Note: This endorsement is made by the editor of the Chattanooga Times editorial page. These opinions are separate from the newsroom.
Chattanooga has had a hard year, as has our country. But here in the city of many names — the Dynamo of Dixie, Scenic City, Environmental City, Gig City, Best City Ever — we augmented our year of COVID-19 and virus recession with an Easter tornado and a summer of protests.
The dire times stripped away our fantasies about the things we thought we have overcome — especially classism and racism — and showed us how far we still have to go to be the city we've claimed to be: You know the one: The city we told ourselves did things "the Chattanooga way."
This has never been more apparent than in watching and listening to the "please-give-me-your-vote" appeals from our wide field of political candidates. There are 15 of them.
Ordinarily, we'd shake our heads at a number like that. But not this year. This year, that swarm of serious-minded people — the most diverse, well-educated and experienced field of candidates ever — indicates a wealth of aspirational hope, drive and new ideas for the old problems still plaguing us.
* The average Black household in Chattanooga today earns half what the average white household here does. That's not just a problem for Black Chattanooga. It's a problem for all of Chattanooga.
* Our city budget may be down several million dollars, thanks to COVID-19.
* We can't pave and repave fast enough to keep the streets safe. And we can't hire enough police officers — Black or white — or retain them at an adequate rate.
* And if you don't have a car in this city, you're out of luck for getting to a job or even a school — public transportation bus service here is more slim than it's ever been.
Make no mistake: This is not to say that eight years under the helm of Mayor Andy Berke have not brought us progress. But the past year of calamity and the past four years of disastrous GOP leadership at the national and state levels has stalled our progress.
When you combine the effects of these ill winds, we think our city faces a future much more fractious than we've seen since the 1960s when we had to take on both environmental problems and social unrest.
That makes this year's mayoral (and City Council) election among the most important in decades.
Fortunately, we believe the city would be in good hands with any of these four of the 15 mayoral candidates: In alphabetical order, we're thinking Monty Bruell, Wade Hinton, Tim Kelly and Kim White could put our city on the right track post-pandemic.
The big question is which track: Equity, development, tourism, affordable housing, an infrastructure that builds on accessibility, police retraining and repurposing?
Maybe the bigger question is how could we harness the thinking power of all of them at once to look at all of these necessary tracks.
This has been a tough choice, but we've settled on Monty Bruell, with his fresh look at Chattanooga's strengths and weakness.
"I like to say Chattanooga is like a bright shiny pickup truck. Some of us are riding up front in the cab and we've got the air conditioning going, the music's blasting, and we're enjoying the view through the windshield. But we're not even paying attention to the poor people who are in the bed of the truck out there exposed to the elements, not enjoying the creature comforts that the rest of us have up in the front. And the problem with this is we keep adding more and more people to the bed of the truck. And you know the way trucks work. When the weight of those people exceeds the capacity of the truck, they're not the only ones who will be broken down by the side of the road. We will all be broken down together."
Bruell, 59, is an entrepreneur who was raised by a single mom in Alton Park and East Chattanooga. He was Baylor School's first Black graduate and went to Harvard, graduating with a degree in economics. He has worked with Coca-Cola, Provident and Morgan Stanley.
Here's just one of his ideas: He would reroute our public transit system and make CARTA buses free to ride all the time, thereby putting "between $600 and $1,000, a year per person, not per family, but per person into your pocket. That's money that can be used for better housing or healthier food." He also would require a bus stop at every middle school and every high school, giving kids a free alternative to school buses so students can stay after school for extra academic help or extracurricular activities.
How would he pay for it? He says bus fares only cover about 11% of CARTA's operating budget. And without a need for fare cards or ride-revenue tracking software leases, the system could realize $1 million in savings.
CARTA also manages government-owned parking garages downtown where parking is $1 an hour — the cheapest parking in America. Bruell proposes raising it to $1.50 an hour. Also raising the $11 parking ticket penalty to $20 would help. He also would establish a CARTA-run electric water taxi system on the river.
"If we [through CARTA] can make $1 million dollars a year from the Incline, we could probably make $5 million a year from an electric water taxi system on the Tennessee River," he said.
Here are some snippets from our other top candidates:
* Hinton, 46, calls himself "a convener," and in his job with Hamilton County under the late Claude Ramsey and as city attorney for five years in Andy Berke's mayoral administration, he's done some convening: The Volkswagen expansion, the Alstom tax credits clawback, the establishment of the city's Office of Early Learning — which he wants to build on.
If he's elected mayor he has more plans. Like appointing a COVID-19 response director to streamline resources and partner with the county on vaccines and other needs. Like creating an Equitable Recovery Commission to oversee the use the federal recovery funds to rebuild a more inclusive economy. Like an Office of Equity and Engagement to ensure that every single city department or office is mindful of diversity and inclusiveness, not just the office of Multicultural Affairs. Like working more closely with schools to increase ways to use the city's transportation systems and youth and family development centers for student needs.
* Kelly, a 53-year-old small business owner who made waves recently when financial disclosures found that he's loaned his campaign more than $1 million to be free of "outside influences," says he, too, is passionate about Chattanooga's continuing problems with inequity.
"We've got some serious equity issues in Chattanooga. My time as chairman of the Community Foundation in particular made that really obvious to me. Our gaps here between rich and poor, and black and white are large. They're are grotesquely large nationally, but they're larger here."
Kelly, with a degree from Columbia and an MBA from Emory University, thinks education is a big key to fixing that and raising Chattanooga beyond just being a $10-an-hour service jobs town. He also thinks the city has a role in education, despite the county having complete jurisdiction over our local public schools. He would build on the city's early leaning programs, and try to use CARTA to provide transportation to the public schools' Future Ready Institutes — a concept he terms "brilliant."
On the other hand, he says, too often the city "competes" with nonprofits rather than helps them. He'd like to change that.
He would establish a director for community health.
As for affordable housing, he wants the city to "figure out" what happened to the city land bank that was supposed to be used to return 500 to 1,000 city-owned, vacant properties to productive use.
"I'm a doer. And I'm not looking for a ticket to a future political career. I'm want to fix this stuff."
* Former River City Company president and CEO White, 60, says Chattanooga needs a seasoned, strategic leader who listens and gets things done. With her experience growing $1.2 billion in investment and jobs at River City and her history of working with city, county, business and nonprofit partners, she thinks she's that person.
"I think that our community is at a critical crossroads," she told the Times Free Press recently. The challenge is not just with COVID recovery needs but also "in neighborhoods that haven't had investment" and with "voices that haven't been at the table.
"The issues of our city were so much bigger than River City's mission. ... I've seen as a partner at the city how River City and other partners could be utilized better. We have a history and a reputation as being a great city for public-private partnerships, but I think over the past few years we've siloed more than we've partnered," she said.
All of these candidates are right on the money.
Chattanooga can't go wrong with any of them. But our first choice is Monty Bruell.