* Age: 57
* Job: Special assistant to the county mayor
* Previous political experience: General Sessions judge
* Personal: Joan, wife; sons Stephen, 31, and Timothy, 28
A man who has worked mostly behind the scenes in county government since October 2009 has emerged as a candidate for the county's top job and has the backing of U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.
While two of the county mayoral candidates, Jim Coppinger and Larry Henry, are county commissioners, Mike Carter serves as a special assistant to the mayor, a post he's held since October 2009. It's similar to the job County Mayor Claude Ramsey will take in January as deputy to the governor and chief of staff for Gov.-elect Bill Haslam, Carter said.
Commissioners are responsible for choosing the mayor's successor, and Ramsey, who is reported to be Carter's distant cousin, has said he will play no role in that process.
In the past, Carter -- a licensed attorney with a law degree from Memphis State University -- has served as outside counsel to the county and as a General Sessions Court judge. He also has been involved in business ventures.
As mayor's special assistant, Carter said he does whatever Ramsey asks him to do, including attending confidential meetings related to economic development.
"It's been one of the most interesting things in the world for me to sit in on those," he said.
Gary Hayes, a consultant with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said state law doesn't describe what a special assistant to the mayor does. Most of the counties he deals with do not have the position, Hayes said, and its responsibilities are decided by the county mayor.
Ramsey, who has served 16 years as county mayor and was elected to a fifth term in August, said he never had a special assistant before hiring Carter. Neither had former County Executive Dalton Roberts, who served before Ramsey.
Ramsey said Carter is "somebody that I have do whatever needs to be done. I might send him to do whatever."
Carter, 57, took on the job as Ramsey's assistant nearly two years after leaving Cleveland, Tenn.-based Life Care Centers of America, where he was assistant to board Chairman Forrest L. Preston.
Carter called himself "an entrepreneur at heart."
"I have signed the front of paychecks and I think, through practicing law for so long with the county, I was involved in lawsuits in every shape, form or fashion and developed a tremendous respect for the quality of the employees for the county," Carter said. "And for the last two years, in being involved with economic development, I think I have learned a tremendous amount."
Wamp, who is leaving Congress in January and who also was mentioned as a possible candidate for county mayor, said over the weekend he isn't interested in the mayor's position. He sent out a news release endorsing Carter, who in the past drove Wamp's campaign bus and who said he donated $2,500 to the congressman.
It's been widely reported that Carter is Ramsey's cousin, but Carter said he is uncertain if that is true. There may be a blood tie through his grandparents or great-grandparents, Carter said, but he does not identify himself as a close member of Ramsey's family.
The county's policy against nepotism does not apply to cousins.
While Carter is called the "special assistant to the mayor," his $95,000 annual salary comes from the county attorney's budget.
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Ramsey made that decision. Carter also has his work space in Taylor's office. Ramsey said Carter does most of his work from that office.
Carter also said he helps Taylor as well as Ramsey.
"I help Rheubin with anything he needs done," Carter said. "I was put in Rheubin's office physically. I have an office with Rheubin because that was the only vacant office in the courthouse."
Carter also is paid $2,500 a month as an attorney for the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, and he makes roughly $100,000 annually as an owner of mini-storage warehouses.
He and other business partners own multiple tracts of undeveloped real estate in Hamilton and Bradley counties. He said he owns one-third of a medical imaging business, Heart Imaging, in Winchester, Tenn., but is losing money on it.
At one time, he was an owner in a company called Thoroughbred Cruisers, which manufactured houseboats, but he said he sold it in 2005.
Carter said he does not know if he would need to get out of his business interests if he becomes mayor.
"I'm going to have to get an attorney general's opinion on that," he said, adding that he wants everyone to know about his personal holdings in detail.
Hayes said he knows of nothing in state law prohibiting county mayors from having outside businesses. But, he added, being county mayor is a full-time job.
"It just can't conflict with their normal responsibilities," he said.
Most recently, Carter helped the county in determining how to resolve a federal probe into whether former Trustee Carl Levi's office mishandled payments made by people in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The county decided to repay money it overcharged those taxpayers.
Carter said he was working for private attorney Walter Lusk in the 1980s when he became involved in county government.
County Auditor Bill Mc-Griff said the county had its own attorney, but Lusk was hired mostly to handle lawsuits brought against the sheriff by prisoners. Carter said he also handled other kinds of lawsuits.
By the mid-1980s, he had the title of "special counsel" and said he was representing the county in "any kind of complex litigation."
He said he was appointed a General Sessions judge in 1997, won the position outright in 1998 and resigned in 2005 to work for Life Care Centers of America.
He left Life Care in 2007 and, until 2009, pursued construction of a nursing home modeled around a suburban-living concept. He said that fell through when the stock market crashed in 2008.
He also managed his storage warehouses, handled legal work and became the WWTA attorney, he said.
Carter and Beecher Hunter, president of Life Care, said Carter left the nursing-home giant over an unspecified disagreement about the company's direction. Hunter said Carter still is on good terms with company officials.
"Mike is very creative, the kind of a logical-thinking individual for whom I have great respect," Hunter said.
Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisen firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...