Mayor Berke backs Khristy Wilkinson in Senate challenge to GOP's Gardenhire

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stands in his office at the Chattanooga City Hall a few hours before kicking off his re-election campaign.
photo Khristy Wilkinson

NASHVILLE - Khristy Wilkinson, the Democratic nominee in the state Senate District 10 contest, says Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is proving helpful to her general election effort.

That's despite Wilkinson having knocked off a top Berke aide, Nick Wilkinson (not a relation), in the Aug. 4 Senate Democratic primary.

Khristy Wilkinson, a 36-year-old former adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is now taking on incumbent Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, 68, in the Nov. 8 election.

The district includes urban and suburban neighborhoods of Chattanooga, as well as East Ridge in Hamilton County, plus a good swath of rural precincts in adjacent Bradley County.

"Mayor Berke has helped me and he continues to help me," Wilkinson said last week in an interview during a trip to Nashville, where she met with several Senate Democrats and potential contributors.

Asked what type of support Berke, who formerly held the Senate District 10 seat himself, has provided her, Wilkinson said the mayor "gives me advice whenever I call, and he's made contributions to my campaign. And he has asked folks who support him to support me."

Wilkinson said she has been "well received by members of the city council and people who work in City Hall and things like that. [Berke's] using his voice to help me as much as he can now that he is, of course, running his own reelection campaign" for mayor.

Earlier this month, Berke officially declared he is running for a second term in the city's March 2017 election.

A spokeswoman for Berke, Molly Cooper, said via email that "I can confirm he supports Khristy Wilkinson for this seat."

During the primary, Berke gave whole-hearted support to Nick Wilkinson, his deputy for economic development.

The mayor, who held the Senate seat from 2007 to November 2012, personally contributed $1,000 to his aide, while a leadership political action committee that Berke created during his Senate tenure, gave another $11,000, according to disclosures filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

That was a good chunk of the nearly $80,000 Nick Wilkinson had raised. He spent nearly $30,000 of that by mid-July, according to his disclosure.

But Khristy Wilkinson, the former philosophy professor and mother of two who supported Bernie Sanders in this year's Democratic presidential primaries, pulled off an upset on a shoe-string budget in Democrats' primary.

She garnered 43.5 percent of the 6,108 ballots cast in the three-person primary. Nick Wilkinson came in second with 34.5 percent, while Ty O'Grady finished third.

In response to a question about whether her former opponent, Nick Wilkinson, is helping her in her effort against Gardenhire, Khristy Wilkinson said he wasn't. Asked whether she had requested help from him, she smiled and said, "I would if he returned my phone calls."

Wilkinson, meanwhile, said she disagrees with Gardenhire, a retired investment advisor, on a number of issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to education.

District 10 is seen as favoring Republicans. The Tennessee Journal, a nonpartisan political newsletter, recently ranked the contest as "leaning Republican" on a four-point scale. The other categories were toss-up, safe Republican and safe Democratic.

Gardenhire, who is seeking his second Senate Term, said that after having had no opponent in his August GOP primary, he's not taking anything for granted in the general election with Wilkinson.

"The thing that worries me the most is she's a hard worker," he said. "She's an intelligent person."

However, he said he's heard from a number of his supporters that he has "no problem."

"That's the worst thing I could hear," the senator said, worrying backers could be over confident, with Republicans not showing up on Nov. 8.

Wilkinson said that while she expects to be outspent by Gardenhire and the Republican Party, she thinks she can pull off an upset. She said she disagrees with Gardenhire, a retired investment advisor, on issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to education.

"It's important to remember I won a primary with $3,000 against a candidate with $80,000," she said. "So it isn't always money that matters. We have a huge volunteer army building in Chattanooga. And I think people - every person - is one vote: Dollars don't actually vote."