At their first face-to-face showing as political opponents Tuesday, District Attorney Neal Pinkston and challenger Coty Wamp debated who is a dedicated prosecutor and who is focused on just politics.
In what was pitched to be a cordial discussion about the candidates' visions during the Hamilton County Republican Women's monthly meeting at Red Stone Estates in Chattanooga, Wamp laid into Pinkston and alleged he was a failed prosecutor who avoids the public eye.
Meanwhile, Pinkston painted Wamp as a politician rather than a prosecutor.
"We need new leadership," Wamp said. "I want you to think about the amount of times you've heard from him. When have you heard about priorities, when have you heard about focusing on gang and violent crime, when have you heard about major drug cases? The answer is not very much."
Wamp went on to promise that if elected, she would prosecute crimes at a significantly faster rate than the incumbent.
In response, Pinkston, who opened by saying he was a prosecutor and not a politician, said prosecutors are ethically bound not to speak about ongoing cases and must be careful about what can be said publicly.
"Either Ms. Wamp is unaware of these rules, or she chooses to ignore them," he said, adding he is the only qualified prosecutor in the race.
Pinkston has worked in the district attorney's office since 2003 and was elected to an eight-year term in 2014.
Wamp serves as general counsel for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. She has experience as assistant district attorney in Bradley County, where she was a prosecutor.
As the candidates took turns at the podium, they made little eye contact as they walked by one another. The event ended with a handshake and no words spoken between the two.
When asked about growing gang violence in Hamilton County, Pinkston said the numbers have been "pretty steady" and the office must stay its course to address the issue.
"I have a gang unit in my office with a dedicated gang prosecutor, gun prosecutor as well as a retired federal detective who works on gun cases," Pinkston said, adding the Chattanooga Police Department has credited him with curbing gang violence. "We just have to stay the course and do our job on a daily basis."
Although he did not offer historical statistics detailing gang violence trends, the number of homicides in Chattanooga remained largely unchanged between 2019 and 2021, the Times Free Press reported.
However, the number of non-fatal shootings increased from 80 in 2019 to 126 in 2021.
In 2017, there were 32 homicides in Chattanooga, followed by 20 in 2018 and 33 in 2019. In 2020 and 2021, the department reported 34 homicides each year. The sheriff's office reported three homicides for 2020 and one for 2021.
The crime statistics show Pinkston has been focusing in the wrong areas, Wamp alleged.
"The district attorney for the last eight years has focused on cold cases," she said. "When he has had press conferences in the past, they're on cold cases that have been resolved. We don't have a cold case problem in Hamilton County. There is no secret cold case problem we don't know about."
The candidates went on to speak about drug crimes in the county.
Wamp said the amount of violent crime has left drug-related crimes taking a back seat, and the county prosecutes those crimes at a lower rate than most other counties in the state.
Pinkston admitted drug crimes skirt under the radar in society, although he emphasized the office is still prosecuting the perpetrators of those offenses on a daily basis.
"It isn't something that we've avoided doing or shirked our responsibility," he said.
Pinkston and Wamp ended the event by laying out their visions for the county if elected.
"We've got to start taking more cases to trial," Wamp said. "The other thing is that when this district attorney's elected, every law enforcement officer is going to know that I support them and have their back."
Wamp on Saturday was endorsed by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 673 and the Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge #22, which represent officers from both the county and the city of Chattanooga.
Pinkston, saying he didn't "really hear a vision" in Wamp's remarks and that "there was a lot of finger pointing as usual," urged voters to consider his experience in office.
"I want you to vote for me based on my track record in the work I've done as a prosecutor, not for some shallow, empty promises," he said.
The event, for which candidates were given questions ahead of time, lasted less than 30 minutes. Wamp and Pinkston received one minute at a time to speak.
Following the event, Wamp said the candidates were not given an adequate amount of time and that she'd rather attend a more debate-style event with audience input.
Pinkston agreed that issues that fall under the district attorney's office are complex and it was difficult to condense his responses, although he said he understands the reason for time limits.
One topic that did not surface during the event were allegations made by Pinkston against Wamp about potential witness tampering.
In a Jan. 6 referral to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the district attorney alleged Wamp participated in obstruction of justice in the aftermath of a shooting on Barbee Road in which no one was injured.
In the referral, Pinkston said the Soddy-Daisy Police Department relayed that Wamp notified the department it had the wrong suspect in custody following the shooting.
Pinkston went on to say the victims took back their original stories after their interactions with Wamp.
"After this alleged intervention, victims recount original story, deny Hugo Garcia Padilla is suspect and now accuse Hugo Garcia Robles," he wrote in the document, apparently intending to spell "recant."
Wamp, Pinkston and most other parties involved have declined to comment about the case as the TBI has taken over the investigation of the shooting and Wamp's after-the-fact involvement.
In the past, though, Wamp has stated that Pinkston is using the investigation for political gain, which he has disputed.
The TBI has declined to comment on the matter beyond confirming that an investigation into the shooting and Pinkston's allegations is ongoing.
A representative with the bureau last week said details will be shared with the district attorney.
The 2022 primary election will be May 3.
Candidates must return qualifying petitions to the elections commission by Feb. 17, and they have until Feb. 24 to withdraw from the race.
Contact Logan Hullinger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-319-5158. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.