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From left to right, Chattanooga mayoral candidates Kim White, Tim Kelly and Wade Hinton are seen in this combined photo. / Contributed photos

The only thing outnumbering Chattanooga's mayoral candidates this year may be the dollars spent on each vote they will eventually garner next month.

Former auto dealer Tim Kelly loaned his own campaign almost $1.1 million, and with it, as of the beginning of February, had more than $622,000 in cash on hand, dwarfing the war chests of his closest competitors. Former River City Co. President Kim White reported almost $183,000 in campaign funds on hand, and former city attorney and UNUM executive Wade Hinton reported almost $86,000, according to campaign financial disclosures.

This appears to put Kelly in an enviable financial position three weeks before the March 2 election — for a job that pays roughly $172,558 a year.

Through a spokesperson, Kelly said his hefty self-financing was done with deliberate purpose: to avoid any potential influence from outside interests.

In Chattanooga, there are plenty of outside interests. Of course the worry — or beauty — of outside interests is always in the eyes of the beholder.

Overall, in the 14-candidate race for term-limited Andy Berke's seat, Kelly, White and Hinton had, as of the end of 2020, far out-raised (or self-funded) all of the other candidates.

They also, and in the same order, led all the other candidates in mid-January polling, according to work by Spry Strategies hired by the local conservative group Hamilton Flourishing. In that poll, 21.1% of respondents said they would vote for Kelly, 15.3% opted for White and 8.9% said they would give Hinton the nod. The lion's share of the rest said they were undecided.

In Chattanooga, mayoral candidates have long had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to be viable in the city election:

* Bob Corker in 2001 running in a pack of 12 candidates raised $646,000.

* Ann Coulter in 2005 raised $587,000 and still lost to Ron Littlefield who raised $359,000. Then in 2009, incumbent Littlefield had to raise another $202,000.

* Andy Berke by this month in 2013 had already put Corker's record to rest, raising $675,000, according to news reports. That early start, 300 volunteers, four paid staff members and a cadre of wealthy donors wrote the city's story for the next eight years. Adding to his cash on hand just ahead of his 2017 re-election bid, Berke raised another $350,000 to give him a roughly $625,000 election war chest.

Kelly's self-financing, along with just under $100,000 from individual donors, gives him the kind of war chest he's said he wants to avoid being beholden to special interests, according to his campaign manager, Rachel Hanson.

"Tim wanted to spend the majority of the campaign's time and energy listening to and talking to voters, not fundraising for dollars from interest groups," Hanson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday. "Several years ago, Deborah Scott, a candidate for Chattanooga City Council, self-financed her campaign in order to avoid any potential influence from outside interests. This was a successful campaign and allowed her to focus on the needs of her district over those of outside special interest groups who might try to sway her votes. Tim is taking this same action as he knows the only special interest he will have is for the people and the future of Chattanooga."

White came next with $502,000 raised from 690 individual donors.

"I'm in awe of the generosity, support and encouragement I've received from every ZIP code and every walk of life in our city," she said.

Hinton raised significantly less than White, but still drew in $153,000 from almost 500 donors — the second highest number of individual contributions, in a campaign that launched later than most of the others.

"Wade is funded by everyday Chattanoogans who want a progressive and experienced mayor to lead this city through the COVID-19 crisis and recovery. They're looking for a leader with a vision who is pro-growth, for good-paying jobs and accessible housing," spokesperson Spencer Bowers said.

While he may not have the largest war chest, Wade has raised enough to be competitive and is proud to have raised the most money of any Black mayoral candidate in the history of Chattanooga elections.

There's always a lot of money raised and spent in political races.

And as Cyndi Lauper sang, "Money changes everything."

Political pundits are fond of telling us that the candidate who spends the most money usually wins.

There's less than a month now to find out if those things hold true as usual in our city.

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