Stan Voit: GOP's Sonny Coane stepping away after successful 2-year run

Jan. 14, 2013 @ 11:46 AM

You’d think one of the easiest jobs in Sevier County is being chairman of the Republican Party. This is the reddest of the red counties across Tennessee, a place with no elected Democrats and where Mitt Romney got 77 percent of the Nov. 6 vote.

Sonny Coane didn’t see it that way. He’s not one to be satisfied. In two years as chairman of the Sevier County GOP he was aggressive and proactive. He wanted to see more people involved. He wanted more interesting and provocative meetings. And he sought an outreach to young people.

He did all that, and then some. But now the man is tired. Coane has decided not to seek a second two-year term as party chairman. When the Republicans gather on Tuesday night for their annual meeting, he won’t be a candidate for another term.

“It was my decision,” he said. “I’m tired. It’s time.”

I got to know Sonny up close and personal last summer when he approached me to see if The Mountain Press would agree to co-sponsor debates among legislative candidates and the two county clerk candidates. We agreed. What followed was a series of meetings, email exchanges and coordination that brought the two of us into close contact as we planned the evening.

It was clear to me this was a man of passion, committed to the Republican Party and its values. He loved the fact Republicans were taking on Republicans in legislative races, giving voters choices.

The debates were successful. All of the candidates except incumbent county clerk Karen Cotter participated. Around 200 people attended. I enjoyed being part of it, and I could tell from Sonny’s demeanor that he was pleased as well.

Each month without fail I’d get a news release from him or the party’s PR guy, Allen Bray, promoting the GOP’s upcoming meeting at the courthouse. Until Coane came along the meetings usually didn’t have a speaker. He changed that and began inviting key Republican figures from the area and across the state.

Attendance improved. That translated into more interest in party politics and more volunteers to help distribute materials and run the office downtown.

I was watching a Republican presidential debate a year ago from South Carolina. The first audience question came from Mr. Sonny Coane, who asked the candidates what they’d do to get rid of Obamacare. That was a nice coup for him and for the county.

He improved the meetings, put an emphasis on public relations, helped stage a candidates debate and helped infuse the party treasury with money. That wasn’t enough. He helped organize a candidates assembly at the fairgrounds, so people could drop by, meet the Republican politicians and have a free lunch. That June event drew more than 150 people.

Coane was still not satisfied. He wanted to see more young folks involved with the party, so he helped get a teen Republican club organized. The group had its first meeting a few weeks ago at Sevier County High. More chapters are planned at the other high schools.

Sonny Coane is 75 now. He and his wife JoAnn, who is GOP secretary, have loved their involvement in party politics. Sonny sensed it was time to move on. He was eligible for a second two-year term. He wouldn’t admit it was a factor in his decision, but the re-election of President Obama really disappointed him, even though he held up his end of the bargain on that election. The man loves being a Republican.

On Tuesday night somebody else will become county chairman. There can be nominations from the floor, but right now it appears Devin Koester, a lawyer and member of the Sevierville Board of Mayor and Aldermen, is poised to replace Coane.

Since it’s not a done deal, Koester, who at 36 is less than half as old as Coane, is understandably reluctant to talk about becoming chairman, but he is not shy about singing the praises of the current chairman.

“What can you say about the two years Sonny committed to the Republican Party?” Koester said. “He is knowledgeable, trustworthy, honest and he’s been a great chairman. He came along at a time when the Republican Party really needed what he could bring.”

So what now for Coane? He’ll remain on the GOP Executive Committee, but he plans to become more involved in First Baptist Church Sevierville, where he’s been a long-time member.

Sevier County Republicans will remain in control and in power. But the party will have to scramble to match the involvement and creativity of the man leaving as chairman.

I always knew if I didn’t get his news releases published quickly, he’d call or email with a complaint. More than once, he apologized for being pushy by bringing by a box of doughnuts for the newsroom.

We’ll miss the doughnuts. But even more, we’ll miss Sonny. He is a good man. That says it all.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com.