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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayoral candidate Kim White poses in Patten Chapel on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Kim White wasn't always notable — or even audible — to those around her.

When she was a young girl, sometime around the fourth grade, White was in a bicycle accident, "knocking out" her teeth.

"I think there was something about missing your teeth and losing your confidence, especially as a girl," White said, noting the time she spent in braces and partial teeth replacements. "So I didn't put myself out there, I didn't feel like I was pretty enough or smart enough. I didn't want to take a risk. I just wanted to fit in."

So she struggled early in life to find what she values now more than anything: a voice.

"And you know I never did find that place to fit in or that confidence or support in high school," White said. "Not until college, where I came into my own as a person and a leader."

READ MORE: Tim Kelly wants to use 30 years of vision to lead Chattanooga

Now the self-proclaimed late bloomer turned nonprofit powerhouse, White forged her own seat at the table. Now, vying to become Chattanooga's first female mayor, she's looking to give a platform to other new voices.

White beat out 13 other candidates in the March 2 general election, coming in second place by 273 votes and earning a spot in the April 13 runoff election against rival Tim Kelly.

White's success has hinged on her experience and visibility in the city's nonprofit and business worlds and her ability to out-fundraise every other candidate.

Sitting outside of Patten Chapel at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she studied communications, later earning a bachelor's degree in art, White described an adult life of finding and sharing her voice in roles ranging from her sorority to management at a Fortune 500 company.

"Along the way, I've been very fortunate to have mentors or people that saw something in me that I never saw myself," she explained. "When I was elected president of my sorority, you didn't run for president, you were chosen. And I was shocked because I never saw that in myself, either."

After being president of Chi Omega, White says she started to see the potential in herself as a leader.

"I think one of the things that has given me the most satisfaction since that has been to build people up," she said. "You know, to be one of those mentors, or someone who recognizes something in someone else, like what I've had, and to build a team and bring on new voices — that's been the best part of all of my work."

White's work since college has been broad, ranging from serving as alumni association president and creating an endowed school for working students at her alma mater, to running recruitment at Altel Communications, a Fortune 500 company that led her across Georgia and Florida for 12 years until she returned to her native Chattanooga in the early 2000s.

When she came back with her husband of now 32 years, Joe Dan White, her voice again became crucial.

"We chose to come back to Chattanooga — without a plan. I didn't have business connections. I didn't have political connections. I didn't have a job. But I knew there was something about being back in Chattanooga," White said. "I knew it was where I was supposed to be."

White called on groups like the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Benwood Foundation, looking for connections.

"I am a great networker and cold caller. I'm better now than I even was then. And that's what I started doing," she said. "I read about everything that was going on in Chattanooga during my time away. And I just thought [about picking up] the phone and calling people."

Kim White: 

Age: 60

Lives in: Downtown

Studied at: Hixson High School, UTC

Married to: Joe Dan White (32 years)

Civic engagement includes: River City Company, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, University of Tennessee Foundation

 

 

 

 

Through her networking, White met then-mayor and later U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who later named her president and CEO of the Corker Group.

Then, White began serving on nonprofit boards across town including with UTC, Erlanger and downtown development nonprofit River City Co.

In 2009, she was named president and CEO of River City, where she spent 11 years and is credited with helping to bring thousands of additional residents and millions of dollars in development to downtown, before resigning last year to run for mayor.

"I loved my job at River City Co., but I believe this is the path that God's put me on, and that I'm going down that path," White said of her decision to run. "I believe I was meant to be preparing, and I've spent my life really, on the path to being mayor."

But that same tenacity that landed her the job with Corker and, more broadly, forged her career and seat at the table, has acted as a double-edged sword.

"I've always had to come in very confident. And it's been interesting in this race, I've had to be tough to be at the table," White said of running for office. "And not just tough in a bitchy kind of way, but I mean you have to be competent and know your stuff to be heard and have a seat at the table, even more so as a woman.

"But then you get feedback of 'Oh I can't relate to her,'" White added. "And I'm like, come on. I've had three jobs and qualifird for housing assistance because I didn't make enough money. It's a long path and I've been on it. That's why I've put out a women's policy to shine a light on how important things like child care and flexible hours are."

Those who know White and understand the pressures of running for office as a woman say that she's handling the pressure well, without losing herself.

"Women are, either on purpose or just subconsciously, judged a little differently than men," said Ann Coulter, a friend of White who ran for mayor in 2005 and lost in a similar runoff election.

"Consequently, women are advised by campaign people to run a little differently than men because a woman might be criticized for something about her personality or how she presents herself," Coulter said. "As a woman, you're judged on the soft skills, like being 'warm,' but if you show too many soft skills, you're weak. And you would never criticize a man for not being warm enough."

And the pressure to play both sides during a campaign, which White and Coulter both recognize, can cause an insincere campaign.

"The first thing me and Kim talked about months ago when she was thinking about running was that the most important thing is being true to who you are," Coulter said. "People just have a nose for if something's real and if someone is being real, honest and who they are."

And, Coulter said, White has done just that.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mayoral candidate Kim White poses in Patten Chapel on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"And the Kim I'm seeing run is the Kim I know," Coulter said. "She's smart, she's funny — she's really a very funny person. She's got a great sense of humor. She never has to be the center of anything, she's very curious, she asks a lot of good questions, she likes to talk around all sides of an issue and then come up with what she thinks about something."

The women who have worked under White say that her example has been invaluable.

"I didn't know how to negotiate with a smile on my face before I worked for Kim. I know how to now, negotiate for anything that I need and I know how to make very hard decisions and I know how to do it with warmth because I've watched Kim do it for the two or three years that I worked under her," said Tiffanie Robinson, a Hamilton County Board of Education member who worked for White at River City Company.

"Kim believes in giving people chances, and she believes in young talent. She believes in talent that comes from all walks of life," said Robinson, who was hired by White to a management position in her 20s. "I've experienced that just from working with her and working under her but also my personal story about how I was hired by her, I mean, she basically took a chance on me at a pretty young age and gave me a lot of responsibility."

Beyond being a woman, White has had two big hurdles to face during the election.

The first struggle White faced in her campaign was losing her father.

White's dad, Joe Hudson, died at 77 in July after a 12-year battle with Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer.

"He went into the hospital right before my announcement and we all thought he would come out, but it turned into leukemia. It happened so quickly. I mean, he passed away like within three weeks at the hospital," White said. "But at the beginning, when he went in and we're trying to figure out what it was, and he would tell every nurse that would come in, 'I want you to meet the next mayor of Chattanooga.' And he had already talked to all of his hunting buddies about how they're going to help me put out signs and do all that."

White, as the oldest of three born to her parents when they were just 17, said she and her father had a close relationship throughout his life.

"You know, with them being that young, I really got to grow up with my parents, and I think that's what made us close, and I joke that must be why I married a man 21 years older than me," White said. "And I've been sad so many times throughout the campaign because I'll think, 'Oh, Dad would have loved to be at the Election Commission waving signs' or something like that.

"But it's kind of bittersweet because I thought he'd be here for the election, and the inauguration is actually scheduled for his birthday, April 19," White said. "I know he's here."

The other hurdle White said she has faced is undoing people's perceptions of her.

Throughout the campaign, her critics have penalized White for her politics and her background, she said.

"For those that have never met me, they identify me with downtown or elitist. I told my dad in the hospital, I said, 'Oh my God, Dad, can you believe it? They're saying I'm a downtown elitist,' me, this girl from Hixson that rode the school bus until she was a senior," she said, noting that many criticize her for her work at River City only benefiting downtown Chattanooga.

"I think the gentrification issue gets blamed on River City. But I know that downtown work has been really important, and I know the work I did didn't move anyone," White said, noting that the scope of River City is pretty limited to downtown. "Investment in every neighborhood is really, really important. And I think the fact that the development community and building community has confidence in me, from my work downtown, will help me help other communities as mayor."

White has advocated for responsible development throughout the city during her campaign, frequently commenting that "development isn't a bad word." Her plan for growth and endorsements and donations from those in the development community have also spurred judgment from critics.

"The other idea is that I'm beholden. I mean, my goodness, this is a mayor's race and the most anybody can give is $1,600," White said. "I mean, I haven't been beholden to anybody. But I'm beholden to the Chattanooga community to make sure that we move the city forward.

"If I want to be beholden to special interests, I could have gone into development, right? I would have made a lot more money," she joked.

Robinson said that any idea that White is closed-minded to specific groups is unfounded.

"She's a really big believer in constantly being progressive and coming up with, you know, new ways to do things," Robinson said. "Kim is a really open and accepting person and really truly cares about what's best for every person, whether it's someone that works for her or someone that lives here in the community."

With two weeks left before the runoff is decided, White said Tuesday that she wants to continue that legacy if elected.

"I think it's a lot of responsibility. I want to make sure I make everybody proud," White said. "I want to make sure that my campaign was positive and about issues. At the end of the day. I want to say my family would be proud of me. Women would be proud of me, and that it was all done the right way."

And if she wins, she wants to ensure that every Chattanoogan finds a voice in the city, as she was able to.

"So when I came back, I had a great experience, right? People opened their doors to me. I did find my place, my voice," White said. "But through my work at River City company, it was so sad, I heard people say 'Downtown's not for me, this city is not for me.'

"And running for mayor really is about asking, does everyone see themselves in Chattanooga's story? I mean, do they all feel hopeful and thankful? Are they appreciative? Do they feel like Chattanooga understands them and they get it?" White said of her ideal legacy as mayor. "So I think that's the biggest piece."

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

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