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Last week, the field of candidates vying to replace outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was reduced from 15 candidates to a runoff between businessman Tim Kelly and former nonprofit organization leader Kim White.
When no candidate secured the votes required to win in the general election, more than 11,000 Chattanoogans who voted for another candidate were left without their first choice.
Now, they and any undecided Chattanoogans must pick between Kelly and White, two candidates who share many demographic characteristics and, at first glance, share most priorities.
So, what are the differences between the candidates, their promises and their policies?
If you ask Kelly, a self-identified “policy wonk,” he’s the best candidate for the job because of the breadth and specificity of his proposed policies and vision.
“We worked really hard with and put together diverse working groups to develop our policy, and did that very early in the campaign and made it a major priority,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Between October and January, Kelly published policy frameworks about education, affordable housing, COVID-19 response and recovery, community development, economic development, aiding Black and Hispanic communities, paving and infrastructure, public transportation, criminal justice, homelessness, outdoor resources and sustainability. And in most cases, he was the first of the slew of candidates to release any specific plan.
In January, Kelly also released a detailed plan for his first 100 days in office. It spells out dozens of steps he would take in the week between the runoff and his inauguration, his first week in office and then his first three months in office. He is the only candidate yet to do so.
In addition to having detailed policy plans, Kelly said each of the policies was developed with the input of diverse working groups, through lenses of both equity and nonpartisanship, in an effort to make them reflective of as many Chattanoogans as possible.
“I take the nonpartisan thing very seriously. I don’t think that comes with a wink and a nod, and I don’t know what the point would be if it did,” said Kelly, who has identified Chattanooga as his political party throughout the race. “And a demonstrated commitment to equity is another difference. We’ve got a very clear plan for the Black community, and all of our platforms are developed through an equity lens.”
For example, he said that process drove his “nuanced, broad and compassionate” homelessness policy, which plans a proactive approach to curbing homelessness and looks at the issue as separate from but related to affordable housing.
Beyond policy, Kelly said that same emphasis on collaboration and bringing voices together will be apparent in how he leads, if elected, and has been his style as a business owner.
“And I’ll focus on what’s best for Chattanooga and really open and collaborative processes and transparency,” he said. “I value diversity of perspectives. I like to say when two people agree, one of them’s unnecessary. So I really genuinely do, if you talk to people that know me and work with me, I try to surround myself with people that will disagree with me and arrive, through a dialectic, at the right answer.”
To ensure some of that transparency, Kelly said he would be regularly available to the media, appoint a policy analyst to do independent impact analysis for the council and the public and would attend city council meetings, unlike the current mayor.
“I think the city just needs to get back to more of a living room conversation sort of tone around our common problems for our common purpose,” he said.
White, on the other hand, said she is the best candidate because of a combination of her background, experience and temperament.
“As far as background, I’m a female from a working-class family. I went to public school. I lived at home. I worked my way through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. And I believe that my working-class roots are similar to so many other people across Chattanooga,” White said in an interview Friday.
“I can appreciate people that have experienced obstacles. I know what it’s like to juggle three jobs; I did that to make ends meet. In fact, there was a time when I even qualified for housing assistance,” she said. “I have a very similar story to other people in Chattanooga. When I came back here in 2003, I came back without a job, without political connections or a family business to work at, and I worked from the ground up, just to find opportunities to use my voice.”
White said her own climb to success as a nonprofit leader and recruiter at a Fortune 500 company after a modest beginning gives her a unique appreciation for Chattanoogans in many situations.
“What excites me about running is that I’ve heard so many people that they think their voice doesn’t matter or haven’t found a place to use it before. And I believe that my experience allows me to identify with them, and really make sure that their voices do matter, because I’ve been in that same boat,” she said.
Her experiences later in life, including as president and CEO of River City Co., an economic development nonprofit, are another key qualification, she said.
“Leading a city is a lot more nuanced than running a business,” she said. “And I think the fact that I’ve worked alongside city government for the past 11 years will allow me to be ready, working on day one.
“I’ve been a CEO of a private business and I’ve made payroll, but I’ve also been CEO of an economic development organization and been in the business of building our city and the economy for the past 11 years,” White said. “I’ve been in the role of selling and building Chattanooga and getting others to bring investment and opportunity to our city. I’m proud of the fact that I brought $1.2 billion of investment. And I know that we have to have a strong economy and good jobs in order for Chattanooga to thrive, and I have that experience of doing that and growing and recruiting jobs.”
That experience, she said, will help her bring similar economic success to other parts of the city, not reached by her work at River City.
“I want to do that in every part of the city, not just the downtown area where my role was before. And I think the fact that I’ve been involved in planning and executing plans, working alongside city government [and] county government foundations, the business community, the nonprofit organizations, that’s how we built downtown,” she said. “And I want to take that same experience and bring opportunity to strengthen every neighborhood — like Avondale or Brainerd or Lookout Valley — using that same model of ‘community up,’ making sure the community has a voice and an investment that’s made.”
Finally, White said her ability to create and maintain partnerships will make her an effective city leader.
“I think that it’s critical that we have a mayor that has the experience and temperament to build strong partnerships and coalitions. I’ve done that. I have experience with community building and listening to different stakeholders. And that’s how we all got our work done at River City,” she said, referencing public and private partnerships she’s overseen, including raising $6 million from private donors for the redevelopment of Miller Park, for which the city funded the remaining $4 million.
“Our city government can only do so much, and we’ve got to have effective partnerships. And that’s how we’re gonna grow,” she said.
Here are summaries of White and Kelly’s policies on top issues.
Kelly’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan includes establishing a policy director for community health and developing an inter-local agreement with Hamilton County to coordinate with the health department and goals of expanding testing, supporting vaccine distribution and providing resources to keep schools open.
He also said he will provide a “one-stop shop” for businesses through the city to coordinate best practices, identify government support resources and “help navigate red tape that prevents business launches.” He will also launch a program to increase minority business enterprise participation in the city’s procurement process.
White has not published a specific COVID-19 plan but has provided for recovery support for businesses in her business development plan. She noted in her better government plan that it is “imperative that we all are vaccinated, continue to wear masks and practice social distancing to keep our economy going.”
In his economic development plan, Kelly said he will focus on strengthening the local workforce by improving job training and education, market Chattanooga to “high-quality, high-potential” companies, support local entrepreneurship, generate equitable growth across the city and coordinate with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
White’s plan to grow business states that she will create the Office of Small Business Support to assist in starting businesses and navigating government processes. She said she also will meet regularly with local businesses, specifically those that are minority owned, to identify problems they face in the city.
To recruit outside businesses, White said she will work with the chamber of commerce and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. She also said she will not offer “excessive” incentives.
HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
Both Kelly and White said they will work with nonprofit partners at Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise to promote affordable housing by leveraging the city’s derelict and back-tax properties and lowering development barriers to promote more affordable housing options.
Kelly said he also will offer financial incentives to both developers and local individuals to provide affordable housing options.
About the election
The runoff election for the mayoral race and the race for city council Districts 2 and 5 will be held April 13. Early voting will run from March 24 to April 8.
Absentee ballots may be requested beginning March 12. The deadline to register to vote is March 15.
Separately, Kelly said he will address homelessness proactively, including dealing with policing practices that pertain to homeless people and providing support to local shelter providers to create immediate housing options for those in need.
White said she will include $2 million in her first budget to create affordable rental units and aim to add 700 such units in her first term.
In Kelly’s criminal justice plan, he said he will work to encourage collaboration between the community and law enforcement, review policies to “decriminalize poverty,” emphasize the use of treatment and social services, hold public safety agencies accountable to a high standard and prevent crime through outreach programs.
He said he also will focus on quality recruitment, retention and support for the police and fire departments.
In her plan for first responders, White stated she will support the use of take-home cars for patrol officers and make efforts to recruit and retain diverse, high-quality police and firefighters.
She said she supports the existing police advisory board and will work with the police department and community to regularly review use of force and other policies and to provide adequate training.
TRANSPORTATION AND ROADS
Kelly said he will add $3.5 million to the paving and pothole budget, promote easier parking in downtown, plan for a multimodal transit hub and increase electrification infrastructure. He pledged to provide free bus fare on main routes for city residents by 2022.
White said she will recommend an additional $3 million in her first budget for repaving roads and generally will aim to pave roads over filling individual potholes. She said she will work with city council members to identify and prioritize the roads in the worst condition.
Both White and Kelly said they will partner with the Early Matters Coalition to increase the number of quality Pre-K seats and childcare facilities available to Chattanoogans.
Kelly also said he will expand the city’s Head Start early education program by working with nonprofits and will increase Head Start teachers’ minimum pay to $15 an hour in his first 100 days. He said he will prioritize completing the Building Trade Academy project with county and nonprofit partners.
White also said she will work with the county schools and private organizations to provide support for before-and-after-school programming by using the city’s Youth and Family Development Centers and library branches.
Read more on Kelly’s policies and see his other policy plans at bit.ly/kellypolicies.
For more on Kim White’s policies and her other focus areas, visit bit.ly/whitepolicies.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at [email protected] or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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