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Chip Saltsman

Chip Saltsman's imminent departure as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's top aide transforms the Chattanooga congressman's inner circle, leaving the Republican lawmaker without his bluntest political weapon.

Fleischmann's office announced Friday that Saltsman would leave his job as chief of staff Jan. 1 after a successful, high-profile and sometimes controversial three years as a confidant, campaign consultant and office supervisor.

"Chip has been an incredible asset for the last two years," Fleischmann said in a news release. "His knowledge of politics and public policy is second to none. I thank him for his tireless service and look forward to his advice and counsel in the future."

Fleischmann legislative director Jim Hippe, a former Bill Frist staffer, will replace Saltsman. The news release gave no reason for the change but said it was part of a long-term plan.

The 2008 presidential campaign manager for FOX News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Saltsman was considered by those close to Fleischmann to favor politics over government. As a campaign consultant, he brass-knuckled health care consultant Robin Smith in 2010 and retired dairy executive Scottie Mayfield this year. Both were considered Fleischmann's top rivals in consecutive Republican primaries.

"Without question Chip takes a no-holds-barred approach to winning," Smith said.

Saltsman did not return a call seeking comment Friday. A former Smith aide is suing Fleischmann and Saltsman over advertising and maneuvering in the 2010 election. The case remains in litigation, and campaign funds have been used to pay Saltsman's legal fees. Fleischmann has called the lawsuit "frivolous."

A longtime political operative and former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, Saltsman is perhaps best known nationally for his abbreviated campaign for chairman of the Republican National Committee. The bid fizzled in December 2008 when Saltsman distributed a song to supporters called "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody sung to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon" that mocked President Obama. Less than a year later, he went to work for Fleischmann.

"Chip Saltsman has a checkered past ranging from overt racism to shady legal arrangements and backroom dealing from his time as state party chairman," said Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester. "It's frankly a shame it took Congressman Fleischmann so long to show Mr. Saltsman the door."

Staffers and officials close to Saltsman said he soon would return to politics, possibly at the national level. Locally he's already making the rounds with potential office-seekers, including a lunch with state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, who's considering a 2014 challenge to an embattled Fleischmann colleague -- 4th District U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

"I try to bounce ideas off Chip because he's got a really great political mind," Tracy said. "It's too early to get squared away on [hiring] because we're a long way down the pike. ... I would always entertain the opportunity to talk to Chip."

Saltsman has taken an unusually public approach to his role as chief of staff, often appearing on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. His television appearances greatly outnumber those of his boss, and he almost never identifies himself as a Fleischmann official or congressional aide. Instead he claims the label "Republican strategist."

In a June article exploring those appearances and Saltsman's ambition, the website Politico quoted him as saying, "I didn't want to take the job as [Fleischmann's] chief of staff. I said 'No' the first three times he asked me."

He later told the Times Free Press that Fleischmann's office was "not what I was going to do the first time around."

Jordan Powell, a former Fleischmann staffer and political adviser, shrugged off the Politico article and said Saltsman set up a great constituent services operation in the Washington, D.C., office. He said Fleischmann wouldn't miss a beat without his longtime aide de camp.

"Chip helped in a lot of ways or else he wouldn't have been hired," Powell said. "But the staff is bigger than one person, and Chuck is an outstanding congressman."