Opinion: Wamp lands Pachyderm punch, muddying a county commissioner and the commissioner’s home turf

Staff Photo By Olivia Ross / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks during a Pachyderm Club meeting on Monday.

Our dictionary definition for "pachyderm" is "a very large mammal with thick skin, especially an elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus."

Republicans in Chattanooga had to have thick skin for most of the 20th century because Democrats ruled the roost in the city, county and state. Thus the name Pachyderm Club, which has been a home for local Republicans since late in the 20th century.

Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp addressed that group Monday and spent the bulk of his time ticking off a impressive list of accomplishments his administration has had in its first year in office.

Among those are the creation of a tax increment financing plan for the development of The Bend property at the former Alstom site that puts community benefits at the forefront, a schools facilities plan, a planned senior center in the former Harrison Elementary School, pay raises for many first responders, and the relocation of the county fair to McDonald Farm.

But then the Republican Wamp saved the last 10 minutes for a conversation about politics, saying the county had a good working relationship with the city of Chattanooga but that the county was more properly aligned as a "subdivision of the state" and, importantly, with the Lee gubernatorial administration and the Republican leadership in Nashville.

Crediting his father, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, with much of the responsibility for growing the Republican Party in Hamilton County, he warned the friendly crowd that the fringes of the party were "not doing anybody any favors," were less conservatives and more conspiracy theorists, and just wanted to "instill fear."

For the most part today, Wamp said, people can't tell "who's who in county government," meaning who's a Republican and who's a Democrat and, while the minority would have its say, most officeholders in both parties were "team players."

The county mayor then shed his pachyderm's thick skin to assail County Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, and, by dint, the city of Red Bank.

Warning Pachyderm members that the GOP majority is not bulletproof, Wamp asserted that "we lost in Red Bank" and that it was now "an unmitigated disaster," a town with "some of the best people in our community" but whose leaders have "run it completely into a ditch."

He did not name Sharpe, who has been a persistent critic of the mayor's, nor did he name Red Bank Mayor Hollie Berry and Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton, both progressives who were elected in 2020 in nonpartisan races. They recently pushed through a more than 50% increase in property taxes and raised other city fees.

To his point, Red Bank was formerly a conservative, blue-collar bedroom community for Chattanooga. But as its older, more conservative residents died, progressive young singles and young families priced out of North Chattanooga saw the city as a still convenient community with starter houses that were easier to buy than in the trendy, hipster North Shore. As the younger people moved in, the political demographic of the city shifted.

To illustrate, the three Red Bank precincts gave Republican Mitt Romney 56.9% of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump 54% of the vote in the 2016 election and Trump only 46.6% of the vote in 2020.

In the 2022 Hamilton County Republican mayoral primary (the Democratic primary was uncontested), Wamp won all three Red Bank precincts. In the general election, he won one of the three precincts, lost one to Democrat Matt Adams, and tied Adams in the third.

Sharpe, meanwhile, won a resounding 62.7% of the vote against popular Red Bank Commissioner Ruth Jeno, the Republican.

Wamp referred to Sharpe as "an obstructionist with a partisan agenda" and contrasted him with the panel's two other Democrats, Greg Beck of North Brainerd and Warren Mackey, both of whom he said he was able to work with.

"I'm here to serve everybody," he said.

Had Wamp asked us for advice before the latter portion of his talk, we would have advised him to explain precisely how Red Bank has come to change voting demographics and what the loyal Republicans sitting before him needed to do to win back those voters. We would have suggested that he not categorize the city as a "disaster" or "in a ditch," even if he may have been talking about which individuals won elections or what taxes have been levied, and not the good people of the community.

We also might have urged Wamp to continue the strides he's made in developing relationships with the 10 of the 11 commissioners who are not as nettlesome and partisan as Sharpe. We would suggest that eventually that would maroon Sharpe on an ideologue island, an obstructionist without the mayor having called him that.

After all, as former British Prime Minister John Major once said, "The first requirement of politics is not intellect or stamina but patience. Politics is a very long game, and the tortoise will usually beat the hare."