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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Supporters cheer as Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley announces her intention to run for Hamilton County mayor on Thursday at the former Mary Ann Garber Elementary School.

The May 2022 Hamilton County election will be the first since the county moved to a mayor/commission form of government in 1978 with a hotly contested Republican mayoral primary, the first in which a Republican woman is making a bid for mayor, the first in at least 30 years with five open seats and the first with 11 districts.

Hamilton County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley created the dynamic for most of the above when she declared her candidacy for mayor Thursday.

Her candidacy makes the Republican mayoral primary a three-way affair — so far — with Matt Hullander and Weston Wamp, she is the first GOP woman to run for the office, and her decision to run leaves her District 7 seat open. Already, District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter and District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd have said they would not be seeking additional terms, and the two new seats, Districts 10 and 11, bring the open total to five.

No Democrats have announced their candidacy for mayor. Indeed, an announcement on the Hamilton County Democratic Party Facebook site says, "HCDP is actively recruiting candidates for County Mayor."

Before Smedley got into the race, a race she said she'd been considering since Mayor Jim Coppinger said last month he wouldn't be running for another term, the race was between Hullander, the son of Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander, and Wamp, the son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.

Both men have declared they're not running on a family name, Hullander pointing to the family business he greatly expanded and then sold, his chairmanship of the Hamilton County Board of Zoning Appeals and the charitable foundation he and his wife run, and Wamp to his leadership of a national nonprofit, his co-founding of an investment fund and his status on the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Both already have touted their money-raising prowess and have made promises they hope will appeal to voters — Hullander not to use his money in the race and Wamp to serve only two terms.

Smedley brings a different dynamic to the race, one of two terms of experience on the commission and the only one of the three to have been elected to public office.

Most recently, as the commission chairwoman, she has been the public face of the county's redistricting effort. While uninformed malcontents whispered charges of "gerrymandering," "voter suppression" and "racism," she led what members of both political parties on the commission declared was the most open redistricting process in memory.

Elected to the commission in 2014, Smedley is a Realtor who helped lead the opposition to annexation efforts by the city of Chattanooga in 2009 and 2010.

Whether her hands-on work in the county will be enough to best the fund-raising prowess and media-saturating ability of the two candidates outside of county government may be the crux of the race.

At this early date, the race reminds us of the 2018 Tennessee GOP gubernatorial primary in which favorites Diane Black and Randy Boyd battered each other while Bill Lee slipped between them, did no negative campaigning, wooed voters at smaller gatherings and won the race.

Whether Smedley — though in government — will be the outsider to maneuver between the two candidates already in the race remains to be seen.

It also will be interesting to see, especially given former River City President Kim White's loss in the Chattanooga mayor's race in April, if GOP voters are willing to coalesce around a woman. Though the race was nonpartisan, White, who had identified in the past with Republicans, did not get the support of enough GOP voters in the city to put her over the top.

The county overall is much more Republican-oriented than the city, but Smedley could use some of those who voted for now-Mayor Tim Kelly as well as those who voted for White — because she would have been the city's first female mayor — to help win her race.

Aloyse Brown, who was Coppinger's Democratic opponent in the 2018 county mayoral general election, earned nearly 40% of all votes cast, about what White netted in the city race.

However, we hope the 2022 GOP primary will come down not to wealth and not to gender but to the issues, and that the public would have a number of opportunities to see the candidates face to face, explaining their plans for the county, demonstrating why they'd be the better candidate and refraining from attacking each other to gain an advantage.

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