KINGSPORT — Mayor Dennis Phillips is attempting to be the second person in the city’s nearly 100-year history to be elected to a fifth term as mayor. And he’s doing it without the endorsements of the local firefighter and police officer associations.
Kingsport’s city election is May 21 with voters going to the polls to elect a mayor, three aldermen and two school board members. Phillips is seeking a fifth term as mayor, being challenged for the first time since 2005 by political newcomer and Domtar electrician Gary Lane.
The Kingsport Firefighters Association, which comprises 95 percent of the firefighters in Kingsport, has endorsed Lane for mayor, giving his campaign a $500 contribution. The KFA has also endorsed Tom Parham, John Clark and Colette George for aldermen, giving each campaign $1,000.
Matt Sorge, president of the KFA, said Phillips was not considered for an endorsement because he failed to respond to the KFA’s questionnaire. The KFA sent out a short questionnaire to all of the candidates, asking their views on annexation, public safety, a vision for Kingsport and what would make them the best candidate for alderman.
“We take our endorsements very seriously as we look at what candidate is right for the city, community and education and wants Kingsport to be the best and safest it can possibly be,” Sorge said. “I think it is a sad state of affairs in the city when the mayor refuses to sit down and have a cup of coffee with his employees and taxpayers, then takes a shot at us for not endorsing him at the chamber forum.
At a Kingsport Chamber of Commerce forum earlier this year, Phillips quipped about not receiving the endorsement of the firefighters, commenting how under his administration the fire department has opened two new fire stations and received new equipment and vehicles.
“Public works doesn’t ask me to (answer a questionnaire), the city school system doesn’t ask me to do it. What reason could the KFA have for not endorsing a mayor that has provided these types of services to our firefighters,” Phillips said. “I’m sorely disappointed in a fire department that would ... ignore my record of what I have done for the fire department and the citizens of the city concerning fire protection.”
Phillips said he believes the rub between himself and the KFA comes down to the firefighters’ desire to have the right to strike.
“They ask, in a roundabout way, do you support their right to do this and that,” Phillips said. “I’ve not been a big supporter of their union activities because I feel municipal employees should not have the right to go on strike and render our city helpless.”
None of the questions in the KFA’s questionnaire dealt with the right to strike.
Turning to law enforcement, the Kingsport Coalition of Police, which has 65 to 70 percent of the Kingsport Police Department as members, have endorsed Parham, Clark and Eric Kerney for alderman. The KCP did not endorse either Phillips or Lane.
“These men have a great vision for our city, they show great leadership and dedication to Kingsport’s future,” a KCP press release states.
As with the KFA, the KCP sent questionnaires to the candidates, asking them about infrastructure, city services, annexation, mostly police-related questions.
Officer Cliff Ferguson, president of the KCP, said George did not return her questionnaire and its members chose to stay out of the mayor’s race.
“Our political action committee decided not to make an endorsement for mayor,” Ferguson said. “We’re not upset with Phillips; we just decided to stay out of it.”
Phillips said he’s worked to give the police department everything they asked for, pointing out the BMA’s approval last year of the public safety retirement bridge — a funding bridge from when public safety employees retire early to when Social Security kicks in.
“(The lack of endorsement) doesn’t bother me,” Phillips said. “I’ll continue to do the best job I possibly can if I’m elected mayor, regardless of anyone’s endorsement.”