Editor's note: This Q&A is one in a series that aims to allow voters to get to know candidates who are running in the March 7 election. Nooga.com sent questionnaires to everyone running for City Council and mayor. We will post responses as we get them.
Current City Councilman Larry Grohn has been serving District 4 since 2013, and he's challenging incumbent Andy Berke in the March 7 mayoral election.
Grohn is a former secondary school teacher. In 1986, after working in sales, he went back to school to get his undergraduate degree in history. He started teaching at age 42.
He's taught at middle and high school levels in subjects such as life science, math, chemistry and physics.
"Some of my favorite times have included teaching chess to kids," he said. "You can see a big difference that chess makes in children from backgrounds across the board. They practice, they play, and they get good. And I mean some of them get really good. They started playing kids from other schools and they’d beat the pants off them. That’s when they’d realize they’re as good as anybody else out here if they study and work hard."
Grohn spent 10 years as a single parent of two children before marrying his wife, Army Maj. Carol Werschky Grohn.
Challengers David Crockett and Chris Long are also running for mayor.
What is the most crucial challenge facing the city, and how do you plan to address it?
Keeping all citizens safe from violence is the No. 1 priority. Hands down. A city is supposed to get several very basic things right. Provide roads and sewers that work. If your building catches fire, the city puts it out. If people shoot at you, the city arrests them. When a city gets the basics right, everything else follows.
When a city fails on the basics—when roads tear up your car, when sewer bills eat into your budget, when we don’t catch the criminals—then nothing we do can ever succeed. When neighborhoods are wracked by violence, families can’t succeed. Children cannot do well in school when they’re afraid of getting attacked on the way to the bus stop. Business won’t relocate to a neighborhood where customers don’t feel safe walking down the street.
Think of the tremendous loss of life by homicides since 2013. One hundred and nine people have died by homicide. The number keeps rising every year, and four out of five homicides occur in the three inner-city council districts (7, 8 and 9). Every loss of life is a tragedy, and it should break our hearts.
But the damage violence inflicts isn’t just on individual lives. [It] impacts a community’s ability to grow and attract business. Think about what the failure to stop the violence does to the property values of low-income and minority homeowners—it's not good. It’s not fair that one part of our city can be so flourishing while families in another part are forced to sleep on the floor for fear of drive-by shootings.
We owe them a better city, and I’m determined to make that happen.
What opportunities do you see in Chattanooga’s near future, and how do you plan to help seize them?
Our city can harness the tremendous growth coming our way and use it to improve the quality of life for our residents, but we’re not doing the things needed to prepare for that growth. What good will new jobs bring if our people aren’t prepared for them, or new houses if they can’t afford them?
My administration will focus on bringing vocational and STEAM education to youth and adults so they can qualify for jobs. We will focus on creating affordable and safe neighborhoods so that everyday families have a place to live and thrive. When a city takes care of the basics, our citizens can be free and prosperous enough to take advantage of the opportunities on the way.
Crime has surfaced as an important issue in the campaign. What policies would you have the CPD pursue to curb crime, specifically violent crime?
First, we stop spending millions of dollars on consultants, end the Violence Reduction Initiative and listen to our community leaders instead. They’ve been saying for years that the shootings would only get worse unless we brought more jobs to neighborhoods. Living-wage jobs with benefits that you can support a family on. All we’ve done is write off these neighborhoods. We’re seeing the results now.
I think viewing violent crime through a public health perspective will be helpful as well. You bring in more people than just police officers and judges. You bring in churches, family members, businesses, the community, and have interventions with the most at-risk. You find whoever it is in that person’s life they’ll listen to and get them to intervene with love and accountability. But we’re going to listen to our neighborhoods first before doing anything.
What can city government realistically do to improve education outcomes for all Chattanooga students?
I’ve proposed reinstituting Kirkman Technical High School to bring vocational education back to the inner city. There are too many living-wage jobs going unfilled because youth aren’t graduating with the necessary skills and experiences to get those jobs. And so, what happens? They go to people out of town, and the tax dollars and spending power flow out of our city. Inner-city residents have been demanding vocational training and education for a long time, and we’re going to make that happen.
What does transparency in government mean to you, and what actions would you take, if any, to increase transparency in city government?
Transparency means honesty, and we haven’t seen much of that these past four years. When everyone from neighborhood organizations to the head of the chamber of commerce must fill out forms to be considered for a meeting with the mayor, you know something’s wrong.
A mayor is a local official and should be easy to get ahold of.
I will have an open-door policy and work to enact a series of ethics reforms that will focus on limiting the power.
What specific ideas do you have to make Chattanooga a better place to live for everyone, including minority groups and the disadvantaged?
The lack of living-wage jobs and affordable housing disproportionately hurts low-income and minority communities. In some neighborhoods, up to one-third of African-Americans are unemployed. Minorities also pay higher percentages of their income to housing costs.
And don’t forget, your current mayor is essentially asking the black community to subsidize its own displacement and gentrification from downtown.
His 2015 "affordable housing PILOT program" granted tax breaks to apartments that effectively priced out the median black household.
Not only would rent be considered unaffordable for the discounted units, the median black household would have to pay nearly 80 percent of their income to afford the most expensive apartments in the subsidized developments.
Anyone with a conscious should be outraged, and as mayor, I’ll be ripping up those deals and bargaining for better terms.
Lauding Chattanooga’s renaissance while entire communities are written off is a cruel joke at best and a deliberate lie at worst.
A serious focus on actual affordable housing, workforce development and getting vocational education back to the inner city will transform the lives of disadvantaged and minority people across the city.
What measures, if any, would you take to support small business owners and entrepreneurs?
The first thing you must do is listen.
We’ll set up a mayor’s roundtable on small businesses and consult on everything.
I want everyone from the gas station owner to the bakery owner to the mechanic’s shop involved.
City government needs to know the impact that administration and regulation [are] having in the real world.
They can tell us what kind of a job we’re doing and if certain regulations are hurting more than helping.
As far as entrepreneurs go, I’m interested in helping the young parent working out of their garage on weekends to earn some side money to pay the bills. How do we help the people help themselves and grow their own micro-businesses? There’s already some great organizations out there like LAUNCH. Let’s build on it and take it citywide.
What direction do you think the city needs to go in terms of transportation infrastructure?
We need to repave Chattanooga.
When cities fail in their basic responsibilities, it always hurts the citizens at the end of the day. Per transportation experts at TRIP, the average motorist loses $516 annually in driving operating costs due to driving on deteriorated roads. That’s easily one month’s rent or mortgage. This hurts the poor and working class the most.
What does affordable housing mean to you, and do you think Chattanooga needs more of it?
There isn’t enough affordable housing for poor and working-class people.
Per the RPA, we’re down 6,000 units of affordable housing for extremely low-income households.
At the same time, the city is granting tax breaks to apartments where the most expensive rents would cost the median Chattanooga household over half of their income to afford. So we’re obviously playing a role in the housing market, and I’d argue it’s not a good one.
We need to tear up the old tax break deals and get better terms of affordability.
We need to create an affordable housing trust fund to provide additional capital to affordable projects.
We need to get more credit and financial services into minority neighborhoods. We need to create more homeownership in low-income and minority communities so they can pass on their wealth to the next generation.
Some residents say too much emphasis is placed on improving downtown and not enough on outlying neighborhoods. Do you agree or disagree, and how do you think the city should balance these two priorities?
It’s not just some residents that think this way.
Drive out to Lookout Valley and ask the longtime residents if they think they’re being ignored. They will say yes.
Go ask people who live in downtown at the Westside public housing if they’re being ignored. They will say yes.
In my administration, there’s not going to be two priorities. There’s going to be one priority—Chattanooga.
Residents from all council districts and neighborhoods pay taxes.
Everyone will receive equitable services and prioritization. We’re going to repave streets that haven’t been repaved. We’re going to recruit businesses and jobs to neighborhoods that were abandoned a long time ago.
How do you believe a leader should handle people they don't get along or agree with?
This is local politics; who says people shouldn’t have disagreements? Strong leadership creates spaces where many opinions can be heard. My campaign team has people on both the left and the right.
My administration will have people from diverse backgrounds on the left and the right. I’m going to listen to all the voices in the room.
What values do you believe should drive the mayor's administration?
A mayor must deliver results for the people.
If a mayor cannot deliver, they better find a new line of work fast. We’ve got neighborhoods out here with 40 percent unemployment. Imagine if the entire city’s unemployment was this high. Would we tolerate it? No.
So why should we tolerate it for the neighborhoods? Some of these neighborhoods only have 30 percent homeownership or 3 percent of residents holding bachelor’s degrees or 60 percent on food stamps. This is not delivering for the neighborhoods.
Government is serious business. Failure costs lives. Success is imperative.
Why should residents vote for you and not one of your opponents?
I’ll give you my all. I will not launch a statewide campaign for another office. I do not want to use Chattanooga as a steppingstone. I will make our city a good home that provides safety and opportunity for all citizens.
If you think the last four, eight, 12 years have been the end-all-be-all for Chattanooga, that we do not need dramatic change, then I’m not your candidate.
But if you look around at all the success and the shiny new buildings and ask yourself where’s your piece of the pie, where do you and your children fit in, why have you been ignored—then you should vote Grohn.
I hear your voice, and we’re going to make big changes in how things work around here.
What is your personal motivation for running for this office and wanting to lead the city?
Servant leadership is big with me. I’m a Christian, and I am taught that leaders are to be servants of the people.
If I’m not serving people, then what am I doing with my time on earth?
As mayor, I can serve the people on a bigger but still local platform.
You’re not away in Nashville or Washington. You’re right here with your neighbors and friends working toward solutions to the challenges we face.