published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Putting crises behind him, businessman Gardenhire works to win


by Chris Carroll
Todd Gardenhire, right, speaks at Valley View Elementary School. Also pictured is Valley View principal Sherrie Ledford.
Todd Gardenhire, right, speaks at Valley View Elementary School. Also pictured is Valley View principal Sherrie Ledford.
Photo by Tim Barber.

AT A GLANCE

* Name: Todd Gardenhire

* Age: 64

* Family: Married, with three adult children

* Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

* Current job: Financial adviser for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

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

Faced with apathetic donors and mounting campaign debt, 44-year-old Todd Gardenhire stopped his 3rd Congressional District candidacy six weeks before the 1992 Republican primary.

"I'm not out beating the bushes to be an elected official," Gardenhire told The Chattanooga Times then. He said it was probably his final run for public office.

"Probably" was a fateful hedge. Two decades, two wives and several family crises later, the financial adviser who has made $759,510 in the last three years wanted a victory beyond money. So the longtime conservative activist plunged into an old passion, edging businessman Greg Vital in a dogfight state Senate primary.

Recalling his 40-vote margin of victory, Gardenhire folded an index finger into the crook of his hand and said, "My you-know-what was about this tight during the primary."

Now he's up against Democratic nominee and City Councilman Andraé McGary in a more, er, relaxed general election campaign. Earlier this year, Republicans whipped out the redistricting knives, lopped off liberal territory and added dead-red conservative strongholds to a district Democrats have won since 1976.

Hard of hearing, gray-haired and nearly twice McGary's age, 64-year-old Gardenhire would blend in among the current crop of senators, whose average age is 58. And nobody has admitted to measuring drapes in the Capitol yet, but Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey effectively put Senate District 10 in the Republican win column at a recent Gardenhire fundraiser.

"We are concentrating on some others more than we are on this one," Ramsey crowed.

Still, Gardenhire describes Bradley and Hamilton counties as "two different animals" he's attempting to master. The East Brainerd resident, former Ronald Reagan delegate and George W. Bush appointee begins his campaign days at 7 a.m., hobnobbing with officials and learning about his district.

"I'm tickled to death he's running for this seat — he cares," longtime friend and Erlanger hospital trustee Russell King said. "He reminds me of John McCain. He'll be a senator people can approach, and he won't be dogmatic. We need that to get out of this mess."

Not everybody's on board. In a high-profile case of Republican disunity, Vital hasn't endorsed Gardenhire despite overtures from Ramsey. Vital and Gardenhire haven't spoken since the primary.

"I've moved on," Vital said in an interview. "The election is over. I will be voting in November, and I encourage others to do the same."

•••

For a candidate whose main platform is improving education, the man who calls elementary school "grammar school" and yearbooks "annuals" still has a lot to learn.

Among the questions Gardenhire asked during a fact-finding trip to Bradley County last week:

• How many high schools in Bradley County?

• Meth's kind of a major deal, isn't it?

• What's sexting?

Technically, former principal and 73-year-old campaign volunteer Herb Lackey asked that last one, but a wide-eyed Gardenhire didn't have a clue. Halfway into a discussion about teenagers sending sexually explicit messages or photographs via cell phone, Bradley County Juvenile Justice Center director Terry Gallaher realized both men had no idea what he was talking about.

"I was going to ask the same thing," Gardenhire grinned, "but I was too embarrassed."

•••

McGary tells campaign audiences he's been married "to the same woman for 12 years." It's a deliberate appeal to family-values voters — Gardenhire's marital history defined the Republican primary.

On a weekend in mid-July, an unknown number of 10th District residents opened their mailboxes and found an envelope with no return address. Politically, they had a powerful document in their hands.

It was a 1997 petition for an order of protection in which the candidate's second ex-wife alleged "my son and I are afraid for our lives." Kathy Gardenhire wrote that the couple's 9-year-old son, Andrew, hid in his bedroom closet as her husband threatened them during a night of rage.

"He raves through the house threatening me bodily harm ... I run away from him and hide," she wrote. "He has kept us up these three nights until 2:00, 3:00, then we can't sleep because he has guns and we are afraid."

Gardenhire's polls showed he had a big lead that vanished after the document went out. It emerged a few days after Vital was caught misleading people about graduating from college.

At a Republican gathering the following Tuesday, Gardenhire blamed his opponent for the mailing, a charge Vital denied two days later.

Gardenhire pointed out that a judge dismissed the petition at Kathy Gardenhire's urging nine days after it was filed.

Yet today she maintains that what she wrote was accurate.

"I stand by everything I wrote in the petition," she said in an interview. "It was the complete truth."

The couple divorced in 2008. A police records request on Signal Mountain yielded no other domestic issues at the couple's Big Rock Road home. The only clue in Hamilton County court filings are mutual charges of "inappropriate marital conduct."

Kathy Gardenhire declined to discuss specifics but described her ex-husband as an "excellent dad" to Andrew Gardenhire in the years since the divorce. She said she has limited but "amicable" contact these days with her ex-husband.

Now 25, Andrew Gardenhire lives with his mother in East Brainerd and works for his father at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Chattanooga.

While he said he couldn't "confirm or deny most of what's in the report" -- "I was 9 years old" -- crucial parts of his memory conflict with his mother's account. He said she temporarily put him in his bedroom closet as she called the Signal Mountain police, adding that he doesn't remember a time when he retreated there voluntarily.

"I never feared for my life," he said. "I wouldn't be working for my dad or associating myself with him if he threatened me like that."

Gardenhire's first wife, Mary Gardenhire, declined to say why they divorced but said she was surprised when she read the allegations against her ex-husband.

"I never had an experience like that with Todd," she said. "I never felt threatened."

Gardenhire married his third wife, Sylvia, in May, quickly adding that he didn't tie the knot for political reasons. It bookended another family crisis that defines him to this day.

•••

In June 2009, as a 61-year-old single man, "personal problems" led Gardenhire to take custody of his daughter's 3-year-old son. He "had to learn parenting 101" again, and part of the journey remains on Facebook: There they are at the Georgia Aquarium, the beach, the hospital for the boy's tonsillectomy.

Gardenhire's daughter has since remarried and regained custody of her son, he said. But court records show the boy's father isn't allowed to see the child until he passes a series of drug screens and "stops his criminal conduct."

The dispute is ongoing, and Gardenhire remains involved.

"My interest," he said, "is my grandson."

Steve Burton, the boy's paternal stepgrandfather, is helping McGary.

"Todd Gardenhire and I share a grandchild (his daughter's and my stepson's child)," he wrote on McGary's campaign Facebook page. "I support Andraé. PLEASE vote for Andraé. I wish I lived in District 10 so I could vote for Andraé."

Gardenhire declined further comment on the matter. But he said he's not "going negative" on McGary because he knows the reverse can happen, and he doesn't want his grandson to read anything about the custody war in print.

But last week, when an elementary school principal told him that some Bradley County kids have never held a pencil, used scissors or seen a book until kindergarten, he needed a Kleenex.

Those statements motivate him, remind him of his grandson, make him believe that some kids need career paths beyond the academic.

It's where life experience meets policy for Gardenhire. However many Senate terms it takes to steer a technical school toward downtown Chattanooga, that's all he's doing.

"I don't see this office as a stepping stone," he said with a grin. "The only stones I'll have are kidney stones and a tombstone."

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