There’s a theory that local elections are determined by the alphabet. Ballots are in alphabetical order by last name, and uninformed voters, of which there are many, don’t have the time or patience to get to know each candidate, especially when there are a lot of candidates.
The evidence used to support this theory is pretty damning. Take Nashville for example. The city’s last nine mayors are Cooper, Briley, Barry, Dean, Purcell, Bredesen, Boner, Fulton, and Briley. How else do you explain a guy named Boner getting elected?
On Tuesday, Chattanoogans will put this theory to the test when they head to the polls and cast their ballots in a mayoral election unlike any other in the city’s history. Voters will be in uncharted territory––not because they will have to wear a mask, stand six feet apart, and hit buttons on the voting machine with a straw––but because of how many candidates they will have to choose from. Uninformed voters beware: there are 15 people running to fill Mayor Andy Berke’s seat. One-five. It’s the most ever in a Chattanooga mayoral election, and would probably set records in many American cities. Here are all fifteen candidates as they appear on the ballot. (The two Montys must be feeling pretty good about their chances.)
- Monty Dewayne Bell
- Monty R Bruell
- Lon Cartwright
- Christopher Dahl
- D’Angelo Davis
- Russell J Gilbert Sr
- Wade Hinton
- Tim Kelly
- Chris Long
- George Ryan Love
- Andrew McLaren
- Erskine Oglesby, Jr
- Kim White
- Robert C. Wilson
- Elenora Woods
The number of candidates is completely bizarre for a city of only about 180,000, and speaks to Chattanooga’s appeal as a charming up-and-comer in the southeast. But while residents may be flattered that so many people find the job attractive, the mad rush to chart the city’s course hints at an anxiety and a restlessness simmering beneath all of the growth that Chattanooga has enjoyed over the past decade.
“There’s a thing called the Tocqueville effect, which states that the more successful a society becomes, the more it agitates for change,” said one person close to the administration of departing Mayor Andy Berke. “The leading candidates all see that the public is a little impatient, a little nervous about how we’re going to emerge from COVID-19. Chattanooga has been really spoiled over the last eight or 10 years. We get a lot of national press about how cool we are. I think Chattanoogans are a little worried that those times might be coming to an end, and are worried about who is going to be the person that will keep us in the spotlight.”
That restlessness has left voters hungry for a change of scenery. Many are eager to replace Berke with something new and shiny, despite the fact that he is still popular among his constituents.
“We’ve had the same mayor for eight years, and of course after any eight year term of anything, people are just ready for something different,” said Dennis Milton Clark, a candidate for district five city council, a seat that Russell Gilbert recently vacated in order to — you guessed it — run for Mayor. “And so a lot of the things you’ll hear from the candidates are about bold change, but it doesn’t say anything against [Berke] necessarily.”
Change Chattanooga will get. Of the fifteen candidates running, there are three or four clear frontrunners depending on who you ask. Together they represent a departure from the norm. They are Tim Kelly, Kim White, Wade Hinton, and Monty Bruell, with Bruell being the occasional odd man out. Hinton or Bruell would be the first Black Chattanoogan to be elected mayor, and White the first woman.
Hinton has raised more money than any Black mayoral candidate in the city’s history. But what makes this group of four truly unique and a bellwether for some specific brand of change is that while some may be known in political circles, not one of them has ever held elected office. Rather, each has an extensive business background. It’s a real who’s who of LinkedIn.
Tim Kelly Kim White Wade Hinton Monty Bruell
With the exception of Hinton, who served on Berke’s transition team eight years ago and as General Council and City Attorney for the city of Chattanooga for five years, they are completely new to politics and government work. Even those close to the race recognize it’s oddity.
“That almost never happens in a mayor’s race,” said a consultant working with one of the four frontrunners. “They aren’t technically newcomers because they are known figures in the city, but you almost never have someone in the top three that has never held office. That’s just really rare.”
Business acumen is among the most important qualities in a candidate this year, especially for voters anxious to see their city continue along its exciting trajectory. This is not to say that the race is apolitical, although the office of mayor is non-partisan
“It’s bipartisan, it’s diverse. In most mayors’ races, the candidates end up being not too far apart ideologically. There aren’t radical differences of ideology but more radical differences of emphasis,” said one campaign aide.
White has taken up the mantle as the conservative candidate. She has some conservative donors like Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and is viewed as a protegee of former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who was also a Chattanooga mayor. Hinton is seen as a progressive Democrat and draws the most comparisons to Berke, in part because of his former work in the Berke Administration.
Bruell shares the stage with Hinton as the other leading progressive.
Kelly has avoided being labeled with a party. And he really wants you to know that. After the January U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia, Kelly ran an ad that depicted a TV playing campaign commercials from the Georgia contest getting thrown out of a window. Kelly is later shown filling in a pothole and saying something along the lines of, “enough divisiveness, let’s bring Chattanooga together.”
Although the race will almost certainly go to a runoff, because no candidate is projected to win over 50% of the vote, Kelly has the lead going into Tuesday. Recent polling has him at 27%, up from 21.7% in January. Based on these numbers he would need nearly all of the currently undecided vote in order to avoid a runoff. White sits in second place at 21.1%, having gained almost six points in the last week. Next is Hinton who is now polling 15.3% for his third consecutive increase in support. And Bruell’s range remains in the low 8% region.
Hinton and Bruell are duking it out with several other progressive candidates for the same share of the voter base, leaving the wealthy independent and the lone conservative to take the inside lane. But regardless of the eventual outcome, and regardless of even the policy issues themselves on which the candidates seem well enough aligned, Chattanooga may be entering a new phase of its political future: one where board memberships are a more valuable currency than political experience.