Cook: The next 1,000 days

Cook: The next 1,000 days

July 21st, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Last week, Maria Shriver, former first lady of California, was in town. Still not exactly sure why.

For whatever reason, she crossed paths with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. They spoke about several things, but one mostly.

"Her father," said Berke.

If ever an American politician was due canonization, it's Sargent Shriver. In the disorder of the 1960s, he wrote a long list of pro-life, pro-America, anti-poverty programs: Peace Corps, Job Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America.

"He and his wife started the Special Olympics," added Berke.

Let's pause right here.

On the cusp of Berke's first 100 days in office, I want to make a rather large, maybe clumsy, but truly complimentary forecast about his next 1,000 days.

Doing so doesn't come easily. Like a dog spotting a mailman, my first instinct is to bark, bite and criticize. Can't help it. The French smoke, old shoes smell and critics, well, we criticize ... especially our politicians.

But here goes: Berke and his programs will help revitalize forgotten parts of Chattanooga, like a social version of the downtown Renaissance. In the spirit of Sargent Shriver, Berke will devote resources and attention to the other Chattanooga, the unloved places tourists don't see.

"Personal empowerment is really important to me," he said.

Look at Patten Towers. For years, people have been drooling over such prime downtown real estate. When the basement fire led to the evacuation, it was a golden chance (insert dastardly laugh here) to somehow block the return of the tenants, surreptitiously find a buyer for the antiquated building and voila! -- a Housing Choice property becomes new condos.

But City Hall didn't.

Taking a political risk other mayors would have avoided, Berke picked a fight with the Towers owners without much more than a fire inspector in his corner. And won.

He door-stopped the revolving good-ole-boy network of yesteryear by appointing political rookies to top-shelf positions, which sends two messages: first, that citizens can gracefully transition in and out of government, and second, that government is flush with new ideas.

Like Jenga, he yanked down certain department structures and rebuilt them into something more focused and modern.

He's called Uncle Sam over the Casey barge, received state money to start building a Family Justice Center that would reduce domestic violence and dismantled the Gang Task Force to create our version of the anti-violence High Point Initiative.

He and his staff speak regularly with David Kennedy, the architect of High Point; if and when such plans are implemented here, we will see shootings drop -- measurably.

"I am passionate about this," he said.

Berke hints at the interconnectedness of devices and democracy, about making Chattanooga an even smarter city and using forward-thinking transportation and place-making plans to connect neighborhoods with jobs.

(Blythe Bailey, come on down.)

"We are looking at each and every part of town as a place that can have jobs," Berke said.

I get impatient when these hints aren't made clear. Berke often keeps his cards too close to his chest, speaking in generalities more than specifics. (Remember the election and his nonplatform platform?)

Soon, the budget will materialize, and vagueness turn specific when we see how he's prioritizing this and that. My predictions could be way wrong.

After all, budgets are moral documents. Sargent Shriver surely thought so.

"Serve your families. Serve your neighbors. Serve your cities. Serve the poor," Shriver once said. "Join others who serve. Serve, serve, serve!

"That's the challenge."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.