Matt Adams, the Democratic candidate for Hamilton County mayor, knows from his eight-year stretch in the U.S. Army that the best commanders are often the ones who listen.
"They're the ones who say, 'I'm at the head of the table, but each one of you at this table knows more than I do. Each one of you at this table are smarter in your subject matter area than I am, and if I try to make a decision without your input, then the mission has potential to fail,'" the 26-year-old paralegal told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an hour-long interview Monday. "I'll be the first to say that if elected county mayor, that's how I want to lead."
Adams enlisted on active duty when he was 17, working in national security law as well as criminal prosecution and defense. He is now in the U.S. Army Reserves and serves as a senior administrative paralegal. He is a freelance paralegal on the civilian side.
Crime, public transportation and education continue to be among Adams' top concerns as he enters his final few weeks of campaigning. He and Republican Weston Wamp are vying to replace outgoing Mayor Jim Coppinger, who has opted to retire after serving in the role since 2011. The general election is Aug. 4.
Adams said education has always been an overarching focus of his campaign, particularly the need to fix deficient physical and digital infrastructure, but as he's talked to voters, Adams said his platform has expanded to also include boosting teacher pay.
Hamilton County Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Adams
Hamilton County Schools needs to ensure compensation is keeping up with the cost of living, and to date, raises haven't been enough to maintain pace with inflation, Adams said.
He also wants to refine how the school system handles discipline. It shouldn't be a surprise, he said, if a 12-year-old student who is arrested or suspended for something petty ends up being a repeat offender by the time they're 20, he said.
"If you're being treated as a criminal as a child, then you're going to grow up thinking you're a criminal," Adams said.
Adams added that he's still the only candidate talking about the need to expand local public transportation. Long-term, Adams would like to see the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority expand the number of stops and fixed routes, but there are also other options to offer a cost-effective commuter service, he added.
"CARTA gets calls on a daily basis basis from municipalities outside of Chattanooga from people saying, 'I need to go to the doctor, I need to go to the grocery store, I need to get to work,' and CARTA basically has to say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do,'" Adams said.
CARTA does have a program called Care-A-Van that offers transit to residents unable to access fixed bus routes because of a permanent or temporary disability. It serves Chattanooga and a couple other municipalities in Hamilton County. At the bare minimum, Adams said, he would like to see CARTA expand that service throughout the county.
As is, existing routes aren't enough to serve people who rely on public transportation, he said. A year ago, for example, Adams said he was unable to drive for medical reasons, and even though the office where he worked was just seven minutes away, it would've taken almost an hour to get there by bus.
"Thankfully, I'm a paralegal so I have a job that I can work from home, but a lot of people don't have that luxury," he said.
Adams' opponent in the mayor's race, Weston Wamp, told the Times Free Press by phone Monday that Hamilton County government operates on a slim margin and keeps tax rates low. The county has its lowest millage rate in 70 years, he said.
"When people running for office make promises about public transportation, which has really historically been outside the purview of county government, you're effectively just proposing a tax increase because we run a tight budget as it is," he said.
Instead, the county needs to focus on its core responsibilities: Education, public safety, health and growing infrastructure needs, Wamp said.
Adams also wants to develop a stronger focus on community engagement, beginning in the Sheriff's Office. When he talks to voters, Adams said, crime is typically their second priority right after education.
"We certainly have an obligation to be tough on crime in our cities and in the county, but the way that we have addressed crime in this county has been disproportionate," he said.
Oftentimes, that can involve punishing someone with a drug offense as harshly as a violent criminal, he said.
"That's fundamentally off base," he said. "If someone is addicted to drugs, we have a moral obligation to get them the help that they need. As a priority, we don't place ending recidivism at the top of our list for crime prevention here in Hamilton County. It's remarkable how well an effective community engagement program in law enforcement can help to end recidivism issues."
Adams said Nashville implemented a community engagement program that led to modest decreases in violent crime and gang involvement as well as increases in literacy rates and standardized test scores. Officers were more deeply embedded in their communities, visiting with students at bus stops and reading to kids in school.
"Instead of reacting to crime and that being the sole purpose of the police force, they were engaging the community," he said. "They were showing the community that they were their neighbors."