Sweet home, Soddy-Daisy: Skillern's long reach just got shorter, now it's back to his roots

Sweet home, Soddy-Daisy: Skillern's long reach just got shorter, now it's back to his roots

May 11th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Commissioners Fred Skillern, left, and Larry Henry talk during a County Commission meeting.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/Times Free Press.

Fred Skillern gestures in this undated photo.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

POLL: Was change overdue on the Hamilton County Commission?

Fifty-two votes.

That's all it took to snuff out one of the area's most fabled political careers.

Longtime County Commissioner Fred Skillern suffered the county's biggest upset in Tuesday's primary election, losing his seat to Soddy-Daisy CPA Randy Fairbanks, who had made several failed bids for public office. With no Democratic opposition in August, Fairbanks is all but guaranteed the commission spot.

For three decades, Skillern, 77, has proudly represented the people of Soddy-Daisy, Mowbray Mountain, Dallas and Sale Creek. But his influence stretches far beyond the northern reaches of Hamilton County.

Critics and supporters alike credit him with making and breaking political careers.

Before his time at the commission, Skillern served for 20 years on the county school board. And he's never lost interest in school issues. Throughout the years, he's had a hand in principal assignments, school building projects and even the hiring and firing of superintendents, though the commission legally has no authority over school matters other than funding.

The opposition has called Skillern everything from a puppet master to a racist. But supporters say he's a stalwart conservative, a man who was ahead of his time. And a man with a soft heart.

Whether Skillern will continue to wield influence when his term expires in August remains to be seen. But people are already talking about him in the past tense.

He was a shrewd politician.

He had a heart for children, the elderly and the everyday person.

He was unfailingly conservative, unwilling to bend on his principles.

"I guess my kind of politics is over," he said.

Skillern's kind of politics has been defined in the shadows as much as on the dais.

•••

Skillern's Soddy-Daisy business has long been the center of his universe -- professionally, personally and politically.

At Dixie Souvenir, boxes of key chains, magnets and spoons labeled for every state in the nation fill several warehouses. Metal signs touting gun rights and the virtue of a cold beer sit alongside those praising Jesus Christ and clean country living.

This is where Skillern built his millions and his political power -- and it's where he plans to return his focus.

The days following the election, Skillern was bitter, he said. But by Friday, it was a relief to get back to just managing his own money.

"I'm thankful for the time I served, but I'm happy to get back to running my business full time," Skillern said as he shuffled through the box-lined aisles of his warehouse.

He says he won't run for office again, but it's unclear how much politicking will happen from now on at Skillern's knick-knack shop.

For decades, dozens of would-be political candidates have come to his faded beadboard office to kiss the ring. They asked him about their chances of running for school board, County Commission or a seat in the Legislature.

Some, he said, needed to wait. Some he offered support, through phone calls and conversation. Others, he dissuaded from ever running.

He likes knowing he can eat at Chattanooga's most expensive restaurant, but he prefers the local Hardee's, where he's held court for years.

It's all part of the Skillern persona: He seems unchanged by power, money or politics.

"I hate to see him go," said Soddy-Daisy resident James Perrin, as he left Hardee's. "But I'm glad we had him for all these years."

•••

For two years, there have been hints that Skillern's influence was waning.

He lost a set of key education votes in 2012, the same year that his 49-year-old son, business partner and heir, Rees, died. Skillern had stepped down as the commission chairman in January 2011 in the midst of his son's years-long cancer battle.

In February 2012, Skillern lost a vote on how to spend a $1.1 million pot of education money. After the vote, he went into a backroom tirade, lashing out at commissioners and schools Superintendent Rick Smith for not falling in line with his plans for the money. Skillern then bragged that he had the power to make or break a school superintendent's career.

"His ass is mine," he said of Smith at the time.

But Smith's job was never in jeopardy with the people who counted: his bosses on the school board.

Former Schools Superintendent Don Loftis, who retired in 1997, has years of experience working alongside -- and going head-to-head -- with Skillern.

While many decry what they see as Skillern's undue influence, Loftis said his political power -- to get buildings built or to get people certain jobs -- came from plain old hard work. He said Skillern would work four or five hours a day on school issues.

"I think influence is directly proportional to how much work you put into it," Loftis said. "He probably put more time and effort into it than any other board member."

Loftis, a Democrat, would sometimes butt heads with Skillern. He said the commissioner is no populist and he's not controlled by anyone. When he makes up his mind, he's not all that interested in whether others agreed.

"Fred marches to the beat of his own drum," Loftis said. "He's not the people's Fred. He is Fred's Fred."

And that independence has sometimes given him a reputation for being ruthless, said current school board chairman Mike Evatt, a fellow Republican.

Skillern suffered a major blow in March when he instructed county Mayor Jim Coppinger to keep discussions about future school construction projects private. He was vilified in the local media and by fellow commissioners for his insistence on secrecy -- only reinforcing the stereotype of good-ol'-boy politics.

But he is no tyrant, Evatt said.

"With Fred, it's a love-hate relationship. He's got a soft heart way down deep. But he's just a stern businessman," Evatt said. "You can argue with Fred tooth and nail and be laughing with him two days later. I've done both."

But Evatt knows one thing for sure.

"Fred's arm reaches out a long ways in Hamilton County," he said.

•••

Skillern's defeat raises questions for his counterpart on the school board, Rhonda Thurman. The two are longtime friends and ardent supporters of each other. It was widely believed that she would eventually take his spot on the commission. And Thurman has made it no secret that she wanted the seat after Skillern was done.

"Rhonda is not going to be the anointed one if she was the anointed one" said Stuart James, former county Democratic Party chairman. "He's not going to be there pulling the puppet strings or giving people directions."

Skillern mentored Thurman, a hairdresser by trade. She agrees with him on nearly all issues, she said.

Thurman believes Democrats in District 1, with no candidate of their own, crossed over and voted in the Republican primary to kick Skillern out of office.

And she might be right. Only nine Democratic ballots in District 1 were cast.

She said Skillern has become a scapegoat for all manner of problems, mainly school issues.

But Skillern has remained committed to spending county money on students, not on teachers or administrators, she said. He's been an advocate for schools in North Hamilton County and has been instrumental in getting new schools there. Most recently, he pushed to get a long-awaited addition for Sale Creek Middle-High approved by the commission.

James said Skillern's departure is the end of an era, a major upheaval in the traditional power structure.

"He represented, to me, some of the old-school, smoke-filled, back-room politics," he said. "And I think voters were getting frustrated with him because he liked to make those kind of back-room deals."

James thinks the commissioner grew arrogant. While his opponent, Fairbanks, knocked on doors, attended events and pressed the flesh, Skillern bought a billboard. While he views Skillern as a political dinosaur, James said he respects the Soddy-Daisy businessman and all that he was able to do with his one spot on the nine-member County Commission.

"He will go down as a political icon in this town. And he should. But it was time for him to go," James said.

Changing demographics in Soddy-Daisy might have contributed to the small margin by which Skillern lost. In his previous two primary elections, he won by about a 70-to-30 percent margin.

Over the last 30 years, sprawling rural tracts in Soddy-Daisy have been replaced by high-end subdivisions. Those developments brought many new residents, who either don't agree with or who just don't really know the Soddy-Daisy power player, said Ward Crutchfield, a decades-long friend of Skillern.

"What you see is what you get with Fred. He's a real friend," said Crutchfield, a former school board attorney and Democratic state senator who pleaded guilty in 2007 to accepting bribes during the Tennessee Waltz investigation. "I just, I love him and quite frankly, I think they've lost something -- the people -- because I don't think they knew Fred as well."

The 2012 death of Skillern's only son weighed heavily, Crutchfield said, but Skillern pressed on, continuing his legacy of being "careful with county finances, and careful with his own finances."

"He's a winner, and he's going to be a winner. He lost an election -- but I think Hamilton County has lost a good public servant."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.