published Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Fred Skillern has turned ‘junk’ into millions, personal power

Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern is photographed in his office at Dixie Souvenirs, the Soddy-Daisy business he started with his father.
Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern is photographed in his office at Dixie Souvenirs, the Soddy-Daisy business he started with his father.
Photo by John Rawlston.

TRACING SKILLERN’S POLITICAL CAREER

• July 1976

Fred Skillern is elected by the county’s Quarterly Court to a seven-year school board term, after narrowly losing a bid for another at-large school board seat months before.

• August 1982

Democrat Butch Thomas defeats Skillern for District 1 County Commission.

• October 1982

Skillern is elected school board chairman.

• June 1983

Skillern is appointed to a new four-year school board term. District 1 Commissioner Butch Thomas was the sole vote against Skillern and cited recent “controversies” as the reason. Thomas said those involved the “termination of former Soddy-Daisy High School coach Jon Keene, reassignment of teachers at Soddy-Daisy Junior High after an incident in 1982 and the discovery of $1.2 million in funds after the budget was made last year.” Commissioner Paul McDaniel abstained.

• December 1983

Skillern is elected school board chairman.

• 1987

Appointed to new four-year school board term.

• September 1990

Elected school board chairman.

• May 1991

Hamilton County Education Association writes to county commissioners, asking that Skillern not be reappointed to school board.

• June 1991

Commissioners voted 8-1 to reappoint Skillern to a new school board term. Commissioner Paul McDaniel said he couldn’t vote for Skillern “because of the ‘remarkable naivete’ the board member showed when he once remarked there is no racism in the county school system.”

• June 1996

Skillern is named vice chairman of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau board.

• August 1996

He cycles off the Hamilton County Board of Education.

• January 2001

Appointed in a 5-4 vote to replace departing District 1 County Commissioner Jim Vincent. Skillern received the votes of four Democrats and one Republican.

• August 2002

Skillern first elected to the County Commission.

• August 2004

Elected County Commission chairman.

• August 2006

Elected for a second time to the County Commission.

• August 2010

Elected for a third time to the County Commission.

• September 2010

Elected County Commission chairman.

• January 2011

Steps down as commission chairman.

• September 2011

Elected County Commission vice-chairman.

• August 2014

Skillern’s term is set to expire.

SKILLERN SPEAKS

• On his souvenir business: “If it’s eye-catching or if I laugh at it, I buy it.” Aug. 29, 1971

• Upon being appointed to the school board:

“My personal feeling is that we need more common sense in management of money.” July 13, 1976

• In announcing his candidacy for County Commission: “I believe that education deserves a larger slice of the county budget pie without increasing property taxes. Our children must come first. We must provide them with the very best education possible.” February 1982

• On watching the bottom line: “We have had controversies because we have tried to correct problems and we have tried to open up the school system’s finances and the school system’s business to the general public; and it is my goal to even open it up further, and I feel that once we get everything open then controversy will cease.” 1983

• To then-Superintendent Don Loftis regarding personnel shifts: “Don’t run one of them duds by me, because me and you will have war again.” Spring 1988

• On the vote to allow city students to attend county schools: “What we’re doing is giving freedom of choice. I don’t think we’re breaking any agreement. I believe you should go to a neighborhood school and you should have the right to go to another one if you want to.” July 18, 1989

• On the hunt for a superintendent of the unified school system:

“That term ‘national search’ makes a lot of people in Hamilton County feel left out. But it shouldn’t. We’ve got some good people right here in Hamilton County.” Chattanooga News-Free Press, Dec. 6, 1995

• On opposition as he was being considered for an appointment to replace departing commissioner Jim Vincent: “Sure, there are people in the top echelons of the school system that would prefer me not looking at their budget. I don’t know what else it could be about, because the only thing a commissioner has anything to do with is the money. I wouldn’t get involved in second-guessing how the schools are run.” January 2001

• On improving schools: “We need to spend more money on our bottom 20 schools, but we’ve got to ask for results. If they tell us they need three more teachers at a school with low test scores, I’ll do everything I can to get them more teachers. But I want some goals: How much are these test scores going to go up with these teachers?” April 2001

• On what voters expect him to do: “We need to get to where all the money was spent. If that’s getting involved, then, yes sir, I’m getting involved. And I’ll continue to get involved until the people in the north end of the county don’t want me representing them anymore.” Aug. 29, 2004

• On then-Superintendent Jesse Register: “I’ll tell anybody that asks me that I think he should resign.” Aug. 29, 2004

• To education officials, on preparing students for the job market: “I have friends in businesses, and they don’t hire your top 30 percent. They are looking at the middle and bottom group. That’s why it’s so, so, so important ... that that group is marketable to the jobs available to them.” April 2005

• On then-Superintendent Jim Scales: The school system will be “better off” without him. Skillern said the next superintendent “ought to be a local individual, somebody that has experience in the Hamilton County school system.” May 12, 2011

• On Superintendent Rick Smith: “His ass is mine.” February 2012

Power player

Fred Skillern’s political career began in 1976 when he was appointed to the Hamilton County school board, rising to school board chairman in 1982. A timeline tracing his political career is on A14.

Souvenir salesman

Skillern owns Dixie Souvenirs, which sells novelty items like this Tennessee shot glass. He made millions with his son, Rees, on the knickknacks imported from Asia.

China to Soddy

In 1972, when formal U.S. trade relations with China were opened, Skillern was ready to go, having already visited the nation. Since then he’s made about 70 trips to Asia.

Many who have wanted to be a candidate for elected office in Hamilton County have driven north past the Soddy-Daisy city limits sign and parked in a gravel lot outside Dixie Souvenirs.

They walked through a paneled room with display shelves of Tennessee salt shakers, collectible spoons and similar bric-a-brac to a desk with a bronze nameplate — Junk Dealer.

The title packs an ounce of its owner’s humor and a pound of the pride he takes in a multimillion-dollar wholesale and real estate empire he began in a building with a dirt floor.

Fred Skillern built his political career from the ground up, too.

The one-time factory worker from Soddy-Daisy lost two of his first three runs at office. Since then, he has enjoyed nearly four decades at the top of the local political heap, becoming one of the most powerful figures in Hamilton County government and exerting influence far beyond his positions on the school board and later the nine-member County Commission.

Sources say he has influenced appointments and elections as well as individual votes of both the school board and the County Commission.

“I think Fred is a political mastermind, and the more Republican this county gets, the more of a legacy he has built,” said Stuart James, a local attorney and former chairman of the county’s Democratic Party.

Skillern is a man to be respected — even feared — dozens of sources say privately.

Those sources, including current and former county employees, politicos, business owners and educators, explain how Skillern operates. Few will do so publicly. Many cite fear, others respect for Skillern’s family, and some for the sake of letting bygones be just that.

According to these sources and to newspaper articles over the years, Skillern has:

• Controlled the promotion, demotion and ouster of school administrators, even superintendents;

• Demanded — and received — new schools for his district, including a new Soddy-Daisy High School in 1983; and

• Been heavily involved in appointing people to fill vacancies of elected offices.

Some talk quietly around town about a loose political outfit called the “Soddy-Daisy Mafia,” and, if one exists, Skillern is its kingpin.

Kingmaker, some say.

For years, candidates have come here in search of his blessing, knowing that his influence and support can make their careers. Or break them.

He rarely wears that mantle, preferring the feet-on-the-ground persona. But Skillern is a man who expects to get his way, though usually in a calculated manner. Rarely has he made outbursts like he did in February when he went on a profanity-laced tirade against a commissioner whose appointment he orchestrated years before.

That outburst revealed the forceful, rough-and-tumble political and personal style that has made him a power in county politics.

Recently, though, some have begun to wonder if his power may be waning.

Skillern isn’t accustomed to losing, but he’s done his share of it lately.

‘My people’

Skillern has governed during four decades of change in an area of the county once regarded as the rural backwaters.

Today he is one of nine Hamilton County commissioners who control a $625 million budget, steering tax money to the sheriff’s office, schools, the health department and other functions.

Though Skillern is a staunch Republican, he remains close to former Board of Education attorney and Democratic state Sen. Ward Crutchfield, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to bribery during the Tennessee Waltz investigation. Skillern also is a business partner with Crutchfield’s son-in-law, former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey.

Skillern brings his business background to his politics. He won’t vote for a tax increase and doesn’t hesitate to ask about how money’s being spent.

He insists he doesn’t call fellow commissioners before votes — that could be a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law — instead using discussion time to influence the panel. He said he saves his blunt guidance for after meetings.

After losing a key vote in February, he said to Commissioner Greg Beck: “You let me down again.”

Skillern was instrumental in getting Beck appointed to the commission seat vacated in 2005 after JoAnne Favors was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.

“I tell them they’re wrong or they’re right,” Skillern said of the way he chastises or praises colleagues.

Skillern said he usually maintains his composure, estimating it had been 20 years since he was as mad as the day he lashed out at Beck.

The 75-year-old commissioner has never forgotten a slight, but he carefully guards his list of enemies.

“It might give them too much satisfaction” to know they’re on his radar, he said.

“I’ve never put anybody on that list; they’ve put themselves on it,” Skillern said.

The fastest way to make that list?

“By being the type that’s not good for my people,” he said, describing “his people” as residents of Sale Creek, Falling Water, Mount Tabor, Red Bank, Hixson, Middle Valley and Dallas.

“These are the people I go into Hardee’s and talk to,” he said.

Even when Skillern is crossways with someone, he often carries on cordially with them, ever studying people for an opportunity to cash in allegiance when he needs it — on a vote, on a project.

Building Dixie

Skillern keeps an ancestry wheel tracing his family ties back to Hamilton County’s earliest pioneers. When unrolled, the paper covers almost his entire desk at Dixie Souvenirs.

The names in his line aren’t necessarily people of power, and two of the most notable ones to him in the family line are framed in a black and white photo hanging across from his desk: Fred’s father, Son Skillern, and son, Rees Skillern — both former business partners, both now gone, both difficult to discuss for different reasons.

Son Skillern was a businessman, once proprietor of the Colonial Motel that overlooked what locals call Soddy Lake. He also worked for the county, serving for awhile as a court officer for Chattanooga Criminal Court Judge Ralston Schoolfield, who was later impeached.

Son made money and then spent it, unlike his son, Fred.

Fred Skillern played guard for the Soddy-Daisy High School football team, graduating in 1957. He wore pads for a year at Tennessee Tech University before coming back home.

“I just wasn’t cut out to go to school,” Skillern said.

He served several years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, along the way taking a job at DuPont.

In 1962 his father started the Dish Barn in Daisy, selling dinnerware to restaurants and the masses.

Skillern worked swing shift at DuPont and began peddling his father’s dishes on the side.

Eventually he branched into novelties, first with a cow creamer.

“You’d pick it up by the tail and pour out its mouth,” Skillern said.

Around 1966, when his only child, Rees, was 4, Skillern and his wife, Bettye, drove to Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian Institution.

While there, he launched his Asian trade relations by knocking on the front door of the Japanese Embassy. Representatives recommended he talk with the country’s trade mission in New York City, but Skillern said he didn’t have the gas budget at the time to drive farther.

So he went home and wrote to New York instead.

Skillern took his first trip to Tokyo in 1968 or ’69 and began making month-long trips two or three times a year, importing goods to sell along his wholesale routes.

Eventually he quit his job at DuPont to focus fully on Dixie Souvenirs, which state records show he registered in 1972.

That year he stepped on a train, using an English visa, and rode with about 400 other buyers into China.

“I got to go before Nixon opened it up,” he said.

In February 1972, when the United States formally began trade relations, Skillern told The Chattanooga Times he had an invoice for T-shirts from China waiting on his desk.

All told, he made about 70 Asian trips before handing the business over to his son, Rees, several years ago.

Skillern eventually began investing in real estate ventures like River Place near the Aquarium and the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

But he prides himself on living frugally, with the same friends and house he’s always had.

“I like to think that I can go out to eat at the most expensive restaurant in Chattanooga, but I prefer to eat at Hardee’s,” he said as a cup from the fast-food place beaded condensation on the corner of his desk.

Skillern continued to report to Dixie Souvenirs, but his son handled most of the business. Skillern used his AT&T landline to talk politics.

But Rees died at the end of January after an eight-year battle with cancer, months before his 50th birthday.

When Skillern talks about Rees, he brings his hand to thick-rimmed glasses framing his eyes.

“After my son, nothing else is important to me,” he said.

Rees was his business partner, his friend, his child, and the only person who could carry on his line.

Increasing influence

Just as Skillern went to Asia before most American business people, he was Republican before most Southerners converted.

And that, coupled with what some describe as a brash image, didn’t initially serve him well in Hamilton County.

Skillern’s first 1976 bid for an appointment to the county school board was unsuccessful. He also lost his first election for County Commission in 1982.

But he carefully crafted his public persona, and the political wave eventually caught him.

Later in 1976, the county’s legislative body appointed Skillern to a seven-year school board term. At the time, school board members were appointed by county legislators.

He touted the business acumen and common sense he would bring to the role. Skillern’s first public test came four years later. A dispute over the firing of a football coach at Soddy-Daisy High School resulted in a three-day walkout by several hundred students. Some of the parents publicly criticized what they perceived to be Skillern’s heavy involvement in the situation.

After the protest, then-Soddy-Daisy Commissioner Howard Sompayrac said “that while Skillern may have at times assumed too much authority and maybe should have had his wings clipped a little, his underlying motive is unquestionably his allegiance to improvement of the overall educational program in the north end of the county.”

In the early 1980s, ground was broken for a new Soddy-Daisy High School. Some questioned at the time whether it would be too big.

Skillern delights in pointing out that it’s overcrowded today. That school was one of many building projects on the river’s west side that Skillern would have a hand in. At least six schools have been built in the areas dear to Skillern under his tenure.

In 1982, Skillern first ran as a Republican for the County Commission, losing to a Democrat in a county much bluer than it is now. Skillern’s primary issue was education.

“I believe that education deserves a larger slice of the county pie without increasing property taxes,” he said at the time.

The citizens of his district had historically been ignored, he said, and he set out to do something about that.

“I don’t love education. I love giving kids an opportunity,” Skillern said recently.

When the new Soddy-Daisy High School opened in 1983, future Superintendent Rick Smith was coaching its football team. The position allowed for the evolution of Smith and Skillern’s relationship.

Skillern and then-Superintendent Don Loftis, also of Soddy-Daisy, regularly cut deals to move administrators.

Though Skillern said he liked Rick Smith, he always thought another Smith — Robert — would become Soddy-Daisy’s administrator first. Instead, Loftis tapped Rick Smith, who later became the first principal at Loftis Middle School.

“I thought [Rick Smith was good], but when he made principal I was shocked to high heavens,” Skillern said.

  • photo
    Former state senator Ward Crutchfield, right, and former Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams visit Fred Skillern in his office at Dixie Souveniers, the Soddy-Daisy business he started with his father.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Robert Smith, who will soon retire as principal of Ridgeland High School, eventually became Soddy-Daisy’s principal. Skillern keeps the school’s excellent test scores from the Robert Smith years in his desk as a reminder.

Though Skillern lost his first commission bid, he continued to fight to draw schools, educators and county funding to the northwest section of the county, weaving dozens of relationships within the school system and county ranks.

When Skillern served as school board chairman, Loftis would pull controversial items from the board’s agenda, particularly those affecting Soddy-Daisy, to negotiate further with Skillern, he said.

Skillern described their relationship as one of feuding brothers — a combination of familial fondness and fights.

Loftis said that’s an apt description.

By the time the city schools went out of business in the mid-1990s, the county school board was a nonpartisan elected body. Skillern cycled off the board in 1996.

The board selected Jesse Register, longtime educator and administrator from North Carolina, as superintendent to oversee the merger of the systems. Skillern opposed the merger and didn’t get along with Register.

In 2001, Skillern was appointed to a vacancy on the County Commission created when Jim Vincent left to be a state representative. Yet Register was still on his mind.

In his February rant, Skillern called Register, who now heads the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, a “crook.”

“I was the board member believing Jesse Register was a crook and [I] ended up having seven votes,” Skillern said.

Register announced he would be retiring from the system in 2005. At the time, seven school board members voted to accept his retirement.

Register left in 2006 after the school board amended his contract and had him serve his final year as a paid consultant to help oversee the transition to a new superintendent. Register was never accused of wrongdoing, though commissioners such as Skillern questioned how he managed the schools’ budget.

In 2002, Skillern was elected to the County Commission for the first time.

Former Commissioner Harold Coker recently said Skillern votes conservatively, “and that’s just what this community is.”

In a recent interview, Coker said he has immense respect for what Skillern has done for the county.

“It’s a servant’s role. It’s not a king’s role,” Coker said.

Two superintendents gone

After Register left the school system, the board brought in successor Jim Scales from Dallas, Texas. Rick Smith was a finalist for the job. But Smith lacked a doctorate, as required by the search criteria.

Again Skillern butted heads with the superintendent, this time Scales.

“My take on that was that right away there were certain factions with the board and the County Commission that didn’t want me,” Scales said in an interview.

Scales, who is black, never mentions race as a factor. But many others do.

In 2011 a Chattanooga Times editorial noted that Skillern referred to black commissioners as “n.....” during the 2004 budget hearings.

Skillern said he didn’t, and that former County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who was also standing there at the time, doesn’t remember the statement either.

“I’m one of those kinds who doesn’t believe in affirmative action, but I do believe in equal rights,” Skillern said.

Scales said he had a cordial relationship with Skillern.

“We disagreed on a lot of things. But I could talk with Fred Skillern,” Scales said. “We just didn’t always agree. I think he had a level of respect for me.”

  • photo
    Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern operates Dixie Souveniers, the Soddy-Daisy business he started with his father.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

As the move to oust Scales shifted into high gear, Skillern supported a successful move by Commissioner Joe Graham to have the commission withhold millions of dollars earmarked for education. It was a victory at the time, but the money would become the subject of a later decision that would blindside Skillern.

After the school board voted last summer to buy out Scales’ contract, Skillern pushed to hire a local superintendent. The system would be “better off” without Scales, Skillern said.

“He is such a strong personality that he’s eventually going to get things done the way he wants them to get done,” Scales said. “I just think [school board members and commissioners] perceive him as being a person that has a lot of influence. He can influence others.”

Shortly thereafter, the school board amended its selection process and ultimately decided on Smith.

“You have a board that wanted Rick Smith to be the superintendent. And he’s the superintendent,” Scales said.

Not long after Smith became superintendent, he transferred more than a dozen principals. One of them was Soddy Elementary’s Lee Ann Mills. Skillern said he told Scales repeatedly that he wanted her moved from the school.

Mills, who is retiring at the end of the school year, declined to comment.

Most current or former educators refuse to make public statements about Skillern’s involvement in schools. Most say they fear retaliation.

One former principal familiar with Skillern’s influence said those interested in preserving their jobs would be “very foolish to openly oppose” him.

“I was well aware of who and what Fred Skillern is,” the principal said. “And I was very careful not to publicly do anything that I thought would upset the apple cart. He can be very vindictive.”

Blindside

In September, after Smith had been superintendent for a few months, County Commissioner Chester Bankston, a former school board member, began advocating for commissioners to return control of the millions in disputed tax money — payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements, or PILOT funds — to the school board.

Five months later, in February 2012, Smith came before the board asking for the money. As he stepped to the podium, he addressed Skillern after seeing him for the first time since Skillern’s son died. “It’s good to see you smile,” Smith said directly to him, pausing.

Commissioners then agreed 6-3 to do what Smith asked and turned over the money. Skillern, angered, was on the losing side.

After the meeting, Skillern went to an open room in the commission suite and launched into his tirade.

  • photo
    Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern works at Dixie Souveniers, the Soddy-Daisy business he started with his father.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

He said to Beck of Smith: “His ass is mine.”

Smith acknowledged the commissioner had a tough couple of weeks.

A week later, Skillern stood by what he said, though not his choice of words.

“I didn’t appreciate what they was doing, and I didn’t appreciate they was doing it during what was happening,” Skillern said, referring to the period of grief over his son. “But they did, and I did, and that’s all done now. They know beyond a shadow of a doubt how I feel.”

The losses mount

Skillern can’t count the number of potential candidates for various local, state and federal offices who have sat across the desk from him in a metal folding chair.

“They first ask me to support them, and I tell them they shouldn’t,” he said.

When a person endorses you, “you get a portion of their friends, but you get all of their enemies,” Skillern said.

But he always doles out advice. It varies by person, by office.

“Some I tell, ‘You don’t have a chance.’ Some I tell, ‘You’re too early.’ Some I ask, ‘Do you have time for that job?’ Some, they’re too vulnerable, they’re still trying to make their fortune,” he said.

Not every candidate heeds Skillern’s advice. Marty Haynes, who won the County Commission District 3 Republican Primary on March 6, made the trek to Dixie Souvenirs.

Haynes said he wasn’t advised by anyone to go see Skillern. “You just know,” he said.

District 3 was in play after last year’s leadership shuffle.

In January 2011, commissioners deadlocked on a vote to appoint an interim county mayor to replace Claude Ramsey, who became deputy governor. Sources say Skillern and his friends had heavy hands in the process.

Eventually Commissioner Warren Mackey switched his vote to Coppinger, Skillern’s pick. Mackey said it’s because the other applicant, Mike Carter, told the newspaper a deal had been worked out to get Coppinger appointed.

Coppinger became mayor and Mitch McClure was named to Coppinger’s District 3 commission seat.

“It fell like I heard it was going to fall,” Haynes said of last year’s process.

“Folks don’t like those appointments; they don’t like the process,” Haynes said. “They want to vote.”

State law requires commissioners to make interim appointments, but the body has some flexibility about the process.

Haynes visited Skillern even though he would be challenging an interim appointee close to the commissioner.

Skillern wasn’t happy Haynes was running. He thought McClure was the right man. “But at the very end he said, ‘If you win, we’ll work together,” Haynes said.

Haynes won with 56 percent of the vote. Skillern was the only commissioner who didn’t call to congratulate him, Haynes said.

The District 3 vote isn’t the only defeat Skillern has suffered lately. Commissioners overrode his opposition to the selection of Franklin Architects for a new elementary school in Ooltewah, and he was on the losing side of the appointment of a District 3 school board member. Skillern supported Tammy Zumbrun, but Greg Martin garnered the necessary five votes to win the appointment.

Seven commissioners, including McClure, also voted earlier this month against Skillern and one other commissioner to replace the former David Brainerd School with a new East Brainerd Elementary School.

But Skillern said last week the votes haven’t fazed him.

“I don’t ever count winning and losing; I just vote my convictions,” Skillern said. “Sometimes I’m on the prevailing side; sometimes I’m not.”

But he said he’s sometimes concerned about the direction of the commission.

“I don’t think it maybe has as strong a personality as it once had, and I’m not talking about those personalities that agreed with me,” he said. “Some of the ones that disagree with me now aren’t as strong for the government as some of the other ones used to be.”

Skillern says all that matters to him is “getting things done, building this building, providing jobs,” tilting his head toward his office ceiling.

Though he “worries about how the money’s spent” at the county, he never wanted to leave it — not even for the legislature.

“There have been 100 people in this office asking me to run for different offices,” Skillern said. “I have no desire to go to Nashville. I’d rather take a beating. I ain’t leaving Soddy.”

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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