This story was updated at 7:50 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 with more information.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election at the end of his term in 2022.
"What a privilege it has been for me to serve as Hamilton County mayor," he said at a news conference on the courthouse steps. "There will be a lot of things I miss about it, but I think it would be selfish on my part to continue. I have a family and people who want to spend time with me."
Coppinger, 66, a graduate of Hixson High School and a former Chattanooga State and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student, was appointed county mayor in January 2011 after former Mayor Claude Ramsey left to join the administration of then-Gov. Bill Haslam as his top deputy.
Coppinger was later elected mayor in a 2012 special election. He handily won reelection to a full four-year term in 2014 and again in 2018.
From 2006 until his mayorship, Coppinger served as a member of the county commission, representing Hixson, Middle Valley and Lakesite. Before taking public office, he was a Chattanooga firefighter for 28 years and was named fire chief in 1997.
Rumors circulated in 2019 that Coppinger might be preparing to step down from his role as county mayor but he denied them at that time, saying he was "not going anywhere."
Asked then whether he would run for a fourth term in 2022, he said that he felt "very fortunate" to have served so far and would make a decision about whether to continue in the role when the time came.
"Certainly, if I feel this way in the future I'm going to continue — and again, this position doesn't belong to myself. It belongs to the people," he said in 2019.
Coppinger said Wednesday he still thought he would be running for reelection until about a month ago, when conversations with family, friends and other community leaders helped him decide it was the right time to leave office.
A number of people have told him they are interested in running for county mayor but said they would not do so if it meant running against him, as they consider him a friend, he said.
"It's exciting when people come in and say they want to run but don't want to run against you because you're friends or what have you. That's a humbling experience," Coppinger said. "Right now is the right time because we need to give the people who want to run for this office the opportunity to campaign. It requires a lot of time and funding and support staff to run a campaign. I've been blessed in my campaigns to have support and a lot of people helping me.
"It takes a while to raise that support and it would be unfair for me to continue, now that I am at peace with my decision."
Family was also a factor in Coppinger's decision.
"When you have conversations with your family and you haven't been on vacation in years and there are other things you've forgotten about because you're out making deals, you leave a lot of the things you love the most behind," he said.
Over the course of his time as a public official, Coppinger has been a strong advocate for public education and workforce development, as well as job creation and economic growth.
His work in education is of particular importance to him. On Wednesday he listed $248 million worth of capital improvements made to local schools and construction of the new Howard School football stadium among his proudest accomplishments. He also said he was proud to have brought more than 20,000 jobs, 71 new companies and businesses, 135 company expansions and $4.5 million in capital investment from those businesses to the county during his time as county mayor.
Local leaders react to Coppinger's announcement
— Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly: "The strength of his leadership made our community stronger, more prosperous, and I'm fortunate to have him as a partner. We'll have lots of time and opportunities in the next nine and a half months to honor and celebrate Mayor Coppinger. With this announcement of his well-deserved retirement, I will be reflecting on the importance of sound and people-focused public leadership."
— State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson: "Throughout these years, he has built an incredible legacy of leadership, collaboration and public service that has positioned Hamilton County for continued success. For that, we are all thankful for everything he has done for our community."
— District Attorney Neal Pinkston: "Jim Coppinger exemplifies true public service for this city and county. He is a person I have often sought advice from and he has been a continual supporter of public safety, prosecutors and solving cold cases. I wish him and his family peace and enjoyment in retirement and all of God's blessings."
— Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond: "Jim exemplifies what it is to be a good and strong leader. The way he handled COVID-19 is a prime example of that. His years of service as a commissioner and as a firefighter before that prepared him perfectly to be county mayor, and you can see it in the way he made his decisions."
"I don't think the county could be in better shape than we are in now," Coppinger said. "The most important thing is moving forward. I'm proud of the progress we've made over the last decade, but none of that could have happened without us working together."
Coppinger, a Republican, ruffled feathers in July 2020 when he made what he has called the most controversial decision of his career by instituting a public face mask mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19. The move spurred hundreds of angry emails but he stuck by it, saying, "I do believe that there was a tremendous amount of obligation that we had to try to slow down the spread."
On Wednesday he said he still stood by the decision he and other county leaders made at the height of the pandemic, and he encouraged Hamilton County residents to "listen to the science" and "stop the divisiveness" that he believes is harming the county and the country.
"It's not good when we put politics in front of public health. It's not good when we put politics in front of people's personal decisions," Coppinger said. "I look back at the decisions we made and am very comfortable they were the right decisions."
Weston Wamp, the founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation and son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tennessee, said shortly after Wednesday's news conference that he is planning to run for the county mayor job. A formal announcement is expected later this week.
"Hamilton County is a better place to live and work today thanks to Mayor Jim Coppinger's four decades of public service. I'm grateful for his conservative leadership and for his friendship. He and Nina have served our community well and earned the free time they will have together," Wamp said in a statement. "As a father of four young children, the future of Hamilton County is on my mind and heart every day. We are about to write the next great chapter in our county's history, and I look forward to being part of it. Today, we honor Mayor Coppinger for his service."
Wamp's entry into the race would create the unusual situation of two siblings seeking top county offices at the same time. His sister, Coty Wamp, attorney for the sheriff's office, is challenging incumbent Neal Pinkston with a run for district attorney.
Neither Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, nor Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, ruled out potential runs for the position, though both said they felt it was premature to announce.
"I think we need to take a moment right now. Instead of people running to the microphone to announce that they're running, I think we need to take a moment and reflect on all the really good things that Jim Coppinger has done since he's been mayor," Watson said.
Martin said he was grateful to Coppinger for his "stellar leadership" and thought the focus right now should be on celebrating his accomplishments. Any decision he might make to run will come later, he said, after he has talked it over with his family.
"Under Mayor Coppinger we have become the envy of county governments all over the state," Martin said. "I'm not ruling anything out, but I do think we need to focus on celebrating him and his accomplishments today."
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coppinger timeline highlights
— 1973: Coppinger graduates from Hixson High after leading the Wildcat football team as its quarterback in 1972.
— 1977: After attending Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Coppinger takes a job as a cadet at the Chattanooga Fire Department.
— 1997: Coppinger becomes fire chief after being appointed by then-Mayor Jon Kinsey. He had previously been the department's public information officer.
— August 2006: Coppinger is elected to serve as Hamilton County commissioner representing Hixson, Middle Valley and Lakesite. He replaced Charlotte Vandergriff, who decided not to seek re-election.
— January 2011: Coppinger is sworn in as Hamilton County mayor with a unanimous show of support from the Hamilton County Commission. The appointment came just after former Mayor Claude Ramsey resigned to become deputy governor.
— August 2012: Then-interim County Mayor Jim Coppinger earns two more years in the courthouse by winning more than two-thirds of the vote to beat Democrat Rick Wilson and independent Richard Ford.
— May 2014: Coppinger easily defends his title in a primary election against challenger Basil Marceaux.
— August 2014: Coppinger faces off against independent candidate Richard Ford for Hamilton County mayor. He wins.
— August 2018: Coppinger beat out Democratic challenger Aloyse Brown. Coppinger had 33,576 votes to Brown's 22,025.
— October 2021: Coppinger announced he would not seek reelection in 2022 after all, citing a desire to spend more time with family.