Opinion: Kelly’s early declaration may pay off for him in a variety of ways

Staff Photo By Robin Rudd / With an introduction by his wife Ginny, pictured far left, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced Thursday he would run for a second term.

Eighteen months before the next city election, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced on Thursday that he would be a candidate for re-election.

It is by far the earliest date for a city mayor in modern political history — and probably throughout city history — to announce his intention for a second term.

"I've heard a lot of speculation," Kelly told reporters concerning the early timing of the announcement. "I think a lot of folks have thought, 'Hey does he need this job? Does he want this job? Is he dedicated to the work?' I wanted to put that to rest, honestly. Both inside the city and outside, I think it's important for people to know that I'm dedicated to seeing all these projects through. It's not a flash in a pan."

The previous earliest announcement by a mayor for a second term came from Kelley's predecessor, Andy Berke, who declared his intention to run again on Sept. 6, 2016, about six months before the March 2017 election.

Before that, every mayor since World War II who sought a second term — with one exception — made his declaration around two months before Election Day. Mayors P. Rudy Olgiati in 1955 and Ralph Kelley in 1967 announced their runs in February, and Gene Roberts in 1987 and Ron Littlefield in 2009 made their declarations in January.

Only Charles A. "Pat" Rose beat them to the punch by a few days, communicating his intention on Dec. 29, 1978, for the March 1979 election.

So why would Kelly announce so early? His vague references to "a lot of speculation" and whether he needed or wanted the job or was dedicated to it don't answer a lot.

Here's what we figure:

› Kelly's early announcement offers continuity to staff, city workers and city residents that things will proceed as they have been since the mayor was elected in 2021. If they are comfortable with the plans he has laid out and the decisions he has made, they won't have to get used to a new regime or someone with different ideas on how to do things if he is re-elected.

› The declaration 18 months out may scare off potential opponents who know that Kelly self-funded his campaign to the tune of more than $1 million in 2021 and now has an extra year or so to openly fundraise for a second act in 2025. Six of the nine Chattanooga City Council members attended his campaign kickoff to help cement that solidarity.

› Kelly said during his 2021 campaign that he had no aspirations for higher office and indeed suggested on several occasions that his mayoral runoff opponent, Kim White, did have such aspirations, which she emphatically denied. But if state Democrats, sensing the lack of a strong opponent for U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in 2024 or a gubernatorial candidate for an open race in 2026, thought he might be interested — though city races are billed as nonpartisan — that might dim some of his support in a 2025 re-election campaign.

› As mentioned above, the mayor largely self-funded his 2021 campaign with more than $1 million and since being elected has loaned it another $29,600. Since he likely has no desire to put another million in for another run, he has plenty of time for official fundraising. We say official because he has continued to receive campaign contributions throughout his nearly two-and-a-half years in office.

In the second quarter of 2021, which began less than two weeks before he was elected, he garnered $289,000, most of it — according to the date of contribution — after his victory. According to campaign finance disclosure forms on the Hamilton County Election Commission website, he received another $5,300-plus in the last two quarters of 2021, more than $125,000 in 2022, and more than $25,000 in the first half of 2023.

Disclosure forms also continue to show the $1,367,800 he has loaned his campaign. If he can persist in raising money, with an adequate amount available to fund his 2025 campaign, he can use any remaining funds to pay himself back for the loans he made, according to an election commission clerk.

None of the previous six Chattanooga mayors who sought a second term since WWII had particularly close elections in claiming a second term. The tightest was Olgiati's 2,200-vote majority over funeral home owner Eugene Turner in 1955. Rose was unopposed in 1979, and the last three mayors to seek a second term captured 64% (Berke), 57.1% (Littlefield) and 58% (Roberts) of the vote.

We don't expect Kelly to have much trouble, either, but evidently from his perspective it pays — in several ways — to get an early start.