Two candidates are seeking the Walker County Republican Party's nomination, and the opportunity to unseat 15-year incumbent Bebe Heiskell, in a bid for the county's sole commissioner position.
A no-show from Mike Peardon left his opponent, Shannon Whitfield, unopposed onstage to explain his positions to the audience of 40 to 50 people. Peardon later said he never agreed to attend any debate.
The occasion was a pair of debates hosted by the Walker County GOP set up for the commissioner race as well as the Senate District 53 contest between incumbent Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and his challenger, Lanny Thomas.
Peardon, a military veteran and small business owner, could not be reached Saturday night to explain his absence, but Whitfield said he was disappointed his opponent decided to not appear.
Virtually unchallenged, Whitfield made the case for why he should replace Heiskell. She was elected four times as a Republican but is seeking her fifth term as an independent.
He said one of the most pressing challenges facing the county is an enormous and still-growing debt load he estimates to be slightly more than $80 million.
Whitfield said the county's debt has ballooned dramatically, up from $14 million since Heiskell took office.
"I wish it wasn't this way. I wish this county didn't have this debt," said Whitfield, the chief financial officer for his family's oil company.
He pointed to a county audit for 2015 saying the county's total liabilities amount to $53 million, saying the sum leaves out some obligations including money owed to Erlanger hospital after the failure of Hutcheson Medical Center. Walker County agreed to guarantee part of a $20 million loan from Erlanger when the two hospitals entered a management agreement.
Outlining his plans to deal with the county's problems, Whitfield said he could develop working solutions by focusing on cost-cutting and transparency in Walker County government.
"We will to stick to a budget and we will have strong department heads," he said.
"What we are going to do is run a lean operation."
As part of this effort, he said he would capitalize on knowledgeable volunteers in Walker County who have had success in business as private citizens and invite them to help guide the county as members of a financial advisory committee.
"There are local citizens who are in this community who have asked what can I do to help," he said. "We will tap into those volunteers."
In his first 30 days of office, Whitfield said, he would focus on trimming costs, putting an end to multiple broken systems that are hemorrhaging money.
He cited a county-owned destination resort called Mountain Cove Farms, which he said costs the county more than $900,000 a year, and the county landfill, which operates at a loss of $500,000 a year. He said waste is rampant and a direct product of Heiskell's decisions as county commissioner.
Whitfield said he thinks Heiskell chose to run as an independent for the first time in 16 years for one simple reason.
"I think she's scared of the Republican voter," he said.
Heiskell disputed that statement Saturday night. She said she chose to run as an independent because she believes the executive committee for the Walker County Republican Party has been infiltrated by the tea party and she was not the candidate they wanted.
"I'm not scared of the Republican voter. I think there are Republicans who will vote for me, and I think there are Democrats who will vote for me," she said.
"I think I've made a pretty good reputation for myself over the years."
Several of the voters in attendance on Saturday, many of them wearing blue shirts that read "Elect Whitfield" across the front, disagreed with Heiskell's appraisal of her own reputation.
Christine Logan, 75, said, "My taxes went up this year and I'm on a fixed income."
Her daughter-in-law, Shelby Logan, said she supports Whitfield because he has a clear idea of how to move forward with the debt problem.
"We need someone with a solid plan. A well-thought-out plan," she said.
In the Senate debate, Mullis and Thomas touched on topics ranging from drug trafficking to gun control and even to the candidates' stances on legal protection for the use of medical marijuana.
While they largely agreed in several areas, the debate brought certain differences to light, including their opinions on the need for campaign finance reform.
Thomas, a teacher and former mayor of Trion, Ga., bemoaned how much money influences politics by making or breaking campaigns and tying politicians to the interests of their donors, but Mullis said fundraising is a necessary evil.
"I raise money. I work at it. It's the bad part of politics, but you have to get your message out." he said. "You have to raise money, and that's what I've done. It's an investment in a candidacy by people who believe in what you stand for."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731.
Following the publication of this story, Mike Peardon disputed claims that he had agreed to attend the debate. The story was altered to include his viewpoint.