Chuck Fleischmann and other candidates in the 3rd Congressional District race say they will boycott the Hamilton County Republican Party's largest fundraiser Saturday because of a "pay-to-play" policy that would cost them $2,000 to speak at the event.
"I think all candidates should be able to speak -- or none of the candidates should be able to speak," said Mr. Fleischmann, a local attorney who has put $544,000 of his own money into his campaign.
Mr. Fleischmann said though he continues to support the Hamilton County party, he will not attend the event, to be held at Chattanooga Convention and Trade Center at 6 p.m.
Hamilton County Republican Party Vice Chairman Harold Coker said there is "no charge for the candidates to speak," but the party expects candidates "to buy two tables" at $1,000 each. Without that purchase, they cannot speak, he said.
Fellow 3rd District candidates Van Irion and Tommy Crangle said they will not attend and instead are going to a Tea Party event in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Tim Gobble, the Bradley County sheriff who also is running for the seat, said he will attend but did not buy tickets for two tables and therefore will not speak.
Mr. Irion said the policy is an example of "how party bosses run elections."
"There's one particular candidate that's going to be there ... and she's going to be talking to herself," he said. "Any straw polls or any other press releases that come out of that Lincoln Day Dinner are pretty much going to be a joke."
Robin Smith, a Hixson resident also vying for the open 3rd District seat, said her campaign has bought seats at two tables in addition to about four other tickets for supporters.
Individual tickets are $55, according to an e-mail from the Hamilton County Republican Party. Each table seats eight. Tables for gubernatorial candidates are $1,600 each.
Ms. Smith, a former state GOP chairman, said the annual Lincoln Day Dinner is the "headline" event for the county party and that she has a 20-year history of helping GOP candidates in elections.
"We're being supportive of local candidates and the local party," she said of Saturday's event.
Ms. Smith said she questions the timing of those with "sour grapes" who have chosen a few days before an event where a straw-poll vote will be conducted to announce they will not be attending.
"We're not stacking the room," she added.
Another GOP candidate in the 3rd District race, Art Rhodes, president and chief executive officer of the Church of God Benefits board in Cleveland, Tenn., said he has purchased two tables at the event and welcomes the opportunity to speak to what he anticipates will be 500-600 attendees.
"These are people who are going to vote," he said, referring to the Aug. 5 primary election.
Mr. Coker said he was disappointed that some of the candidates will not be attending.
"We would have expected all of them to be able to speak and support the party," he said. "I'm surprised that they're not. I'm disappointed that they're not."
Spokespersons for two GOP gubernatorial candidates, Bill Haslam and Ron Ramsey, said the price for tables at the event has not been an issue in that race, to their knowledge. Lt. Gov. Ramsey will attend his daughter's wedding on Saturday and will not be at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Chattanooga, said his spokeswoman, Rachel Taylor.
Sam Edelen, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who also is running for governor, said the campaign had no immediate response on whether the cost for tables at the event was an issue.
Others vying to replace Rep. Wamp in the 11-county 3rd Congressional District include Republicans Jean Howard Hill, Grover Travillian and Rick Kernea, Democrats Alicia Mitchell, John Wolfe, Brenda Freeman Short and Brent Davis Staton, and six independents.
The general election is Nov. 2.
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