published Friday, March 15th, 2013

Paul Smith backs off punitive changes for Democrats


by Chris Carroll
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
Photo by John Rawlston.

WASHINGTON — In a reversal weeks before his term expires, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said he won't attempt to quash dissent, censor his board or restructure it to remove his critics.

"I was trying to change things for the better of the party," Smith said, "but I think the new officers should make those decisions."

The Chattanooga Times Free Press obtained audio of a Feb. 21 board meeting in which Smith endorsed kicking out board members who leak details to the media, criticize party operations or publicly question his leadership -- all common actions over the last few months.

"They can say it," Smith told the board at that meeting. "They just won't be on the board anymore."

Despite objections, Smith said the proposal would be decided at a March 21 party meeting. But the chairman emailed board members late Tuesday night to cancel the meeting and confirm he won't pursue any bylaw changes before the end of his term.

New officer elections are scheduled for April 13. Smith recently said he won't seek re-election.

"That wasn't due to any pressure from the board," said the Rev. Kenneth Love, the party's executive director. "Paul's a man of his word. He doesn't let pressure get to him."

Other Smith allies said he wants a quick and quiet exit after a controversial term. In the past eight months, he 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.

Smith declined to discuss past flaps. He has described his adversaries as "troublemakers" who distract from the party's mission, and on Wednesday he defended his plan to stifle dissent. He said bad timing inspired his reversal, adding that a new board easily could overturn his actions.

"I didn't want to make it look like I was coming in last-minute with all this," Smith said.

In another about-face, Smith won't attempt to eliminate board representation for the Greater Chattanooga Democratic Women's Club and the Hamilton County Young Democrats -- two groups that include the outgoing chairman's most vocal critics.

"If the Democratic Party doesn't include young people and women, we're never going to win around here," women's club President Rita Fehring said. "You can't run an old club of insiders that stays in the same room."

Smith's email to board members said Vice Chairman Rodney Strong and Treasurer Stephen Harper also won't seek re-election. Longtime Juvenile Court official Terry Lee is the only declared candidate to succeed Smith.

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