Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 13, 2022

Well-played ruse snares coppinger

Liberty Bell Award recipient falls victim to ‘unprecedented conspiracy’

Around noon on May 4, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger learned he’d fallen prey to subterfuge.

He was sitting next to one of the conspirators, Chattanooga Bar Association Executive Director Lynda Hood, in the Silver Ballroom of the Read House Hotel when he realized he’d been duped.

One of Hood’s accomplices, Judge Clarence Shattuck, was standing at the podium, reading the biography he’d prepared for the 2022 recipient of the CBA’s Liberty Bell Award.

The association announces the recipient of the annual award during its yearly Law Day luncheon, usually held in May.

“Lynda, he’s talking about me,” Coppinger, 66, said only moments into Shattuck’s remarks.

Getting the very busy Coppinger in the room to receive the award without knowing why he was there required Hood, Shattuck and even Coppinger’s communications manager, Mike Dunne, to “hatch an unprecedented conspiracy,” the judge joked from the podium.

In the weeks before the luncheon, Hood asked Coppinger if he’d present the Liberty Bell Award to Shattuck. Unaware lawyers and judges are not eligible to receive the honor, Coppinger agreed.

The mayor also wrote an enthusiastic biography of his friend, Shattuck, to read as he made the announcement.

To complete the ruse, Hood prepared a fake program for the event that indicated Coppinger, not Shattuck, would be announcing the award. She then printed three copies – one for Coppinger’s place setting, one for hers and one for the judge’s.

Hood also arranged for her and Shattuck to sit on either side of the mayor during lunch. Meanwhile, Dunne stayed close to the exit to prevent Coppinger from prematurely leaving to return to work.

With the plot played out, the mayor could only sit back and listen.

“Our 2022 recipient was born and raised in what was at one time a somewhat rural area of Hamilton County. He attended a public school, was a student at Chattanooga State and UTC and later worked as a cadet with the Chattanooga Fire Department,” Shattuck read.

The judge went on to chronicle Coppinger’s rise to chief of the fire department and then his transition into public service in 2005.

Coppinger sat on the Hamilton County Commission for several years before being appointed county mayor in 2011 as Claude Ramsey vacated the position to work for then-Gov. Bill Haslam.

He was later elected mayor in a 2012 special election and then won four-year terms in 2014 and 2018.

Last October, Coppinger said he wouldn’t be seeking reelection in 2022, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

The mayor will leave behind a legacy of economic improvement and stronger schools in Hamilton County, Shattuck said.

In addition to funneling nearly $250 million into local schools and spearheading improvements such as the new football stadium at Howard High School, Coppinger helped to bring 71 new businesses to the area and pave the way for 135 company expansions, leading to $4.5 million in capital investment, the judge added.

“The county’s purchase in December of the McDonald Farm in Sale Creek will impact the local economy for years to come,” Shattuck continued, offering an example. “The benefits will extend beyond our time.”

Shattuck suggested Coppinger’s record of success as mayor stemmed from his humble nature, which drove him to seek the advice and help of others.

“He’s been a team player ever since he was a standout quarterback on the Hixon High School team,” the judge proposed. “Maybe playing football taught him a lesson. Every Friday night, he’d face people who’d want to knock his sock off. To win, everyone needed to work together.”

Sometimes, the opposition did pummel Coppinger, Shattuck noted. He then proposed this toughed up the mayor for his harder days on the job, many of which came as he stood his ground after instituting a public face mask mandate during the pandemic.

“I swore Jim in every time he won an election. When I told him we might need to come up with a swearing out ceremony, he assured me he’d already been sworn out hundreds of times,” Shattuck quipped.

After Coppinger accepted the award, he professed to being shocked and then wondered aloud how many of the lawyers in the room had deposed him during his years as mayor.

“It’s good to be here with such distinguished people. When I sat down, [attorney] Sam Elliott reminded me about the time he deposed me. I don’t know how many of you deposed me over the years, but I know it wasn’t personal.”

Coppinger then said he was accepting the award on behalf of his staff and the countless others who’d worked alongside him while he was mayor.

“When you’re in leadership, you can’t succeed without the help of a lot of unsung heroes. I’ve worked with a great staff that will continue to serve this county. They’re a talented group of people who made me look good. That’s not me being humble; that’s a fact.”

Law Day was first observed May 1, 1958, when President Dwight Eisenhower established it as a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law. Commemorated annually May 1, Law Day is an opportunity to host or participate in discussions about law and its role in society.

The Chattanooga Bar Association began presenting the Liberty Bell Award in 1964 to a Hamilton County citizen who has strengthened the American system of freedom under law.

Shattuck said Coppinger is well-deserving of the honor.

“For the last 11 years, we’ve had a gem of a county mayor,” he gushed in closing.

Coppinger, in turn, said he’d treasure the award in his retirement.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve this county. I’ve loved every minute of it but it’s time for me to move on.”