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Is Chris Anderson’s homosexuality the real recall issue? We ask both sides.
Talk to Chattanooga Councilman Chris Anderson and he’ll tell you who is working to yank him prematurely from office: the Tea Party and Charlie Wysong, an advocate for conservative, Judeo-Christan policies.
Anderson served less than one year of his four-year term before a petition started circulating in his district seeking a recall. If the organizers get enough signatures—about 1,600—then Anderson will face another election in August.
In response, the openly gay Anderson filed a lawsuit against the Hamilton Country Election Commission because the effort “did cause a recall to move forward for discriminatory purposes and in violation of the rights given individuals such as Councilman Anderson under the Tennessee and United States Constitution.” That lawsuit was filed in Hamilton County Court Feb. 17.
The lawsuit was created for two purposes says Stuart James, Anderson’s attorney: To stop the recall, but to also explore the larger issue of recalls. Can someone be recalled because they are gay? What if they are Jewish or black? Perhaps because they are Christian?
James is excited for this case. There have been only a few times in his career where he argued a case that is “questions of first impression,” a situation that questions a new portion of the law, he says. “I don’t mind being wrong, but I hope I’m right,” he says.
When he was with Anderson during the Election Commission’s meeting to approve the petition, James says the commission was looking for a lawsuit because the law in this instance is vague and there is no precedent. “I think the Election Commission wants this answered too,” he says.
History behind the recall
The recall effort began just weeks after the city council approved an ordinance for domestic partner (including same-sex) benefits, an ordinance which Anderson introduced. No other member of the council who voted for the ordinance faces recall. “Not all five of them, just the gay one,” Anderson says.
But this does not mean this story has clear antagonists and protagonists. According to the leaders behind the recall effort, it’s based on how Anderson has treated the poor neighborhoods of his district. It’s impossible to ignore, however, that at least part of the recall’s energy is fueled by opposition to Anderson’s sexual orientation.
According to copies of the petition, signatures are collected at 202 West 38th Street. Travel to that address, and you’ll find Southside Market, a convenience store selling everything from canned beans, to beer, to pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On this visit, market owner, Mahmood Abdullah asked two women who entered the store, “Are you registered to vote?” One says she is.
“Go sign the petition,” he says. “You know who Chris Anderson is?”
She doesn’t know. This, for Abdullah, is a sign of how out-of-touch the politician is from the community. Chris Anderson once walked into the store, past the peeling sign, through the door set with metal security bars, but that was only when he was on the campaign trail, says Abdullah. He listened to Anderson’s platform—safe streets, strong neighborhoods, good jobs—and decided to place a sign outside his business supporting the candidate.
Abdullah says he knew Anderson was gay, that it was a well-known fact during the campaign against incumbent councilman Manny Rico.
“He ran as an openly gay man. He was elected as an openly gay man. He has not done what he was elected to do,” says Teresa Wood, the manager of the petition’s Facebook page. She lives in St. Elmo.
And according to Abdullah, the recall is not backed by the Tea Party. “No, we don’t support the Tea Party. We treat him [Charlie Wysong, a Tea Party member] like an individual,” he says
Yet you can’t talk about this recall without talking about Charlie Wysong.
With the petition to recall Anderson, he seems to be everywhere: at the Election Commission Meeting, listed as one of the defendants on the lawsuit, at a press conference where several pastors decried Anderson’s “moral agenda.”
For Anderson, Wysong is the strongest evidence that the Tea Party is behind his recall. Wysong is not a resident of District 7, and strongly open about his views of homosexuality.
Asked about his connection to the recall effort: “Let me put it this way: I am a campaign consultant,” Wysong says over coffee at Shoneys. He helped create the petition in a format that conforms to most of the rules for state and city laws, and he created a plan to collect the 1,600 signatures. “They run it other than that,” he says.
Wysong has been involved in two petitions in the city’s past: The recall of Mayor Ron Littlefield, and the petition to decide the domestic partner ordinance by referendum. A little less than a week after the second petition was launched in November, Abdullah called Wysong, asking him for help to recall Anderson.
Wysong agreed, but said he would help after he finished the petition drive to decide the domestic partner ordinance by referendum. He agreed to help Abdullah because it’s “consistent with my beliefs. I’m for removing someone who brings a domestic ordinance upon this city,” he says. It’s statements like that that prove to Anderson the recall is discriminatory.
“Generally, they can’t help themselves,” Anderson said, because anti-gay rhetoric creeps into the debate over the recall and words like “sodomite and an abomination” are used. “They’ve revealed the true reason,” he says.
According to Stuart James, the councilman delayed his lawsuit to include the statements by a group of pastors Feb. 17. The pastor of The Church of The First Born called a press conference to speak “against (Anderson’s) moral agenda.”
An emergency kept the pastor from speaking at the press conference, but his son, Jonathan Johnson, the youth minister for the church, spoke. While the church is in District 7, its pastors live outside the district. Its congregation is a mix of people who live inside and out.
According to the pastors, the new ordinance violated the conscience of the church because now taxes are supporting something contrary to their beliefs. “It’s conflicting with our faith, and we can’t support that,” Johnson stated.
It was a move he says a representative from a diverse district should not have made. “Now you’re not interested in all people, including their faith background,” he says. He added the church has nothing against Anderson’s homosexuality. “That’s his business and that’s his choice.”
Some of Anderson’s constituents were unsatisfied with his representation even before the domestic partner ordinance. According to the minutes of the Sept. 17 city council meeting, Gill Schropshire, president of the Alton Park/Piney Woods Neighborhood Association, stood up in the meeting and asked, “what Councilman Anderson has planned for the neighborhoods in which he represents.” Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem told him to speak with Anderson after the meeting, and Schropshire did.
At this same meeting, Wysong complained about a gay pride rally held over Labor Day weekend. Wysong told the council, “Government, like individuals, are accountable to God, and that which God declares as sin, we cannot make legal.”
According to Stuart James, Anderson talked to him about what he could do about Wysong’s remarks. In the end, says James, “Chris made the decision to bear it, and not be too active.”
At the next city council meeting Sept. 24, Anderson moved to approve a resolution allowing the Alton Park/Piney Woods Neighborhood Association the ability to temporarily erect a sign and beautify their neighborhood in the 3300 block of Alton Park Boulevard. Schropshire was mentioned specifically in the resolution’s title. But on Oct. 15, Schropshire stood once more before the council to say Anderson did not return phone calls to members of the community.
Schropshire again spoke to Anderson after the meeting. This time, it did not go well, he told The Pulse. In this meeting, Anderson told the neighborhood president that he didn’t have to speak with him, that he embarrassed him. It was then when Schropshire says Anderson referred to him as “uncivil” and “uneducated.” Soon after, Schropshire says, “the community” decided to recall Anderson.
According to Schropshire, when Anderson campaigned in the district, he was told to represent the low-income areas. If he didn’t, “We’ll fire you. You won’t be in there one year,” says Schropshire.
In past elections, two candidates were on the ballot against incumbent Manny Rico, and split their votes. During the most recent election, “We had another candidate that we could have put in there, but he’s like me. I don’t like politics,” Schropshire says.
What happens now
Anderson says he represents a diverse district. Between January and October 2013, the economic development office met with various representatives of Alton Park about 10 times, according to an email from Anderson. During these meetings, people from the community asked for city money, despite it being in the middle of a budget year, and in violation of other budget procedures. Anderson says the people from the community just didn’t get the answers they wanted during those meetings. Now, they are being pushed forward by Wysong to cover his anti-gay agenda, he says.
But for Schropshire, the recall is a sign that the community is beginning to organize. “I’m so proud and glad we can get together and stand as one,” he says.
As of press time, there are only 300 of the needed 1,600 signatures on the recall petition. When the petition for his recall was launched, Anderson called his district’s neighborhood association presidents. “Not one of them was for the recall,” he said. “I am doubtful that they’ll find that many people to sign it.”
In the coming weeks, the Hamilton County Court will decide if the Election Commission violated Anderson’s constitutional rights. Meanwhile, the residents of District 7 will wait.