State Sen. Andy Berke's decision to shift political gears and run for election as mayor of Chattanooga next spring will surprise few, but it's good news for the city nonetheless. It assures voters of at least one very well-qualified candidate who can be expected to produce a broad, forward-looking agenda to keep the city's renaissance and economic engine on track. And it raises the bar for other candidates, though, ironically, Berke's expected entry into the race had already thinned the ranks of possible opponents.
Todd Womack, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's chief of staff and an aide to Corker when he was the city's mayor, confirmed Monday that he would not run for mayor. River City chief Kim White had earlier decided that she would not run for the job if Berke got in the race. Greg Vital, another possible candidate, had earlier announced that he would seek the state senate seat that Berke was expected to vacate.
Berke's decision to seek the mayor's office rather than another term as state senator had become increasingly likely the past few months in the wake of the deeply partisan decennial realignment of his 10th senate district seat. As it did with many other traditionally Democratic-leaning districts to squeeze incumbents out of office, the GOP-dominated Legislature redrew Berke's 10th District Senate seat to stuff it with Bradley County's Republicans while excising its Democratic majorities in Marion County and elsewhere.
The Legislature's loss of Berke could be Chattanooga's gain. In his state senate tenure, Berke became deeply involved in a range of crucial issues -- transportation, education, economic development, environmental issues, clean energy and sustainable growth. His ready insight and expertise in these areas, along with his familiarity with the legislative process and the inner-workings of the governor's administration, would be particularly useful in the mayor's office.
Another learned advantage of Berke's 2007-2012 tenure in the state Legislature is that he experienced it first as a member of the Democratic majority, and then as member of the minority when Republicans took control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office in the 2010 elections. Berke had to work both sides of the aisle, and build bipartisan consensus to get anything done. Should Berke become mayor, that experience surely would help him deal constructively with both the City Council and Hamilton County government's entrenched Republican majority on the County Commission.
That would suit Berke's natural bipartisan bent toward building consensus across the city in pursuit of higher goals. It also would serve the city's observance of nonpartisan elections.
In his remarks Tuesday, Berke immediately met that expectation. He talked of the citizens of Chattanooga as the city's "greatest strength," saying he would lead "in building bridges to the future" for all residents in economic growth, safer neighborhoods and improved education and quality of life.
Berke's early entry in the mayoral race is likely to boost his chances of securing support from voters and campaign contributors. At the least, it gives him a distinct advantage over other potential candidates.