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Sensabaugh set to tackle mayor’s race in Sullivan County

John Osborne and Douglas Fritz • Dec 6, 2017 at 6:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Embattled David Crockett High School head football coach Gerald Sensabaugh has tossed his helmet into the political ring.

The former NFL player picked up a petition Wednesday to run for the office. He is currently on administrative leave from coaching duties at Washington County’s Crockett following a public rift with school officials on multiple topics, included social media posts and injured players.

Sensabaugh said he would use the Sullivan County mayor’s position as a platform to improve communities, saying “a lot of people from the area go out there and they are successful, but they never come back and contribute here.”

“It’s my first rodeo, but I have a team of people who have dealt with politics quite a bit,” Sensabaugh said Monday. “They are willing to help steer me in the right direction. They are willing to help me grow through the process.”

Picking up a petition is the first step for a would-be candidate. To complete the process, Sensabaugh must get at least 25 registered Sullivan County voters to sign the petition and return it to the Sullivan County Election Commission no later than noon on Feb. 15.

He expects to fill up the 50 slots allotted on the petition.

“Things need to be done promptly,” Sensabaugh said of motivation to run for office. “I have a lot of ideas, so the general public can be more knowledgeable about things. I mainly want to uplift the communities and get to a better place.”

Sensabaugh picked up to run as an independent, which means if he turns in a completed petition and becomes a qualified candidate, he would progress straight to the August 2018 general election ballot. If he had picked up to run as either a Democrat or Republican, he would advance only to a party primary in May.

Incumbent Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable filed to seek re-election last week. Venable filed to run in the Republican primary, where he could have a challenger; Kingsport developer Dave Clark has picked up a petition to run for the GOP nomination as well, but as of Wednesday afternoon had not yet filed.

“Because of the (David) Crockett (High School) deal, I was getting contacted by politicians and a lot of people in other counties — Sullivan, Hawkins,” Sensabaugh said. “Everybody was wanting help in their communities. I’m just a person who stands for what is right. I’ve seen how small places operate. We need to prepare better for the future. We have to focus on the younger generation of people.”

In January, Sensabaugh was hired as David Crockett High School’s head football coach to much fanfare from the Washington County community, but he was suspended nine months later amidst a feud with school administrators.

At issue was his refusal of requests by a principal to remove unapproved photos of students from a social media post in which he criticized the state of Jonesborough Elementary School, accusations he used abusive language toward students and coaches and a claim that he practiced an injured player who was not cleared for workouts.

In a meeting with administrators to reprimand him for the alleged actions, Sensabaugh accused Crockett athletics director Josh Kite of coming to work under the influence of Oxycodone, a prescription opioid, and said Kite offered him pills. Sensabaugh has insisted he has done nothing wrong and instead is the target of a smear campaign by school district officials.

Both Sensabaugh and Kite are currently on administrative leave while an independent law firm investigates the accusations and reports recommendations regarding their employment to Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton.

Two months ago, Sensabaugh said he was considering suing the school district and solicited the services of attorneys on Facebook, but he has yet to file legal action.

“I believe it’s still hovering,” Sensabaugh said of the Crockett situation. “The whole process is pretty unprofessional in my opinion. Hopefully they will get things ironed out and give the school board a recommendation. We will just have to wait and see. Everything tends to draw out.”

Like most other county constitutional offices, there are few requirements to run for county mayor. Unlike most other offices, however, to run for county mayor, a would-be candidate must prove residency within the county for at least one year as of his or her filing date.

Sensabaugh listed a Kingsport address on paperwork when he picked up the petition Wednesday.

Election office workers, in what is a routine step when issuing a petition for mayor, checked Sensabaugh’s voter registration. Administrator of Elections Jason Booher said Sensabaugh registered for the first time — in Sullivan County or anywhere else in the state — last month.

Booher said he then explained to Sensabaugh that the Election Commission would require some other proof of residency showing he has lived in the county for at least one year. Property ownership is one point of proof. Sensabaugh said the home at the address he listed is in his wife’s name, and public records show that is true.

Booher said Sensabaugh is not the only person to pick a petition up that didn’t yet provide clear proof residency. Other forms of proof can include utility bills, pay stubs and a driver’s license.

The salary for Sullivan County mayor is $116,500 plus a $650 per month vehicle allowance.

Sensabaugh said his run for office presents no conflicts of interest, adding, “My only motivation is my heart.”

“People have been telling me all of these stories, but they’re so scared to express their concerns due to retaliation. I feel I have that voice for the people. I want to listen to the people and get out there what they want in the community. We need to do what’s best for the people.”

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