Andy Berke reflects on eight years of crisis and renewal as mayor of Chattanooga

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a ribbon cutting for the Blue Goose Hollow development project on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The development at Blue Goose Hollow, known for being the birthplace of Bessie Smith, was made possible because of a $3.5 million agreement between the City, Highalnd Building Group and Evergreen Real Estate, and will complete connections between Chattanooga's downtown core and the Tennessee River, which City and Hamilton County officials say will enhance public space along the Riverwalk and stimulate private investment of commercial and residential spaces in Chattanooga's West Side.

Outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he spent eight years striving to maintain a human connection as he sought "renewal" amid unprecedented challenges.

As he mulled over his first mayoral bid in 2011, Berke, then 43, was preparing to leave his seat as a state senator representing Hamilton and Marion counties.

According to Berke, he was being urged by friends and supporters to run for mayor but wasn't initially interested.

"I never wanted to be mayor," Berke said early Friday, the morning of his last day in office after two terms. "Lots of people were encouraging me to enter the race, and I told all my friends and supporters that I wasn't going to do it. The job had too many problems and too many issues.

"But I saw some problems happen in the city, and I thought about writing an op-ed for the Chattanooga Times Free Press," Berke recalled, noting he was specifically bothered by gang violence in the city. "Then I searched my soul and thought, 'All your friends and supporters are telling you that you should run for mayor, and instead you're talking about writing an op-ed from the cheap seats. Seems like you should reconsider."

Then Berke says he went for a drive around the city, noting what things he might be able to change if elected and began working toward the campaign within about a month. And in 2013, Berke overwhelmingly won the election, becoming the city's 65th mayor with 72% of the vote.

On election night in 2013, Berke told supporters that "the time for renewal is now."

So Berke came in, with big plans for renewing the city, starting with restructuring many city departments.

"It was hard. It did make things harder. But I also believe it was necessary and, in the long run, was a great thing for city government and good for the people we serve," Berke said. "I wanted to make sure we were set up to accomplish our mission. And that wasn't necessarily just taking the legacy that we had gotten, because the structure that we saw was set up 25 years before I became mayor, and the city changed a lot in that 25."

Berke's reconfiguring of departments was the tip of the change iceberg. He continued to reroute the city's operational and economic path early on by redesigning the city's budgeting process to focus on long-term impact and public input and fought a battle to trim the city's police and fire pension fund, saving the city over $220 million in just 20 years.

With each of those early operational changes, Berke was faced with some opposition but ultimately primed the city to make more issues-based decisions, he said.

"I think everything in the last eight years flowed from having the organization aligned, the budget in place," he said.

And with that structure, Berke has been able to spend the majority of his time in office focusing on crisis management and his highest priorities, including promoting early childhood education, housing Chattanooga's homeless population, curbing violent crime and improving the city's economy.

photo Apr 15, 2013 - Mayor Andy Berke is sworn in as Chattanooga's 65th mayor. Hundreds of people attended the inauguration at the Tivoli Theatre on Monday. Mayor Berke joins seven new City councilmen and two incumbents. The new leaders, along with several city department heads being replaced mark one of the biggest times of transition in the city's history.

While the pandemic has exacerbated many economic issues, Berke managed to tick some major boxes in each of his key issues:

> Early this year, Berke exceeded his goal of creating 1,000 additional quality early learning seats, with the help of the Office of Early Learning he created in 2017.

> In 2020, the city achieved "functional zero" status for veteran homelessness by heavily funding homeless initiatives and housing hundreds of veterans.

> Berke's initially controversial Violence Reduction Initiative helped quell gang violence in the city, reducing group-involved shootings by 60%.

And, while Berke entered the city after the 2008 recession and is leaving under the economic impact of COVID-19, he helped the city complete several significant economy-driving projects.

Most notably, the city has seen billions of dollars invested and hundreds of jobs created by Volkswagen expansions and an upcoming $61 million Nippon paint plant set to create another 150 jobs at the site of a former housing project.

And Berke's role in those projects hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Andy's strongest characteristic, from where I sat, is when it came to economic development, or creating jobs, or any critical issue like that that we were working on together, was his willingness to work together," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Friday. "I would say he has an ability to work together to accomplish the goal, which is generally about getting the business or getting the jobs that the citizens need.

"He played a key role in making these things happen."

Another key characteristic of Berke's administration was crisis management.

Berke's tenure started off with a major fire at Patten Towers, a public housing apartment building just two doors down from City Hall, in May of 2013, a month after he took office.

The electrical fire burned at temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees, according to a report by the Chattanooga Fire Department published on the city's website at the time. The flames and smoke forced the building's 241 residents to be evacuated.

"When the crisis happened, I walked through the building. And at that time, the building was in a state of incredible disrepair. It was a top 20 angry moment for me since I've been mayor," Berke said, recalling the building's faults - including an egregiously outdated electrical system, dysfunctional elevators and emergency equipment, molded carpets and a host of other signs of substandard living.

So, while the city, Red Cross, Salvation Army and other agencies faced a sudden humanitarian crisis of immediately caring for those displaced by the fire - some of whom temporarily slept in Youth and Family Development, or community centers - Berke uncovered a longer-term crisis of repairing more than fire damage.

"I came back and gathered everybody to think through what we could do about the deplorable conditions that I saw," Berke said, noting that he became frustrated and considered "extreme" disciplinary actions when the owners of the building then barred him from returning. "But I had to figure out what was actually going to work for the people who lived at Patten Towers. And some of those extreme measures might punish the owners, but they wouldn't have resulted in better housing for the people who lived there."

photo Then-mayoral candidate Andy Berke addresses a crowd during a Jan. 1, 2012, fundraiser in downtown Chattanooga for his ultimately successful campaign. / Staff File Photo by Connor Choate/Chattanooga Times Free Press

In that moment, Berke seemed to fuse for the first time his concern for the individuals he represented and his ability to act decisively in a moment of crisis, a combination that would be paramount to the next eight years.

Over his two terms, Berke steered the city through a number of public crises. In 2013, Patten Towers. In 2015, the July 16 terrorist attack on the U.S. Naval Reserve and a military recruitment center, which killed five servicemen. In 2016, a school bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary School students and injured 32 others. In 2019, a four-day water outage that left 35,000 households and businesses without water. And in 2020, Berke's last full year in office, the city was hit by a deadly EF-3 tornado that caused millions of dollars in damage during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed hundreds of Chattanoogans, provoked a rash of business closures, job losses and other economic strains, the full extent of which remains unknown.

And to handle those scenarios, Berke said, he was forced time and time again to strike a balance between authoritative action and compassionate response to his community,

"One is about making sure that you're acting. The other is about comfort and caring," Berke said.

A notable example of his compassionate communication is Berke's phone calls to the families of victims of violence. In the last eight years, Berke has called next of kin for nearly everyone who died by violence, especially gun violence, in the city.

"I almost always ask, 'Tell me what the person was like,' 'Tell me what he or she liked,'" Berke said. "That's always been really important to me to kind of hear, hear about that."

And, according to former staffer Molly Cooper, that's exactly who Berke was as mayor.

"It's just a reflection of who he is as a person, you know. He truly wanted to connect with those families," said Cooper, who led Berke's 2009 state senate campaign, his mayoral campaigns and then served as the constituent services coordinator at City Hall until 2018.

"Again, it's just that person-centered focus and pausing and reflecting and thinking about what he's going to do and how he's going to do it in response to those crises in our community, and the impact that it will have on people," she said.

Cooper said Berke's community connection went beyond tragedies.

"My favorite time staffing the mayor was during Dr. Seuss Week because he would go read to the kids, and like his face and the way he would light up when he would go into a classroom full of kids to read to them it would make anybody's day," Cooper said. "Not everybody knows this about him, but he's just so good with kids and people. I just loved doing that, because you could tell the joy in his face of interacting with the kids when he was reading to them."

As Berke leaves office, several projects remain undone, including the cleanup of the Lupton City Mill site - which Berke promised during his 2017 re-election campaign but has been dragged out by the discovery of asbestos on the property or the Central Avenue expansion that has been postponed until after the completion of another major roads project due to appeals by citizens.

With those and other projects on track to be completed, but only after Berke leaves office, he says delays to important projects have been one of the biggest hurdles of his time as mayor.

"And that has been extremely frustrating. I wanted to see that happen, of course, while I was mayor," he said of the roads project. "But I will be heartened when I see it happen, you know, over these next couple of years."

Now, as he leaves office, Berke is resigned to the limits of what he was able to do.

"I had my time. This is what I had, and I did the best I could. Now it's somebody else's turn," Berke said. "I think it's always difficult when you have this kind of job, to think about not doing it. Because it's a consuming position.

"When you say you're not going to do something that's been consuming you for eight years, then that's a life change," He added. "But I became reconciled to that several months ago. So, you know, I don't really think about it as being hard or easy. I just think about it as being a fact."

Ultimately, he's proud of the work he did to change the city.

Once he leaves, Berke says he plans to take his first two-week vacation in over 20 years to go to Florida. But he won't say what his next career step is.

Whatever he does, Berke says he will carry his time as mayor with him.

"I probably can't even count the ways it's changed me," Berke said.

"One of the best things about running for office, and also being in office, is that people open up with their dreams and their fears and their highs and their lows," Berke said. "And it is natural to take some of those on yourself, and by extension, you will always be a different person."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.comor 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.