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House District 29 Democratic nominee DeAngelo Jelks. (Candidate submitted photo)

NASHVILLE — Hamilton County Democrat DeAngelo Jelks, who is running in the Sept. 14 Tennessee House District 29 special election, won his first political office over the weekend when Hamilton County Democratic Party members elected him as their new vice chairman.

Ooltewah resident Jelks, a human resources recruiter for a local firm who faces Republican businessman Greg Vital of Georgetown, said he doesn't see his being embraced by the Democratic Party as turning off GOP voters in the Republican-leaning district.

"People thought I would do a good job at it, similarly to running for D-29," said Jelks, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. "There was a need to fill and I felt like I would be able to balance both as state rep and vice chair. So I agreed to accept the nomination and I was voted in."

"One of the things I really want to be able to do with the party is really increase the level of involvement by local Democrats day to day and not just in election years," Jelks said, "as well as transparency in the party and fundraising, just being a good support to candidates."

He said he was encouraged to run for the local party position. That came after his decision to run for the legislative seat that had been held by the late Rep. Mike Carter, an Ooltewah Republican who died May 15 of pancreatic cancer.

Asked if he thought assuming a Democratic Party position might alienate at least some Republican voters in the district, which includes parts of Chattanooga as well as Harrison and Sale Creek, Jelks countered, "Why would it be a turnoff?

"I'm running as a Democrat," he said. "If they weren't turned off to me as a Democrat they shouldn't be turned off to me as being a leader amongst Democrats. That should be encouraging, because they know there are additional sets of eyes holding me accountable and that I will be more inclined to stay above board in all aspects because I hold additional responsibility with the party," Jelks said.

"I don't hide being a Democrat. I don't think that would be a negative, it would be a positive. And it would ensure I would be surrounded by some of the greatest, strongest minds who aren't all just Democrats."

Vital said he was aware that Jelks had been elected to a local party position but had little to say other than "I go door to door. It's just got to be a tough week to be a Democrat with what's going on in this country right now, with the lack of leadership."

Early voting last week in the contest was low. Vital holds a considerable fundraising edge over Jelks.

State legislators holding local or even state party office is nothing new in Tennessee. For example, then-Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, once did double duty as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party before later becoming House speaker.

In their meeting Saturday, Hamilton County Democrats re-elected Rodney Strong as party chair. Therese Tuley was elected party secretary, while Alix Thornhill was elected treasurer. Jelks vyed with Sean Nix for vice chair.

Early voting in the House District 29 special election continues through Sept. 9 at the Brainerd Recreation Center, Collegedale City Hall, Hixson Community Center and Hamilton County Election Commission office.

All early voting sites are open Monday through Saturday, although closed on Labor Day.

More details are available at bit.ly/HD29early.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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