published Monday, March 4th, 2013

Hamilton County Democrats seek unity under new leader

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    Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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POLL HOURS

Chattanooga's mayor and City Council races are Tuesday. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The announcement over the weekend that Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith won't seek re-election next month is an opportunity to heal a wounded party, some local Democrats said Sunday.

The only declared candidate to succeed Smith, longtime Juvenile Court official Terry Lee, said if he gets the nod during the party reorganization in April, he hopes he can get fractious party members focused on what's important: recruiting good candidates and getting them elected.

"There's been a whole lot of nonsense. I just want to restore some common sense back to the political arena," Lee said Sunday.

"People have spent all their time working on their differences and arguing and fussing. ... When there's so many needs in the community, we spend all our time on divisive issues. They're so busy fighting amongst themselves and the other party, they forget they're there to serve the general public."

Lee was careful to say he was referring to parties at all levels, not just the splintered Hamilton County chapter that Smith will leave behind.

Over the weekend, Smith announced he would not seek re-election at the April 14 reorganization meeting and claimed several accomplishments in his two-year term.

"We met our goals, completed tasks, modernized the party and enhanced communication," Smith said in an emailed release.

"We unified labor, which has been very supportive, and we had the most successful Kefauver dinner ever. The goal of the party chair is to elect Democrats, and I am pleased that we had candidates in every race. We contributed to the support and election of President Obama and JoAnn Favors in the House of Representatives and now pledge our full support to Andy Berke to be mayor of Chattanooga, which will be a great victory to the Democratic Party and labor," Smith said.

But he's also been the center of months of controversy.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Sunday that Smith moved at the party's February meeting to kick out board members who leak details to the media, criticize party operations or publicly questioned his performance as chairman.

In the last eight months, Smith has defended a party document that included an off-color joke about women, violated party rules by booting reporters from a board meeting and ratified several financial agreements without asking for board approval.

District 8 City Councilman AndraƩ McGary blew up when he found his opponent, Moses Freeman, was renting the Democratic Party headquarters on Main Street.

McGary and Freeman are both Democrats in a nonpartisan race. McGary called the rental favoritism.

Smith said at the time that Freeman was renting from the building's owner, not the party. But Freeman's recent campaign finance disclosures showed he wrote checks for $1,350 to the Hamilton County Democratic Party for rent.

McGary said Sunday the financial disclosure "totally contradicts everything Paul Smith said" and added that Freeman "never denied it. He had every opportunity to deny it."

"They were shucking and jiving and dodging and all that other stuff to keep the truth from coming out. There's been a cover-up; there's been silence; there's been misdirection. Here's the truth," he said.

Freeman did not respond to a call for comment Sunday.

In his announcement, Smith said his replacement should be "a strong Democrat, someone who will continue to build the party and carry the fight to move ahead and win elections."

Longtime party member Stuart James, who has described Smith's tenure as a "reign of tyranny," said he believes Lee is that person.

"If they elect Terry Lee, they will abandon the party boss mentality of the past, and he will be a strategist who knows how to win elections for Democrats," James said.

Lee said that's his goal, too.

"I've managed more campaigns than I can count. I've been the righthand person many times over the years, but this is the first time I'm stepping up to the plate to be the person in charge.

"My goal is to be a uniter and work for the betterment of the community, to find people who are willing to put themselves out there to run for office, so we can win some elections. That's what it's all about."

Staff writer Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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