The quickest route ever to becoming Chattanooga mayor could open this week if the Hamilton County Election Commission certifies petitions for the first mayoral recall in Chattanooga’s history.
Those interested in running, including incumbent Ron Littlefield, must qualify next week for an election that will begin in less than seven weeks, barring a court challenge.
“We have never had an election like this before, and with such a short campaign period and no runoff, I would expect there will be a flood of candidates,” said Rick Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a former Hamilton County election commissioner.
So far, Littlefield is the only candidate to definitely say he’ll run if there is a mayoral election.
“The mayor is experienced and is capable of running a full campaign, if such an election should come,” said Richard Beeland, Littlefield’s communications director.
But several other politicians and community leaders contacted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press refused to rule out a run.
“There will be a spirited campaign once our petitions are certified,” said Chris Brooks with Chattanooga Organized for Action, one of the groups behind the recall drive.
Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County’s administrator of elections, said that as of Friday her staff had counted 9,071 valid signatures out of 14,078 submitted. Under city rules, it takes 8,935 to force a recall, or half the number who voted in the last mayoral election, plus one.
Recall groups have until 4 p.m. Monday to turn in more signatures. Groups including the Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, the Chattanooga Tea Party and Chattanooga Organized for Action were still collecting signatures Saturday.
The citizen groups began the recall campaign after Littlefield proposed a 33 percent property tax increase following hikes in stormwater and sewer rates. The City Council voted in June to raise property taxes a little more than 19 percent.
Littlefield could ask the Hamilton County Chancery Court to halt the election commission’s plans for a recall election Nov. 2, when voters cast ballots for state and federal offices.
Littlefield was unavailable Saturday. Beeland said Littlefield will consider his options if and when the election commission decides whether to certify the petitions and schedule the mayoral election.
Questions have been raised about whether the City Charter or state law controls how many signatures are required for a recall. Under state law, the number of required signatures is about 16,000.
Last week, a senior law consultant for the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service issued an opinion saying that state law trumps the City Charter.
Mullis-Morgan and Wilson both said they expect the question to go to court, likely delaying any recall election.
WHO MIGHT RUN?
Jim Folkner, who says he’s a “semiretired businessman” and who heads Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said Saturday he may run for mayor to ensure there is a candidate to keep city taxes and spending down.
“It’s been a grass-roots effort to bring this recall about, and I feel commitment to these people to push forward with the changes the people want,” he said.
City Councilman Andraé McGary, one of four council members to vote against the city tax increase in June, said he is “very interested” in running.
“We’ll just have to see how the recall plays out,” he said, declining to discuss any details of his potential candidacy.
Hamilton County Commissioner Jim Coppinger, a retired Chattanooga fire chief, said he is not backing the recall effort “and I look forward to being sworn in for a second term as county commissioner on Wednesday.” But Coppinger wouldn’t rule out a run should there be a recall.
County Commissioner Warren Mackey said he might consider a mayoral bid, too.
“I have been approached about running, and it’s something I’ll have to consider,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who lost his Republican gubernatorial bid, said he “will not be a candidate for mayor should there be an election this year.”
Todd Womack, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who previously worked in the mayor’s office with Corker and briefly with Littlefield, ruled out a run at this time.
Barring a court challenge, an election for Chattanooga mayor could soon begin:
* Monday: Petition signature deadline
* Tuesday-Friday: Hamilton County Election Commission will review signatures and possibly certify a recall election and open qualifying petitions for mayoral candidates
* Tuesday, Sept. 7 - Deadline to turn in qualifying signatures to run for mayor
* Thursday, Sept. 9 - Deadline for candidates to withdraw from mayoral election.
* Oct. 13-Oct. 28: Early voting
* Nov. 2, Election Day
Source: Hamilton County Election Commission
“I love what I am doing right now, and I want to keep doing that, at least for now,” Womack said.
Some City Council members said Friday they are not interested in running.
“I’ve really not given it any serious consideration,” said Carol Berz.
And Peter Murphy said, “I don’t think it’s something I would look into.”
Rob Healy, who ran against the mayor last year, said he doesn’t know now if he would run in a recall election.
“I’m following it, I’m interested, and we’ll see where it goes,” Healy said.
Bill Raines, a commercial real estate business owner who helped lead a blue-ribbon panel that reduced proposed stormwater fee increases earlier this year, said he’s been encouraged by local business leaders to run. Raines said he has decided against it to spend more time with his family and business.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, also said he’s been approached about running. Berke, who flirted briefly last year with running for Tennessee governor, did not return repeated phone calls.
Wilson said he expects the short calendar and the lack of a runoff election will spark a crowd of candidates. When Gray Davis was recalled as California governor, for instance, 135 candidates qualified for the ballot.
“We may not have that many, but I would expect a lot,” he said. “Shorter elections mean more candidates.”