Hamilton County Republican voters next month will select their choice for the next county mayor from among three local entrepreneurs who want to succeed Jim Coppinger as head of Hamilton County's government.
Unlike Coppinger, a lifetime government employee who was a firefighter and fire chief for the city of Chattanooga and later a Hamilton County commissioner, the next mayor will have spent most or all of his or her career in the private sector.
Sabrena Smedley, the current chair of the Hamilton County Commission, has served two terms on the county's legislative body, but her full-time jobs have been as a real estate broker and agent and as the owner of two local Pure Barre franchised stores.
The other candidates trying to succeed Coppinger are both private business leaders, although both of their fathers were or are still elected officials.
Matt Hullander, whose father Bill is the Hamilton County trustee who previously served as a county commissioner, last year sold the Hullco window and home improvement company he bought in 2007 from his father. Matt Hullander continues to own or invest in multiple commercial properties and he has led a donor-advised charitable fund known as the Hullander Family Foundation.
Weston Wamp, who ran unsuccessfully in both the 2012 and 2014 GOP primaries for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District seat previously held by his father Zach, was a co-founder of the Lamp Post Group and the Dynamo Fund. He later was a radio talk show and podcast host and helped create the non-profit Millennial Debt Foundation, which is working across the country on encouraging policies to limit the federal budget deficit.
The only Democrat running for county mayor, Matt Adams, is a 25-year-old contract paralegal who moved to Chattanooga last year after leaving active duty in the U.S. Army. The winner of the May 3 Republican primary election for county mayor will face off against Adams and two Independent candidates, Richard D. Ford and David Tulis, in the Aug. 4 general election.
In interviews with The Times Free Press, each of the GOP candidates touted their business background as indicative of what they will bring to Hamilton County government if elected mayor. But what does the record show and how will their business background affect how they might run county government if elected?
Windows of Opportunity
Matt Hullander, 48, has spent most of his career growing the window replacement and home remodeling business his father started more than four decades ago. After working as a teen bagging groceries at the former Red Food Stores while attending Ooltewah High School, Hullander became a window installer at his father's Hullco Exteriors home remodeling business while attending Chattanooga State. After college, Matt Hullander rose through the ranks of his father's business to become president of Hullco by 2005. Matt Hullander acquired the family-owned business in 2007 shortly before his father, Bill, who was then a county commissioner, was elected county trustee in 2010.
From 2007 when he bought the business until last August when he sold Hullco to West Shore Home, based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Matt Hullander expanded the business fivefold from about $4 million in annual sales to more than $20 million in sales, adding an office in Knoxville five years ago and expanding the remodeling business from windows and siding to bathrooms and other remodeling projects.
Hullco was named "Replacement Contractor of the Year" by Replacement Magazine, a "Big 50" inductee by Remodeling Magazine, a "Best Place to Work" in 2020 by Edge magazine, a publication of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and was a two-time "Torch Award" winner for business ethics by the Better Business Bureau.
"I've got the experience to be the CEO to run this entire county," Hullander said during a television debate on WTVC-TV.
Hullander, who helped grow Hullco consistently through the years with personal TV pitches and commercials, said he is eager now to become a salesman for Hamilton County as mayor and to bring a focus to the mayor's office and Hamilton County's $833 million annual budget.
"As a business owner who has made payroll, grown a team and been successful through multiple recessions, a pandemic and an ever-changing economy, I am well-prepared to lead the county," Hullander said. "I've had hundreds of employees and more importantly, made payroll for over two decades."
But Hullco's payroll practices for some Hullco employees paid on a piece-rate basis were found to be in violation of hourly and overtime requirements for such workers. A 2020 investigation by the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor said Hullco "was found to be in violation when the firm failed to pay the additional half time due to piece-rate workers," according to a summary of the investigation released under a Freedom of Information Act request. The Department of Labor investigators said installers worked an average of 3 hours of overtime per week without the extra pay due them" and Hullco was ordered to pay back wages of $9,024.56.
Hullco bathroom installer Shannon Tucker said the company continued the illegal pay practices even after the Department of Labor investigation and Tucker sued Hullco last year after Hullander sold the business to West Shore.
In a complaint filed in federal court, attorney Philip Oliphant said Tucker regularly worked in excess of 40 hours per week" without overtime pay. After the labor department investigation ordered overtime pay for piece-rate workers, Tucker alleged in his lawsuit that a Hullco official bragged that the company "came out of this like a bandit." Tucker said he was ordered by Hullco Vice President Bobby Winnie to "figure out how to keep [his timesheet] at 40 hours" and to "make [the timesheet] look pretty."
Hullander ultimately agreed to pay Tucker $17,500 to settle the lawsuit without admitting any unlawful conduct.
Hullander declined to discuss individual employee grievances, but he said in a statement, "There were never any illegal pay practices at Hullco."
Position: Former president and owner of Hullco and investor in several real estate and business ventures. Member of the First Horizon Bank board of advisors.
Career: He joined Hullco in 1994 working in the company’s window factory and did a variety of jobs before becoming president of Hullco in 2005 and buying the company from his father in 2007. Hullander sold Hullco last August to West Shore Home, based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He has been active in remodeling trade groups.
Education: Graduate of Chattanooga State Community College.
Personal: He and his wife have a daughter and live in Rivermont.
Campaign website: matt4mayor.com
Hullander said he tried to build a culture of integrity and fairness at Hulcco and "I think 99% of our employees who worked at Hullco will tell you their favorite thing about working there was the family atmosphere.
"You have disgruntled employees from time to time, but I think I was as fair as any employer in the United States," he said.
When Hullander sold Hullco to West Shore Home last August, employees of Hullco were offered jobs with the new owner. But soon after the sale, West Shore moved out of the Hullco office and warehouse facilities and relocated and consolidated its Chattanooga operations at its current site on Appling Street. Because of its centralized distribution, payroll and other efficiencies of a larger company, West Shore has fewer employees in Chattanooga than Hullco did a year ago.
According to his financial disclosure, Hullander continues to have a number of real estate investment interests through B and M Development, which owns some commercial rental properties in East Brainerd; Scenic Land Co., which owns McLemore Cove and golf course on Lookout Mountain in Walker County, as well as Apison Land Co., V2 Holdings LLC; V2 Strategy LLC; and Chestnut Holdings LLC. Hullander also serves on the local board for First Horizon Bank and is also an investor in the telehealth platform Rhinogram in Chattanooga and an Italian restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, known as Thompson 105
Hullander said he doesn't plan to put his holdings in a blind trust if he is elected county mayor.
"I don't have to hide anything," Hullander said. "I don't do business with the county in any of my businesses and, if elected, I'll be working full time as mayor."
Hullander said many of his businesses have grown out of the relationships he has built during his career "and I think I can do that as well if I am mayor to help Hamilton County."
Hullander said he learned many valuable business and political lessons from his father Bill, who is the county's top fiscal agent as county trustee. But Matt Hullander insists he will remain independent as mayor. The trustees's office is self-funded through its tax collections and implements the tax policies set by the county mayor and commission.
Business & government experience
Smedley, 53, the only elected official and only female in the GOP field, has sought to differentiate herself from "the good ol' boys" and claims she is the only candidate with actual experience in county government, not the heir of a political family name.
"I'm running to serve the citizens of Hamilton County, not to make Hamilton County the family business," she said.
Smedley brags that she has both business and government experience and after eight years on the county commission — twice being elected chairwoman — she can bring stability to county government at a time when most of the commission and many of the top leaders in city and county government have or soon will change.
Smedley owns her own real estate agency and a boutique fitness franchise, Pure Barre, with two local stores.
But Smedley didn't start out in real estate or government. After graduating from Ooltewah High School, she initially trained at Chattanooga State to become an ultrasound technician. She worked performing ultrasounds at area hospitals and at a family practice physician's office while her children were young.
In 2004, she got her real estate license and switched careers to become a licensed real estate agent. Within a year and a half of starting to sell houses, Smedley opened her own real estate agency under the Help You Sell Realty franchise for the first five years. In 2010, Smedley went out on her own and became Sabrina Realty. Her current husband, Mark, later joined Sabrena Realty Associates LLC as another agent and is currently running the business while Smedley runs for mayor.
In 2012, Smedley, who was active in governmental affairs and other programs at the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors, was named the group's Realtor of the Year. By then, Smedley was a single mother of three after divorcing her first husband.
"I really like working with people to help them find a home and negotiating to put a deal together," she said.
But the commission-based income has not always been dependable "and as a single parent there were times I really struggled to make ends meet," Smedley said.
During those struggles, a civil warrant was issued against then Sabrena Berderich-Turner for unpaid medical debts, including a $141 charge for an unpaid debt to Physicians Care, according to court records. Smedley blamed the delinquency on her ex-husband, who she divorced in 2004.
The warrant was dismissed in 2012.
"I ended up going to court and paying it and it is totally off of me," Smedley said. "I did not even know about it and when I did I made it good immediately."
Position: Broker and owner of Sabrena Realty Associates LLC in East Brainerd and owner of two Pure Barre franchisee stores.
Career: She worked as an ultrasound technician at local hospitals and a doctor’s office and got her real estate license in 2004, starting her own real estate agency in 2006. She and her husband, Mark, bought two Pure Barre franchise stores in 2019. She was elected Hamilton County commissioner in 2014 and has twice been elected commission chair.
Education: Earned a Master’s in Business Administration from Bryan College
Personal: She is a mother of three children and a grandmother of two and lives with her husband Mark Smedley in East Brainerd.
Campaign website: sabrenaformayor.com
From those struggles as a single mom and a new real estate agent, Smedley said she learned to rely upon her faith, hard work and commitment to her clients to build her business.
"I've done everything from the ground up," she said. "I didn't walk into a family business and I didn't have a dad in politics."
But Smedley said she has demonstrated an ability to work with other people to get things done.
Indeed, her political career began when she and other East Brainerd residents were upset by then Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's efforts to annex into the city areas of the unincorporated county like the Hurricane Creek subdivision that Littlefield said enjoyed the benefits of Chattanooga without having to pay any city taxes. The property tax rate in the unincorporated parts of Hamilton County is only about half the rate in Chattanooga.
Smedley was one of the organizers of the grassroots campaign group known as Hamilton County Residents Against Annexation, which raised over $200,000 to fight the city's forced annexation attempts. The group filed 13 lawsuits to block the forced city annexation attempts and the dispute got the attention of the Tennessee Legislature, which ultimately passed a law to limit cities from voting to annex property against the will of the local residents.
After helping lead the annexation fight, Smedley said many people encouraged her to run for the open District 7 seat when then-Commissioner Larry Henry ran for Circuit Court clerk. Running under her maiden name Sabrene Turner at the time, she defeated former Hamilton County school board member and Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority Chairman Phil Smartt and local painting contractor Perry Perkins, who was endorsed by both the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
In 2018, she was re-elected without opposition.
Smedley bought her real estate property in 2007 and three weeks before Jim Coppinger announced he was not going to run for another term as mayor, Smedley sold the East Brainerd home she uses for Sabrena Realty. She continues to lease back the property but she says she will close her agency if elected mayor. Her husband, Mark, who is also a Realtor, would join another real estate firm, she said.
The District 7 Smedley represents on the Hamilton County Commission is one of the fastest growing areas of the county. But since she was elected as a county commissioner in 2014, Smedley said she has not sold new homes for builders or developers in the area to avoid any appearance of conflict over zoning and land issues in the growth parts of Hamilton County.
In 2019, Smedley expanded her business holdings by buying the local franchise of the boutique fitness franchise Pure Barre where she had been a member for four years.
When the previous owner relocated to Dubai, Smedley acquired the two local Pure Barre stores — and three months later the COVID-19 virus hit America and such workout facilities were ordered closed. She used a private Facebook site during the lockdown to serve members and turned to the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help pay for employees idled during the lockdown and to cover other operating losses due to COVID-19.
But Smedley said she doesn't plan to create a blind trust for her business holdings if she is elected.
"Maybe my opponents think they have so many assets that they need to be put them in a blind trust. Sabrena doesn't," she said.
Entrepreneurial problem solver
Weston Wamp, the 35-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, grew up in a political world and tried unsuccessfully twice to take the seat his father had and become the youngest congressman ever elected to Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District.
Although he was narrowly defeated in Republican primary battles with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in 2012 and again in 2014, Wamp said he learned a lot during those campaigns and has used those political skills in the past three years to advocate both for controlling the federal debt by Congress as the founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation and supporting education in Tennessee. Wamp was appointed in 2019 by Gov. Bill Lee to represent the 3rd Congressional District on the Tennesse Board of Regents.
Wamp has also been a leader in Chattanooga's burgeoning startup community. Following a year working in a public relations job in Nashville after he graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2009, Wamp returned to his hometown to help start the Lamp Post Group, a venture incubator that provided both capital and mentorship to growing startups.
Wamp said his grandfather and most of his uncles were self-employed and he grew up seeing and understanding the values of entrepreneurship.
Six years ago, Wamp also was one of the co-founders of the largest startup fund in Chattanooga's history — the Dynamo Fund. Wamp traveled the country selling Chattanooga as an entrepreneurial city and helped raise the initial $18 million to start Dynamo Ventures, the first major logistics startup fund in the country. Dynamo, which last year raised another $43.5 million, helped accelerate the growth of Chattanooga's trucking and logistics industry. The fund was overseen by the founders of the former Access America trucking firm — Ted Alling, Allan Davis and Barry Large — as well as Wamp and Santosh Sankar, the director of the Dynamo Accelerator.
Aided by the fund, local logistics enthusiasts have labeled Chattanooga as a "freight alley" and continue to look for new business opportunities to support and grow America's shipping industry amid new technologies and supply chain challenges.
Wamp has also used his communications skills as host for six years of a radio talk show, The Pitch, on the local ESPN radio station, and as a host of the podcast "Swamp Stories" for Issue One, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce the role of money in politics. The Millennial Debt Foundation has hosted seminars and programs with top congressional leaders and the foundation is working to come out with specific recommendations to develop an overall deficit reduction plan by this summer.
Position: A former founding director of the Lampo Post Group and the Dynamo Fund, Wamp is the founder and CEO of the Millennial Debt Foundation and a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents. He is also host of “Swamp Stories” podcast for Issue One.
Career: After working in public relations in Nashville, Wamp helped start the Lamp Post Group in 2010, the Dynamo Fund in 2016 and the Millennial Debt Foundation in 2019. Wamp was named to the Tennessee Board of Regents in 2019.
Education: A graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Personal: He and his wife, Shelby, are the parents of four children and live in Lookout Valley.
Campaign website: westonwamp.com.
"I think my whole career working in business and the non-profit realm on some of the most difficult issues is trying to be a problem solver," Wamp said. "The county has extreme challenges and we need new leadership to take those problems on."
Wamp, a father of four children, ages 1 to 7, said "being a Dad is the most defining part of my resume."
As a parent, he said he is focused on the long term and the importance of public education. But beyond his own family, Wamp said his experience in recruiting and growing companies has also convinced him of the need to improve opportunities to local students to help economic growth, to build up families and to reduce crime and improve public safety.
"These are all interrelated problems and require some new approaches and leadership," Wamp said.
Although he enjoys a well-known name due to his father Zach, Weston Wamp has never been employed by his father and has started most of the businesses where he has worked throughout his career.
Weston Wamps' sister, Coty Wamp, is a former prosecutor and public defender who is also running in the May 3 primary election in Hamilton County as a Republican candidate for district attorney, trying to unseat incumbent Neal Pinkston. If both of the Wamps are elected, Weston Wamp as county mayor would oversee a budget that provides some funding for the district attorney's office his sister would head, although both siblings would be constitutional officers accountable to the public that elected them.
Weston Wamp has pledged to serve only two terms if he is elected mayor and has pledged to put all of his holdings in a blind trust if he is elected mayor to ensure that there is no way his mayoral decisions could benefit him personally.
"The county mayor, more than any position in local government, has extraordinary conflicts if they have any local investments," Wamp said. "It's a shame that Matt and Sabrena won't do that as Mayor [Tim] Kelly and Gov. [Bill] Lee have done. Even Donald Trump, as complicated as his holdings were, put those in a blind trust, and I think that shouldn't be a big ask for our county mayor."