There's a really clear sign the Hamilton County District Attorney's race between incumbent Neal Pinkston and his GOP primary challenger Coty Wamp is going to be a doozy: Wamp, a former assistant DA who now serves as general counsel to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, already has picked up the endorsements of the two local police unions.
The International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 673 and the Fraternal Order of Police Rock City Lodge #22 represent officers from the county and Chattanooga departments. And since police and district attorneys often have a love/hate kind of relationship in the criminal justice world, police endorsements going to anyone other than an incumbent DA are telling.
"It's proof that not only has law enforcement been let down by my opponent, but they believe in me," Wamp told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a Saturday phone interview. Pinkston did not respond to requests for comment.
What's more, on Tuesday in a debate at the Hamilton County Republican Women's monthly meeting, Wamp referred to Pinkston as a failed prosecutor who avoids the public eye.
"We need new leadership," Wamp said. "I want you to think about the amount of times you've heard from him. When have you heard about priorities, when have you heard about focusing on gang and violent crime, when have you heard about major drug cases? The answer is not very much."
For his part, Pinkston painted Wamp as a politician rather than a prosecutor, despite the fact that she has experience as assistant district attorney in Bradley County, where she was a prosecutor.
Of course, our DA's race already was destined to be a hot one, as was foretold by the embattled Pinkston (tainted by controversy over office nepotism and previous friction with Chattanooga police over an effort to tamp down growing gang violence) asking the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into alleged witness tampering involving Wamp. Pinkston alleged that Wamp inserted herself into a Soddy-Daisy shooting incident by telling police there she had reason to think they had arrested the wrong man. No one was injured in the shooting.
In his referral, Pinkston said the Soddy-Daisy Police Department relayed that Wamp notified the department it had the wrong suspect in custody following the shooting. Pinkston said the victims took back their original stories after their interactions with Wamp.
"After this alleged intervention, victims recount original story, deny Hugo Garcia Padilla is suspect and now accuse Hugo Garcia Robles," Pinkston wrote in his referral document to the TBI, apparently intending to spell "recant" rather than "recount."
Wamp called Pinkston's action a "political stunt."
Possible stunt aside, one has to wonder why the sitting DA wouldn't want to hear all possibilities in a situation where the wrong person might be in custody and the potential real suspect remains free. TBI's probe is ongoing.
One of the police unions endorsing Wamp had a similar thought: "The IBPO has no reason to question Ms. Wamp's integrity or intentions, despite the recent efforts of our district attorney to have Ms. Wamp investigated by the TBI while she was trying to ensure a potentially innocent person didn't go to jail," the union's statement said.
We mentioned nepotism earlier. Pinkston married a subordinate in his office, Melydia Clewell in 2019, kept it quiet and then hired her brother Kerry Clewell in 2020. Pinkston avoided county commission questions about whether county money funded the employment of relatives in his office. He said no. Later he maintained that he gave a "true and correct" answer because they were state employees at the time.
But it wasn't kosher with state officials either, and when concerns were raised by the state district attorney's conference, Pinkston was forced to move them back to the county payroll.
The continuing stink has prompted the county commission to plan a June budget-time consideration of a measure that would prohibit the use of county funds to pay family members of those who are elected officials serving in positions laid out in the state constitution. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that consideration will come after the May 3 state and county primary election.
Yessiree, folks. This is the stemwinder race to watch in Hamilton County this year.
Opinion: Will Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama lawmakers please tell us what is so bad about voting rights?