David Cook: The next mayor of Chattanooga

David Cook: The next mayor of Chattanooga

October 21st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Everywhere I go, people are saying the same thing about you-know-who.

The heir apparent.

The sure winner. The shoo-in.

The favored son.

The next leader.

You know who I'm talking about.

"He's our next mayor," someone said the other day about you-know-who.

Wait a minute. Just hold on. Just. Hold. On.

Nobody's won nothing yet. All this talk -- it's like we've already elected him -- is terrible-no good-very bad for several reasons.

First, if we concede this race before it has even begun, we allow The Candidate to create a political strategy that offers so little. If he thinks he's already won, he'll bottom-drawer any and all substantial, meaningful or even semi-controversial plans.

Why? Because he can. He won't be forced to play his hand if he thinks he's already won the game. If you're already elected in the minds of voters, why rock the boat?

Second, all this curtsey-and-bow charade sweeps away the drama and guts of a hearty mayoral race. We have some serious issues to chew on here in the Scenic City, and the last thing we need is a mayoral race that's over before it has begun.

We need some scrapping, hard-nosed debates, policy fights and gutsy street corner campaigning. Democracy in this city demands it. And we, the people, need to remember our role in all of this.

It ain't to blindly hand the crown over.

The Candidate is a smart man. Very smart. He has a lot to offer our city. But he's not the only dog in the hunt, and we need to create space to allow for all candidates to let their platform be heard.

So if you're an underdog in this race, my advice (not that you asked) is to start talking to two groups.

Police.

And firefighters.

"Ever since [Chattanooga Mayor Ron] Littlefield came into office, the fire and policemen have had to worry or look over their shoulder to see what else the city is going to try and take away," said Lt. Terry Knowles, president of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board.

Knowles, who was recently named Firefighter of the Year for saving the life of a drowning child, said police and firefighters have consistently received a message that devalues the work they do.

"If you retired, once you hit 65, Medicare kicked in. (And) you still had the city insurance as supplemental. They took that away. From now on, once you hit 65, the city is not covering you anymore," said Knowles, 39.

"They changed our IOD [injured-on-duty] policy. If a fireman [or police officer] gets hurt in the line of duty ... he only gets 75 percent of his pay. It used to be 100 percent for one year."

Richard Beeland, director of media relations, defended the current mayor.

"It was a fiscally responsible thing to do," he said. "Our injured on the job program is comparable to any other job program."

Still, morale suffers from this. And without any kind of predictable and rewarding pay scale in place, our city is losing its ability to draw and retain the best candidates while current employees -- you know, the ones who fight crime and rush into burning buildings -- are jumping ship for other jobs.

"The salaries are low," said Jeff Eldridge, president of the Chattanooga Firefighters Association Local 820. "We've got guys that left for TVA because of the pay."

Currently, 12 police officers are suing the city over pay disparities. Officers living outside the city limits still must reimburse the city for mileage when they drive their squad car home.

But it's not just firefighters and police officers who need attention. There are enough issues to fill the Engel Stadium outfield: jobs, housing, gangs, the implementation of strong environmental policy, crime, transportation and planning for growth, an end to good-ol'-boy politics, a City Charter that holds water, a stormwater system that doesn't.

But man, it's also a great time to run for mayor. More than these challenges, we have the mojo of our city -- the headline-making, VW-attracting, festivals-every-weekend, probably-hip-city excitement. These are, to say the least, interesting times.

(Can you name another Southern city you'd rather be mayor of? Exactly.)

Of course, there's plenty of time before the March 5 election. The qualifying deadline for the mayoral race isn't until Dec. 20. The Candidate is surely waiting until after the drama of November elections to really start campaigning.

After all, only one person has actually filed qualifying papers.

And it's not you-know-who.

"The only one that has filed at this point and qualified is (longtime city employee) Guy Satterfield," said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County election administrator.

So technically, officially, his name is the only one to mention right now.