revisit that bitter race due to the personal toll, which I understood.
Like Kim White, she had also been involved with the RiverCity non-profit downtown redevelopment company. And some initially thought Ms. Coulter might become the first woman mayor, a feat Ms. White and Dr. Elenora Woods are trying to accomplish.
Knoxville’s last two mayors have been women. I occasionally covered the first one, Madeline Rogero. One time she spoke at our church and gave a nice talk about some of the city’s accomplishments, many of which had already been well documented in TV and newspaper reports.
I was tempted to ask her, “While all of these accomplishments are nice and have been documented in the media, I was wondering what a typical day as mayor is like, or do you ever pinch yourself that you are the mayor, or the first woman mayor?”
The current Knoxville mayor is Indya Kincannon, whose father had been a top U.S education official.
Besides electing Chattanooga’s first woman mayor, some would also like to see Chattanooga elect its first Black mayor.
Chattanooga’s city electorate is diverse enough that both conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning candidates have been elected mayor in the recent past, even though the candidates don’t represent a political party in theory.
Among some of the candidates, Ms. White graduated from Hixson High not too long after I graduated from Baylor School in 1978. As someone who lived less than a mile from Hixson High growing up, I know a lot of Hixson graduates from that era have done well in their professional lives.
Fellow candidate Monty Bruell was a year behind me at Baylor and was the first Black graduate of the independent school. I had an opportunity to interview him in the 1990s about the experiences.
Tim Kelly graduated from Baylor in 1985, just one year ahead of current mayor Andy Berke. (And while I am on my Go Big Red kick, Jon Kinsey, the mayor from 1997-2001, graduated from Baylor in 1972.)
A few years ago, I had a delightful interview with Tim Kelly’s mother, Betty Sue, about her memories of Girls Preparatory School classmate and 1958 May queen Grace Moore, who had been tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1960 in North Carolina. Betty Sue’s father had headed the Ayers auto dealership.
I am sure a lot of the other candidates have interesting stories of their various school experiences and other life lessons, and I look forward to learning about them. Other mayoral candidates not yet mentioned are Monty Bell, Lon Cartwright, Christopher Dahl, D’Angelo Davis, Russell Gilbert, Wade Hinton, George Ryan Love, Andrew McLaren, Erskine Oglesby, and Robert C. Wilson.
Over the years, I have had opportunities to interview several Chattanooga mayors. One time I briefly talked with Rudy Olgiati, the mayor from 1951-63, over the phone.
He was older by that time, but I was trying to talk to him about some piece of history and reached him down at a great-nephew’s house in South Carolina. He did not offer me much information, but I cherished just being able to talk with him, even though I knew he was in declining health.
And in the 1990s while at the Chattanooga Free Press, I decided to do a series on former Chattanooga mayors and had nice interviews with Ralph Kelley (1963-69), Robert Kirk Walker (1971-75), and Pat Rose (1975-83).
I remember Mr. Kelley proudly told me from his federal bankruptcy judge chambers how he, a white man, had tried hard to connect with the Black community and had no major racial conflicts of note while mayor in the turbulent 1960s. He had graduated from the University of Chattanooga.
Mr. Walker, meanwhile, talked about his term from his law office and how he was going to finally take a day off for his birthday after a hard first month or so, and then the major race riots broke out after the cancellation of the Wilson Pickett concert. As a result, the Central High grad and father of former McCallie headmaster Kirk Walker had to work even harder trying to bring peace back to the community over several very tense days.
Former Mayor Rose came over to the paper’s office and very amicably and in a goodwill ambassador style talked about his days in office. The former Atlantan could not have been nicer and more patient with me.
Both he and Mayor Kelley had natural charisma that no doubt helped them as politicians.
I also later interviewed lower-key Mayor Gene Roberts (1983-97), who was probably as responsible as any mayor for all the downtown redevelopment projects, like the Tennessee Aquarium. Of course, a lot of citizens and other civic leaders were also involved, including philanthropist Jack Lupton and future mayor Ron Littlefield (2005-13), who was head of the Chattanooga Venture non-profit planning group at the time.
I have corresponded occasionally via email with former Mayor Littlefield over the years.
I also talked with Jon Kinsey briefly, but about a development project after he left office. He seemed easily approachable.
In 2001 when I was doing some freelance writing as a Chattanooga correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they asked me to interview Bob Corker right after he had been elected mayor.
He kindly agreed, and I went over to his office in the Volunteer Building a day or two after the election and had a nice talk with him before he left on a brief vacation. I remember he kept pacing back and forth while talking to me.
As someone who gets a little fidgety as well sitting for too long, I could certainly relate to that.
I remember he also indirectly asked me if I was interested in applying to be his press spokesman, as I guess he had not filled that position. Being back in school and enjoying my freelance writing, I did not pursue it.
I wrote my story and was surprised when I saw it after it was published. The editors had about doubled it in length with information about his past business dealings or some issues like that. I guess the editors were just trying to give a broader view of him, but I kind of felt like it was no longer my story or in the mostly upbeat tone in which I had written it.
I hope Mr. Corker, a City High graduate, did not think any less of me, as I still think fondly of my visit with him, and I enjoyed following his career to the U.S. Senate afterward.
And I always wondered if he ever had any meetings on Capitol Hill where he paced back and forth, too!
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