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Staff file photo / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced last week he would not seek a third full term.

If the potential intrigue of a new 11-member Hamilton County Commission in 2022 wasn't enough, now the job of county mayor also will be up for grabs.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, 66, who has been in the office since 2011, announced Wednesday he would not seek a third full term.

Following the mayor's last election in 2018, the Republican seemed to give signals that he would not run again. But those signals had vanished, and many believed he was gearing up for another run. But word came last week that he would announce his intentions not to run, and that is what he did.

Coppinger's decision will set off all kinds of political calculations among office-holders and private citizens who are mulling whether to run to succeed him.

If some of those decisions are being made by Republican members of the county commission — Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, Chip Baker and Greg Martin, for instance — they also would be giving up likely safe seats in order to run.

Weston Wamp, founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation and son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Chattanooga, has announced he will run. If he wasn't interested, though, his father was a well-liked congressman and would make a formidable candidate.

Kim White, the former River City Co. chief executive officer who lost the Chattanooga mayoral runoff to Tim Kelly in April, might be a better fit for the top county job. But she was announced just this month as vice chancellor for development and alumni affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and executive director of the University of Chattanooga Foundation and will join UTC on Dec. 1.

Coppinger, remarkably, is only the third county mayor since Hamilton County adopted a new form of government in 1978. He follows Claude Ramsey, a Republican who served from 1994 through 2011, and Dalton Roberts, a Democrat who served from 1978 through 1994.

Since Ramsey was first elected, neither he nor Coppinger ever got less than 60% of the vote in what is now a solidly Republican county. But in an open election, that margin is likely to decrease, though Democrats currently do not hold any countywide offices.

Before being appointed county mayor in 2011 after Ramsey left to serve in the cabinet of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Coppinger was the District 3 county commissioner and before that was a fireman and then fire chief for the city of Chattanooga.

His elevation to county mayor was a tumultuous one, coming after four 4-4 votes in which county commissioners were deadlocked between him and Mike Carter, who had been special assistant to Ramsey.

Commissioners chose not to hold any public interviews with the original nine candidates who had submitted their names for consideration. Then, after the deadlocked votes, Fred Skillern, the commission chairman, stepped down, lining up Coppinger, the vice chairman, to be mayor if the tie could not be broken. Carter, who went on to be a highly regarded state representative before dying earlier this year, pulled his name from consideration and accused the commission of backroom deals and lack of transparency.

Despite that beginning, Coppinger's tenure — he was elected to fill Ramsey's remaining term in 2012, then re-elected in 2014 and 2018 — has been free of major controversy. In stepping down, he cited schools and education, economic development, job growth and quality of life as the four areas in which he sought to make progress for the county.

"I don't think the county could be left in much better shape," he said.

Coppinger noted the county had put $248 million into schools and had seen 135 company expansions. He cited the county's highest possible AAA bond rating and its lowest tax rate in 69 years. Before his term ends next summer, he eyed closing the $16 million purchase of McDonald Farm for county use and the opening — in conjunction with the city of Chattanooga, the Hamilton County Board of Education, Chattanooga State Community College, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and AGC — of a construction academy.

The mayor also deserves kudos for implementing and sticking to a mask mandate during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Though he was criticized for that action and for keeping it in place through late April of this year, his decision likely saved numerous lives.

Coppinger has never been flashy and will never be mistaken for an elected leader who wants to be the first to experiment and try new things. But he's been the kind of leader the majority of Hamilton County residents prefer — conservative with county funds, business friendly and interested in improving the county's education status.

"We haven't always agreed with each other," he said in remarks Wednesday, "but that's what government's all about. It's compromise. A lot of that has been lost now in our country. But I think government works much better when people are working together."

We agree and hope our next county leader will be able to forge just such a working relationship with what is likely to be a bigger and even more opinionated county commission.

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