How Bebe Heiskell lost her voters

How Bebe Heiskell lost her voters

November 11th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Jeri Heiskell whispers to incumbent Walker County commissioner candidate Bebe Heiskell at an election return party at Walker County Civic Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Rock Spring, Ga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Republican Walker County commissioner candidate Shannon Whitfield, right, talks with Rusty Hays at an election return party at the Bank of Lafayette's community room on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Lafayette, Ga.

Republican Walker County commissioner candidate Shannon Whitfield, right,...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Heiskell’s northern support

2008-12 (four elections)

Chickamauga: 69 percent

Chattanooga Valley: 70 percent

Rossville: 75 percent

2016

Chickamauga: 14 percent

Chattanooga Valley: 12 percent

Rossville: 17 percent

During a vacation in Destin, Fla., toward the end of last year, David Roden took a phone call.

It was Shannon Whitfield, about a month into launching his campaign to unseat Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell. He was looking for an ally in his budding campaign. Or maybe it was Roden who had first reached out, interested in the new politician.

Neither man can exactly recall today.

But anyway: Roden and Whitfield talked for two hours that afternoon. Roden was frustrated with the dilapidated buildings and abandoned houses surrounding his mobile home park. He was about to launch the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group, aimed at cleaning up Rossville.

Whitfield saw an opportunity. He met with Roden a couple weeks later and rode around Rossville with him for about two more hours.

"They were feeling like no one in county government was listening to their concerns," Whitfield said of Roden and his friends.

When Roden's group held their first meeting in March, Whitfield was one of 100 people in attendance. He returned to every other meeting this year.

Roden, in turn, publicly backed Whitfield, posting his signs around his Mountain View Estates community and waving more signs across from the Rossville precinct Tuesday.

Roden said he rallied against Heiskell after meeting with her in January 2015. He asked her to enforce codes more strictly and showed her about 20 pictures of unkempt stretches of the county. Since then, he said, she wasn't aggressive enough in tearing down buildings.

"Bebe pretty much ignored us right up until a few weeks before the election," Roden said. "The people knew that. People understood that. They were tired of being ignored. Shannon took an interest. Shannon realized the value of the Rossville area. He knows what the future of this end of the county could be."

It's hard to say specifically why Whitfield cruised to victory Tuesday, winning all 11 of the county's precincts and earning 72.9 percent of the vote. He and members of his election team say the county's debt, coupled with a pair of tax increases, were the biggest factors. So was Whitfield's reputation.

But even his closest supporters didn't expect this dramatic of a landslide, said Bobby Teems, his campaign manager. And in particular, Whitfield's strength in the northern end of the county was surprising.

In her previous four contested races since 2008 (two primaries and two general elections), Heiskell won the Chattanooga Valley, Chickamauga and Rossville precincts by 71 percent. With the highest populations, these are the most valuable areas in the county.

But on Tuesday, Whitfield flipped the script. He received 75 percent of the votes in the region, compared to 14 percent for Heiskell and 11 percent for Perry Lamb, an independent candidate.

Whitfield credited his participation with Roden's group for helping take the region from Heiskell, as well as his own roots. He's from Chickamauga, Heiskell's home base. His family's business, Whitfield Oil Company, is based in the city also.

Whitfield said he received a community and civic engagement award from the Gordon Lee High School Alumni Association in 2011, and he served as a city councilman for two years before resigning to run against Heiskell. He said this history laid the foundation for him to steal Heiskell's base.

"I had built a reputation for leadership and community involvement from years back," he said. "Stepping up to the plate for commissioner, I had a lot of strength and credibility."

It also did not hurt that Heiskell left the Republican party, running as an independent this year because she said the party's leaders were against her. She did not return a call seeking comment for this story. Neither did her county attorney, Don Oliver; Walker County Development Authority Executive Director Larry Brooks or her campaign manager, Angelic Moore.

Randal Dalton, a Chickamauga city councilman, said Whitfield and his team canvassed the area more aggressively than his opponents.

"He worked it pretty hard," Dalton said. "That's the only thing I know: He was just out there. I think social media helped a lot, too."

Whitfield and his supporters also credited his message. The CFO of his family's oil business, Whitfield emerged among local Republicans as a potential candidate to unseat Heiskell because of his financial experience. During a meeting with other politically active Heiskell opponents last fall, Whitfield flipped through an analysis of a recent county audit.

Since then, he said he has studied 15 audits, running back through Heiskell's first year in office. He presented his analysis in a slide show at community meetings, telling residents the county is sitting in $80 million of debt. (Heiskell has disputed this analysis, saying the county is really $10 million in the hole, if you don't include payments the county already has a plan for.)

"He just stayed on point," Dean Kelley, a member of the Walker County Tea Party, said of Whitfield's campaign for the past year. "Here's how much debt we have."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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