published Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Hamilton County Democrats steps into mayoral campaign


by Cliff Hightower
Andy Berke
Andy Berke
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Almost two months after Hamilton County Democratic officials said they would stay out of the March Chattanooga mayor's race, they changed their minds and endorsed Andy Berke.

County party Chairman Paul Smith sent out a news release Thursday announcing the endorsement of Berke, a former Democratic state senator.

Smith said Berke is generating support from both Democrats and Republicans in a nonpartisan race.

"We don't normally do that, but we always have that option," Smith said.

But the Democratic Party chairman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in October that his party would stay out of the nonpartisan election.

"The Democratic Party is not fielding a slate and not endorsing anyone," he said then.

Smith backtracked on those statements Friday.

"At that point we weren't, but because of recent events we decided to," he said.

Marty Von Schaaf, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said Friday there's "no surprise" in the endorsement.

He said it's just "Paul Smith being Paul Smith."

"They're going to get behind their guy," Von Schaaf said.

There's no chance the Republicans will endorse Berke, he said.

"Asking the Republican Party to back a Democratic candidate isn't going to happen, I don't care if it's a nonpartisan race," Von Schaaf said.

The Berke campaign issued a statement Friday afternoon claiming support from across the political spectrum.

"Democrats, Republicans and Independents have all energetically supported our campaign," the statement read. "As we knock on thousands of doors and solicit the input of people across the city, we welcome any and all support."

But the statement did not address specific questions on whether Berke would accept the Democratic Party endorsement or seek the endorsement of the Hamilton County GOP.

Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said his group also would not endorse Berke.

"He doesn't stand for what we stand for," West said.

Berke's opponents, perennial candidate Chester Heathington Jr. and former city employee Guy Satterfield, are expected to have a hard time competing with Berke's political network and well-stocked campaign war chest.

Von Schaaf and West said they aren't going to get behind any candidate in the race.

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