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A day after Andraé McGary warned of an imminent smear campaign from his opponent Todd Gardenhire, only McGary went on the attack Thursday as the state Senate nominees made their first joint appearance.
At a candidate forum aimed at black voters and held in Olivet Baptist Church in Chattanooga, McGary, the Democratic nominee for 10th Senate District and a city councilman, recounted a chain of events that he said proved Gardenhire's reluctance to venture into politically hostile territory.
"One of the reasons [Gardenhire's] here tonight is because the paper called him and asked why he hadn't responded to the invite to go," McGary said. "He said he lost it. He said his assistant lost it. Finally, he said, 'No, I lost it, and I'll be there.'"
Comprised of Bradley and Hamilton counties, the newly redrawn 10th District leans Republican, but features urban pockets of Chattanooga that historically turn out for Democrats, including the forum's location.
"If you have to backdoor someone into coming to talk to you," McGary told a crowd of 100, "how can they represent you?"
Moderator and Olivet Pastor Kevin Adams didn't give Gardenhire a chance to respond, but afterward the Republican nominee said he had no comment "on anything Andraé says."
Still, major differences emerged between the men seeking Democratic state Sen. Andy Berke's seat in a forum sponsored by the Chattanooga Voter Empowerment Group, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and NAACP. Berke is running for Chattanooga mayor.
Asked how he would resolve a growing inner-city gun problem, Gardenhire touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association and said "responsible" gun owners shouldn't be deterred by "the crazies" who obtain guns illegally.
McGary quickly retorted that guns don't belong in churches, schools, parking lots or the workplace. He blamed cuts in education for the city's crime issues and criticized lawmakers who allow the Legislature to be used as "an open place for the NRA to declare war" on advocates for gun control.
When the questions ventured into education, Gardenhire came out in favor of school vouchers, an issue McGary said wouldn't exist if "our schools were properly funded."
After Gardenhire's closing statement, McGary criticized its length and called it a "CPM" -- what he later explained in a text message as a "colored people's minute."
"Gardenhire was supposed to limit his answer to a minute," said McGary, who is black. "He took three."
Race entered the discussion when Adams asked both candidates if Republicans were fair to minorities during the redistricting process.
"Whether somebody was being fair or unfair, it depends on what side you are," Gardenhire said, drawing audible groans.
Candidates from other political races also made their pitches at the forum.
In Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District race, only the Democratic nominee showed up. Maynardville physician Dr. Mary Headrick condemned voter photo ID laws she called "obvious voter suppression" and promised to push for a minimum wage increase.
Without ever mentioning her opponent by name, Headrick also criticized U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes for two years, saying the rich should contribute more to Uncle Sam.
Fleischmann missed the debate for a "Chuck on the Job" event at a restaurant in Headrick's home turf of Union County, where Republicans outvoted Democrats 4-to-1 in the Aug. 2 congressional primaries. He has said he'll debate Headrick on Oct. 8 in Bradley County.
Four-term State Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and her Republican opponent, Johnny Horne, found agreement on several issues. They support stronger gun control and lottery scholarship outreach to poor children, but each strongly condemned predatory lenders.
Both pledged to work to implement President Barack Obama's health care law -- an especially unusual position for a Republican, but Horne conceded that it's "the law of the land."
"There's nothing we can do about it," he said.
Favors urged the law's opponents to frame it in the context of other types of mandatory insurance.
"Is your automobile more important than your body?" she asked.
The only clear difference that emerged between the candidates was charter schools, which Favors opposes and Horne supports.
Chattanooga resident and Senate write-in candidate Angelia Stinnett presented herself as a progressive option to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and his anti-gay Democratic opponent, Mark Clayton. Both were invited to the debate, but did not attend.
"What you have on the ballot now is a choice between hate and greed," Stinnett said, referring to Clayton and Corker, respectively.