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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire holds up demographic data for Chattanooga from 2012 as he speaks to the Hamilton County Republican Women's Club at Mountain Oaks Tea Room on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Ooltewah, Tenn.

Republican State Sen. Todd Gardenhire is promoting diversity in Chattanooga law enforcement in the final weeks of his fight to maintain his seat against Democratic challenger and Assistant Chattanooga Police Chief Glenn Scruggs.

Gardenhire spoke on Tuesday to a room of roughly 60 Republicans in Ooltewah to promote his goals of "defining" a teacher and diversifying Chattanooga police.

Gardenhire's efforts to define a teacher at the state level, which would specify who qualifies for additional pay when "teacher raises" come up, is a call back to a conversation brought out by a failed attempt to significantly increase Hamilton County property taxes last year, in order to provide "teacher raises" and other school improvements.

With the added definition, Gardenhire says it would be easier to allot money to in-classroom instructors, which would help with retention.

"I've got nothing against administrators. I've got nothing against a superintendent," Gardenhire said. "But let's take care of the teachers who are in front of the children taking care of the children all day long and make it a reward to stay in there."

His second primary goal, diversifying police, comes on the heels of monthslong racial inequity protests against police across the country, including in Chattanooga, and just a week after Gardenhire became the target of local and national criticism for making comments about inner-city residents and fried chicken in an interview.

During the interview and Tuesday's event, Gardenhire said Chattanooga police need to recruit minority officers.

"Every two weeks, I sit down with a group of African American leaders in town because they're my constituents and I talk to them," Gardenhire said, calling his district — which includes parts of rural Bradley County, inner-city Chattanooga and affluent areas like Lookout Mountain — one of the most diverse in the state.

Citing numbers provided by the police department, Gardenhire said a lack of Black officers, who make up 13% of the force, was a primary concern.

"What they're really passionate about is the lack of representation they have in the police force patrolling their neighborhood," Gardenhire said, noting that this group does not support defunding the police. "They would much rather have someone that looks like them patrolling their neighborhood instead of somebody who looks like me.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Police Department is asking for the public's help in recruiting minorities)

"They want somebody that actually grew up in their neighborhood and knows the people and knows what to do."

Scruggs — who is Black — responded on Twitter, "I'll take that as an endorsement of my candidacy."

"People (of every background) want a leader who they can count on. If you want a fearless, responsive State Senator, I'm your candidate."

Later, Gardenhire said that he wanted to increase diversity in the department and would not "lower standards" or "short circuit anything," wording which Scruggs called "out of touch."

"Ask yourself this: why is there always an implication that to incorporate diversity, there's an inherent risk of 'lowering standards,'" Scruggs wrote. "Just one more indication that our Senator is out of touch."

Scruggs declined to comment further, deferring to his tweets and the police department.

A spokesman for the department declined to comment.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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