State Sen. Andy Berke's decision to step down at the end of his term and not seek re-election is understandable, but regrettable nonetheless. It marks a significant loss for Tennesseans' broad public interests. Sen. Berke has been a uniquely effective and energetic advocate on a wide range of issues -- public education, crime reduction, efficiency in government, helping veterans and small businesses, broadening economic opportunity, and generally building bipartisan consensus for meaningful legislation. His leadership in the state senate when his term is up will be missed.
Berke's decision is not entirely surprising, however. The senator has been widely mentioned as a likely mayoral candidate -- and probable favorite -- next year, and that opportunity arises at a politically timely point.
Having seized control of both chambers of the Legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, Republicans used this session to strengthen their majority by adopting a partisan decennial redistricting plan that will squeeze out even more Democrats in the November elections. That would further diminish the capacity of minority Democrats to move legislative initiatives or to find bipartisan middle ground.
That dismal prospect has already prompted a handful of Democrats -- including three other veteran leaders in Senate -- to announce their intentions to step down this year. The one-two punch of the new political dynamic in the Legislature is bound to make Democrats in arguably winnable districts -- like Berke's -- to question the value of fighting for a disadvantaged legislative seat when there are more constructive options and more willing partners for progress.
Any reasonable observer of the reactionary agenda of the Republican-controlled Legislature would surely understand Berke's decision, even if his seat would be safe. Republicans' tea party wing seems giddy with the chance to promote mountain-top removal mining and roll back the state's modest environmental regulations, to push gun-carry rights that frighten employers, to cut critical public services for children and the handicapped, to slash TennCare spending, and to handcuff the progress of Tennessee's cities by undermining their municipal authority.
The chance to advance progress elsewhere is bound to be more attractive. Berke's interest in education, business development, curbing joblessness and advancing the city's renaissance could be put to good use here if he decides to take on a mayoral race. His experience in education initiatives -- he helped former Gov. Phil Bredesen win Tennessee's federal Race to the Top grant for education reform, and he co-sponsored the state's Complete College Act -- would also augment his ability to foster educational improvement here.
Berke has other reasons to stay in town, to be sure. Spending more time with his family and children is an obvious factor. Whatever his decision on the mayoral race, Berke seems certain to continue his role in civic improvement, and the city and county will continue to benefit from his tenure as a state senator.