Firing back on accusations that his campaign engaged in voter intimidation, Republican state Senate candidate Greg Vital said Tuesday through a spokesman that recent claims made by members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party were "completely ridiculous" and an attempt to interfere with Thursday's GOP primary race.
The dispute comes two days before Vital faces off with fellow Republican Todd Gardenhire in a hotly contested bid for their party's nomination for the 10th Senate District seat.
On Monday, Colby Knecht, president of the Hamilton County Young Democrats and a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, filed a complaint with the U.S. attorney's office, claiming that a "very real potential for voter intimidation exists." The letter, signed by local Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith, reported Knecht's repeated sighting of a van marked with Vital's campaign insignia at polling stations in Hamilton County during the recent two-week early voting period, whose driver would allegedly drop off voters and follow them inside.
Knecht alleged voters were pressured into choosing Republican primary ballots.
To back his claim, he provided photos and short videos of the van.
Vital campaign spokesman Rob Alderman said Tuesday that the candidate's office had investigated the van in question and told Nooga.com that the rented vehicle had been an "in-kind donation" from 61-year-old Will Smith, a Vital supporter who voluntarily rented the van under his own name.
Both Alderman and Smith said no intimidation or fraud took place in the van.
"Smith rented the van under his own name, with his own money," Alderman said. "He is a black Republican supporting Greg in the race, who had friends that couldn't get to the polls. He wanted to make a way for them to get there—it's as simple as that. Any insinuation that this campaign has done anything illegal is completely ridiculous and an attempt by Democrats to interfere with the Republican primary."
Smith, a 61-year-old Hamilton County resident and developer for W.A.S. Properties, said he had used rented vans to drive voters to polls in past races, including elections for outgoing 10th District Sen. Andy Berke. Smith, who described himself as "an independent person," said he approached Vital's campaign to offer assistance in transporting voters and was provided with door magnets to place on the van he had rented.
Smith said that although he had verbally suggested his passengers vote for Vital and other candidates—including Democrats—no coercion or intimidation ever took place during his trips to the polls. Smith said the only time he ever exited his car and followed passengers inside to a polling station was to stop in a restroom, and he added that he had never instructed voters to choose a Republican ballot.
"This is just really silly," Smith said. "… There was nothing like that. We picked people up to go vote, we dropped them off, and waited in the car until they got out. They made their own decision, and that's the bottom line."
Smith also said a photo taken by Knecht of his van parked outside Mr. T's Pizza in St. Elmo was made while stopping to buy his granddaughter an ice cream cone, not during a run to pick up or influence voters.
"I got chocolate, and she got cookie dough," he said.
Despite the denials from Vital's campaign and recent rebuttals from members of the Hamilton County Election Commission, Knecht stood by his claims Tuesday. Knecht said he had seen "hundreds of people that were all African-Americans" disembark from the vans over a matter of different stops at polling stations and had witnessed voters being asked to leave the commission after people had followed them inside to pull ballots.
"I think the people at the Election Commission backtracked on their statement, and that's fine, it's understandable," he said. "We're just going to have to keep telling the truth. The way it looked, and the way they told me, they asked people to leave."
Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith, who was quick to heap accusation on Vital's campaign Monday, declined to comment in detail Tuesday because of the filed complaint.
"At this time, I really have no comment," he said.
Gardenhire, Vital's Republican challenger, took the opportunity to criticize the candidate on his credibility, citing recent reports of inaccurate statements made by Vital regarding his education and a controversy over the origin of a mailer that was sent out, which attacked Gardenhire. Gardenhire said he was still suspicious of his opponent, despite having heard the denials from both Vital's campaign and workers at the Election Commission.
"Greg has a history in this campaign of denying having any involvement in anything at all that he gets caught doing," Gardenhire said. "… The man has zero credibility on telling the truth, and this is another example of what he's been doing."
Democrats running in the 10th Senate District primary include Quenston Coleman, Andraé McGary and David Testerman.
Primaries are Aug. 2.