OPINION: First Chattanooga election down, a second to go

Pam Sohn, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read

Mar. 3—And just like that, we have six more weeks of Chattanooga city election campaign news to digest before the April 13 runoff election we've dubbed the Tim and Kim show — mayoral hopefuls Tim Kelly and Kim White.

The six more weeks was pretty much a given, since with a field of 15 candidates it seemed more than likely that no winner would receive the 50% and one vote necessary to avoid a runoff. In unofficial results, Kelly snared 30.1% of votes; White, 29.2%; Wade Hinton, 21.5%; and Monty Bruell, 8.5%.

We said weeks ago that the polling favorites in the 15-person March 2 race would all make admirable mayors, but we made clear we preferred and endorsed Bruell, a 59-year-old entrepreneur raised by a single mom in Alton Park and East Chattanooga who went on to be Baylor School's first Black graduate and then a Harvard grad with a degree in economics. He has worked with Coca-Cola, Provident and Morgan Stanley.

We still believe Bruell has ideas that need to be part of our city government, and we are thrilled that he now has thrown his support behind Kelly.

Bruell, noting that his race was about providing the city with leadership that would spark progressive change, said Tuesday night that he was not mourning the race's outcome but rather is ready to continue that aspiration.

"It's no secret that Tim and I are friends. He's a great guy, his heart is in the right place," Bruell said. "I will do everything I can to make sure that he is the next mayor of Chattanooga."

We wholeheartedly agree and move our support to Kelly, as well.

Kelly, 53, also is a native of Chattanooga and the owner or past owner of local companies including a car dealership. He is a co-founder and board chairman of the Chattanooga Football Club.

Calling himself a political independent, he loaned his campaign more than $1 million to be free of "outside influences," and like Bruell he is passionate about Chattanooga's continuing problems with inequity.

"We've got some serious equity issues in Chattanooga. My time as chairman of the Community Foundation in particular made that really obvious to me. Our gaps here between rich and poor, and black and white are large," he previously said. "They're are grotesquely large nationally, but they're larger here."

With a degree from Columbia and an MBA from Emory University, Kelly thinks education is a big key to fixing that and raising Chattanooga beyond just being a $10-an-hour service jobs town. He would build on the city's early learning programs, and use CARTA to provide transportation to the public schools' Future Ready Institutes — a concept he terms "brilliant."

On Tuesday night Kelly, running on a platform of his long business and management experience, didn't let up on that passion.

"We're fighting for the soul and the spirit and the future of this great city. Chattanooga's greatest asset is its people and we're blessed with an abundance of community leaders willing to step up and put in the work to make our city the best it can be," he said. "We need that spirit, and we need that commitment more than we ever have."

He promised continued nonpartisan efforts through the runoff and said he would expand on his, "best vision," for the city in coming weeks.

White, 60, is a Hixson native and developer who led the nonprofit redevelopment agency River City for years. She could do our mayor's job but our city has seen more than enough over-priced real estate development. Now is time to narrow its grossly widened economic and educational divide — much of it widened while River City was, as White has said, "bringing people together and using public-private partnerships to move our community forward." The key question should be: "Forward" for whom?

A recent Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises report notes the average — repeat average — rent in the Chattanooga area is $1,035 per month, citing January figures. The average rent in the downtown area is $1,292.

White, whose support leans Republican, acknowledges the challenge: "I think that our community is at a critical crossroads," she told the Times Free Press recently. The challenge is not just with COVID recovery needs but also "in neighborhoods that haven't had investment" and with "voices that haven't been at the table."

There also will be runoffs in two city council races.

In District 2, vacated by retiring councilman Jerry Mitchell, and District 5, vacated by councilman Russell Gilbert who ran unsuccessfully for mayor — crowded fields left vote leaders with less than 50% margins.

In District 2, Hamilton County Board of Education member Jenny Hill, 42, got 45.4% of the vote, and business owner Thomas Lee, 56, received 31.4%. Chemical engineer Tim Gorman — our favorite — was defeated, with 20% of the vote. We'll see how the new campaigns take shape.

In District 5, Hamilton County Democratic Party Vice Chairman Dennis Clark and entrepreneur Isaiah Hester led the five-candidate pack with 35% and 31.1% of the vote, respectively.

We already have endorsed Hester, 56, for the social and environmental advocacy he brings and, specifically his support of more living wage jobs, improving early childhood education and drive to ensure both more green spaces and a closer focus on clean, reliable drinking water in his district and Chattanooga.

This is an important election for Chattanooga, and voter turner was higher than usual. Keep it up, voters.