Cook: City yin, county yang

Cook: City yin, county yang

April 23rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Monday night at the four-star Chattanoogan hotel, Mayor Andy Berke gave the annual State of the City address, just as other city mayors have done before him.

It was dramatic democracy: an impressive video introduction, followed by prayer, a solo, lengthy praise from a police sergeant, and then Berke's nearly 40-minute address. Hundreds of people gave standing ovations. Someone could have passed a hat.

"We are Chattanooga," Berke said.

Yes, but.

What about Hamilton County?

Why is there no State of the County address?

"We don't call it that," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. "It's part of the budget process when we make known what it is we've done and what it is we're going to do."

Each year, when he presents the county budget to the commission, Coppinger gives a summary of the past year and his goals for the future one.

There in the Hamilton County courthouse, the moment is quiet and unassuming, with little drama. Count the reporters, and they're probably 30 people in the room. 40, max.

It's very ... uneventful.

Monday night? It was a complete event. The Place To Be. You could put it to music. (Pharrell Williams maybe, or early Springsteen). It was dramatic and emotional and produced, and left me wondering:

Why don't we do the same thing for the county?

We seem to project so much energy and attention onto the city government and mayor, while the county pitter-patters along in the background like an afterthought.

It's inversely wrong. To use the imperfectly perfect words of Rhonda Thurman: We've got it bass-ackwards. If Berke's address is at the Chattanoogan, Coppinger's needs to be at the Trade Center. Or Finley.

The county's budget is $665 million.

The city's budget? $212 million.

The county funds our schools and jails. And health departments. And emergency services.

The city doesn't.

The county is the last man standing in the dwindling funding of Erlanger hospital, the emergency room for our poor.

Yet it's the city that gets all the attention. Sure, the city is our best-made-face, the one we put forward, the glitz and riverfront glamour that brings tourists and travel writers here. And the city mayor often represents this. Think Corker.

The city went weak at the knees over the election of Berke, who's Stanford educated and ran an Obama-esque campaign. Yet put him on the ballot for county mayor: would he have won?

And would Coppinger have won a city mayor's race?

Are we -- Chattanooga and Hamilton County -- that different?

Is there a progressive urban ethos for city government compared to a front-porch conservatism mentality for the county? Main Street versus Hardees in Soddy-Daisy?

The city elects an openly gay councilman, and then adopts a domestic partner benefits plan.

The county would never.

The city elects Carol Berz, Moses Freeman and Yusuf Hakeem.

The county elects, and keeps electing, Fred Skillern.

City Hall is full of people under 45. The county is led by political veterans and folks with 30-year careers.

(One quick story: at Berke's speech Monday, he mentioned not raising taxes. One man stood and cheered. Just one. When Berke mentioned his mentorship program for urban youth, the whole room went wild. You reverse the situation, and let Coppinger proclaim no new taxes to the county, and you'd have every person in the room standing.)

The city mayor's race is hot news, often with a big field of big names. The county mayor? Coppinger's running virtually unopposed after stepping into the position when the former mayor left. Drama ... and little drama.

"I wouldn't say any government entity is more important than the other," Coppinger said. "They do a good job of selling themselves and that's really important."

Maybe this is all OK, and as it should be. The city's yin to the county's yang.

Maybe the county mayor, who isn't under the burden of term limits, can take a quieter and longer view, not prodded by the pressure of having to accomplish this and that before the next election, before he runs out of time.

Maybe the city mayor's got to keep one eye on the horizon, looking ahead to the office that may come next.

Maybe then Monday night's event at the Chattanoogan was also about something else.

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