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Vanita Hullander, the Republican nominee for the District 3 seat on the Catoosa County Commission, beat the incumbent Jim Cutler in an August runoff.

Hullander was the underdog, going up against a well-established candidate who went into the runoff with top-level endorsements at the local and state level.

She has held dozens of positions on various boards in Catoosa County and served as the county coroner for six terms. Cutler was endorsed by prominent leaders such as Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, Sheriff Gary Sisk and Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese.

Despite the political deck stacked against her, Hullander came out on top. She received 1,028 votes to Cutler's 949.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Then-Catoosa County Coroner Vanita Hullander

The two other incumbents in the June primary — Chairman Steven Henry and Jeff Long, both Republicans — won their races outright and didn't need to run again in the runoff.

A few days after the runoff, Hullander showed her public support for an old friend, Ernie Pursley, the Democrat nominee who is running against Henry for the commission chair.

"I have known Ernie Pursley for 30 years. He is a good man, community-oriented, and wants to do what is right for this county," Hullander wrote on Pursley's campaign Facebook page. "He will serve you well I support him fully."

Hullander later told the Times Free Press that she wasn't endorsing Pursley but showing public support for her friend.

The public display of support from a Republican for a Democrat was all Sen. Mullis and other prominent Republicans needed to put their support behind a write-in candidate with less than a month until November's election.

Terry Crawford, a former member of the Ringgold City Council, will be on the ballot as a write-in candidate. Crawford told the Times Free Press Tuesday that after Hullander beat Cutler, some people told him he should run. When asked which people, Crawford told a reporter, "You don't need to know that."

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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Terry Crawford

Crawford hosted a campaign event Monday that included guests such as Mullis, Henry, Long, Cutler and Rep. Dewayne Hill, R-Ringgold.

Sen. Mullis told the Times Free Press that he is endorsing Crawford because he is a "real Republican candidate."

"She is not a Republican, in my opinion," Mullis said of Hullander.

Crawford said he didn't run in the primary because he didn't want to run against Cutler.

"I am sick of this," Hullander said. "This is them trying to use the Democrat thing, and it's old news. Everybody's tired of it. The true concern for me is they're tearing Catoosa County apart and trying to bring national politics into our county."

When asked why he was getting involved in a local race after voters had already decided which Republican candidate they wanted, Mullis said he wouldn't have become involved if Hullander hadn't shown support for Pursley.

"That was that race," Mullis said. "Then right after she was elected as the Republican candidate, she endorsed a Democrat. It changes the whole perspective."

In a statement sent to the Times Free Press Wednesday, Catoosa County Republican Party Vice Chair Jeremy Jones said the party supports Hullander.

"We support all candidates on our Republican ticket," Jones said in a statement. "The Republican voters of Catoosa County voted in the Republican Primary, and our mission is to support the candidates chosen by our voters."

Since Crawford has thrown his hat in the ring, three of his former colleagues on the Ringgold City Council have publicly come out against him, saying he used bullying political tactics in the past, was not easy to work with and worked behind their backs to change the city's charter system.

Crawford served 12 years on the Ringgold council, starting in 2007. He announced in 2019 he would not run for reelection for health reasons. His heart bypass surgery caused him to decide against running for another term.

Crawford told the Times Free Press his surgeon told him to take a year off and that he wasn't physically fit to campaign.

"My year is behind me. I've had some check-ups. They checked me out. I'm good and ready to go," he said.

In a lengthy post on his personal website, Ringgold Mayor Nick Millwood claimed Crawford undermined the board. Millwood said Crawford accused him and other council members of ethics violations and said he was the drivng force behind changing the city's charter with Mullis to make it more difficult to fire a city manager.

On his experience governing with Crawford, Millwood wrote, "It. Was. Awful."

"Instead of trying to win the arguments of ideas, he makes harmful accusations when he disagrees with you on policy," Millwood wrote. "During my first term as mayor, Terry persistently spread lies that I was trying to fire our city manager. Not one person will corroborate that story, and I told him personally that I had no intention of moving in that direction. Still, the lies continued."

Who else has qualified?

Tonya Moore, elections director for Catoosa County, said Crawford and two other write-in candidates have qualified for the November election: Greg Bentley in District 1 and Nick Ware for commission chair.

— Bentley served on the inaugural Catoosa County Commission when the county changed from a sole commissioner to a board in 1992. He’s also a former Fort Oglethorpe city councilman. Bentley is running on government transparency, economic development and “the imbalance of residential and industrial growth” in the county.

— Ware has become a fixture at Catoosa County Commission meetings, often critical of how the commission spends its money and advocating for a more transparent government. Ware considers himself a constitutional conservative and believes in smaller government, reducing spending, lower taxes and allowing small businesses to thrive in a fair market as opposed to giving big-box stores tax incentives.

Millwood said Crawford's candidacy is a way for established politicians in Northwest Georgia to get one of their own back in.

"Ultimately, that is what Terry's run is all about," Millwood wrote. "There is an independent voice running for this seat in Vanita Hullander, and challenging the status quo, in any kind of way, will not do with this bunch."

Ringgold City Councilwoman Rhonda Swaney was also critical of the last-minute push to get Crawford in.

"When I see a woman who has worked as hard as Vanita Hullander has to win a race, only to have a group of men try to put one of their own people in place of what she has respectfully earned, it truly bothers me to my core," Swaney wrote on Facebook.

Ringgold City Councilman Kelly Bomar reiterated some of Millwood's points in his own Facebook post, saying Crawford "tried more than once to snowplow ideas, railroad me personally, discredit and accuse our mayor and myself of illegal activity."

Bomar wrote the choice is between Hullander, who "won the primary outright, or fall victim to sore egos that refuse to give up power to the duly elected winner a woman they can't control."

Crawford said Wednesday morning he enjoyed his time on the Ringgold City Council and felt like he and the board made a difference.

"I'm not going to get into all of that with them," Crawford said.

"I'm angry," Hullander said. "It's not me they're campaigning against, it's the residents of District 3. [The people] have already spoken. They're blatantly deciding who they want to represent the people."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

 

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