Republicans have enjoyed a majority in Hamilton County politics for nearly two decades, but the county's Democratic Party chairman says the local left is staging a comeback.
When Terry Lee took the helm of the local Democratic Party in April, the party was in the hole financially, it was politically fractured and it was weak, he said.
But since then, it has raised about $39,000 and counting. The party will open its headquarters in January. And Lee says it may put nearly 30 candidates on the May 2014 county primary ballot.
"The key part is we've been able to pull not only a lot of the factions of the party that have been split," he said, "but we've also been able to pull in people who have not been active in many years."
Democrats long have enjoyed strong loyalty inside Chattanooga's city limits, but Lee said he hopes to pick up some more seats in county government, which is dominated by Republicans.
Along with raising money and rebuilding bridges, Lee said the party is going to vet and train candidates -- similar to what the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America did for the Obama campaign and others in 2008.
"We're basically having a campaign school for folks who are interested in running," Lee said. "People can come practice their stump speeches and we put a camera on them. It's one thing to talk about; it's another thing to get out there and get on video and get on the campaign trail."
The classes -- seven are planned -- will also inform potential candidates how to raise money, how to set up fundraising organizations and how to run a campaign.
Lee said about 28 people have attended training and are expected to pick up qualifying papers. Many have valuable real-world experience and plenty of time for politicking, he said.
"It's been pretty encouraging. One of the things I'm finding is a lot of people are right at retirement age. They are right at 62, and they have worked many years," Lee said. "And they are finding they have a lot more time on their hands, so that they have an opportunity to get more involved in the community now that their regular careers are over."
Three decades ago, as in most of the South, Democrats reigned in Hamilton County.
But hot-button social issues raised in the mid- to late '70s pushed more socially conservative voters toward the GOP.
That was true for County Clerk Bill Knowles. The first time he ran for office in 1974, he had a "D" next to his name. In 2010, just after re-election to his 10th term, he switched to the GOP.
"Go back 30 or 40 years ago, and everyone was a Democrat. ... Things have changed a lot," Knowles said. "The Democratic Party became much more liberal, and the Republican Party became a little more moderate."
Knowles noted, though, that partisan politics doesn't come into play in most local government.
"We're all just here serving people," he said. "We come to work and we do the best we can."
In 1990, Hamilton County had a Democratic executive in Dalton Roberts, but the commission was made up of five Republicans and four Democrats, according to county election records. Since then, the core county government has leaned more to the right. By 2002, the mayor's post was held by a Republican, but the split on the commission was the same.
A decade later, the commission is now made up of seven Republicans and two Democrats, with a Republican in the mayor's seat.
It's common for urban centers in the South to differ politically from the more-rural counties around them, said Michelle Deardorff, professor and department chairwoman of political science, public administration and nonprofit management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As in many parts of the country, Southern city politicians generally are more liberal than those representing suburbs or rural areas.
But after years of Republican dominance, Democrats across the South say they are primed for a comeback.
Growing numbers of minority voters and increasing American lenience on social issues sparked scores of story lines about a fractured national GOP after President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012.
Deardorff said simple math also is playing a large part in the shift. Demographics of people who tend to vote Democratic are growing, while the segment of the population that tends to vote Republican is shrinking.
"Democrats in the South have been largely passive since 1980 or so," Deardorff said. "They're saying, 'This may be our moment. This may be the time to strike.'"
In the past, Lee said, the local Democratic Party just hasn't been able to connect with voters and get them to the polls.
"In some cases we haven't been able to get proper candidates, or proper funding. We haven't been able to get to the real issues and done proper polling," he said.
Lee also worked on Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's campaign, and Berke's earlier state Senate campaign. Lee said the mayor's office isn't directly involved with the local party, though they share many common goals and ideals.
As well as offering better candidates, Lee said he hopes to see the primary field focus more on local rather than national politics.
"Local races should be more determined based more on the individual and for what the office is. Very little of what happens in Washington is tied to that," Lee said.
Even Lee's Republican counterpart agrees with that.
County Republican Chairman Tony Sanders said Hamilton County politics truly is local. He said the local GOP is more united than divided, and he argues that Democrats nationally are just as fractured as Republicans.
Sanders said the local party will compete hard for votes, no matter how much the Democrats ramp up their efforts.
"We are going to be strong. We're doing the same thing. We're raising money, we have our headquarters. And we don't take anything for granted," he said. "We're going to work just as hard whether they run somebody or not."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481.
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