HAWKINS COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Seven candidates will face off in the Hawkins County Republican primary for the mayoral seat.

Whoever is triumphant in the May 3 primary will face independent candidate David Bailey in the August election.

Early voting begins on April 13.

The Hawkins County Volunteer Fireman’s Association will host a “Meet the Candidates” forum on Thursday, April 14, at 6:30 p.m. at Cherokee High School in Rogersville.

Meet the candidates

Mark DeWitte

As a sitting Hawkins County commissioner, Mark DeWitte told News Channel 11 he hopes to bring experience in local government and non-profit work to the mayor’s office if elected.

“I think you’ll hear every candidate say that they’re running because they love Hawkins County and they want the best for Hawkins County. But I think I’m the only one that can actually prove that with things that I have done previously,” he said.

Mark DeWitte

DeWitte runs a non-profit called Foursquare Incorporated. Under the umbrella non-profit, he heads up a Thanksgiving dinner each year feeding roughly 3,500 people, and the Rogersville 4th of July celebration each year.

“We just think that it’s important to make the county better to have the people participate in things like that, and I think I can take that attitude on into the mayor’s office.”

The commissioner aims to move up to the office of county mayor with the goal of lowering taxes, particularly the wheel tax.

“That’s one of my goals would be to work on the wheel tax low rate somehow bringing other revenue sources into the county. I think tourism is important,” he said.

DeWitte hopes to make up for lower taxes by increasing revenue for the county via tourism.

“Tourists bring dollars into the county and tourists don’t take the expense side and out of the budget as much as some local residents do. We don’t have the education part for them. We don’t have the other parts that we don’t have to deal with when it comes to bringing in tourist money. So tourism would be important to me,” he said.

Transparency is key to DeWitte, who said he hopes to implement an open-door policy.

He said his experience will help him do a good job.

“I have an excellent background, in business, in nonprofit, in fundraising in grant writing, in lots of different areas, people management, budgeting, lots of areas that are pertinent to the mayor’s office that I’ve done well in and I feel that past performance dictates future success. So I think that my past performance speaks for itself and I think that I’m the best candidate,” he said.

Keith Gibson

Keith Gibson is a Church Hill native who attended Church Hill High School and returned to the region after college to spend 32 years in education in both Hawkins and Sullivan counties.

Keith Gibson

“I have worked the last 18 years in high school administration, and if you’ve ever been in a high school you know there are all kinds of problems and I had to learn to deal with whatever comes at me. And I feel like that would prepare me greatly to sit in the mayor seat,” Gibson told News Channel 11.

Gibson has served as the president of the Church Hill Jaycees, the board of mayor and aldermen, as well as the county commission for years.

In that role, he helped build a new splash pad for the kids of Church Hill to enjoy at their local park, so Gibson believes he can accomplish such goals for the whole county.

Throughout his career, he said he has had an open-door policy and hopes to bring a level of transparency to the mayor’s office.

Even when he worked in schools, he said his door was open.

“My door was open unless there’s something confidential going on that I could not leave it open. But my door is always open for students, teachers, the faculty you know, the community, anybody that had questions,” he said.

Gibson said his phone number hasn’t changed since the first cellphone he ever got and said that he can be reached at that number for any citizens with concerns.

Michael J. Herrell

Michael J. Herrell has served as a Hawkins County commissioner for eight years.

Michael J. Herrell

“I feel like I’ve made some change in the county,” he told News Channel 11. “And I feel like I can do more for the taxpayers of Hawkins County.”

If elected, Herrell said he hopes to be a voice for the citizens in Hawkins County. In a way, he said, he had already delivered on that promise as a county commissioner.

When federal emergency COVID-19 relief dollars were allocated to the county, Herrell told News Channel 11 he played a key role in starting an ad hoc committee made up of private citizens and commissioners to best decide how to appropriate the funds.

“It’s your county, it’s your tax dollars. Don’t let the politicians take it away. Take control of your tax dollars and make sure it’s spent well,” he said.

Throughout his eight years as county commissioner, Herrell said he has built up a network of sources in Nashville to help push policy forward for his home county.

He also said that he would not vote to raise the wheel tax, which he called a “touchy subject,” because he does not believe in raising taxes. Though he also said he hopes to make the county a better place to live for the younger generations.

“Better place to live and work and for our children to hopefully start staying in Hawkins County and still wanting to live, I’d like to see more of our young adults get involved in community service and, and politics side of things,” he explained.

He said he feels the county’s $100+ million annual budget has enough money to fund the services of the county government.

“I have tried to do the right time for Hawkins County, the right things for Hawkins County, because I feel like there’s money in the budget and stuff that we can start looking at and hopefully make the right adjustments to the budget, and try to make it where we don’t have to raise taxes on the taxpayers of Hawkins County,” he said.

He added that community outreach and involvement were key to the success of the county.

Kelly Markham

Kelly Markham is a retired budget manager for TRW in Rogersville. He and his wife Linda have five kids and eight grandkids for whom he hopes to make Hawkins County a better place to live.

Kelly Markham

Markham has owned and operated a small business in Rogersville called “Kelly’s heroes Isshinryu Karate School” for over 40 years.

“When I retired early from TRW, I set some goals and one of them was that run for mayor I wanted to do something different. I want to I wanted to help people. I wanted meaning from one idea I wanted results,” he told News Channel 11.

His first goal, like all the other candidates, would be to have an open-door policy.

“And you say, ‘Well that is not a goal,’ it is if you look at what’s there now it’s close to our system,” he pointed out.

If elected, Markham has a list of goals he hopes to achieve.

“Jobs – it’s important to bring jobs in that’s more of a long-term thing, it needs to be worked on. School safety, and we’re doing a good job right now, I feel real good about that. Quality of education. I feel good about that. But I’ll support it, and I’ll help make it better if I can,” he said.

Markham said he hopes to listen to and support first responders.

In 2005, he lost his home in a fire.

“The fire department become my hero. I lost everything I had by far,” he said.

“And it was already about going when they got there, but I lived in some timbers and I had a daughter living down from me, and some of my kids that already built in that area and the fire would have went towards them,” he said, but the fire department was able to stop the blaze before it reached the rest of the Markham family.

He added that if elected, he would encourage fact-based discussion in county government.

“That’s a way to get rid of some argument and to know you’re dealing with the right thing. I think in the process now sometimes we don’t gather all the facts,” he said.

He said his experience working as a budget manager would help him go through each budget line item and reevaluate how money should be appropriated in the county budget.

Kenneth Stapleton

As the youngest candidate, Kenneth Stapleton hopes to make a difference in Hawkins County politics.

Kenneth Stapleton

“I believe my age for one makes me stand out, I’m at the age to where I can grow with the community and hopefully be a positive investment in our local government and grow with the community and see to that our upcoming voters and residents are as informed and want to be involved as possible,” he told News Channel 11.

The soon-to-be-father had thoroughly researched how politics is being and has been conducted in his home county for the past few decades, and said he hoped to cause some change.

“53 years old is our most popular age to vote. So I would like to see that number fall into the 20s, 30s and stay where they’re at through the older generations. And I don’t mean any harm I just would like for us to grow and be informed,” he explained.

Stapleton pointed out that in the last primary election, out of the roughly 30,500 registered Hawkins County voters, only about 18% cast their votes.

“So with that, I think there’s a huge capability of how fast we could grow as a community if we got all those voters and residents informed and involved into our community,” he said.

The 34-year-old hopes to create a better understanding of how local government functions because he told News Channel 11 that several constituents had asked him to do certain things if elected, and he said he had to explain to them that certain steps had to be taken before a task can necessarily be completed in local government.

“I would like to be able to grow the relations amongst all of the committees and subcommittees along with our residents and let them be informed,” Stapleton said.

He also said he would implement an open-door policy and would update the citizens of the county on happenings in the county government on a regular basis if elected.

Stacy D. Vaughan

Stacy Vaughan served as the fire chief for the Stanley Valley Volunteer Fire Department in Surgoinsville for over 30 years. He raises roughly 100 head of cattle each year and has served as a county commissioner.

The Hawkins County sheriff’s deputy worked a full night shift before his interview with News Channel 11 about his campaign, adding that his actions showed the kind of candidate he is and the kind of mayor he would be if elected — always available.

“I’ll try to bring some cooperation and participation from the mayor’s office to the county commission, to the citizens, to the elected officials of Hawkins County,” he said.

Stacy Vaughan

If elected, Vaughan said he would utilize social media to keep citizens updated on budget amendments.

“Basically just keeping the citizens informed of how their tax dollars has been spent. There’s so much miscommunication and there’s a perception that the citizens have that may not actually be what’s happening within county government. So if we can bring those together and bridge those gaps and put everybody on the same page, and as mayor, that’s what I want to try to do,” he explained.

Having served as a county employee through the sheriff’s office, a part-time officer for the Mount Carmel Police Department, and the Stanley Valley Volunteer Fire Department, Vaughan said he had plenty of experience to make the tough decisions necessary to provide the best services for the county’s residents.

He explained that during his 14-year term on the county commission, Vaughan acted as the budget committee’s chairman. He said he had to make the tough decision to raise the wheel tax.

“I’ll probably lose some voters because of that,” Vaughan joked, but he explained the reason for making that tough decision was for the benefit of the taxpayers.

“I’ve had to make those tough decisions when taxes might have had to been raised to fund the county so that there are essential services. When you call EMS you get EMS, when you call the fire department you get the fire department, when you call the sheriff he sends a deputy. I had to make those tough decisions to make those departments still operate. And I’m not afraid to make tough decisions to keep our people safe,” he said.

Vaughan noted that the county budget is currently at roughly a $1.9 million deficit, and he suggested looking at each line item and reevaluating each county expense through an audit, perhaps cutting costs so taxes would not have to be raised.

“I pledge to bring common sense and participation and try to bring an understanding from the mayor’s office to the voters,” he said.

Martha Wallace

Martha Wallace is the only female candidate running for Hawkins County mayor.

Martha Wallace

“I would just ask that you would go all the way to the bottom of the list on when you go to vote because I’ll be in the very bottom. My name starts with a W, so I’d just like for you to consider me as your candidate to be your county mayor,” she said.

Candidates are listed on the ballot alphabetically, hence Wallace’s name will appear at the bottom.

Wallace worked in the Hawkins County mayor’s office for 32 years, retiring in June 2020.

“I know what the mayor’s responsibilities is, you know, I’ve worked really closely as administrative assistant to the mayors for those several years and I felt like I had something to offer for Hawkins County,” she said.

Wallace explained that she knows all the ins and outs of the mayor’s job and feels she could execute it with ease.

“I’ve done all the purchasing for the county offices and worked for all the departments and that’s included solid waste and highway department and emergency management,” she listed.

Wallace explained that she does not necessarily have any goals in mind if she’s elected as the county’s first female mayor.

“You just kind of have to take it as it comes. You know, what situations arise you have to look at it, work with the people involved with it, cooperate with everybody, everybody sit down at the table, and look at the situation and try to work towards the best goal for everybody in the county,” she said.