It was not the life she initially sought for herself, Sabrena Smedley says.
A single mother at one point in her life, she started her own realty firm, in 2012 was named Realtor of the year and eventually earned a master's degree in business administration from Bryan College.
Not much of an activist, Smedley was asked 10 years ago to get involved and help stop the forced annexation of county property into the city of Chattanooga. Ultimately, a state law ending forced annexation was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
No politician, she was encouraged to run for an open District 7 Hamilton County Commission seat, wound up winning it, has served two terms and was twice elected chair by her colleagues.
Though at first reticent to give up a commission seat she easily could have kept, Smedley decided to make a run in the Republican primary for county mayor, stepping boldly between the sons of two political heavyweights who had first declared for the office from which Mayor Jim Coppinger is retiring.
Today, we endorse her candidacy in that race.
We take that step today not because we think entrepreneur Weston Wamp or former home remodeling company owner Matt Hullander can't do it but because we've observed Smedley's leadership close up and are encouraged it can be broadened county wide.
Consider just three examples:
— Smedley has held regular meetings for District 7 residents, keeping them up to date on potential zoning changes, infrastructure needs and school developments. When possible, she has brought along her school board member, the current Chattanooga city councilman, regional planners and representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. We know for a fact all commission members don't do this, and some barely speak to their school board representative.
— After the strong EF-3 tornado did millions of dollars of damage in her district on April 12, 2020, she went to work for residents, helping them make connections for relief and repairs. For one particularly devastated neighborhood, she has been a stalwart in helping keep out a predatory developer who wanted to take advantage of the situation and change the character of the neighborhood. Beyond that, she has done legwork, made phone calls, and met with groups and individuals who might help knit the community back together.
— With local tensions still simmering from the protests following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at police hands a year earlier, Smedley opened to the public for the first time the redistricting process last fall following the 2020 census. Declaring that everything would be on the record, she saw to it that the open meetings were streamed live or could be watched online after the fact. She encouraged public comment and suggested each commissioner have meetings to hear from their constituents. Once, she even kept an open phone line for a sick commissioner to have considered all the changes she wanted. And through it all, she handled even the most uninformed questioner with grace and patience.
We haven't always agreed with Smedley — particularly on her early support for discretionary funds for county commissioners (for a permanent restroom for the then-new East Hamilton High football field, and several defibrillators), an issue she is now against — but generally believe she has voted the desires of her district.
As county mayor, she will have to consider the divergent views of the wider county — especially in the event of something similar to the COVID-19 pandemic — but we believe she is up to that task.
"It's an awesome responsibility," Smedley said of leadership during the likes of a pandemic. "That's why I've been reluctant to be critical [of decisions made at the time]. Your role as mayor changes. If anything happens, you have to rely on experts and make the best decision for all the citizens."
Though Smedley doesn't talk as passionately about education as Wamp, she nevertheless envisions progress for the school district through additional trade schools, a focus on early learning and an emphasis on early-grades literacy. Though she did not vote for a 2019 push on increased property taxes for schools because she wanted to see the results of several pending reports and test scores, she has been endorsed by the Hamilton County Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education (as well as by two local police unions and the firefighters' union).
"If a child cannot read," little else is likely to fall in line, she said.
Smedley's plans on infrastructure, public safety and workforce development do not differ widely from her primary opponents, but she said her knowledge about what the county faces gives her a leg up on what lies ahead on each issue.
We admire and appreciate Wamp, his passion and his belief that many of the county's issues come back to education. We supported him in his 2014 primary race for Congress and hope he'll have a significant role to play in the future of the county and city in which he and his family have chosen to remain.
We also salute Hullander for growing his family's business many-fold and believe he can find new and worthy avenues where he can use his business acumen.
For us, Smedley's background, her experience and her preparedness for the job make her an ideal candidate for county mayor. We commend her selection in the May 3 Republican primary and her election in August.