A healthy turnout on a rainy evening was an encouraging sign Monday to organizers of a state House candidate meet-and-greet event at UTC.
More than 50 people, mostly students, showed up to hear candidates in Hamilton County's state House districts introduce themselves and chat with voters at the League of Women Voters-sponsored event.
That number is important, said Dr. Amanda Wintersieck, the moderator and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She said about 70 percent of the UTC student body was registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election, but just 40.6 percent actually voted.
In the Democratic and Republican primaries in August, voter turnout in Hamilton County was the lowest in Tennessee, which itself is traditionally a low-turnout state.
League co-president Lisa Bilbrey Hyder said she was very happy with the attendance, "particularly the UTC students. We're hoping they can get students to go out and vote."
Candidates in four of the five state House districts were present, and most cited the same issues as pressing needs in Tennessee: health care, education and jobs. Their answers mostly fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting more taxpayer support for medical care and schools and a higher minimum wage. Republicans generally advocating free-market solutions, smaller government and economic growth to benefit all.
"It's not about what the problems are, it's about what the solutions are," said Lemon Williams, a Republican facing Democrat and veteran elected official Yusuf Hakeem in District 28.
Hakeem said he would continue the work of JoAnne Favors, the retiring incumbent, focusing particularly on expanding the state Medicaid program, TennCare. He said 11 rural hospitals have closed in Tennessee and the state has "left $4 billion on the table" by not expanding the program.
District 26 Democrat Jean Marie Lawrence, who uses a wheelchair, said her life would be "impossible" without TennCare and said nearly 300,000 other Tennesseans desperately need that coverage.
Her Republican opponent, Robin Smith, a nurse and health care consultant, said it's a distribution problem.
"Health care is controlled by the government and insurance companies. It needs to be controlled by doctors and patients," she said.
District 27 Republican incumbent Patsy Hazlewood, whose background is in telecommunications and finance, cited her support for funding the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.
"The best way out of poverty is a family-wage job," she said.
Her Democratic opponent, pediatrician Dr. Brent Morris, said people need to abandon "apathy and disillusionment" and exercise their political power through voting.
"We have the resources, we need but the will," he said.
The District 30 candidates, Republican Esther Helton and Democrat Joda Thongnopnua, both called for a lessening of partisanship.
Helton, a member of the East Ridge City Council, stressed her background as a veteran nurse, a mother and volunteer in her community.
"We need to get things done in government that solve problems, not just win arguments," she said.
Thongnopnua told the story of his family struggling but eventually working their way into the middle class.
These days, for countless people, "that American dream is slipping further and further away," and fixing what's wrong will require nonpartisan solutions, he said.
Neither of the District 29 candidates, Republican incumbent Mike Carter and Democratic challenger Tammy Magouirk, attended.
Sitting in one of the chairs arranged along the walls and packed with students, Holly Bollman made notes on a flier bearing candidate biographies.
The freshman physics major just turned 18 and Nov. 6 will be her first opportunity to cast a vote.
"I'm excited to be a voice and have my opinions be heard," Bollman said.
The UTC's Women's Studies Department and the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga co-sponsored the event.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.