NASHVILLE — As he weighs a bid for U.S. Senate next year, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is telling supporters he can balance his duties as the city's chief executive while simultaneously mounting a statewide campaign if he enters the race.
During a Sunday night conference call with local and state Democrats, the mayor acknowledged that while doing both poses a "challenge," he noted he did just that "over the course of the last year when I had to run for re-election for mayor at the same time I was mayor and continued to work hard and do my duties."
"Listen," Berke told the estimated 60 Democrats on the conference call in response to the question posed by Olga Khan of Hamilton County, "I was re-elected to this office as mayor. I love what I do. And I'm proud of the record that I have."
Berke added, "The only way that I'm ever going to get elected to something else would be to continue to have a record of progress. What I would have to do is work hard, make sure I'm always accessible, even if I was in a different part of the state. Luckily, I have great people who work around me who can help out."
A former Democratic state senator, Berke and three other Democrats are giving the Senate race a hard look after incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga announced last week he would not seek re- election to a third term in 2018.
During his conference call, a number of Democrats voiced encouragement for Berke to run, among them Bill Owen of Knoxville, a Democratic National Committee member.
Noting he is officially neutral, Owen said, "I'm glad you're doing this. The DNC is very interested in this race. We think there's a shot, despite the fact that Tennesseans have voted Republican for a few years. You have a great shot a doing it."
Before Corker made his announcement, which also resulted in several Republicans including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and form er U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher are looking at entering the contest, the senator already had one announced Democratic opponent — Nashville attorney and decorated Iraq war veteran James Mackler.
The Jackson Sun reported Haslam saying Monday during a visit to the city that he will "make a decision probably the end of the week. I think that's fair for everybody."
During Berke's 2017 re-election campaign for a second term, opponent Larry Grohn said documents showed Berke's "major focus" in his first term was on securing an appointment if Hillary Clinton had been elected president or running for governor in 2018.
"The last four years of the Berke administration have been a PR campaign to promote Andy Berke for his gubernatorial run," Grohn charged.
At the time, Berke laughed off the charge, saying Grohn was misinterpreting documents created by his then-chief of staff as part of her studies for a master's degree in public administration from the University of Southern California.
Grohn did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
But Berke's interest in the Senate race doesn't sit especially well with former Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Bob Tuke of Nashville.
Tuke, an attorney and Vietnam combat veteran who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., supports Mackler, who launched his bid five months ago. Last week, Tuke lent his name to a fundraising appeal for Mackler in which he praised Mackler among other things for his "courage."
"I think the world of Andy Berke," Tuke said in an interview Monday. "I think he's terrific and made a wonderful mayor for Chattanooga. But No. 1, I'm completely behind James Mackler."
Calling his support for Mackler "multi-fold," Tuke noted the candidate entered "when it was all but clear that Bob Corker was going to run again."
Before his agreeing to support Mackler earlier this year, Tuke said, he had a "long discussion" with him about "commitment, desire and willingness to put 100 percent into the campaign." It can't be a "part-time" effort, Tuke said.
Tuke said Mackler's willingness to give up his law firm job and run full time "made a huge difference to me." He recalled Mackler doing the same with another law firm in order to join the Army and become a Blackhawk helicopter pilot after the 9/11 terror attack.
"That's what I decided to do in Vietnam ... going to give everything including the possibility of giving my life," Tuke said. "I was impressed. It also tells me another thing, that when times get tough ... you have to have the kind of courage that he has demonstrated."
Berke's office had no immediate comment.
But Berke would hardly be the first sitting mayor to run for statewide office.
In 1962, then-Chattanooga Mayor Rudy Olgiati challenged then-Gov. Buford Ellington in the Democratic primary. Olgiati lost.
Then-Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen ran for governor in 1994 midway through his first term. He won the Democratic primary only to lose to Republican Don Sundquist, a West Tennessee congressman, in the GOP sweep of the state that year of governor's mansion and both U.S. Senate seats.
After leaving office after his second term, Bredesen ran again in 2002 and was elected governor, serving two terms.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is another one-time mayor who ran while still serving. First elected mayor in 2003, Haslam was re-elected to a second term in September 2007. In January 2009, he announced he was running for governor. He won in 2010 and was re-elected to a second term in 2014.
Others joining the race to replace Corker include state Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, state House Rep. John Ray Clemmons and wealthy Nashville businessman Bill Freeman.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.