The Hamilton County mayor's race - the first truly competitive county mayor's race here in decades - has been interesting from the very first moment 11-year Mayor Jim Coppinger announced in October he would retire.
The keen interest is deserved: For all the welcome improvements and new jobs in our county over the past decade, we have some serious issues over long-deferred infrastructure and public education decisions that need vision and focus.
To get there, our county will need a mayor with stout political will - not just the pablum that passes for today's political double-speak.
Throughout the campaign, we've listened as our four candidates, Republicans Weston Wamp, Sabrena Smedley and Matt Hullander, as well as Democrat Matt Adams who is unopposed in the May 3 primary, have been honing their positions and rhetoric - not necessarily in that order.
But on Monday, during a televised debate only among the Republican primary candidates, there were three especially telling moments that helped shape today's GOP mayoral primary endorsement.
Moment No. 1 came early in the debate hosted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News. The question put to entrepreneur Wamp, businessman Hullander and Realtor and Hamilton County Commissioner Smedley was straightforward. Would he or she support spending millions in taxpayer dollars for a new Lookouts baseball stadium on the old U.S. Pipe and Wheland property in the city's Southside:
Smedley: "It's too early in the game for me to say," she said, noting she was among a number Chattanooga leaders who traveled several weeks ago to see a comparable minor-league stadium with accompanying development in Columbia, South Carolina.
"I could see how that could be a hub for a community," she said. "However, I've not seen the [Chattanooga] plan, I don't know what all it entails. I think the stadium is the catalyst, but I mean, is there retail involved, housing. What is the plan? And what would be asked of the taxpayers? It would be very hard for me to go to the taxpayers of Hamilton County and ask them to shoulder the burden such as a stadium. So I need more information before I can say yea or nay."
That's a lot of "too early" and "not seen the plan" hem-hawing from the two-term commission chair who routinely touts her eight years of commission experience with the county's $850 million budget. Yet, she can't tell us - specifically - what she thinks about decking up a big bunch of our dollars for an $86 million stadium for which Lookouts owners have yet to pony up their money and pledges?
Hullander: "It's real simple. I want to see the financial impact. I'm not for or against it until I see what the plan is. I want to see a true master plan done by a master planner that can put together what all will be included, retail, multi-family. Just a minor-league stadium can't survive on its own."
That was another long-winded I-don't-know - at best, an I-don't-want-to-commit - from another candidate touting business, budget and real estate experience.
Wamp: "The economics of minor league baseball stadiums are dubious, questionable at best," he said, reminding us he was the first to question the plan.
Wamp, a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, talked about instead using that proposed stadium money to put a new high school on the site or nearby in downtown, aimed at providing students career and technical education, as well as college-track programs. And how about a world-class middle school, while we're at it?
"I prefer to build schools over stadiums with taxpayer dollars," Wamp said. "You don't get a bond rating for baseball stadiums and [another] bond rating for public schools. It does come down to a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul. And it comes in a community where public education has been mediocre for a generation."
No mealy-mouthing "too early" here. No glib, big-toothed, aw-shucks assertions that he'd "want to see a master plan."
Why is it that only Wamp recognizes we've seen this movie, and the AT&T stadium where the Lookouts now have games for six months a year was never and could never be a driver of a new massive chunk of downtown Chattanooga?
Moment No. 2 should have been another no-brainer for all three candidates: What's the solution for our sewer problems that have prompted building moratoriums in some locations of the county?
Hullander: "It's a hard solution, but it's one we have to address. Our sewer system is broken, and it needs a lot of work." Knox County has four wastewater treatment plants, he said. "We have one, [city owned and operated] and it's really old."
Smedley: Certainly we couldn't have four sewage treatment plants without increasing taxes, that's for sure. We're dealing with 50 years of neglect. [If consolidation of wastewater services between the city's Moccasin Bend and the county's Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority known as WWTA] "is more efficient, we should do that."
Wamp: "This is a question of stewardship. "Of all the strange outcomes, federal money, once-in-a-generation caused by a pandemic, is going to allow us to cover over a lack of stewardship in county government over the last several decades. It will allow tanks to be built that in all likelihood - as we update Moccasin Bend - will form more of a long-term Band-Aid. [But] I would like to see us over the next decade again get serious about a permanent solution."
Here's some fact-checking:
For Hullander - Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant can handle about twice the amount of wastewater we produce in our greater Chattanooga area on most days. It's working fine. For both Hullander and Smedley - the primary problem is that no governments have been willing to spend the money to get sewage and sewerage lines from some areas of the county to the plant. Instead county leaders - including Smedley - have waffled on who should do what, meanwhile squirreling money away in a rainy-day fund while raw sewage can't get to the plant and instead spills and stunts county growth - growth that would bring more tax revenue for that rainy-day fund, or schools, or heaven-forbid, a tax-funded baseball stadium.
Wamp is right about the pandemic dropping a gift of emergency money on us to immediately Band-Aid things. And he's right to note that a Band-Aid is not a permanent solution.
Moment No. 3 - the litmus test of Joe Biden and the 2020 election. The question: "We're seeing political ads bringing President Biden into the county mayor's race. Do you believe President Biden won the 2020 election fair and square? And if not, explain why."
Hullander: "All I care about is my mayor's race. I know our election commission's last race was done by 11 o'clock and I believe it was fair, I believe it was honest, and I believe it was accurate in Hamilton County. I'll just say I do not want Hamilton County to turn into what Washington is right now. And I think it's broken and I think Biden is part of the problem, and I won't allow that if I'm mayor of Hamilton County."
Wait. Hullander is going to change anything Biden does? Or un-elect him? He didn't answer the question.
Smedley: "I've heard Biden's name brought up twice now by one of the mayoral candidates [Hullander], and I am just shocked that Biden's name would even come up in the first place in a county-wide election. I'm still scratching my head. Um, I do [emphasis hers] think in some areas across the United States, we should question the integrity of the election."
Say what? So is that a no, commissioner?
Wamp: "That's a loaded question in 2022. I have the utmost confidence that this election in early voting and on May 3 is going to be carried out by our neighbors and by trusted civil servants here at a local level. And I think that based on the research I've done, while you've got some things that may look unusual here or there, they're not the type of fraud that would have changed the outcome of the presidential election."
That sounds like a yes. Wamp sounds, again, like the voice of reason. This is Hamilton County. At stake here and now are our schools, our tax dollars and our future growth.
If you're asking for a Republican ballot for this election, mark it for Weston Wamp.
Then come August, we'll have another choice between two mayoral candidates capable of driving dynamic change - not just empty platitudes, vague promises and yesterday's conspiracy theories - to Hamilton County.