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Staff File Photo By Erin O. Smith / Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, right, was the last mayor elected in a runoff and only the second since World War II.

All indications are that Tuesday's Chattanooga mayoral election will wind up in an April runoff.

That's only happened twice since World War II, in 1975 and 2005, and we think both races offer examples of the intrigue that can shape the eventual winner in the race.

Polls show businessman Tim Kelly and former River City CEO Kim White leading this year's 15-person contest, with former Unum executive Wade Hinton and businessman/entrepreneur Monty Bruell having outside shots of earning a spot in the runoff.

Both the 1975 and 2005 races had strong third candidates, which prevented leading vote-getters Charles A. "Pat" Rose and Ann Coulter, respectively, from winning their races outright.

This year, not only are there three candidates who polls say have more than 12.2% of the vote, but at least four others — Bruell, Councilmen Russell Gilbert and Erskine Oglesby, and former local NAACP President Elnora Woods — have considerable constituencies.

Of critical importance will be which candidate gains the most runoff votes from those candidates who did not make the final two, what (if anything) the two will promise the vanquished candidates to get those votes and whether the candidates will be able to turn out as many votes in the runoff as they did in the primary election.

In the most recent example of what can happen with more than two strong candidates, Ron Littlefield came from behind in 2005 to defeat Coulter in the runoff and went on to serve two terms as mayor.

It didn't take long for that runoff to take shape.

On election night, third-place finisher Dan Johnson — who'd gotten 19.27% of the vote to Coulter's 42.31% and Littlefield's 35.91% in the eight-person race — came to Littlefield's headquarters and pledged his support.

The prominent accountant, according to newspaper archives, had been unhappy the Coulter campaign had produced a television advertising spot mentioning that he had declared personal bankruptcy in the 1980s. He pledged to work hard to elect the then-city councilman, and he even went door to door to rally those who had supported him.

Although the race was then, as now, nonpartisan, Johnson was a former Hamilton County GOP chairman, and his turnout of Republican voters was critical in the win for Littlefield, who had always been identified as a reliable Democrat.

After the election, Littlefield named Johnson his chief of staff, and he remained in that position throughout Littlefield's two terms.

In 1975, as in this year's election, two sitting city commissioners (the city's form of government was changed in 1989), Rose and Steve Conrad, vied for the mayor's job, along with a former Hamilton County sheriff and city commissioner, James "Bookie" Turner.

In the March primary, Rose garnered 40.3% of the vote, well ahead of Turner's 28% but substantially short of a majority victory. Conrad fell 496 votes short of making the runoff in the five-man race, of which the other two candidates together earned slightly less than 5% of the vote.

Conrad subsequently endorsed Rose, but Turner did very little campaigning after the primary. Then, two days before the runoff, Turner said he was withdrawing as an active candidate.

His statement said he had been the first declared candidate in the race, that he knew Conrad was likely to run, "and I felt strongly that the people should have a choice." He also said Rose "left me with the distinct impression that he probably would not run for mayor." Rose's subsequent candidacy "took from me a considerable amount of my support that I had against Commissioner Conrad," he said, and the two other campaigns already were better financed than his.

"I just can't get any money," Turner had said earlier.

However, a newspaper analysis of the race before the runoff noted that "it has been reported in close City Hall circles that Mr. Turner's principal effort in the primary was to keep Commissioner Conrad from being mayor. The two — Conrad and Turner — have been political antagonists for several years and often opposed each other during a four-year common tenure on the City Commission (1967-1971)." It went on to say Turner's opposition to Rose was not nearly as strong as his opposition to Conrad; thus, his desire not to campaign.

Turnout in 1975 fell off nearly 8,000 votes from the primary to the runoff. However, in 2005, it rose from 27% in the primary to 30.4% in the runoff. Turnout in the last city election in 2017 was 19.7%.

Whichever two combatants are in the 2021 mayoral runoff, it will be incumbent upon both to marshal some of their opponents' votes and still turn out theirs from the primary.

In Tuesday's contested Chattanooga municipal election, the Free Press editorial page recommends:

* Mayor: Kim White

* District: 2: Thomas Lee

* District 3: Ken Smith

* District 4: Darrin Ledford

* District 5: Dennis Clark

* District 7: Ken Hays

* District 8: Anthony Byrd

* District 9: Demetrus Coonrod

 

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