Kim White has had a multi-faceted life that has ranged from working at a downtown art gallery in college to returning to almost that exact same area to live and work decades later.
She has literally come full circle, but it has been a big loop with stops in several other communities in the South and plenty of personal growth along the way.
But as she was interviewed for this two-part series that also included a recent profile on fellow Chattanooga mayoral runoff candidate Tim Kelly leading up to the April 13 election and early voting starting March 24, she was first asked about her unique light green campaign signs.
No, it is not her favorite color, she said with a laugh, but it does have much significance in symbolizing newness and freshness in the approach she said she would bring to the position of leading the city.
“Like with anything, we try to look at what we’re doing with our vision, and the message we’re trying to talk about is a positive, energetic and fresh new approach in thinking about our city,” she said, adding that the bright color is also intended to evoke optimism.
Besides her campaign themes of wanting to focus on collaborations and partnerships, her election would definitely result in one first for Chattanooga – she would become the first female mayor in the city’s history.
And she thinks the Scenic City is ready for a woman mayor.
“I think they are,” she said.
“I didn’t run because I’m a woman, but as you know, I am. But I feel like I am the most qualified and I feel like it is time for a woman. We’ve had 161 years of government and the same faces, so I think it is time for a different kind of leadership, and my style is different.”
Ms. White had first arrived in Chattanooga in the early 1970s after her father was transferred here to work for TVA when she was in the eighth grade. That was the first decade when perhaps the tide was beginning to slowly shift and more equal opportunities for women were becoming available around the country.
With such memorable moments as the recording of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” song and Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in tennis as inspiration, school-age girls in Chattanooga in the 1970s could also take note of expanding high school sports opportunities for them. And many had increasing opportunities after high school, as exemplified by 1978 Girls Preparatory School graduate Gail Petty, who became the first Chattanooga young woman to attend West Point or any of the three major military academies.
Ms. White graduated from Hixson High the same year that Ms. Petty was finishing GPS. But she was focused simply on overcoming her own admitted shortcomings than accomplishing such community milestones at that time in her life.
“In high school, I had zero confidence,” said Ms. White, who as a Hixson student was known as Kim Hudson. “I was not outgoing or anything, so there was nothing I did in high school. I think I was a very, very late bloomer.”
However, she said Hixson was a great school and she enjoyed growing up on Big Ridge, calling it a good neighborhood.
Hixson High particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s was known for producing a number of graduates who have gone on to distinguish themselves in a variety of fields. Among them has been Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, a former Wildcat football quarterback, who graduated in 1973.
Ms. White, who said she has enjoyed learning about and reconnecting with a number of Hixson graduates since moving back to Chattanooga in recent years, would take her Hixson diploma to UT-Chattanooga. There, she would begin to blossom and start to reach her full potential.
“That’s where I first started getting really active and engaged and involved,” she said. “I became active in Greek life. I became president of my sorority and did a lot with student government. You name it and I probably did it on the campus at UTC.
“I give them so much credit for leadership and really teaching me about how one person can make a difference and how you should make a difference.”
The Chi Omega sorority member said challenging herself to be more leadership and service focused had its fruition after someone she was working with simply encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone.
It is advice she passes on to young people these days when she has an opportunity to speak to them.
“It’s about networking and being able to pick up the phone and call people,” she said. “It is a skill set that has served me well through the years.”
She has also maintained her ties with UTC and has served as chairman of the alumni association and the UC Foundation and is a current member of the high-profile UT board of trustees.
She also endowed a Chi Omega scholarship for a UTC student, saying, “I want to help someone get a hand up.”
Ms. White knows about that, saying she had to work her way through college. That included being employed at the Casual Corner women’s clothing store at Northgate Mall and also with Gail and Bearl Coulter at their Gailco Galleries at Northgate and on East Eighth Street in downtown Chattanooga.
Ms. Coulter was a pioneering businesswoman in the local art trade world and was the first woman president of the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga. She had also been a valiant cancer survivor, her obituary said.
After graduating from UTC in 1982, Ms. White ended up in Augusta, Ga. While she had found herself confidence wise in college, she was still searching to find her career calling.
“I had several jobs just trying to figure out my career path,” she said. “At one time I had three separate jobs. I did logos, newsletters and I worked for a real estate company.
“I was just trying to make ends meet like a lot of people to make it at the beginning.”
However, she started getting involved in Augusta with a lot of community events and with the Chamber of Commerce.
“Through that networking I got introduced to someone in the telecommunications business and industry and ended up working for Alltel Communications,” she said. “It was a Fortune 500 company.
“And I also met my husband (Joe Dan White) in Augusta. We’ve been married for 32 years.”
And yes, while they were in Augusta, they did get to go to the Masters golf tournament and take part in the community-wide celebration of that famous sporting event every April.
But the course of life soon took them elsewhere. Joe Dan’s company got bought out about the time her company was pushing her to move, so he started following her on her career path.
“We went from Augusta to Atlanta, to Birmingham, and to Fort Myers, Fl., over the course of many years,” she said.
The next stop would be a familiar place, and one of her choosing. She was coming back home to Chattanooga.
“In 2003, we said that we were done,” the candidate recalled. “We had done the Southern tour and we were coming back home and decided to move to Chattanooga.”
When she arrived back in the Scenic City, though, she did not have a job. She said she spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was next for her, while also beginning to visit as an avid walker all the park and greenway space that had opened since she left.
Her father had been with TVA and her mother sold real estate, so she did not feel she had any political connections. But through a lot of hard work, she would eventually meet the man who would become the most accomplished figure in politics from Chattanooga in the last few decades – future U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.
“I just rolled up my sleeves and started cold calling and figured out where the opportunity was for me to use my experience in Chattanooga, and the people were amazing,” she recalled. “They sat down with me and connected me to others and through that experience I ended up meeting on a cold call Bob Corker when he was mayor.
“I ended up getting an appointment with him and was talking to him for several months and found out he was looking for someone to run his real estate company. So that was my beginning. He offered me the job to do that. Some people think I moved here to run Bob Corker’s real estate company, but I just moved to Chattanooga because it was Chattanooga.”
She also started to become more involved in the Chattanooga community at large, she said, serving on the Erlanger Hospital board of trustees, getting involved with UTC as previously mentioned, and also serving on the board of the River City Co.
The latter is a non-profit organization that since the Tennessee Aquarium and other downtown redevelopment projects started being planned in 1986 has worked with local government, the private sector and philanthropic groups to aid downtown. Its website says the evolving group tries to stimulate economic, social and cultural growth.
After former Mayor Corker sold his real estate holdings when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, River City was looking for a new president and CEO, and Ms. White was hired.
“I felt like that’s where all my connections connected,” she said. “I figured I could bring my business experience and my non-profit experience and learn how to work beside the city to get things done for downtown.”
She would go on serve in the post for 11 years, which she said was twice as long as any of her four predecessors. River City’s 2019 annual report – which mentioned Tim Kelly as a board member — lists such accomplishments as involvement with the Business Improvement District, Cooper’s Alley events, and health and beautification projects, among many others.
Pleased with the work she had done, she left in 2020 with one more position on her mind – serving as mayor of Chattanooga. But it had earlier taken some convincing from herself.
“I’ve had people over the years, and really before Andy (Berke) ran the first time (in 2013), ask me about doing that,” she said. “But it didn’t seem like that was my path.”
However, after being at River City longer and seeing there were so many more community needs than River City’s footprint was able to help, she changed her mind.
She thinks she can make a bigger difference as mayor by bringing partnerships together. And conversations with Mr. Corker and former Tennessee Gov. and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam – whom she said she admires for the jobs they did as mayors – have convinced her of the impact someone in that position can have.
“They both said that the best way to make a difference in the city you love and care about is being mayor.”
And this woman who is known for her culinary skills serving such popular dishes to her family as collard greens, shrimp and grits, and New Orleans one-pot jambalaya hopes to serve Chattanooga through her political and service skills, too.
She thinks her work in both business and in the non-profit realm working with the city – including by helping recruit jobs and investment — makes her uniquely qualified to be the next mayor, and the first female one.
“I love this city and I think we have some great opportunities, and we have some great challenges, and it takes a seasoned, experienced leader to actually move us where we want to be,” she said, adding that she has received campaign contributions from every ZIP Code in town.
“My background relates to the background of most Chattanoogans. I come from a working-class family. I’ve worked my entire life. I’m someone that has juggled jobs and juggled paychecks. And I understand the different types of experiences.”