published Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Chattanooga mayoral races pricey; Berke is off and running


by Cliff Hightower
Senator Andy Berke greets members of the audience after announcing his mayoral campaign at the Chattanooga Theatre Center on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Senator Andy Berke greets members of the audience after announcing his mayoral campaign at the Chattanooga Theatre Center on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

BIG MONEY

Mayoral candidates have had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last decade in order to be viable in the city election. The top fundraisers are:

• Bob Corker 2001 race: $646,000

• Ann Coulter 2005 race: $587,000

• Mayor Ron Littlefield 2005 race: $359,000

• Mayor Ron Littlefield 2009 race: $202,000

Source: Hamilton County Election Commission

If history repeats itself, it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to even be considered a candidate for Chattanooga mayor.

And state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, is firing the first shot on fundraising.

"We know we'll need the resources to compete," Berke said last week. "We think we'll be able to do that."

Election records over the last decade show it has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to be noticed.

Bob Corker, now Tennessee's junior U.S. senator, holds the record for fundraising in a Chattanooga mayoral race. Running in a pack of 12 candidates, Corker raised about $646,000 for his 2001 campaign. He garnered 16,500 votes against top challenger Irvin Overton, who raised almost $161,000 and ended with 9,200 votes.

But raising the most money still does not guarantee a win.

In 2005, eight candidates wore themselves out before Ann Coulter, with a $587,000 warchest, lost a runoff to Ron Littlefield, who rang up $359,000.

Littlefield raised $202,000 in 2009 and overwhelmed sole opponent Rob Healy, whose financial reports could not be accessed Friday on the election commission website.

Berke announced his mayoral run last month. He is holding his first fundraiser June 19 at The Chattanoogan hotel. He also has $120,000 that he raised as a senator that he can use in the mayor's race after his Senate term ends.

Other potential mayoral candidates include Jim Folkner, Rob Healy, Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd, County Commissioner Warren Mackey, Guy Satterfield and Roger Tuder.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said it's too early to tell whether this could be the most expensive election in the city's history.

"It depends upon who gets in," he said. "But a lot of reasons you announce early is to lock down the money."

Some of the other potential candidates are taking notice as well.

Tuder, president of the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee, said he wouldn't make an announcement until the end of summer. He said the March 13 mayoral election is still a long way off.

"There's a lot of other elections between now and then," he said. "There's a lot of pressure on contributors to support other campaigns."

He won't be surprised if the race is the most costly ever.

In the nonpartisan race, Berke is reaching for support from Democrats and Republicans.

The hosts for his fundraiser comprise a who's who of large campaign donors in Hamilton County, including the Decosimos and the Probascos.

Paul Brock Jr., wealth manager at Brown Associates Inc., is one of the hosts. He's a Republican but said that doesn't matter in the city election.

"We've had Democrats that have been wonderful mayors. We've had Republicans that have been wonderful mayors," he said.

Joe Decosimo, founder of Decosimo Certified Public Accountants, is also hosting along with his sons Fred and Tom Decosimo. Joe Decosimo has been known to heavily support Republicans. But in the mayor's race, he said, he just looks for the best person.

He said he supported former mayor Jon Kinsey, a Democrat, when he ran, but didn't support Berke in either of his two Senate races.

"You just look for a person with integrity," he said. "It doesn't matter if they are Democrat or Republican."

Ladd also said she's planning to announce in the fall and expects the campaign will come with a hefty price tag.

She sees Berke already starting to lock down money.

"He has already," Ladd said. "A lot of the major money is already supporting him."

Mackey said he's still talking with people about a mayoral run. He said he thinks someone who can get out and talk to the community could have a chance against a big-money candidate.

"I don't agree the most money wins," he said.

Satterfield, a retired city employee, said he won't be able to raise much money and will be knocking on doors to seek support.

Like Ladd, Satterfield said he knows the power of money in a race, and he said he knows Berke will be able to raise it.

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