When former Mayor Ron Littlefield sought a property tax increase in the summer of 2010, it triggered an alliance between Chattanooga conservatives and liberals that nearly cost him his job and cast "a pall over the day-to-day operations of the city."
Littlefield recently pointed to a video, Recall Fever, produced by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, on the rise of recalls across the country. In it, he said he had never experienced a campaign that bypasses traditional outlets to get a political message out. And he affirmed his belief that the ballot box is the best place for voters to express their disapproval.
"Unless a person is badly misbehaving [or] doing something illegal, you let the process play itself out," he said. "If you become unhappy about things that have to be done, take it out at the next election."
Although the recall attempt against Littlefield ended unsuccessfully in a courtroom, it solidified the presence and grassroots tactics of two groups that continue to play a role in the city’s political landscape.
The Chattanooga Tea Party and left-leaning Chattanooga Organized for Action are polar opposites in their ideology. They are unified, though, in the belief that citizen-led initiatives are a viable way to achieve policy goals and punish erring politicians between election cycles.
Three years later, they are using the tools of direct democracy to drive efforts around an ordinance that would extend health insurance to city employees’ domestic partners. Because the ordinance would apply to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, it has exposed divisions between Chattanooga’s social and geographic fabric, pitting some veterans of the "Recall Ron" movement against one another.
Several progressive organizers who were instrumental in the Littlefield recall led a sustained campaign to ensure its passage. They lobbied council members by email, used Facebook to mobilize supporters and attended public meetings for months to show their strength.
Their efforts initially worked. The City Council passed the Extended Benefits and Non-Discrimination Ordinance in November in a 5-4 vote.
But soon afterward, members of the Chattanooga Tea Party, operating through a new political action committee, launched an effort to block the ordinance from going into effect. The petition drive by Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency will put the decision to voters in an August referendum.
(Mark West, who heads both conservative organizations, was unavailable for comment. Perrin Lance, executive director of Chattanooga Organized for Action, declined to be interviewed.)
Now, several residents in Alton Park hope to challenge the ordinance’s sponsor, Councilman Chris Anderson, and put a question on the August ballot to recall him. The residents say their petition effort is driven by the councilman’s emphasis on special interest issues instead of the ones important to their community, such as economic development, crime and education.
That a single legislative issue would elicit such a response is not a surprise to Charles Wysong, an anti-abortion activist who assisted in the Littlefield recall; the referendum on domestic partnership benefits; and now, the effort to recall Anderson. Recent petition drives are fueled by voters’ anger and are part of a larger effort to push for more direct representation in city government.
"There is a move to have the government properly represent the people," Wysong said. "Nobody had to do a poll to figure out that the people in this city were not for the domestic partnership ordinance. Yet it was crammed down our throats. And lots of people didn’t like it."
Anderson said in an interview that the residents may be motivated by their true feelings, but conservative groups are using them to advance a different agenda. A recall petition submitted to election officials lists Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency at the bottom of the page. And Wysong recently listed West as one of the recall’s backers.
"I think the conservative majority on the outskirts of the city are trying to dictate what people in the urban core should do in their elections," Anderson said. "I don’t agree with that.
"I think we have limited terms for a reason," Anderson said. "A city councilperson is given four years to show a body of work. I’m the first one they’ve ever attempted to recall on the ballot. And I think it’s not coincidental that I’m also the first LGBT councilman."
The situation in Chattanooga is similar to efforts in El Paso, Texas, said Joshua Spivak, senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, who maintains The Recall Election blog.
In 2010, El Paso voters reversed an ordinance providing benefits to public employees’ domestic partners. Mayor John Cook and two council members faced recall attempts after they restored the benefits the following year. A Texas judge eventually blocked the recall, ruling that tax-exempt churches illegally participated in the petition drive.
Most recalls occur at the state level. By Spivak’s count, there were at least 478 attempts in the U.S. in 2013. Of those, 107 led to resignations or went to the ballot.
Two things have contributed to the spike, he said. The first is that technology has made it easier to get recall questions on the ballot. Collecting signatures and organizing are inherently difficult. Digital tools—spreadsheet software, email and social media—help activists mobilize their bases and maintain public pressure. Citizens can alert like-minded people to issues and drive calls for immediate action.
The second factor is greater public awareness of the process. People have seen high-profile recalls in action against Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gray Davis in California and think to themselves, "Hey, maybe I can use that."
"I think that’s the motivating force. I don’t think it’s because more people are upset," Spivak said.
Chris Clem, former attorney for the Hamilton County Election Commission, draws a distinction between recalls and repealing laws through referendum. Unlike recalls, there’s no inherent right in state law to repeal an ordinance a citizen does not like. That process exists only because the City Charter allows for it.
However, he is skeptical of these kinds of citizen-led petition drives in general. Recalls and referendums open governance up to micromanagement. If a representative’s performance doesn’t meet expectations, voters should just kick them out at the ballot box, he said.
"You win or lose an election, and then you wait until the next election," he said. "You don’t start doing all this stuff in between."
Anderson believes governing is a balancing act. At times, an elected official should be a direct representative for his or her constituents. Other times, an official should be trusted to make decisions. It all depends on the issue at hand.
"Whenever there’s something that affects individual people—like a zoning matter or a neighborhood issue—I basically contact all the people in that area, and [it’s] majority rules," he said.
But when it comes to equal rights issues or something that requires specialized research, "I feel like people elected me to make what I think is the right decision."