Tucker McClendon graduates this May, but there’s another date that’s flashing just as prominently on his radar: The Hamilton County primary elections in August. That’s when he’ll be on the ballot to represent District 8 on Hamilton County’s School Board.
McClendon, a political science major, currently serves as Government and External Committees Chair for UTC’s Student Government Association (SGA).
Why are you running? Why now?
I’ve always had a passion for politics and public education, especially right now in Hamilton County. We’re kind of at a crossroads with public education where we’re either going to start this new style of leadership and new viewpoint on public education, a different one than we’ve had for the past 30 years or so, ever since they merged the city and county.
Going through the public education system here in Hamilton County, I saw a lot of problems and I saw kids struggle and I saw teachers struggle. I want to improve that now for the next generation.
My big thing is, as someone that’s young, I’ve seen us put so much effort into the (Tennessee) Aquarium, the Riverfront and the internet here in Chattanooga. But we push education to the back-burner. Education is the key to all of those things. It’s the key to Volkswagen. It’s the key to bringing all of the start-ups. So I want us to see that shift to where we’re putting education first and all of those other things come second because we have the workforce and we’re developing students to go into those jobs.
What makes you a unique candidate?
My age. Being young. Not being enriched in the whole good ol’ boy network, I’m able to look at stuff differently. As someone that’s been through the system K-12—started out at Spring Creek Elementary and graduated from Ooltewah High School—I look at it a lot differently than someone who maybe was just an educator or community leader. Their viewpoints are important, but I’m able to bring in new, innovative ideas that maybe have not been thought about in the past.
What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on as Government and External Affairs Committee Chair at UTC?
My favorite, it’s still being worked right now, is trying to become a Purple Heart campus, being able honor our veterans, get them Purple Heart parking.
It’s not really a project, but I love having people come up to me and say, What about the new parking plan?” Just being accessible. We see these people in politics, these elected officials who are supposed to be representing us, but they’re very closed off individuals. That’s what I want to change.
This [SGA position] entails working hand-in-hand with the school administration and the city as well. I think that plays an important role because, when elected, I’ll already have those relationships. I’m an outsider, but I’m not an outsider.
How have your professors helped you with this process?
They’ve played a big role in it in a very educational way. Dr. (Amanda) Wintersieck, she is the one that, basically, I’m using all of the knowledge that I’ve gained through her classes. I’ve had “Primary Politics” with her, “Campaign and Elections” with her. One of the books I read with her, Get Out the Vote by Gerber and Green, I’ve re-read it and that’s helping me with campaign strategy. And then Dr. (Michelle) Deardorff, I approached her and told her what I was doing and she was like, “Go for it.” The whole Political Science Department has been encouraging.
What are your favorite classes you’ve taken at UTC?
Any of Dr. Wintersieck’s classes. She pushes you and challenges you in a way that you didn’t think you could be. It’s not like the typical college class where you’re just being hounded, hounded, hounded. You walk out of classes going, “I actually learned something in there.”
So we all have this bias or viewpoint that we see things through, and she pushes you to make sure that’s what you really believe. Her classes are very hands-on. We did a mock debate during the 2016 primary where everybody was either a candidate or a speechwriter or making the factbook for the candidate. My big thing was making the surveys.
And then completely out of the realm, “Geology of the National Parks.” I’m a big National Park person. Basically, we went through each national park and talked about the geological features of that park.
What kind of support have you had from individuals in the UTC community in general?
The SGA, Rachel [Emond], Drew [Keil] and basically everyone in SGA have been really supportive. When I announced, immediately half the people sent texts or reached out on Facebook because they see the passion that I have for it.
It’s not easy being 23 and running for office. It takes a lot of time, especially to be in school and working. It takes a lot of money. Some of them have even donated. So it means a lot to me. I’m thankful for the SGA and UTC.
What inspires you?
To make a difference.
There’s this stigma around elected officials and I think that even translates to SGA some. Anyone that’s an elected official or upper administration, there’s a stigma that they don’t do anything, or they’re closed off and they don’t care. For some weird reason, that inspires me to change that. I want to change this whole stigma that elected officials are just closed off, getting paid by lobbyists. That they don’t vote for their constituents. I want to say “Hey, I actually work for you. So tell me what you want me to do.”
Another thing is, why wait? I don’t need to wait another 20 years for it to be my turn. I want to just do it and see what happens.
I’m running for the school board because education changes lives. You could have someone whose family never graduated from high school and then, if that kid graduates from high school and goes to college, that changes that family’s life forever. That gives them more income, better job opportunities.
I don’t think we’re doing enough of that in Hamilton County. I don’t think we’re giving every single student in the county an equal and equitable education. So that is what inspires me. Because when you have first-graders who won’t even have art teachers, you never know where that’s going to lead them and it opens up to a lot more.
What kind of challenges do you expect to face in the next few months?
Lack of sleep. I think the No. 1 challenge of any campaign is just trying to get out there and see everyone and talk to everyone. I’m going to faces challenges because I’m 23. I’ve already faced it. Just because I’m 23 doesn’t mean I can’t do something. I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure people know that I can do the job and try to convey that.
But that’s going to be my biggest challenge saying, “Vote for me. I’m 23. I’m trying to better education for your kids and your grandkids.” But I think that’s something that I can overcome.