Attitude shift cited in Chattanooga election turnovers

Anthony Byrd, left, talks with his campaign manager, Veronica Dunson, at The Chattanoogan hotel after learning of his victory in the District 8 city council on March 7.
photo Demetrus Coonrod

A number of local political leaders and activists see recent changes on the Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Board of Education as a loud message that voters won't accept the status quo anymore.

That message echoes one repeated during the 2016 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Last August, voters unseated three of four school board incumbents, and this spring they tossed out three of six city council members. Most of those upsets took place in the heart of Chattanooga, between Alton Park and Lincoln Park, from Avondale to Eastdale.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson, whose District 4 seat stretches from the Southside to East Chattanooga and includes some of the county's poorest schools, said she is not surprised how voter dissatisfaction could flip the three city council seats that share much of her own district's space. She unseated George Ricks, who served two terms on the school board.

"A lot of people here have been left out, especially when it comes to workforce development and educational opportunities," Robinson said.

Chattanooga City Council Districts 7, 8 and 9 fell to challengers Erskine Oglesby, Anthony Byrd and Demetrus Coonrod, who defeated incumbents Chris Anderson, Moses Freeman and Yusuf Hakeem, respectively.

Robinson credited the change to people taking more ownership of local politics, which affects their lives substantially more than national politics.

"Local activists can change local leadership and that is the only true control they have," Robinson said. "I believe the public has challenged their leaders."

She said she expects more people to come out and fight for local seats going forward.

While it's true that Robinson ran the most expensive campaign in the 2016 school board election cycle, spending $28 per vote, piles of cash don't necessarily translate into a big win.

Deep pockets and support from Mayor Andy Berke failed to save Anderson's re-election bid, just as it didn't get Nick Wilkinson, a former member of the mayor's administration, onto the Democratic ticket against Republican Todd Gardenhire in the 10th Senate District race last year.

That distinction went to Khristy Wilkinson, a Detroit native and former adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who is not related to Nick Wilkinson. She soundly beat him in the Democratic primary with a lot less money before losing to Gardenhire.

Wilkinson, recently elected chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, shared her thoughts on the local political environment in an email Thursday.

"I definitely think that the relative success of Bernie Sanders' campaign and Donald Trump's successful bid for President are indicative of a shift in the political attitude toward the needs and concerns of ordinary people," Wilkinson said.

"I think that many people feel that their elected representatives are more concerned about corporate interests, the interests of wealthy donors, and the trajectory of their own political careers than they are with what everyday Americans face."

Sanders' ability to raise awareness over "great wealth inequities" was a big part of his campaign's success, she said. And she believes her campaign message resonated with people grappling with the same issues here.

"Additionally, I think there is a general sentiment across the country that 'politics as usual' aren't really benefiting the communities that need the most advocacy," Wilkinson said. " Our newly elected council members are now tasked with responding to the needs of everyday people, and those in Chattanooga who have been left behind or displaced by the growth in Chattanooga's economy."

In March, then-Democratic Party chairman Terry Lee praised Byrd and Coonrod for their aggressive voter engagement, stating the pair had brought in a number of first-time voters for the Chattanooga elections.

Activist Jared Story, a member of social justice group Concerned Citizens for Justice, said a lot of Chattanoogans were just fed up.

"I would say the sentiment in the community was that the previous council rubber-stamped the mayor's administrative policies," Story said. "Many did not feel like the city council and the administration were offering real solutions [to violent crime], such as jobs and community development versus policing strategies."

He said people wanted money spent on workforce development and youth and family programs rather than police department technology.

Oglesby said his campaign called for making sure all of District 7's citizens have an opportunity to prosper.

"The district's residents had one main question - what does the future look like for them?" Oglesby said Thursday.

He campaigned on what he has described as four pillars: economic development, community revitalization, programs for youth and family and community policing.

While this was his first political race, Oglesby said he has a long record of visibility and community service and was a natural fit for the role. Oglesby, who has worked for United Way and the Southeast Tennessee Development District, said he spent five weeks asking community members what they really wanted before announcing his candidacy last fall.

Story said Anderson was progressive on a lot of issues, but he questioned his connection to the community as a whole.

Anderson could not be reached for comment Thursday. He has not responded to multiple phone calls and texts since he lost the April 11 runoff election to Oglesby.

In District 8, Byrd discounted Freeman's representation of the community.

"For a while, the community has felt like they had no one at the table speaking for them," he said after his election night victory over Freeman. "I'm excited to speak for them."

He promised in his campaign announcement to give the district a "unified voice" while trying to improve its schools and property values.

Byrd could not be reached Thursday.

Freeman said he has "no idea" why he lost. But, he added, "I support Mr. Byrd as my councilman and all of my former supporters do, too."

Coonrod's campaign message in District 9 also focused on change, calling for relief and investment in hurting communities.

"The needs of the people are not being heard," she said on her Facebook campaign page. "Our leadership must be restructured because we deserve a transparent and accountable government. Our community needs to be revitalized. It's time to shift the focus away from downtown and spur the economic growth right here in our struggling neighborhoods."

Hakeem, who served multiple terms on the council since the 1990s, attributed his runoff loss to not "getting my people out to the polls."

Coonrod, an ex-convict who has had her voting and citizenship rights restored, recently said her "record and my lifestyle has been an open book." She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

She did, however, have questions about just about every member of the mayor's cabinet during her first council meeting on April 18, often zeroing in on their hiring and vendor policies concerning minorities and ex-convicts.

Story, who said he is in her district, praised Coonrod at the end of the meeting when he addressed the council.

"I was really encouraged to hear the amount of questions she asked tonight," he said. "I think it was probably more questions than I heard the whole last term, combined."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.