State Rep. Marc Gravitt said politics got in the way of him making a presentation honoring a long-time public servant and a war hero before the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday morning.
Gravitt, who is stepping down from representing District 30 in the State House to run for the Hamilton County Register of Deeds, thought he had a green light from County Mayor Jim Coppinger to present a proclamation to Vince Dean and the family of Kayo Erwin Sr. in front of the commission. One of the proclamations was to rename the Exit 1 interchange on Interstate 75 in East Ridge for Dean, who was instrumental in helping the city obtain surplus land from the state when Dean served in the State House. The second was to rename part of Ringgold Road for Erwin Sr., a U.S. Navy veteran who served in World War II on the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
Moments before the meeting, Gravitt said he spoke with Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks and Commissioners Tim Boyd and Sebrena Smedley. According to Gravitt, the trio thought that “it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Gravitt said he believes he wasn’t allowed to make the presentation before the commission because Esther Helton, an East Ridge City Councilwoman who is running for the Republican Nomination for the State House District 30, was present. In addition, Gravitt said that some commissioners were upset that Dean did not endorse Helton’s opponent in the race, Jonathan Mason.
“This is the most pathetic example of petty politics I’ve ever seen,” Gravitt said during a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “When a state representative has talked to the county mayor two weeks prior and then the commission refuses to honor a veteran and a 50-year public servant, it’s a sorry example of government.”
Commissioner Fairbanks said politics had nothing to do with it. Fairbanks said late Wednesday afternoon that he was completely unaware that Gravitt wanted to make a presentation before the commission until he got a phone call as he was on the way to the meeting. And that’s not the way it works.
Fairbanks said that Gravitt had made a special presentation before the commission honoring retiring Register of Deeds Pam Hurst some months ago. At that time, Fairbanks said Gravitt had followed the procedure of the Hamilton County Commission and went through Chairman Fairbanks’ office.
Fairbanks said that prior to the commission meeting he quickly polled the commissioners and the mayor asking them if they would allow Gravitt to press forward with the presentation even though he wasn’t on the agenda. Fairbanks said the majority of those polled said not to allow the presentation.
“I made no decisions on political races or who is running for office,” Fairbanks said in a telephone interview. “I did it based on policy. We have a hectic schedule. Gravitt knew the process and didn’t follow it.”
Commissioner Boyd said that Gravitt, Dean and Helton, who are all on a ballot for public office, were simply using the “Commission as a platform.”
Boyd said that Gravitt had not spoken with any commissioners about appearing and basically didn’t follow procedures to get on the agenda.
“Kudos to Chairman Fairbanks for not allowing Gravitt to make the presentation,” Boyd wrote in an email to East Ridge News Online.
After Gravitt was denied the appearance in front of the commission, Mayor Coppinger accompanied Gravitt, Dean and the Erwin family just outside the commission room doors to the rotunda for the presentation to be made. Gravitt said a security officer came by and told the group to keep it down because they were making too much noise.
Dean, who is running unopposed in the general election for his second term as Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk, said he felt bad for the Erwin family having been dragged into “this political match.”
“The whole thing boils down to disrespecting a war veteran,” Dean said of Erwin’s service during WWII. “I don’t know how they justify that because of politics. They showed their true colors.”
Dean, a former mayor of East Ridge, who served eight years in the State House representing District 30, said during his time in Nashville he had made presentations on behalf of the state before the commission honoring Hamilton County citizens. Most recently, he said, was the renaming of a part of Amnicola Highway in honor of Richard Alexander, a Chattanooga Police Department officer killed in an auto accident.
Dean said he understood that Gravitt’s presentation wasn’t on the commission agenda. But due to the fact that Dean is scheduled for a medical procedure in the near future, he couldn’t come back in two weeks when the presentation may have been included on the formal agenda.
Gravitt said that he had invited the entire East Ridge City Council to the presentation via e-mail. He said Helton was the only one able to attend. She was not to have any role in the presentation, Gravitt said. Wednesday was also a convenient day for Kayo Erwin Jr., a businessman who travels in the region, to attend a ceremony.
“I had zero intentions of making this a political issue,” Gravitt said. “It’s sad that the Erwin family got caught in the crosshairs of petty politics.”
Chairman Fairbanks said that he had no idea that Kayo Erwin Sr. was a war hero.
“I’ve called Vince and apologized,” he said. “I’m going to do the same for the Erwin family. It won’t rectify it but there is a policy in place and I followed the policy.
“It was so unfortunate,” Fairbanks said. “I’m just sick about it. Both of those guys are deserving. I’m just sick over it.
“It had zero to do with Ms. Helton being in the audience,” he continued. “At least with me it didn’t.”