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Tom Decosimo, right, talks with staff members during a meeting Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at the offices of Decosimo in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Frustrations over a shrinking middle class and stalled economic mobility, paired with the antagonistic instincts of social media, are fueling a punishing populist environment in cities all across the country, and a handful of local Republican heavyweights are concerned about the local implications.

Former Tennessee State Rep. Ken Meyer said the community organizing work of UnifiEd — a local nonprofit created in 2014 to reform Hamilton County schools, which shares its name with a political PAC formed to influence the most recent school board and county commission races — stirred a lot of talk.

Those conversations led to the creation of Hamilton Flourishing, a nonprofit think tank fashioned after the Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said Meyer, who holds a seat on the Republican Party State Executive Committee and lobbies for K12 Inc., a for-profit education company that sells online schooling and curricula.

Conservative think tanks began to gain steam after the Reagan presidency and now almost every state has one. Tennessee has The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville.

Chattanooga's would be one of the first city-level think tanks to be folded into the larger network of conservative think tanks across the country. Hamilton Flourishing will publish local policy recommendations and research, said Meyer, and challenge ideas that threaten conservative ideals like free-market capitalism and limited government.

"We are simply trying to educate the public, or re-educate the public, on the core principles of what a free-market economy and a free democracy is all about," said Meyer, who serves on the new nonprofit's board of directors with Tom Decosimo, managing principal of Decosimo Corporate Finance, and Tina Benkiser, a local attorney and former head of the Republican Party of Texas. "That is what it all comes down to."

Hugh O. Maclellan Jr., the Provident Insurance heir, is supporting the effort. The Maclellan family foundations — which include the Maclellan Foundation, the Robert L. and Katherine H. Maclellan Foundation and the Christian Education Charitable Trust — together hold nearly $400 million in assets. The Maclellan family has long supported Christian ministries in Tennessee and overseas. It also supports various causes through a donor-advised fund at the National Christian Foundation, which supports ministries like Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ and continues to be a major funder of policy and advocacy organizations on the Christian Right.

Doug Daugherty left the Maclellan Foundation, where he headed U.S. grant making, to lead Hamilton Flourishing. Patrick Hampton, a 2014 school board candidate who lost because his opposition received campaign help from UnifiEd, is the nonprofit's vice president of communications and community engagement.

"Hamilton County is stronger when there is an open and transparent discussion of the issues facing our public schools. We are happy to welcome new voices to that discussion, and we look forward to expanding the dialogue about creating excellent and equitable public schools for every child in Hamilton County," said Walton Robinson, the deputy executive director of UnifiEd.

Hugh Maclellan and Daugherty were two of four representatives from the Chattanooga area invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on school choice two weeks ago. Since Reagan's national report on public education, which decades ago warned of lagging international competitiveness, the Republican party has lobbied to expand charter schools, vouchers and virtual schooling. State-level cuts to public schooling under Republican legislatures have led to teacher strikes across the country.

"We are going to be a think tank with legs," said Daugherty. "There is a need for a posit of civic virtue in the community through social media and speeches and small groups and book clubs, and any number of ways that we can spread ideas about the constitution, the bill of rights and things like that and the free markets."

The think tank's first report, published in March, was on affordable housing and responded to a report published by Chattanooga Organized for Action and Tennessee State Associate Professor Ken Chilton several months ago which used U.S. Census Bureau data to show how downtown development has displaced African Americans.

The COA report, titled "Negro Removal in Chattanooga," and Unified's emphasis on racial equity in public education highlight longstanding tensions around race and class in Chattanooga, and, thanks to low voter turnout in local elections, a few hundred engaged and organized community members can be a real threat to the status quo.

More Info

To read the Hamilton Flourishing report on affordable housing go to https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bce2040da50d37c63438d2b/t/5c82ab6ee5e5f00ebbf7c45c/1552067439026/Hamilton+Flourishing+Report+on+Affordable+Housing+in+Chattanooga+March+2019.pdf

Last month, nearly a hundred people gathered in East Chattanooga to launch a grassroots coalition set on pressuring Chattanooga City Council members to refuse support for the sale of the city-owned former Harriett Tubman public housing site unless the buyer signs a community benefits agreement.

In Tennessee, and in many other Southern states, state law says city governments cannot require businesses to sign and adhere to CBAs because many of the requirements typical of CBAs infringe on developers' right to do business as they please. This is not the case in many other states. This means city officials cannot be involved in negotiations.

However, CBAs signed when developers face opposition from city councils — hoping to appease angry constituents — are considered legally binding contracts. The only problem for community coalitions who win a CBA is that they have to have the funds to take the developer to court if they violate the terms of the agreement, which can be a challenge.

Nashville residents organized and aroused enough community-wide engagement to win support from 31 of Nashville's 40 council members and secure the city's first CBA last year. The Nashville CBA targeted the developers who had been working to cut a deal with city officials to purchase city-owned land in order to build a Major League soccer stadium, as well as an adjacent commercial/residential development. The CBA called for 20 percent of all housing built to be affordable and for the majority of those affordable units to be three-bedroom family units and not small, cheap studio apartments.

Daugherty attended the local coalition's meeting with Hampton, but said they couldn't get behind it because "there is a free market concern with CBAs."

"Growing numbers of affordable housing advocates and community members are questioning the premise that increasing the supply of market-rate housing will result in housing that is more affordable. Economists and other experts who favor increases in supply have failed to take these supply skeptics seriously. But left unanswered, supply skepticism is likely to continue to feed local opposition to housing construction, and further increase the prevalence and intensity of land-use regulations that limit construction," the Hamilton Flourishing housing report read.

Contact Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com.

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