Is it mere coincidence that Andy Berke’s path to the mayor’s office was paved so easily and lined with only token opposition? Probably not.
While it is not publicly acknowledged, longtime Chattanoogans with even surface familiarity of the way politics work here know that Andy Berke’s smooth transition from the state senate to the mayor’s office is no mere coincidence.
Berke’s coronation was likely pre-determined and pre-ordained long ago, although his destiny may have always played a role in his political ascent. But with Democrats left with no power in Nashville, beaten down by the triple threat of the Tea Party, the South’s now traditionally conservative politics and the party’s own disarray, Berke’s time arrived, perhaps ahead of schedule.
Redistricted into a no-win scenario in his 10th Senate District legislature seat, the young lawyer and scion of the Berke family quickly segued from minority legislator to mayoral frontrunner seamlessly last year, with his prospects becoming even clearer as the Recall Ron effort took hold and almost unseated our divisive current mayor. Many had positioned themselves to take Littlefield’s place, if only for an interim period of seven months, before the movement ran aground. But Berke had already aligned himself with the “powers that be,” as they say, launching his campaign in May of last year and amassing support and a massive war chest that has exceeded even Bob Corker’s when he ran for mayor.
And then, almost magically, the opposition folded—any real opposition, that is. Berke’s most viable foe, Rob Healy—Littlefield’s main challenger in 2009—ended his brief campaign in December, citing lack of resources to battle Berke, leaving only dark horse Guy Satterfield and perennial candidate Chester Heathington Jr. to fill out the lackluster ballot.
Call us cynics, but that bit of serendipity could be nothing more than the hands of power clearing the way for Berke. Now, before we wander into the weeds of conspiracy, let us say this: Berke would likely rank atop almost anyone’s list as a top choice to lead the city. He is highly educated, a well-regarded attorney and state legislator who possesses little of the hubris or self-importance many of his colleagues in the legislature are burdened with. He’s a hometown boy with a family legacy and an earnest, low-key manner that has made him a rising star in Tennessee’s decimated Democratic Party. He’s young, energetic and full of the “vision thing” that has propelled others of his ilk to higher office. Berke may, in fact, be the best-qualified candidate at any time in modern history to run for mayor and he may indeed do great things for Chattanooga.
But in light of Littlefield’s sad stature and the considerable damage he has wrought (while admittedly presiding over a term of growth and attraction of such jewels as Volkswagen and Amazon) and the loud cries of foul resulting in the recall petition—a first in Chattanooga history—it is remarkable, to say the least, that not one of the city’s formidable, talented, well-positioned and savvy community leaders or businesspeople would rise to the challenge. Curious, no?
The usual suspects—Healy, Folkner, Satterfield, Heathington and other also-rans—were predictable entrants who lack Berke’s résumé, clout, connections and backing, but positioned themselves as “grassroots” alternatives to “big money” politicians returning from Nashville to rule the roost—let alone another Democrat. In a race that is non-partisan in format only, there was wide berth for a smart, straight-talking conservative to mount a vibrant campaign, tapping the strong undercurrent of anger over what is often perceived as a liberal bias, political nepotism and quid pro quo machinations at city hall. One has only to consider the furor over such appointments as Missy Crutchfield, each acquisition of public art and almost any move that is viewed as progressive to understand that everything in Chattanooga city government is political, as it is in every city everywhere. To believe otherwise is naive.
Asked why he thought no such challenge occurred, Berke told The Pulse, “My personality is to think about the things that I can control and I’m relatively good at not worrying about the things that I can’t.”
Such platitudes, often invoked by longtime friends of Bill W., are admirable traits, but shade the truth coming from the mouth of a professional politician, no matter how earnest. Can it be that at this point in our evolution, after decades of dogged reinvention and rebirth, after all the heavy lifting has been done, that no one save Berke came forward to lead the city at the zenith of its emergence as one of the South’s most amazing revivals?
Had that happened, our best inclinations would have tilted naturally toward Berke. And he may yet earn our now reserved blessings. We certainly hope so. But if he proves to be only a solid steward on his way to higher office, we will be sorely disappointed.
Good luck, Andy. The keys are yours. Prove us wrong and make us proud.