published Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Greg Vital rift may cost Todd Gardenhire


by Chris Carroll
From left, Todd Gardenhire, Greg Vital
From left, Todd Gardenhire, Greg Vital
KEY DATES

• Oct. 9 -- Last day to register to vote

• Oct. 30 -- Last day to request absentee ballot

• Oct. 17-Nov. 1 -- Early voting

• Nov. 6 -- Election Day

Despite calls for Republican unity, some Greg Vital donors won't be supporting Todd Gardenhire's state Senate bid against a Democrat.

"I'm not giving to Todd's campaign," said Chattanooga accountant Tom Decosimo, a prominent Republican donor and Vital's former campaign treasurer. "Plenty of other people can give."

A key fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Decosimo cited his involvement in other races and stressed that "it's nothing against Todd," but his remarks capture a common thread within Vital's vast fundraising network. Numerous donors are simply unwilling to move on after Gardenhire accused Vital of dishonesty, campaign sabotage and bragging about his personal wealth.

The reluctance to help Gardenhire defies old-school GOP dogma, which implores Republicans to drop hostilities and support the nominee after a nasty primary.

"To me it's still a little early," said Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee President Roger Tuder, who gave $1,000 to Vital's campaign. "It's barely been a month. I think we need to sit here and digest some of this stuff.

"I'll see what both candidates have to say."

Republican leaders viewed the 10th District seat now occupied by Democratic Sen. Andy Berke as a pawn in the game of dominating the Senate. Republicans hold a 20-13 advantage over Democrats; flipping two seats in November would give them a two-thirds advantage. After Republicans redrew the district's lines to favor their party, Berke declined to seek re-election and is running for Chattanooga mayor.

But Republicans haven't mended fences to ensure they'll win the seat. After Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey postponed what party officials called a "unity" news conference for Gardenhire and Vital, no one followed through and the event never happened. The inaction followed constant drama in a campaign that got personal.

Amid revelations that Vital embellished his educational history -- he told a group of Republicans that he graduated from college when he only attended -- Gardenhire dubbed his opponent "Pinocchio." He said Vital was behind an anonymous mailer that included potentially damaging but incomplete information about a failed Gardenhire marriage. Later, Gardenhire claimed Vital said he had "more money than God" in an attempt to push him out of the race.

Vital apologized for his statements about college but denied the other two accusations. He did not endorse Gardenhire after the primary, and donors said he's never encouraged them to help the man who beat him by 45 votes.

"Greg has said nothing to me about it," Decosimo said. "Quite frankly, it's just been quiet."

After he conceded the race, Vital "thanked us for his support and didn't even mention [Todd]," said Charlotte Peak Jones, a Bradley County commissioner among the first Vital donors.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire may need the money. After supplementing his campaign with $57,000 in personal loans, Gardenhire said he has $30,000 left but admitted unspecified debts from the primary.

His opponent, Chattanooga City Councilman Andraé McGary, is beginning to hit the fundraising circuit after a decisive victory in the 10th District Democratic primary. He said his count is approaching $20,000.

A few Vital supporters have made the Gardenhire switch, mentioning the importance of winning GOP-friendly geography in the newly redistricted 10th, which includes parts of Bradley and Hamilton counties.

"It's not always great when a race gets nasty like that one did," said Cleveland construction executive Duane Gilbert, "but when it's over, it's over, and you begin a new race. We're with Todd now."

Other Vital allies aren't so sure.

"I do plan to help Todd Gardenhire, but actually I really like Andraé McGary, too," said Cannon Montague, a Lookout Mountain sculptor. "I'll probably give to both of them. You're talking to an independent voter."

Head of a chain of nursing homes known as Morning Pointe, Vital declined to comment on Gardenhire.

"Election over on August 2," Vital said in a text message. "Enjoying my family and company."

Gardenhire shrugged off his mixed results among the Vital faithful. He said his meetings with Vital donors were picking up steam. And compared with the presidential race and congressional elections, he said, his race is "low on the totem pole."

Some Vital donors publicly take that stance, too.

"I might consider something for Todd -- I am about tapped out on political races," said investment executive Paul K. Brock Jr., the former Scottie Mayfield congressional campaign finance chairman who gave $1,000 to Vital. "At some point you've got to say there's no more fruit on this tree."

But Gardenhire may have fueled some negativity after refunding several checks to donors who gave to both him and Vital.

In a July 17 letter to eight donors -- including Joseph Decosimo, Tom's father -- Gardenhire said he has always encouraged candidates against accepting "donations from individuals who are giving to both sides in a campaign."

"I have kept that rule in place," the letter said, adding that if "you feel that I am more qualified than my Democrat opponent ... we can talk about it then."

Only one donation has been returned, Gardenhire said.

Still, he prides himself on beating Vital despite being outraised, outspent and outlent by huge margins. But it's an argument McGary can use, too -- he won a pivotal 2009 City Council race as the underfunded candidate.

"We can make a lot out of a little," McGary said. "This campaign will squeeze the life out of every single dollar."

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6610.

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