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Ballot Vox: Todd Gardenhire

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As part of WUTC's coverage of the November 8 elections, we are speaking to many of the major candidates on the Hamilton County ballot. This is our interview with Todd Gardenhire, running for re-election as the Republican candidate for Tennessee State Senate District 10. 

Jacqui Helbert: If you could tell me your name and what office you are running for? 

Todd Gardenhire: Thank you. My name is Todd Gardenhire, I am a State Senator in district 10 which covers part of Hamilton County and part of Bradley County. 

Helbert: Tell me about your background and why you are running for office?

Gardenhire: When I ran 4 years ago I only made two promises. The first promise I have not been able to keep. But I have been working on it the whole time. And it is to get a tech school in Chattanooga like the old Kirkman High School. And put it out at Chattanooga State and then have 9th graders start and then go all the way through to learn a trade. Because in Hamilton County when they graduate at the end of May everybody is given a diploma when they walk across that stage and it says "We are career and college ready". But in Chattanooga and in Hamilton County schools we have found out that 60% of the people who graduate are not college or career ready. The second promise I made was that I would be myself. And through my life experiences and through what I have learned in life, and where I was brought up, and how I was raised, is what I would take to the state senate. And I think I have been very successful with that. Let me just give you an example. I am about a 5th or 6th generation Chattanoogan. We were one of the first people that came down here. And a matter of fact if you look at the cemetery across the street from us and that's the old Gardenhire cemetery, Citizens Cemetery. And where the school sits beyond that is where the Gardenhire homestead was before the Chattanooga School of Arts and Science was built. So I have a long deep history here in Chattanooga. I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1972, with a degree in Business Administration and a minor in Accounting. I taught the Accounting Lab, by the way. And I went into business here. I went into the banking business, the financial service business. And for 43 years I was a, I think, somewhat successful- so does a lot of people. But I made a good living. While I was at UTC I had several jobs. I worked at Southern Railway at night unloading boxcars, and cross ties, and cleaning up, and whatever they needed to be done. I was called a cab supply man. A member of the union over there. I worked at Kroger’s for a while. I worked at service stations. I did anything I could to earn a living, to put myself and family through UTC.  We all graduated. I've got many cousins who have been here. I don't think there has been a year that I've been around that there hasn't been a Gardenhire at UTC in some manner or another. So we are very proud of that. I go to all of the home games that UTC has. And I go to a lot of the away games. I am a big supporter of this school in a lot of ways. But, you know, you go through all of that in life and you learn things, and you learn people, and you learn where to go and where not to go to ask questions, and find out. You don't have to listen to special interest groups because you've got your own contacts and networks. And that's what gives me a real edge in Nashville on issues that come up. I can call a professor at UTC that I know, and trust, and say “Hey what's going on at the University? What's going on at the Hamilton Country Schools? I can call a teacher that I went to high school with and ask them. And not get a biased question but get an honest question. I can call somebody that works for the fire and police department in Chattanooga. I don't have to go through the Mayor, I don't have to go through and get the script for the day, or drink the Kool-Aid from the county government. I can call somebody I know and trust and say "Hey what's going on? What does this really mean? How it that going to affect the citizens?" So I've got that experience in life that's taken me through it. You know, give you one example about experience in life; everybody wants somebody that aces all the tests and everything else. I had a very storied education career. I started out in Longview Texas at LeTourneau College for one year in engineering student. And it was too far away I wanted to come back home, and went to Tennessee Tech. And after two quarters I flunked out with a blistering .089. So you can tell what I studied or basically what I didn't study. But I was number 32 in that first Vietnam draft. And that sort of woke me up a little bit to get serious. Unfortunately, or fortunately however you look at it, I was 4F because of my hearing. I am almost totally deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other ear. But I didn't have to go, I was 4F. I finally ended up coming to UTC, and finishing up my degree, and got serious in life. There is a lot of kids that come to school and they are not serious. This is the first time away from home. And, you know, I was the same way just like everybody else. But I went to work and for 43 years I stayed working in the financial service industry. And then retired March 31st this past year. And so basically I have been full time as a State Senator even though it's a part time position. What am I doing? What have been the issues that are burned on my heart to get things done? Well education for one. When I first got elected, the Speaker asked me, "What committees would you like to be on? If you could have a choice?" And the Speaker of the Senate gets to determine everything, there is no question about it. "What would you rather do if you could choice?" And I said, "Well, I want to be on education." And he said "Why? That's one of the worst committees and hardest working committees that there is. And that's where people get buried. You can't raise any money, everybody hates you when it's over with, nobody likes it, and it’s very controversial." And I said "Well, I've got this desire to get this tech school in Chattanooga, and I can't do that unless I am on education. And plus I've just got some things I want to see changed." So I chose education, and then they said, "Well, what else would you like to be on? “And I said, "I want to be on judiciary." And he said, "Okay, well why do you want to be on judiciary?" And I said, "Well, I am not a lawyer, but I think you need people who aren't lawyers on the judiciary that can give an insight to it. Instead of a legalese type of thing, and some common sense to it." Not that attorneys don't have common sense, but some people would question that. But I have enjoyed both of those two committees. And then the last one, I said ,"It doesn't really matter after that." But now he has put me on the Commerce Committee. And while I was working at Morgan Stanley in the financial industry I couldn't service on finance of commerce, especially finance. Because it was a potential conflict of interest or could be perceived as a conflict of interest. So on anything that had to do with that subject I bowed out and didn't participate in discussion, even though I was very knowledgeable in it. But, you know, I've raised my family here. I'm from Chattanooga, proud of it. I think that gives me an edge in Nashville because I am not somebody that's just come down here and doesn't know the lay of the land. And that's very important business-wise, that's very important for the labor market, that's extremely important for the education market. And those are the things that have really been on my heart. What I want to try to accomplish? What did I do? 

Helbert: What are you most proud of that you have accomplished?

Gardenhire: Most proud of that I have accomplished is two or three things. One thing I did was reform the emergency communication system in Tennessee. To make a long story short, and it is a long story because it took three years to do it. When everybody paid their telephone bill, you used to pay $1.50 for a landline and $1.00 for a mobile phone-some kind of mobile device. And what happened, there was a disparity in the way the funds were being distributed and local districts were being short changed. Not because of anybody’s fault but just was, because the landline revenue went down and the mobile phone and cell phones went up. But the cell phone money went to the state and the landlines went to the local districts. Well, I got that changed everybody now pays $1.16. That was revenue neutral and we changed the formula for how we did it. Second is for years $110 million dollars a year was flowing through the state and there was no oversight, there was no accountability, it was all done on a faith base or an honor system on paying it. Most of the vendors, which is about 140 telephone companies in Tennessee, where paying okay but we didn't know that. And so I got it changed to where now the department of revenue collects the money. There is a way to audit. There is a way to cross reference to make sure everybody is paying their fair share. And then changed the way the money flowed to the local district. That's the one thing. That took 3 years to do. The second thing I did was to make health caremore affordable and easier access to people. And for the first time ever I sponsored a bill and had to fight the hospitals, and fight all the little interest groups that had to do with healthcare, and got a certificate of need process changed. To where now it's easier for healthcare provider to get a certificate of need and not be blocked from competition. That lowers things. The third thing, which is most important and that really affects us right here in UTC is; the Latino population in Tennessee is having a hard time going to hire education because they can't afford it. Most of them are considered out of state tuition prospects. I got that changed in the senate two times, one for those born in the United States and those that weren't born in the United States. The first one passed by 2/3's in the senate, passed by about 60% in the house. The second one passed 2/3 in the senate, failed by one vote in the house. Which I had no control over. But that allows Latino students who have parents that are undocumented, to go to UTC if there is an opening. If they have a grade point average of 3.0 or better, they have a clean record, then they can go and pay. That's the key word. They pay in state tuition just like anybody else does on campus. And they can get a higher education and be productive citizens. Those are my most proudest- but those are very controversial. 

Helbert: We only have a few minutes here left. So I am going to go back- what is your position on the Affordable Care Act and Tennessee's failure to expand Medicaid? What can state government do or should to, to ensure health care access to lower-income residents?

Gardenhire: Well, right now we had a hearing in Nashville and there is access to healthcare to everybody. Nobody is turned down. We had 3 different hospital groups come in front of my committee and that's a question I asked. "Are you treating everybody that walks in the door?" And the answer was a unanimous yes. So access to healthcare, everybody has access to health care. So number one that's the most important thing. Hospitals and doctors are required to treat anybody who walks in the door, regardless of their ability to pay. Erlanger Hospital proudly, here in Chattanooga, talks about the $80 or something million dollars a year that they do a year in uncompensated care. Memorial and Parkridge do the same. Not the same numbers, but the same amount of care that they give. So access is there. Affordable Care Act is a federal act, it has nothing to do with the state. Governor Haslam sponsored a bill that was drawn up by Commissioner Gordon, called Insure Tennessee. We all like the concept of Insure Tennessee but the problem was the devil is always in the details. I don't care what anybody says. And the problem was- we got hit at the last minute, 15 hours before we were to vote on it. And found out that we were going to have to pay $18 million dollars over and above what everybody said was free. And the second year $60 million, and the third year $250 million that everybody said we wouldn't have to pay. That blew the whole thing out of the water. And so regardless of what people say about being free and not costing the state anything, that just wasn't the case and it surprised everybody. And there were other flaws in the plan itself, in the details. 

Helbert: What are your biggest challenges facing your district and how would you meet those challenges?

Gardenhire: Education is the biggest challenge that we face in this district, especially Hamilton County. Bradley County is different. I represent part of Bradley County, they have a great school system up there. Hamilton County we have five priority schools in my district in Hamilton County. Something has to be done to correct that situation. UTC, and I work with UTC and they are doing everything they can to provide quality teachers to go out into the system. 

Helbert: Why should the voters vote for you again? 

Gardenhire: Number one, experience. And number two, is I can get things done in Nashville that other people couldn't even dream about getting done. As an example the in-state tuition for Latino kids. You couldn't even think about that, you couldn't even mention that in Nashville, and I got it done. Nobody else did. They consider me a maverick up there in Nashville. Taking on difficult things like the certificate of need process. When you take on the power of the health care industry and you take them on, you've got to have a lot of guts to do that. And the second one, I took on the telecommunications industry. The Verizons, the AT&Ts, the Charters on the changing the way the Emergency Communication system works. You've got to have the knowledge, you've got to have the experience, and plus you've got to have the guts to stand up to them and say, "This is what's right. You've got to do it.We've got to make that change." That's why the voters should vote for me. 

Helbert: Thank you so much, we appreciate you coming in. 

Gardenhire: Thank you.