By Ian Berry Staff Writer
The race for the Hamilton County Commission's District 5 seat has emerged as a focus for leaders in both local parties, with current officeholder Democratic Commissioner Greg Beck being challenged by the Rev. Bernie Miller, a Republican.
Democratic leaders are accusing Mr. Miller of misleading them into thinking he was running as a Democrat. Mr. Miller counters that he never said he would seek the seat as a Democrat.
Both sides agree having a black Republican running in the largely black, mostly Democratic district is a new scenario. Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Bobby Wood said Democrats take the black vote for granted, despite the fact it was Republicans who worked to end slavery.
"I think (the race) will really be under the spotlight of both parties," Mr. Wood said. "More so the Democrats."
Stuart James, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman, said Mr. Miller called him about a week before the Nov. 8 Kefauver Dinner, a Democratic Party fundraiser, to tell him he was running as a Democrat for county commissioner. Mr. Miller attended the dinner, sat at a table with state Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, and was introduced as a candidate for District 5.
Mr. Miller, however, said he also called Mr. Wood, State Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, and both the Chattanooga and Hamilton County mayors, among others, to discuss his candidacy.
He said he was surprised but honored to be placed at Sen. Crutchfield's table.
He said Mr. James was "overly zealous" when the two spoke, and that he never told him he was running as a Democrat.
Mr. James said Mr. Miller exploited the dinner as an opportunity for exposure among Democratic candidates. Mr. Miller announced his candidacy Nov. 21.
"You don't sit at Sen. Crutchfield's table and say, a week or two later, 'I'm running as a Republican,'" Mr. James said.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, also sat at the table with Sen. Crutchfield and Mr. Miller. She said it's Mr. Miller's prerogative to run as a Republican.
"He never came out and told me, 'Yes I'm going to run as a Democratic candidate,' but I expected he would," Rep. Favors said. "It was just an assumption with him being there."
Mr. Wood said the party dinner was attended by elected officials of both parties, as is the Republican's Lincoln Day dinner. But Mr. James said no other Republican candidates were introduced, and that he wouldn't have a Republican or independent introduced at a Democratic fund-raiser.
Mr. Miller said Mr. James blindsided him on the issue on WDOD-AM 1310 radio last week. He said a co-host called him asking him to appear on a morning show on the station to talk about his platform but did not mention Mr. James. After he was on the air, Mr. James interrupted him and asked why he attended the Kefauver Dinner if he planned to run as a Republican.
"He was there. She never told me he was there. And he sandbagged me," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. James said he didn't think Mr. Miller was sandbagged.
"If he was, I would apologize to him for the sandbagging," Mr. James said.
Mr. Miller is pastor of New Covenant Fellowship Church and board chairman of the Chattanooga Housing Authority. Mr. Beck is a municipal court officer, a former youth director at Inner-City Ministries and former executive director of the Bethlehem Center.
County records show Mr. Miller has voted in six Republican primaries since 1992 and three Democratic primaries. Mr. Beck has voted in four Democratic primaries and one Republican primary since 1990.
Mr. Miller said the day of his announcement he decided to run as a Republican because black voters in the district told him party affiliation wouldn't matter if he was the better candidate. He also said he figured his past association with Republicans would become an issue. For instance, he said he was appointed to a U.S. Census Bureau Advisory Committee by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Mr. Wood acknowledged the district is about 80 percent Democrat. He said Mr. Miller's challenge is to try and break through a wall of black support for Democrats, and that Mr. Miller's reputation will lead voters to see the man and not just the party.
Mr. Miller said in addition to his personal history with local Republicans, the party's legacy of fighting slavery led him to run as a Republican. Mr. James dismissed that argument, saying Republican ideologies of Abraham Lincoln's time would be considered Democratic today.
"If they make that claim, they're going to be laughed out of District 5," Mr. James said.
E-mail Ian Berry at email@example.com