published Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Table is set for GOP win in Tennessee's 10th state Senate District


by Chris Carroll

DEMOCRATS

Name: Quenston Coleman

Age: 59

Education: Attended Tennessee Technological University, majored in business administration

Current job: Retired; former state probation and parole officer

One big idea: Eliminate sales tax on groceries

Name: Andraé McGary

Age: 32

Education: Bachelor of science in biblical studies from Carver Bible College; master of divinity in pastoral studies from Covenant Theological Seminary

Current job: Councilman, city of Chattanooga

One big idea: Stimulate Legislature to stop worrying about social issues and focus on job creation, health care and immigration

Name: David Testerman

Age: 61

Education: Bachelor's degrees from Tennessee Temple University in education and in religious studies and history; master's degrees in curriculum and instruction and in administration supervision from Tennessee Technical University.

Current job: Hamilton County school board member; former administrator at several schools

One big idea: Education overshadows all -- re-establishing technical education, reining in student loan debts and supporting public school teachers

Two bachelor's degrees and a graduate of theology degree

from Tennessee Temple University and a master's degree from Tennessee Tech University.

REPUBLICANS

Name: Todd Gardenhire

Age: 64

Education: Bachelor's degree from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1972

Current job: Financial consultant for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

One big idea: Technical school for inner-city children in downtown Chattanooga

Name: Greg Vital

Age: 56

Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration from Southern Adventist University

Current job: President and CEO of Independent Healthcare Properties, LLC

One big idea: Modify all levels of education to better prepare students for available jobs

At least four Independence Day celebrations are under way in Tennessee's 10th state Senate District by noon on July 4. From Lookout Mountain to Charleston, Tenn., barbecue simmers, American flags sway and sweet tea flows in coveted Republican territory.

They could be anywhere, but the Chattanooga Republicans fighting for that Senate seat find themselves standing six feet apart.

Todd Gardenhire, Greg Vital and their wives essentially ignore each other at the Flint Springs Ruritan Club Chicken-Q in southern Bradley County, where faithful Republicans, endangered-species Democrats and stubborn independents form a line for meat, veggies and fellowship.

Some Bradley residents seem confused that, after years in the 9th Senate District, redrawn lines are forcing them to choose new representatives from people they don't know.

But the people paying attention know the stakes are high a few weeks before the Aug. 2 primaries.

For Republicans, the 10th District represents a longtime Democratic stronghold they've reshaped to go the other way in November -- a big pickup in plain sight.

Operating with a 20-13 advantage, GOP Senate leaders see the 10th as a step closer to a two-thirds, filibuster-proof majority of 22.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that means Republicans could form a quorum and approve legislation even if no Democrats are present.

"The party that has a supermajority does have a control of the agenda, whatever that agenda might be," Watson said. "That gives a lot of leverage to the party, and it also gives a lot of leverage to the [Republican] executive branch."

Democrats, on the other hand, want to prevent the GOP from gaining that leverage and keep a seat they've won since 1976.

Redistricting occurred earlier this year, near the end of incumbent 10th District Sen. Andy Berke's first full term. The Chattanooga Democrat declined to run for re-election in a district "designed for political reasons."

Now Berke is running for mayor of Chattanooga. In a phone interview, his outlook bordered on grim for his potential heirs apparent -- Quenston Coleman, Andraé McGary and David Testerman.

"Gerrymandering is part of the system," Berke said. "It was certainly drawn to lean toward a Republican."

•••

The Republican-controlled Legislature didn't make it easy to explain its 10th District transformation. From west to east:

Dependably Democratic Marion County was cut;

Liberal-leaning downtown Chattanooga and GOP hamlet Lookout Mountain were kept;

Conservative strongholds such as Apison, East Ridge and some, but not all, of Bradley County were added.

Lawmakers took a knife to Bradley, keeping Hopewell, Prospect and most of Cleveland in GOP state Sen. Mike Bell's 9th District and moving Charleston and Bradley's unincorporated, rural remainder into the 10th.

Bradley County Election Commission Deputy Registrar Phaedra Walker said all but 38 registered Cleveland voters are 9th District residents.

Bradley County Republican Party Chairman David Smith said it's all "very confusing."

"You could be in one district on one side of the road and then across the driveway, you're in another," he said.

•••

At Flint Springs, Vital and his wife, Carlene, arrive early and station themselves near the back of the food line to have first crack at the Chicken-Q crowd. Before long, the line drifts a few feet closer to the grill, where Gardenhire, 64, hands out brochures and jokes with voters, asking them to ignore their newly acquired Vital campaign paraphernalia.

Separately, Gardenhire and Vital ask the same question when they approach someone looking vaguely interested.

It isn't, "Can I get your vote?"

It's, "Where do you live?"

The answer determines the course of the conversation.

About half the time, people in line answer the Republicans' where-do-you-live question with outside-the-district answers.

Suddenly there isn't much to talk about, and sometimes the candidates let it show.

"Sorry," one woman tells Gardenhire when he informed her she didn't live in his "area."

Meanwhile, Andraé McGary takes a different approach at Chattanooga's Creative Discovery Museum.

Campaigning at one of Chattanooga's top attractions for young couples and their children, the 32-year-old Democrat, Chattanooga City Council member and former WGOW-FM talk show host keeps the conversation going even if he discovers someone's from Marietta, Tallahassee or Texas.

McGary seems a little busy for this. A father of five who quit his radio gig to comply with election rules, the $21,991-a-year councilman and his wife, Cheryl, "saved up a couple months" so he could be a full-time campaigner, he says.

But today he's talking to tourists.

Asked why he spends time on people who will not -- cannot -- vote for him, he quickly answers, fully aware of a dwindling number of guaranteed 10th District Democratic votes.

"You never know who they know," he says. "They might have a connection to Chattanooga I don't know about. I'll find some votes."

•••

He'll have competition.

A Hamilton County school board member with a long history as an educator, David Testerman, 61, said dealing with schools and all their complications -- safety, jobs and budgeting -- have fully prepared him for a state Senate seat.

But McGary said education is Testerman's limitation.

"I'm not so sure that Testerman has a good grasp of the issues in terms of how a legislative body works," McGary said. "The plates I'm juggling [in City Council] are more similar to what the state Senate position actually calls for."

Testerman shrugged off McGary.

"He's actually calling into question his own experience," he said. "He's been on City Council for a few years and I appreciate it, but half the Hamilton County budget is spent on education. Don't think that's not an important issue in the community and to the taxpayers."

Quenston Coleman, a 59-year-old retired state probation and parole officer, said his goals include eliminating sales tax on groceries and reviewing all state agencies to eliminate duplication and waste -- a promise straight out of Gov. Bill Haslam's 2010 campaign playbook.

None of the Democrats filed first-quarter campaign finance disclosures, but all three stressed their connections and said they would count on downtown Chattanooga for wins in August and November.

"That's why I got in this race," Coleman said. "This district is not insurmountable."

But the elimination of Marion County and the several GOP-leaning additions have given Republican Senate leaders a sense of inevitability.

"You start in Chattanooga with that race over there, with Andy Berke's old seat, probably the most Republican of the six we have redrawn," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in June. "I think the [GOP] primary will be the race in that seat."

•••

Gardenhire and Vital promise to be good Republicans and good fiscal stewards. Both pledge to train schoolchildren and college students "for the jobs," not a test.

How they're selling themselves is what makes them different.

Gardenhire is a financial consultant at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Chattanooga.

At Flint Springs, he says his strengths include his political savvy and his "roots," which he describes as "five or six" generations of Gardenhires in Bradley and Hamilton counties.

"One lady I met grew up next door to my grandmother," he says.

A former member of several federal boards, committees and councils, Gardenhire directs a voter to the third page of his brochure.

There, a younger, brown-haired Gardenhire poses with a Republican duo for the ages -- Ronald and Nancy Reagan, then president and first lady.

"You know, I've got a framed letter from Reagan from when I was in the Navy," one Flint Springs man tells Gardenhire.

Another woman smiles and remembers the 1980s: "I voted for him a couple times."

As this occurs, Vital observes it, appears unmoved and says, "I'm not running on the past."

But Vital recently circulated a mailer with a photograph featuring him and President George H.W. Bush.

"I'm not running on my association with those individuals," Vital said in a follow-up interview, "but I'm saying I've been involved just as long, working just as hard, in Republican politics. I'm running on the future."

Vital, 56, added that he takes environmental concerns more seriously than most Republicans, believing that public lands and "a clean water supply" are essential to education and jobs. He called the Trail of Tears "America's first civil rights story" and promised to come up with ways to use parks like Red Clay State Park to show young students "how we treated Native Americans."

The contrast can be found in the parking lot: Vital has a National Parks Conservation Association sticker on his BMW sport-utility vehicle, while Gardenhire's got a National Rifle Association sticker on the back of his Toyota Tundra.

But these guys spar over vehicles, not bumper stickers.

•••

During a break in the Flint Springs action, Vital touted his 16 years as president and CEO of Morning Pointe, a chain of assisted-living centers based in Ooltewah. He said he created 800 jobs after starting the company in 1996.

Then he whipped out the scarlet letter of the "1 percent" era: "He's a Wall Street businessman," Vital remarked of Gardenhire, who manages funds for foundations, pensions and endowments.

"I created jobs while he was moving money around for Wall Street," Vital added.

Gardenhire scoffed and said Vital briefly worked for the brokerage firm Dean Witter, which merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997.

True, Vital said, for "two years, 25 years ago."

Gardenhire hit back again, pointing out Vital's "high-class BMW" at the Flint Springs luncheon.

Vital said it's a 2005 model with 150,000 miles on it, adding that he has a Toyota Tundra himself.

"And a Ford farm truck," he said.

After loaning himself $75,000, Vital had out-raised Gardenhire 12-to-1 by the end of March. Gardenhire counted $5,270 on hand while Vital reported $63,869 in the bank, records show.

"Who are people going to relate to?" Gardenhire wondered aloud. "Me, who's driven a [2008] Toyota Tundra I've had for a while, or somebody that drives a BMW?"

"That seems a little desperate," Vital fired back.

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