published Sunday, August 10th, 2014

No retreat: In Rhonda Thurman's world ideology is everything, compromise, weakness

Rhonda Thurman talks to supporters in Soddy-Daisy about her write-in campaign for the District 1 Hamilton County Commission seat.
Rhonda Thurman talks to supporters in Soddy-Daisy about her write-in campaign for the District 1 Hamilton County Commission seat.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    Thurman waits on election results Thursday at Wimpies Country Restaurant in Soddy-Daisy.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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This has been her routine for nearly a decade. While her husband sleeps, she prepares to represent the good people, the taxpayers, of District 1 on the Hamilton County school board.

Sometimes at 400 pages, the month's school board agenda packet is stuffed with consultant contracts, field trip forms, budget amendments and bids. Unlike some other board members, she combs through nearly every page.

These nights in her kitchen, wielding a highlighter, a legal pad and sticky tabs, have helped build her reputation as a stickler, an unyielding nit-picker. These nights have helped her become, arguably, one of the most notorious politicians in Hamilton County's history. But she represents something larger, a political shift toward an America that increasingly embraces the politics of no.

Later at the board meeting, in front of teachers, parents and reporters, she'll pepper administrators with questions.

Why does this consultant cost $2,500 a day?

Why are we taking elementary students on overnight field trips?

Why is the school year starting so early?

Why are teachers getting out of class for professional development, leaving a substitute with their students?

This is her routine each month. Study. Ask questions. Say no.

Oftentimes the votes go like this: 8-1. 8-1. 8-1. Sometimes she'll find a sympathizer and earn a 7-2 vote.

School board meetings can drone on for hours. So when Thurman starts asking questions about the Public Education Foundation or teacher training programs, other board members roll their eyes. When she rants about the federal government's intrusion into education, some zone out. They long ago learned to tolerate Thurman's rants.

For taking these stands, Thurman has become both despised and idolized. She's either a broken record spouting conservative drivel, a joke worthy of a cartoon, or a fearless leader, unwavering in her principles. A rebel with a cause.

But public opinion doesn't faze her. This is her role.

A fiscal hawk.

A watchdog.

A no-nonsense conservative.

And so long as she's standing in the right place, she doesn't mind standing alone.

When her political mentor, Fred Skillern, a fellow stalwart conservative penny-pincher, lost his County Commission primary in an upset this summer, she felt she needed to step up. She didn't listen to the warnings that no one has won a write-in campaign here in recent history.

The people of Bakewell, Sale Creek and Soddy-Daisy needed her, again.

This was a rescue mission.

•••

It is said that politics is all about compromise.

Striking deals. Crossing the aisle. Sacrificing for the greater good.

Bob Dole was called the "Great Compromiser." Edward Kennedy earned the title "Lion of the Senate" in large part for his decades of bipartisan accomplishments. And Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was known as the "Great Conciliator."

At some point, compromise was noble. But in recent years, America has traded compromise for stalemate, immovable grandstanding.

Legislators filibuster five times as often as they did 50 years ago. Political sparring between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act led to a 16-day federal government shutdown in 2013.

And Americans, on the whole, say they don't like this. They say nothing gets done anymore. Congressional approval ratings have tanked to record lows. Political scientists bemoan the slow death of meeting in the middle. At every level of government, they say, politicians are becoming more polarized.

"Moderates have been disappearing," said David King, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Many Americans don't see a lot of nobility in compromising. Compromise has, for many people, become a sign of a weak backbone."

Thurman agrees.

Ask her about compromise and she'll tell you there's too much of it. Ask her what her voters in the northern reaches of the county think of compromise, and she'll say they don't want it.

There's already too much giving in. Too much back-door dealing. Too much backing down.

Before the tea party swept the nation with its rhetoric about mounting debt and expansive government, Thurman was raging against wasteful government spending in her hometown.

And like the tea party, she embodies obstruction instead of accomplishment.

Detractors have spun doughnuts in her front yard and laid tacks in her driveway. People have called her an ignorant hairdresser. They've said she has no right to set education policy when her own daughter didn't stay in public schools. When Thurman has spoken her mind, other politicians have held news conferences and publicly called for her to apologize.

But the women who sit in her beauty shop tell her to keep fighting. They admire her gumption. And past votes prove her popularity. The people of District 1 have elected her three times to the school board, all the while knowing who and what Rhonda Thurman is.

Since kicking off her County Commission campaign in May, she promised that she would make no promises. She didn't seek any big endorsements. She would owe no one.

It's the same mentality that has guided her on the school board -- better to remain ideologically pure than give in for the sake of accomplishment. If it costs her the election, so be it.

•••

Thurman never thought she would be a politician.

The daughter of divorce, she grew up in Red Bank with her mother, stepfather and three siblings, and lived an uneventful life aside from her father's death in a car crash when she was 15.

Life unfolded on the ball field. Her stepfather played semi-professional baseball and the whole family traveled town to town for various games and tournaments.

Her mother says she was always a rule follower. She finished her chores without being asked. Never rebelled as a teen, never talked back.

"If she was going to be 10 minutes late, I'd get a call," her mother, Thelma Potter, said.

There wasn't a lot of money. Thurman didn't get toys on trips to the store. Instead, her mom taught her the joy of saving.

When she was making decisions about her future, she thought practically. She attended community college for a stint, and then changed her mind. She wanted to start working, she told her mother. She wanted to be a hairdresser.

By 19, she was renting a chair in a Brainerd shop. A few months later, she moved to Highway 58, where she's been teasing and perming for 38 years.

And it's at her salon that politics became a part of her life. While sitting under the lamps or getting a trim, women would talk. Teachers would complain about decisions made by bureaucrats. Parents would complain about inflated budgets.

"Where is all the money going?" they would ask.

So Thurman decided to investigate. She requested school system budgets and started attending board meetings.

At the meetings, she challenged everything from why physical education classes had been cut to school zoning changes. She viewed the school system as top-heavy, favoring urban schools over suburban and rural ones. She wrote letters to the editor and in 1998 formed the group Citizens Advancing Responsible Education, or CARE, to try to limit school spending and hold the board accountable.

The group went on to fight a County Commission-levied $25 wheel tax in 2000. Their petition forced the issue to the ballot box, where it was soundly defeated by voters.

Then, after years of petitioning from the outside, Thurman made her own run for the board in 2004. She won and was re-elected in 2008 and 2012, though her wins didn't come without controversy.

There was the time in 2010 that Thurman said, "I think we all need to put our big girl panties on and grow up," in response to ethics complaints brought by Normal Park Museum Magnet parents that were later dismissed by the board.

And the time in 2011 when she said "slaves learned to read," when arguing that inner-city schools get too much funding, and that money wasn't tied to a student's ability to learn.

Many called those remarks racist, including state Rep. JoAnne Favors, who said it was alarming that some board members and county commissioners were so heavily influenced by "the least educated among them."

"They must remember that an empty wagon makes the most noise," Favors said at the time.

Then there was the time Thurman walked out of an official board meeting, fed up with Normal Park Principal Jill Levine's presentation during a rezoning discussion.

And Thurman couldn't say no enough.

In the last decade, she has cast "no" votes on providing free lunches for all students, teacher raises, teacher training, field trips, nonprofit funding and even the cost of shipping.

She became a thorn in the side of many administrators, even the ones she has supported.

In 2005, the board agreed to pay Jesse Register $150,000 for a year of consulting work in the last year of his contract as the county's superintendent. Thurman, calling it a "buyout," didn't want to pay him more than what was already in his contract.

"Don't you ever get tired of being negative?" a public relations strategist the board hired asked her during those negotiations.

"No," she said.

In 2011, she found herself in the majority, casting one of six votes to buy out the contract of then-Superintendent Jim Scales a year early. That coalition then placed longtime administrator Rick Smith in the top job after long seeking a local face for the superintendency.

But not even the favored son could get her to bend.

In 2013, the board moved to give Smith a $25,000 raise after two years of favorable evaluations. But Thurman objected, saying the board shouldn't give him more for meeting its expectations.

"I am here to represent the taxpayers," she said at the time. "I am not here to represent Rick or the teachers."

Over the years political cartoons, headlines and even a fake Twitter account have commemorated her antics.

She keeps some of the cartoons framed in her home office. One features her dressed in a superhero's tights and cape. In it, a little boy asks his mother, "Momma, is that lady a super hero?"

"No that's Rhonda Thurman. She's against everything and how heroic is that?" the mother answers.

•••

The phone rings all morning at Allure Beauty Salon, which is, as the front sign states, a Christian salon.

The shop is decorated in bright walls, outdated wallpaper trim and silk ferns. Fox News plays in the background. There is always Bundt cake. An intellectually disabled man who hands out Bible tracts down the highway often comes in for a slice.

People phone in to make or break appointments and to gossip. But lately, a lot of calls have been about the election.

"It's for Commissioner Thurman," jokes one stylist.

Thurman picks it up. She expertly holds onto the phone with the side of her ear, while wielding scissors and a comb.

"That's what she does most of the time," says customer Jean Matlock as she waits for her turn at Thurman's chair.

Today there are 22 appointments. Thurman finishes with a frail lady named Ruby and then it's Jean's turn. The two swap stories about medical problems, mutual acquaintances and family members. And there's plenty of razzing. Both ways.

"Well, don't just slap it around up there," Matlock says as Thurman teases her thin gray hair, pulls it with a plastic comb and curls it.

Thurman brings up the time Matlock starred in a local bathtub commercial, how she thought her client would surely find a man out of that one.

A woman walks in to cancel her upcoming appointment with Thurman. She's got a visor stuck into her hive of frizzy hair.

"You've never seen it this long have you?" she asks.

"Just keep the visor handy," Thurman responds.

Thurman has her own corner of the shop. In it hangs a framed political cartoon and a white campaign T-shirt. There are plenty of toys and movies for her 2-year-old grandson, whom she often watches. She has always loved children. Before adopting her daughter, Ragan, she had three miscarriages.

On a white wicker shelf, she has pieces of notepad paper filled with sayings she's collected. Southerners have a way with words and Thurman likes to remember the "isms." One day, she hopes to compile a book of her collection. At the shop, in her car, and on her kitchen counter are notes filled with short maxims and idioms.

Do you want some cheese with that whine?

Too hot to handle.

Wet your whistle.

Flatter than two-day-old beer.

Thurman works long days, and she hasn't taken a vacation in seven years. She's so busy she won't take on new customers.

This is all part of the Thurman persona, all part of the story she sells. The self-made woman forging a living on her feet with her hands, a politician too busy for shenanigans.

Over the years, salesmen and deliverymen have been surprised to find her here.

"You really are a hairdresser?" they ask.

"You think I lie?" Thurman responds.

Shop owner Diane Tinker has worked alongside her for 35 years. And she says there are only two things you need to know about Thurman: She'll never lie to you, and she's a giver, whether it's helping out at church or giving to a friend in need.

"If people knew her like I know her, they wouldn't hesitate to vote for her," Tinker said.

•••

From the beginning, Thurman knew her campaign for County Commission was a long shot.

At her June campaign kickoff, at the Soddy-Daisy Senior Center, she stood in front of a large red, white and blue banner that said, "We're gonna do what they say can't be done. We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there."

"This is hard," she told a crowd of about 70 supporters. "I know it's hard."

But she was all in. She believed she was the right person to represent these people, her people.

"This is important to me," she said. "I intend to get it done."

She asked people to take bumper stickers and T-shirts. She needed poll workers and help getting out the vote. And the crowd, mostly graying, was willing to help. Many of them have known Thurman her whole life. There were school principals and teachers in the crowd. Skillern came, even fell asleep at one of the folding tables. State Rep. Richard Floyd also made it.

"It's a longshot, but by golly I'd rather have her," said one man outside passing out yard signs.

Tim Price, Thurman's friend and campaign volunteer, said people in District 1 love Rhonda and her politics. Skillern should never have lost his seat. Too many Democrats, without a candidate of their own, crossed over and voted for Fairbanks in the May primary, Price said.

"Write-in campaigns are made to right a wrong," he said.

In late July, many of the same folks made their way to Soddy-Daisy's Veterans Park. There, the campaign handed out big slices of watermelon and scooped homemade ice cream from wooden crocks.

Men in flannel shirts played gospel music on a keyboard and guitar. Fat watermelons chilled in kiddie pools and a big Dairy Queen ice cream cake threatened to melt off the picnic table. Iced on the top was, "Write-in Rhonda Thurman. Your vote counts."

"Praise the Lord, I saw the light," the musicians sang.

At the podium, with her grandbaby on her hip, Rhonda took the mic.

She laid out her vision, told the crowd under the pavilion how she wanted to finish the work Skillern had started. Finish the new entrance to Daisy Elementary, get Sale Creek Middle-High its long-awaited football field. Maybe they can get the sewer line run up all the way to Sale Creek to encourage growth there.

She defended her record, too. And she joked about all the things her naysayers say about her.

"I can't decide if I'm a dumb, blonde hairdresser or if I'm running the whole county," she said.

•••

She knocked on hundreds of doors. Spoke on the radio. Kept watch over her signs around town.

And weeks later, the time came for the votes to be counted.

She was optimistic until the end, until the numbers started adding up on Thursday night.

Thirty minutes after the polls closed, Randy Fairbanks had 1,238 votes. There were 583 write-ins.

"That's not good," Thurman said. "That's hard to overcome right there."

And things only got worse.

The crowd of family and supporters sipped coffee and sweet tea as Thurman tried to busy herself. She opened bags of Lay's chips and a box of Walmart doughnuts and scolded her grandson for throwing Froot Loops.

"Y'all, there's some chips and dip over there if anybody wants it," she said.

She was too nervous to eat.

An hour after the polls closed, Fairbanks had 1,753 votes, with 836 write-ins.

Supporters started to grow nervous.

Maybe the write-ins will come in last, they told each other. They have to hand-count each one.

Two hours after the polls closed, Thurman hovered over a laptop. Fairbanks had 3,183 votes with 1,503 write-ins.

Then the lead solidified. Fairbanks: 3,448. Write-ins: 1,731. 100 percent of precincts reporting.

She had known it would be a tough race, but she thought she would do better than that.

The crowd didn't want to believe it.

"It's over," Thurman said. "All over."

Supporters started blaming the influence of Soddy-Daisy City Hall, newspaper editorials and Democrats.

"It doesn't make sense," said a friend.

"Where were her voters?" one man asked.

Thurman began thanking her supporters and her family. Then she started picking up Styrofoam cups and paper plates. She ducked into the restaurant's kitchen and grabbed a rag to start cleaning up tables. Someone else grabbed a broom.

"Our family doesn't leave a mess," Thurman said.

Later on Facebook, she told everyone that she was proud of the way she ran her campaign.

"I still own my political soul and can vote my conscience and not what others want," she wrote. "I am ready to move on."

For the last two-and-a-half months, she has put life on hold. She had a house to clean. Those bushes at church needed trimming. And she's dying to get back to her own yardwork, her brand of backyard therapy.

Plus, she still has her spot on the school board, plenty of things to say "no" to. And, as District 1 commissioner, Randy Fairbanks will have to work with her, she said.

So maybe the joke is on him.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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