Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith moved last month to kick from the party's board members who leak details to the media, criticize party operations or publicly question his performance as chairman.
"They can say it," Smith said at a Feb. 21 board meeting. "They just won't be on the board anymore."
Smith backtracked when board member, attorney and former County Commissioner John Allen Brooks suggested such a policy would "do away with the First Amendment."
"Of course it may not be legal," Smith replied, according to a recording obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I don't know. We'll have to get legal advice on that, and we will ... from the state party."
The chairman quickly shut down audible objections, leaving the next steps rather nebulous. Board members said the proposals could be brought to a vote at the March 21 meeting.
Smith's actions presage further conflict in a long-splintered county party.
Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese cited "legitimate concerns here," but said he didn't have firsthand knowledge of Smith's actions. He stressed that the state party "supports the First Amendment."
In a Friday phone interview, Smith declined to answer follow-up questions about his proposals.
"If you have a recording, that's self-explanatory," Smith said. "I don't have anything else to add to it."
Smith has about six weeks left in a term marked by internal strife.
In the last 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.
"I have watched over the past two years as Mr. Smith [gets] away with murder," former county party chairman Stuart James wrote in a recent letter to board members.
However, late Saturday night, Smith told Chattanoogan.com that he would not seek re-election when his term expires in six weeks.
At the Feb. 21 meeting, Smith scolded local Democrats who publicly air their concerns, suggesting that some board members operate "outside the realm of being reasonable." Lowering his voice, he advised them to "keep your comments within bounds as far as the Democratic Party's concerned."
"To sit there and sandbag people for personal gain is hurtful," Smith said.
Also at the meeting, a Smith-appointed rules committee suggested eliminating board representation for the Greater Chattanooga Democratic Women's Club and the Hamilton County Young Democrats -- two groups that include Smith's most aggressive critics.
In a letter to Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, Women's Club President Rita Fehring said Smith's approach amounts to "a deliberate effort" to rid the board of women, young people and uncooperative board members.
"I will not mince words," Fehring wrote. "This is an effort at tyranny. ... Clearly in today's political climate this is a directed effort at rolling back time."
Hamilton County Young Democrats President Colby Knecht said the party needs new leadership.
"We don't need Paul," Knecht said. "We need somebody who's going to pull the party together and work to get people elected."
In the Friday phone interview, Smith declined to discuss the board's concerns. Stephen Harper, the county party treasurer and Smith's top deputy, did not return a call Friday afternoon.
Their silence aligns with another proposal Smith pitched Feb. 21.
"We want a clear definition as to how we can call the board of directors into session where we can have a private discussion," Smith told board members.
However, party bylaws promote transparency: "All meetings of the Democratic Party ... and all other official Party committees and bodies shall be open to the public."