The 16 percent: A misleading minority

The 16 percent: A misleading minority

November 19th, 2013 by By David Martin in Opinion Free Press

People fill the Chattanooga City Council room.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

When the calendar flips to 2014, it will mark the third anniversary of the only New Year's resolution I've ever kept. My not-so-flat abdominal muscles and rising cholesterol are testaments to this truth.

Nearly three years ago, I woke up the morning after watching the ball drop in New York's Times Square as a complete and total stranger to much of Chattanooga. At that point, I'd been a Chattanoogan for roughly two years, but little aside from my home address gave me that distinction. I lived a life of relative anonymity, knowing only the folks I worked with and a small circle of friends.

As 2011 dawned, I swore I'd change that.

Within three months I was serving on UTC's young alumni council, I'd become active with Chattanooga's Young Professionals Association, and was volunteering heavily with a local nonprofit (which happens to be my current place of employment). Through these three organizations, my horizons expanded drastically--and quickly. And as a testament to this city's welcoming nature, I suddenly felt more at home in Chattanooga than I'd ever felt anywhere in my life.

During the earliest stages of my civic courtship of Chattanooga, one particular element of the region's DNA held my attention captive: a seemingly super-tenacious electorate. It interested me because my hometown's political scene is a snoozefest compared to Chattanooga's partisan drama. Most folks where I'm from are only vaguely familiar with the word "Democrat," let alone "recall" or "congressional primary," so I studied this new-to-me terrain from a distance.

After reading a profile on a local candidate for the 2012 election cycle, I decided I'd tiptoe my way into local politics. Though I'd been cautioned that Chattanooga political affairs are "extremely peculiar," I was too intrigued to stay on the sidelines. After introducing myself to the candidate, I felt he was the man for the job. Before I knew it, I was putting up yard signs and knocking on doors with him. Just a few months later, I found myself managing a city council campaign. So much for toeing the waters.

If I thought I'd learned a lot about Chattanooga before those two races, the back-to-back campaigns put my learning into hyperdrive. Of all the lessons I learned, though, the most upsetting was that the super-tenacious electorate never materialized on Election Day. My friend, Bill Colrus, recently wrote a response column to Chatter Magazine's annual "You're so Chattanooga if..." article. None of his insights were truer than "You're (al)so Chattanooga if you're outraged by our local elected officials, but not enough to show up on Election Day and vote them out of office."

I can't tell you how many times throughout the course of the 2013 city election campaigns I heard the statement "The government closest to you influences your life the most!" Every time I heard it, I'd scan whatever audience was being addressed to see heads nodding in unified agreement. However, late in the night on March 5<sup>th,</sup> we found out that this sentiment drove only 16 percent of the city's registered voters to the polls.

But now, even after that remarkable display of voter apathy, I am hearing loud voices rising up again, venting unhappiness with our elected officials. Why? Because it seems every day here in Chattanooga, the government closest to us is impacting our lives immensely. Just ask the firefighters and policemen waiting to see what's going to happen to their pensions. And while you're at it, ask any "domestic partners" how local government is touching their lives lately.

Whether you're outraged with our elected officials or happy with them, we now have another opportunity to identify candidates we believe in, and do our parts to either put or keep them in office. While I look forward to furthering my Chattanooga education, I also plan to do my part in shaping its future. I'll see you at the polls. And I'll be sure to wave at you when I'm putting up yard signs.

David Martin was the recipient of the 2013 "Civic Impact Award" by the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga. He is also a recent graduate of Leadership Chattanooga.