This story was updated July 13, 2018, at 1:02 p.m.
A debate among the five Democrats running for the House District 28 nomination Thursday night focused on how to overcome barriers to progress in the mostly poor, mostly minority community.
Candidates Dennis Clark, Yusuf Hakeem, Melody Shekari, Jackie Thomas and Brandon Woodruff debated before a lively audience of about 100 people at Westside Missionary Baptist Church.
Senior Pastor Timothy Careathers was the moderator, and he set the tone in his opening statement.
"We are living in extremely critical times. This is not mere politics to us," Careathers said. "For most people in our communities, who we elect is literally life or death" when "life expectancy is not determined by genetic code but by ZIP code."
The five candidates mostly agreed on the need for economic development, living wages and equal pay for women, expanding Medicaid and health care access, more money and greater equity in the district's schools and frustration over what many see as improper use of force by police against minorities.
Hakeem, with decades of public service on the former city school board and the city council, touted his experience. The council's vote Tuesday on a study to see whether minority businesses get a fair share of city contracts is something he worked on for years, he said.
But he got no deference from the others. Careathers characterized his support of a tax break for the district as "corporate welfare that takes money away from education."
Hakeem said he got a Ban the Box measure — through which someone applying for a city job won't be asked about criminal history first thing — through the council and a public vote.
Great, said Woodruff, but how about "Ban the Barrier" to eliminate other reasons that keep ex-offenders from getting jobs?
Or changing the law, said Shekari, so people who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession or not paying child support don't get criminally charged in the first place?
Thomas said that state legislators can't operate the schools but are in a position to make sure local districts have enough money.
"That's what I'd have control over," Thomas said, adding she would focus particularly on early education, from birth to age 3, when learning is the fastest and the most important.
They agreed the community needs living-wage jobs, and had several prescriptions to develop them. But Woodruff said one problem is that even with existing jobs, "The problem in our community is the young men can't pass the literacy test that would allow them to enter the workforce."
Careathers asked the five how they define gentrification. South Chattanooga in recent years has seen waves of property transfers and redevelopment that some complain is wiping out historically black communities.
Clark called it "the new black Trail of Tears." He said longtime residents are bought out or forced out by rising rents and have no recourse, and that banks get away with denying loans to the original residents.
Economic power rests in the hands of whites, they agreed, but leaders and elected officials in the African-American community have failed to stand up for their neighbors and constituents.
"It's not just white people," Woodruff said. We have to look at the people we put in office who are working in the interest of white people. Don't let those people off easy just because they've got black skin."
Careathers asked Hakeem how in his 19 years on the city council, community leaders often didn't get information on issues that would affect the community. Hakeem said mayors have the power and can win council votes with promises.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to have profited," he said.
But, Clark said, "I don't think we need to go backwards, put the same people in office and expect them to do different. We're tired of the status quo."
The winner of the Democratic primary in the Aug. 2 election will face Republican Lemon C. Williams Jr.
Early voting starts Friday.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.