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Mayor Sensabaugh? Controversial Crockett coach picks up papers to run in Sullivan County

Douglas Fritz, Johnson City Press, and J.H. Osborne, Kingsport Times-News • Updated Dec 7, 2017 at 8:52 AM

Embattled, outspoken David Crockett High School head football coach Gerald Sensabaugh has tossed his helmet into the political ring.

Sensabaugh, whose suspension from coaching in October ignited a firestorm of debate between Washington County school leaders and community members, picked up qualifying petitions Wednesday to run for mayor in neighboring Sullivan County.

The former National Football League player picked up to run as an independent, which means if he turns in a completed petition and becomes a qualified candidate he would progress straight to the August general election ballot. Had he picked up to run as either a Democrat or Republican, he would have to run in a party primary in May.

Q&A with Sensabaugh

1. Why are you doing this?

“People have been telling me all of these stories, but they’re so scared to express their concerns due to retaliation. I feel I have that voice for the people. I want to listen to the people and get out there what they want in the community. We need to do what’s best for the people.”

2. How did it get started?

“Because of the Crockett deal, I was getting contacted by politicians and a lot of people in other counties — Sullivan, Hawkins. Everybody was wanting help in their communities. I’m just a person who stands for what is right. I’ve seen how small places operate. We need to prepare better for the future. We have to focus on the younger generation of people.”

3. Why here?

“A lot of people from the area go out there and they are successful, but they never come back and contribute here. I believe that’s what our area is missing. We need to change the perception.”

4. How will you get started in politics?

“It’s my first rodeo, but I have a team of people who have dealt with politics quite a bit. They are willing to help steer me in the right direction. They are willing to help me grow through the process.

“I trust my own judgment and how to go about doing things. People know my heart, and I genuinely want better communities. It’s another platform for me.”

5. How does the process start?

“I picked up my petition today. I have to get at least 25 signatures, but it has 50 slots and I will probably get a full 50 signatures.”

6. What’s the plan for change?

“Things need to be done promptly. I have a lot of ideas so the general public can be more knowledgeable about things. I mainly want to uplift the communities and get to a better place.

“I feel the area has the potential to flourish in all aspects — academically and athletically. I feel like a lot of things are not being done the right way. I don’t have conflicts of interest. My only motivation is my heart. Uplifting communities is my only goal.”

7. What is going on with the Crockett situation?

“I believe it’s still hovering. The whole process is pretty unprofessional in my opinion. Hopefully they will get things ironed out and give the school board a recommendation. We will just have to wait and see. Everything tends to draw out.”

Next up

To complete the process Sensabaugh must get at least 25 registered Sullivan County voters to sign the petition and return it to the Sullivan County Election Commission no later than noon on Feb. 15. He would line up in August’s general election against the winner of the Republican primary at a minimum. Incumbent Mayor Richard Venable announced this week his intentions to seek re-election. Venable has one would-be primary challenger in Kingsport developer Dave Clark, a former member of Kingsport’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen, who picked up paperwork last week but had not yet filed.

Background

In January, the former Dallas Cowboys safety and Kingsport native was hired as Crockett’s head football coach to much fanfare from the Washington County community, but was suspended nine months later amid a feud with school administrators.

At issue was his refusal of requests by a principal to remove unapproved photos of students from a social media post in which he criticized the state of Jonesborough Elementary School, accusations he used abusive language toward students and coaches, and a claim that he practiced an injured player who was not cleared for workouts.

In a meeting with administrators to reprimand him for the accused actions, Sensabaugh accused Crockett athletic director Josh Kite of coming to work under the influence of Oxycodone, a prescription opioid, and said Kite offered him pills. Sensabaugh has insisted he has done no wrong and instead is the target of a smear campaign by school district officials.

Both Sensabaugh and Kite are currently on administrative leave while an independent law firm investigates the accusations and reports recommendations regarding their employment to Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton.

Two months ago, Sensabaugh said he was considering suing the school district and solicited the services of attorneys on Facebook, but he has yet to file legal action. Crockett finished the season with a succession of two interim coaches.

Will he qualify?

Like most other county constitutional offices, there are few requirements to run for county mayor. Unlike most other offices, however, a would-be mayoral candidate must prove residency within the county for at least one year as of his or her filing date. Sensabaugh listed a Kingsport address on paperwork when he picked up the petition Wednesday.

Election office workers, in what is a routine step when issuing a petition for mayor — or sheriff, the only other office with the one-year residency requirement — checked Sensabaugh's voter registration, Administrator of Elections Jason Booher said in answer to standard questions from the Kingsport Times-News.

That revealed Sensabaugh registered for the first time — in Sullivan County or anywhere else in the state — last month. Booher said he then explained to Sensabaugh that the Election Commission would require some other proof of residency showing he has lived in the county for at least one year.

Property ownership is one point of proof. Sensabaugh said the home at the address he listed is in his wife's name, and public records show that is true.

Booher said Sensabaugh is not the only person to pick a petition up that didn't yet provide clear proof residency, and other forms of proof can include utility bills, pay stubs and a driver's license.

The salary for Sullivan County mayor is $116,500 plus a $650-per-month vehicle allowance.

Press News Editor Nathan Baker contributed to this article.

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