NASHVILLE — An unforced error by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire regarding "fried chicken," obesity and a lack of healthy food availability in East Chattanooga has brought drama and national attention to the white lawmaker's Nov. 3 Senate District 10 contest against Democratic challenger Glenn Scruggs, a Black assistant police chief in Chattanooga.
The district, comprising parts of Hamilton County including the city of Chattanooga and a portion of Bradley County, has been viewed by Democrats as a rare opportunity to pick up a seat in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a 28-5 supermajority.
While Republicans disagree with Democrats' assessment, citing the large number of white Republican voters in the Bradley portion of the district, the ensuing flap nonetheless left some wincing given that 30% of the district's residents are African American.
During a WTVC-TV interview earlier this month, Gardenhire, who has touted in a television spot his legislative efforts to bring grocery stores to low-income communities, discussed them.
"The obesity rate in the inner city is bigger than anywhere else," said Gardenhire, 72, who is seeking a third term. "Because what do they do? They go to a 7-Eleven or a convenience store. There's fried chicken so they get them some fried chicken on the way home and have dinner on that.
"Well," Gardenhire added, "that's the worst thing you can eat. I mean, it's good — I love fried chicken — but that's the worst thing you can do. Then they get a bag of potato chips and they get a Coca-Cola. A big giant-sized Coca-Cola, too. Not a small one, and they drink it all because they paid for it."
The remarks drew criticism and were picked up by The Associated Press news service and the New York Daily News tabloid.
Tweeted Scruggs: "My opponent is making national news but is out of touch with the communities in our district."
In a later statement, Scruggs said Gardenhire's remarks "were the second time this year" a Tennessee lawmaker "made public comments about fried chicken in relation to African Americans. At the very least, these comments are divisive and irresponsible. Contrary to Gardenhire's statements, health concerns are not limited to urban areas."
Scruggs said such concerns have impacted Tennesseans "regardless of race."
James Moreland, a longtime advocate for the Black community and for East Chattanooga improvements — including a years-long push to attract a supermarket to address a decades-old "food desert" there — said that while Gardenhire's remarks didn't come off well, there is indeed a lack of healthy food in the area.
"If you just make a statement and say, 'You know what, people in that area, they're just eating the wrong kind of food. They're just eating chicken and everything,' then that sounds negative," said Moreland, an Avondale neighborhood resident who described years of effort to bring attention to and seek to address health problems, attract a supermarket, press for other improvements and push for a major company to locate there and provide well-paying jobs to residents.
Moreland said, "I don't think [Gardenhire] had enough time to explain that in such a way that people could understand that. So if I said to you right now, all right, those folks in East Chattanooga are just eating fried chicken out of a gas station every day, you would think, why in the world would Moreland make that kind of statement?
"But if I took the time and explained to you that people who don't have automobiles, people who don't have the money to pay people to take them to the store or ride a taxi cab to the store, that might be the only choice they have to get something to eat today," Moreland added.
People who live in food deserts are often forced to buy food from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, which leads to higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and cancer, Moreland and others say.
Moreland said he and other community members raised the issue with Gardenhire, who had approached them about the community's needs. He said he and others cited the need for a supermarket. Gardenhire later introduced the bill seeking to provide $4 million in public funds and encourage private financing for a statewide program. It was moving toward the Senate floor earlier this year when most legislation halted due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Scruggs campaign manager Ronald Elliott said the candidate isn't being negative, noting, "there's a difference between making contrasts on someone's voting record and how they believe one thing versus going negative. I think Sen. Gardenhire's actions were extremely out of touch with reality, because the fact is that people who are unhealthy do not just reside in inner-city communities, they're in our rural communities, they're in our suburban communities."
10TH DISTRICT CAMPAIGN
The contest is one of two or three Senate races that Democrats hope to win on Nov. 3, with the candidates' spending hitting $281,00. Most of it — $247,000 — has come from Gardenhire, a Chattanoogan seeking a third Senate term. Scruggs, who announced his candidacy in February, spent about $35,000 as of Sept. 30 and still had $113,000 in cash for the remaining days of the race.
Scruggs is campaigning on a largely progressive platform, promising among other things to work to raise Tennessee's minimum wage. He opposes private school vouchers, says more spending is needed for public education.
He also has called for criminal justice reform, saying that as a 26-year police veteran he knows the "harsh reality" that the system is "not working for our children or our community" and that jails are "overcrowded with low-level offenders."
Scruggs has also criticized Gardenhire's 2015 vote for a controversial "guns in parks" law that allowed Tennessee handgun permit holders to bring their firearms into parks. The Democrat also says he backs extending Medicaid to some 300,000 low-income Tennesseans under the federal Affordable Care Act, which Gardenhire and GOP colleagues effectively killed in 2015 committee votes.
In one ad, Scruggs notes, "I grew up here. And I went to public schools just like my son does now. Education is a key to our kids' future. Yet my opponent cut teacher raises, refuses to fully fund public schools, leaving local taxpayers to foot the bill."
Another campaign ad on Facebook attacks Gardenhire's Medicaid vote with a narrator calling the senator a "typical politician," adding that he "voted to block health care for 300,000 Tennesseans while denying he had taxpayer-paid coverage for him and his family" through the state employee health plan.
Gardenhire, a retired Morgan Stanley broker, has ads on TV and online touting his work on the food-desert bill and highlighting his support for road funding to untangle the Interstate 75 and I-24 scramble between Chattanooga and East Ridge.
The senator also cites his involvement in helping secure funding for a new football and track field for Howard High School, overwhelmingly attended by Black and Hispanic students, where there had been problems with sewage.
In a spot targeting conservative Bradley County voters, Gardenhire says, "I've worked hard to protect our values, our constitutional rights and freedoms" as images of social unrest unfolded in New York, Wisconsin and Oregon over police officer-involved deaths of Blacks.
During the course of the campaign, Gardenhire has largely avoided direct attacks on Scruggs. But in a jab at Scruggs, Gardenhire publicly criticized hiring practices in the Chattanooga Police Department which the senator said has led to a decrease in the number of Black officers.
Gardenhire said members of the Black community told him there are insufficient numbers of Black officers and then cited department figures showing Blacks account for 13% of the force.
"They would much rather have someone that looks like them patrolling their neighborhood instead of somebody who looks like me," Gardenhire said. "They want somebody that actually grew up in the neighborhood and knows the people and knows what to do."
Responding on Twitter, Scruggs stated, "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."
After Gardenhire said he would not "lower standards" or "short circuit anything" to recruit more African American officers Scruggs wrote, "Ask yourself this: Why is there always an implication that to incorporate diversity, there's an inherent risk of 'lowering standards.' Just one more indication that our Senator is out of touch."
Gardenhire's television ads have talked largely about his record while avoiding attacks on Scruggs.
But a direct mail piece recently shipped out by the Tennessee Republican Party with state Senate Republican Caucus funding did slam Scruggs.
"We have to stop Glenn Scruggs," the mailer states before going to charge that Scruggs "pledges allegiance to liberals" and "radicals" who back legislation to "outlaw all private health insurance plans," seek to give "the right to vote to convicted terrorists and rapists while they are still in prison."
That sparked what several stunned Republicans told the Times Free Press was a furious tongue-lashing by Gardenhire, who told them to stay out of the campaign.
In an interview last week, Gardenhire wouldn't discuss the mailer but said, "I hope to do what other people don't do, and that is, continue to talk in a positive way about my election and what I've done and not say anything other than just what I've done in the past."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.