After winning four terms as a Republican, Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell will run for re-election this year as an independent candidate.
Matt Williamson, Walker Republican Party chairman, said he learned Wednesday that Heiskell would not compete in the May 24 primary. Heiskell said the party has strayed too far from the center and has been hijacked by the tea party faction.
Williamson, however, said other long-time Republican office-holders do not seem to have an issue with the party's direction.
"I am disappointed to hear that Commissioner Heiskell has decided to run as an independent rather than as a Republican," Williamson wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday. "She has until Friday at noon [the qualifying deadline] to change her mind. The Republican Party has stood behind Commissioner Heiskell during difficult times in the past. We are a party with conservative principles, and we happily qualified all other incumbents in the County."
Heiskell, 76, did not return multiple calls seeking comment Wednesday. But she told Chattanoogan.com that she no longer felt comfortable running as a Republican.
"I haven't had a whole lot of luck with them," she said, referring to the tea party. "They want a more radically conservative candidate than I am."
Heiskell ran in 1996 for the commission seat and lost. She was elected as a Republican in 2000 and re-elected three times while running with the GOP.
However, a couple of actions caused a rift between Heiskell and the local establishment last year. In March 2015, delegates at the county's Republican Party convention passed a resolution asking Heiskell to publish a line-item budget that explains specifically how every dollar of the local government's money is supposed to be spent.
Heiskell did not comply with the request, telling the Times Free Press that it would take a county employee too much time to create a line-item budget.
In October, the Republican Party's committee members voted to put a nonbinding referendum on the primary ballot asking voters which form of government they would prefer: a sole commissioner or a board of commissioners. Heiskell has frequently spoken against shifting to a board of commissioners, arguing the county's current form of government is more efficient.
As sole commissioner, Heiskell runs the county's day-to-day operations without needing to woo votes from other elected officials.
In recent years some local Republicans have said they are upset with rising property taxes and a potential $10 million payment to Erlanger Health System. Heiskell guaranteed the money in 2011 as part of a management agreement between Erlanger and Hutcheson Medical Center. Lawyers are arguing in U.S. District Court whether the county must pay the money.
In 2013, the county also guaranteed $4.5 million worth of loans to help Hutcheson make payroll. In March 2015, to pay back those loans, the county obtained a $10 million tax anticipation note. Heiskell said some also was needed for day-to-day expenses. In September, the county issued a $15.3 million bond to cover that March loan and some other expenses.
Meanwhile, Heiskell has twice raised property taxes. In 2014, with a $1.6 million budget deficit, according to the county's audit, Heiskell raised the millage rate from 4.705 to 7.725. In 2015, she raised it to 8.725.
If Heiskell were to run this year as a Republican, she would face at least two challengers in the May primary. As ofWednesday, Williamson said, Michael Peardon and Shannon Whitfield had qualified for the race.
In 2012's primary, Heiskell defeated her challenger, Dr. Paul Shaw, by 214 votes — a 2.04 percent edge.