NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke on Sunday began extending feelers about possible U.S. Senate candidacy to Democrats in Chattanooga and across the state in a teleconference call.
Berke, a former state senator, told an estimated 60 people on the call that the seat now held by Republican Bob Corker could be taken by Democrats.
"I wouldn't be thinking about it unless I thought this was a race that could be won," Berke said. "It's going to take effort. No one would say I would be the favorite in the race."
Still, Berke added, "there are voters who haven't been motivated, who've been sitting on the sidelines." Moreover, he believes there may be "some on the other side who may be worried by what they've seen."
If he does decide to run, Berke added, "we're going to run the race to win."
Corker, himself a former Chattanooga mayor, announced last week he would not seek re-election to a third term. A number of Republicans quickly began announcing their interest.
Before Corker spoke up, the only Democrat in the 2018 race was Nashville attorney and decorated Iraq war veteran James Mackler. After Corker's announcement, Berke and other Democrats, including state Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, also of Nashville, started exploring bids.
During Sunday's conference call, Berke said that as events unfold under Republican President Donald Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress, "I think people are worried about the future" because "none of it looks particularly positive."
But he said Democrats are "going to get nowhere in this state without offering an alternative" and ensuring Tennesseans "go to the ballot box with a legitimate choice."
He touted his mayoral achievements, ranging from pushing for a property tax break for seniors to working with major employers, striving to make the city more livable and attractive and pressing to help all Chattanoogans.
"I'm ready to show people my record," Berke said.
He criticized state GOP lawmakers for refusing to expand Medicaid to an estimated 280,000 adult Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
In response to a question from local Democrat Brenda Washington, Berke pledged to defend Social Security and Medicare "to make sure as Americans age they can still live a good life. ... We want to make sure that will happen."
One of the people on the call was Roy Neel, a former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff and who served as Al Gore's chief of staff when Gore was a U.S. senator. Neel pointed out no Tennessee Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in more than two decades.
Berke acknowledged, "It's going to be a tough race, it's going to be a difficult thing today, but I think we have to make that case" and offer real alternatives to voters "if we're to have a chance to change our state."
To another question, Berke said he can work in bipartisan fashion with congressional Republicans in areas where they agree, just as he did with state Senate Republicans and Gov. Bill Haslam.
The mayor spoke of how his father, attorney Marvin Berke, influenced his life, and described watching thank his father for his legal representation and in other ways outside the courtroom.
Terry Lee, a former Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman, called the open Senate seat a "great opportunity" for Berke.
"Certainly it would be more interesting if you have a more progressive like Senator Berke running and extreme Republicans," Lee said.
Berke said he is still discussing a candidacy with his wife and two teenage daughters.
On the Republican side, Haslam, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., are exploring bids. So is state Sen. Mark Green.
Andy Ogles, former state executive director of Americans for Prosperity's Tennessee chapter, is the only announced Republican candidate, entering the race while Corker remained on the fence.
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