They bonded together as they held protest signs, sitting inside City Council chambers while council members night after night tried to chart a course for the city’s financial future.
Four men, three organizations and common goals: Recall Mayor Ron Littlefield, change city government and impact local politics.
“Historical events are not planned,” said Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party. “They just occur.”
The three organizations — the Chattanooga Tea Party, Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield and Chattanooga Organized for Action — made history a week and a half ago by forcing a recall of Littlefield.
All three groups are more or less new on the Chattanooga political scene. West helped found the Chattanooga Tea Party last year as the movement found a face during nationally televised town hall meetings on health care reform.
Jim Folkner, a local businessman, said he started Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield in May after the idea sparked in his mind late last year.
Chris Brooks created Chattanooga Organized for Action about five months ago from a hodge-podge of liberals and conservatives outraged over a March shooting in Coolidge Park that injured five teens.
A fourth leader of the recall organizers, Charlie Wysong, is an anti-abortion activist who said he became involved because of the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
MAYOR STRIKES BACK
On Aug. 27, the recall movement garnered enough signatures to force a recall election. Littlefield remained silent, letting some pieces fall into place.
Then Tuesday, the mayor issued a five-page letter blasting the recall effort and the people involved.
He erupted at three of the four leaders, calling them a “noisy and negative fringe group” and called West a “multimillionaire complete with a posh mansion and healthy real estate portfolio.”
The mayor said Wysong was a “perennial publicity-seeking street preacher” and Brooks a young man who supported himself by donating plasma and “arrogantly” says he doesn’t want to be a “wage slave at Walmart.”
“The rest of the small group of instigators are chronic grumblers and complainers well known to this administration and others dating back many years,” Littlefield’s letter said.
HOW IT BEGAN
The four dismiss those claims, saying they want to talk about substance, not engage in personal attacks.
Folkner said the whole idea of a recall came to him almost a year ago. He saw the City Council debate raising homeowner fees on water quality, or stormwater, a move they eventually approved, hiking the fees from $36 to $115.20 per year.
Since then, he has seen bad things balloon, he said. Gang violence has escalated over the months, he said. The council began debating a 33 percent property tax hike and eventually adopted a 19 percent increase.
“We really have a problem in Chattanooga,” he said.
Others in the group heard questions raised about the city attorney’s billing practices as well as long-standing questions about how the city bought the old Farmer’s Market.
So, in May, Folkner started his recall petition.
He met Brooks and West at City Council meetings. He went to two Chattanooga Tea Party events and pleaded his cause.
West said the party found a local political movement they could wrap their hands around.
Then members of Brooks’ Chattanooga Organized for Action voted to join the recall.
Within weeks, they hit the streets. Tea Party members went door to door at residential houses. Chattanooga Organized for Action members went to apartments.
They collected more than 15,000 signatures on petitions. The Hamilton County Election Commission determined that more than 9,000 were valid, enough to get a recall election placed on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
West said the Chattanooga Tea Party will continue keeping an eye on local politics. It already is looking at responding to school board members who receive retirement benefits, he said.
Brooks said his group also will continue as a public watchdog.
“This has already been a huge success,” he said.
Wysong said he visited the City Council on Tuesday night and saw a stark difference. He saw a body more subdued, he said.
Folkner said voters of Chattanooga now know there is a way to get things changed.
“The recall gives people hope,” he said.
“It was different,” he said. “It was changed.”
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Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...