published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Councilman Andraé McGary on the move, does a lot with a little


by Chris Carroll
Barber Ronnie Etchison, left, and patron Vincent McKenzie listen as Andre McGary talks with patrons at Cut Creators Barbershop.
Barber Ronnie Etchison, left, and patron Vincent McKenzie listen as Andre McGary talks with patrons at Cut Creators Barbershop.
Photo by Tim Barber.

AT A GLANCE

* Name: Andraé McGary

* Age: 33

* Family: Married to Cheryl with five children

* Education: Bachelor's degree from Carver Bible College; master's of divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary

* Employment: Chattanooga city councilman

* One big idea: "Technology-based and medical research jobs are the wave of the future. With the fastest Internet in America here in Tennessee, we must focus on how best to utilize this valued asset to attract the jobs of tomorrow."

Andraé McGary was elected to City Council at 29. In the three years since, he has publicly pondered running for Congress and Chattanooga mayor. Now he's the Democratic nominee for a pivotal state Senate seat.

But to hear the father of five tell it, he's an introvert who hates fundraising, dreads glad-handing, could live without the game. Above all, the councilman wants voters to know something: "I'm not a politician."

"I'm so over this race," he said with a glazed look over the wheel of his 2009 Chrysler sedan. "I don't get my energy from people. I get my energy from helping people."

It's the key dichotomy in the life of McGary, a 33-year-old transplant from Texas who has quit two jobs in the interest of maintaining or winning public office. Since moving to Chattanooga in 2005, he has worked as a marketing consultant, homeless coalition staffer, art consultant, church youth director and talk radio personality — none for very long.

He quit the homeless coalition job in 2010 amid City Council conflict-of-interest concerns. And in March, he left his post as the first-ever black host of WGOW-FM's "Live and Local" to campaign full-time for state Senate. Win or lose against Republican Todd Gardenhire, McGary said he's starting an online tutoring business.

"It makes you wonder if this person's ever going to figure out what to do in life," said Leamon Pierce, the 18-year incumbent McGary defeated in a 2009 runoff election. "Sometimes you can move too fast."

Other critics question how the South Orchard Knob Avenue homeowner can afford house payments, gas and insurance for two vehicles -- he also drives a 2009 Volkswagen minivan -- and provide for his wife, kids, dog and bird. Without the radio gig, the family's lone source of reported income is McGary's $21,991 annual councilman salary, or $845 every two weeks.

"If it's true that he's managing his house on that," City Councilman Manny Rico said, "he ought to be running for president. I've gotten questions about it for four years, but I can't prove otherwise. I've got to take him at his word."

But McGary, the councilman with an Apple laptop, stylish suits and Gucci eyeglasses, said he's a "very frugal" penny pincher who's interested in "being the change" in his dilapidated Oak Grove neighborhood. When he walks his block, he encounters a racial mix of young families, prostitutes, retirees and people pushing shopping carts crammed with everything they own.

"Andraé listens," said Louise Hammonds, who preceded McGary as president of the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association. "The Senate job will be for the people, not for him. He knows that going in."

McGary backers enjoy watching as he pings from rapping campaign ads to changing diapers to drafting legislation, a whirlwind who rarely stops to eat. On a recent weekday, he campaigned seven hours on the strength of a smoothie and raw oatmeal -- some of which he fed to Snowbell, the family husky.

"He's pure energy," said Councilwoman Carol Berz. "That's what it's going to take to make a difference with so many extremists in Nashville."

Renaissance man, spotlight seeker or something in between, he talks about himself in the third person. When he does, he poses the big question.

"Who am I, right? Who is Andraé McGary?"

•••

The question can be explored politically.

Campaigning for council, McGary criticized Pierce for missing meetings and other official duties. But McGary's radio gig prevented him from attending committee briefings, and in September he skipped a council meeting -- and 14 votes -- to stump for state Senate.

Ideologically, McGary is running as a Democrat, but at his opening news conference he quickly proclaimed "there are no Republican ideas and there are no Democratic ideas" -- only "good ideas" on jobs, education and health care.

He views business tax breaks as a raid on public education but promises on his website "to make Tennessee as business-friendly and transparent as possible." And while he criticizes Gardenhire for not having a website, the words "Democrat" or "Democratic" are nowhere to be found on his. When he phones undecided voters, he talks about his wife and children, barely delving into politics.

True to those phone calls, he's most at home on South Orchard Knob Avenue. There he considers "Daddy" his most important title, despite a tendency among his children to greet him as "The Councilman!" when he comes home at night.

•••

McGary said he grew up poor, attending public school and sleeping on the floor with his three siblings in an apartment complex in Dallas. He declined to make his parents available for interviews.

McGary intended to become a pastor and left Dallas for Atlanta's Carver Bible College. He met his wife, Cheryl, in Atlanta before he graduated in 2002. At the time she worked at Home Depot corporate headquarters. She left her job and followed him to St. Louis, where he earned a master's in divinity and she had the couple's first child.

Since then, she's been a stay-at-home mom, raising Imani, 9; Zion, 7; Elijah, 5; Isaiah, 3; and Eden, 1.

To save money, the parents this year removed their two eldest children from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School -- McGary said he is Roman Catholic and qualified for a discount -- and decided to home-school all five.

On a recent day at their $80,000 home, Cheryl McGary changed two diapers within five minutes and helped her older children memorize Bible verses. Five little voices, all with different needs.

"We may have more," the mother said. "It's up to the Lord."

The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies' 2010 report on public safety said the Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills neighborhood where McGary lives had the city's highest rates for burglary and robbery, second-highest rate for aggravated assault and third-highest rate for drug crimes.

Still, McGary is proud to say he keeps his automobiles unlocked at home.

"I have yet to fear for my safety," he said.

•••

McGary drew attention to his family and finances at a September news conference, where he alluded to a GOP-fueled "whisper campaign" that he said painted him as a ne'er-do-well freeloader who takes "government assistance."

He denied all the rumors he broached, saying he doesn't deal drugs, hasn't applied for food stamps and buys formalwear at thrift stores.

Tax returns for the couple show incomes of $19,009 in 2009; $42,853 in 2010; and $46,745 in 2011. The latter two included income from the radio job, McGary said, adding that his 2012 income may be closer to the 2009 figure.

According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the average middle-income family spends roughly $12,000 on child-related expenses in a baby's first year of life.

Cheryl McGary said she has been unemployed ever since she left Atlanta for St. Louis. In a mandatory filing with the state, her husband listed no sources of personal income besides his City Council salary.

"If that's not the case," Rico said, "I'm sure it'll come up sooner or later."

Family members contribute, dates with his wife are at Wendy's and sometimes "the hairdresser does Cheryl's hair for free," McGary said, adding that Pearlie the family cockatoo randomly flew into his yard one day. He also said that Snowbell was a gift from a friend.

McGary said his financial life "isn't rocket science" and represents his key philosophy if elected.

"If you learn how to utilize what's around you, you can make stuff work in the most creative way," he said. "Good thing we had three boys — we pass down clothes. Some people talk about being conservative. Let's have a conversation about being conservative. Let's have a conversation about making ends meet."

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