Saying he wants to focus on early learning, economic development and getting guns off of the streets, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced Tuesday afternoon he will seek re-election in next year's mayoral race.
"When our citizens have good-paying jobs, when we're opening the doors of education to all, and when families are safe, together, in their homes, more Chattanoogans can write their own story," the mayor said.
Berke was introduced by his wife, Monique, and joined at the podium outside the Development Resource Center on Market Street by his two daughters, Hannah, 16, and Orly, 13.
He touted his accomplishments as mayor, saying the city's economy has improved significantly.
"In four years, unemployment has fallen dramatically, from 8.1 percent in May of 2013 to 4 percent in May of 2016. Families are bringing more money home, thanks to the third-highest wage growth in the country for a mid-sized city," Berke said. "We've seen a building boom downtown and in our surrounding communities. But we also have seen the highest rise in home prices in the mid-South, a sign of growing buying power for more Chattanoogans."
But he conceded more needs to be done with the economy, education and in fighting crime.
"Gun violence must stop. It must," Berke said. "When a mother buries a teenage son lost to gangs, when a pregnant mom is shot on the street to settle a score, we know we must do more."
The Berke administration pledged to fight gang violence by introducing the Violence Reduction Initiative in March 2014. The VRI calls for the police, courts and social services to combine their firepower to convince gang members to stop shooting each other or else spend a long time behind bars. But the number of shootings has not declined, with 63 shootings in 2014 and 83 in 2015 in which a gang member was either the shooter or victim. There have been 61 such shootings thus far in 2016, according to the police department.
The election is set for March 2017.
At present, Berke's only opposition is from 4th District City Councilman Larry Grohn. Councilman Ken Smith, who was considering a bid, announced last week that he would seek re-election to the council and would not challenge the mayor.
But there is also a cloud over his campaign from an incident earlier this year in which a top aide, Lacie Stone, was accused by her husband, Robert, of having an affair with the mayor. A fight at their home over a cellphone led to her seeking assistance at the home of Chattanooga Police Department Chief Fred Fletcher. Robert Stone was charged with simple assault, and his case is set to be heard on Sept. 13.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston has asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to determine if the incident was properly handled.
Berke has denied the allegations of infidelity.
Before Tuesday's campaign kickoff, the mayor sat down with the Times-Free Press to talk about his first term in office and why he is seeking re-election.
"Prosperity is growing in our community, and we have witnessed a boom in many different areas," the mayor said in a conference room at City Hall.
"By the same token there is more to do. Prosperity hasn't reached everyone. There are people who not only may not have gotten that new job, but because they now have neighbors earning a higher income, it is more expensive to live here," he said. "We have people who live on streets where there is too much gun violence. There are many more jobs in our city, but as Chattanooga 2.0 points out, we don't necessarily have the workforce with the skills to fill them."
The mayor said he takes pride in accomplishments both large and small.
"We have the Innovation District, and the new Family Justice Center should be opening in the next few weeks. Those are large-scale projects you can see. But then I do enjoy those seemingly small stories of somebody's house being affected by work we do, and sometimes I'll drive by in a particular neighborhood where there have been complaints and we've made the situation better."
Berke said the worst part of his job is the conversations with families whose relatives have been victims of violent crimes.
"We had July 16, of course," he said. "You hear people's heartbreak and hopefully you comfort them and add what you can as a representative for the people of Chattanooga."
He said he hoped his administration had been able to improve the relationships between police officers and the black community.
"We have spent an enormous amount of energy trying to earn the trust of those we serve," he said. "It is difficult to overcome that history, but we have with many, many people. But there continues to be more work to do."
He also defended his administration's record in fighting crime.
"Property crime is at historic lows," Berke said. "Year over year, violent crime is down double digits from last year. Of course, the highest-profile crime is gun violence. There are too many guns on the street in the hands of people trying to do harm."
He pointed to plans to build what police officials are calling a "realtime crime intelligence center" to get information on criminal activity into the hands of officers on the street, and he noted that the number of officers employed by the police department is at a record high.
He disagreed with those who say he is less accessible than his predecessor, Mayor Ron Littlefield.
"Everybody has a different style," he said. "We keep track of the number of events that I speak to, and it's in the many hundreds every year. I like walking around town as opposed to driving so people can come up to me."
He responded to critics, particularly in the minority community, who say he spends too much time with the leaders of the business community and major foundations, most of whom are white.
"I frequently go to churches around the city on Sundays to share fellowship with people and to hear from them about what's going on," the mayor said. "I try to meet with anybody who can tell me their problems and those who have a desire to contribute to the solution."
He also mentioned the Minority Business Task Force his office established, along with the Mayor's Council for Women, and programs by the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs.
"I certainly understand the issue of not having people of color involved in decisions, and we have tried to open the door that allows them in," Berke said.
He also defended the city's programs for affordable housing. Several critics have attacked the way the city has granted tax exemptions to developers who build residential units downtown, arguing that the mayor's office has not pushed them to include more low-income housing units.
"We've worked hard to make sure there are more mixed-income neighborhoods in the city," Berke said. "You don't want one type of person in any neighborhood. That makes it a dull place to live. We are committed to providing people access to good neighborhoods."
He rejected criticism that his staff, which is generally younger than that of previous administrations, is not up to the job.
"You want people with knowledge and expertise. You want to bring in people with enthusiasm and energy to do the job," Berke said. "We've tried to do both. Ultimately it's about what you actually get done. It's not the roster but the outcome of the game."
Berke refused to be drawn into any discussion of future political plans, saying he wants to focus on his mayoral election. He has been mentioned as a Democratic candidate for governor when Gov. Bill Haslam's term ends in 2018. State law does not allow Haslam, who is finishing his second term, to run again. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander will be 80 when his current term ends in 2020, and he has not said if he will seek re-election.
Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook at noogahealth.
Text of Berke's speech:
Almost four years ago, we gathered at the Tivoli Theater to write the next chapter of the Chattanooga story.
All of us know the prologue. 20th century Chattanooga had become a dying city. Jobs left, shuttered-up storefronts came. And then, working together, we had fought hard to rebuild our city.
The next chapter, I said then, was to empower every Chattanoogan to write their own story. All of us — businesses, non-profits, churches, and city government —had to come together to make that happen.
Since then, we have made tremendous strides. Today, we have a 21st century city where many more Chattanoogans can write their own stories.
It starts, as it always does, with our economy.
In four years, unemployment has fallen dramatically, from 8.1 percent in May of 2013 to 4 percent in May of 2016.
Families are bringing more money home, thanks to the third highest wage growth in the country for a mid-sized city.
We've seen a building boom downtown and in our surrounding communities. But we also have seen the highest rise in home prices in the mid-South, a sign of growing buying power for more Chattanoogans.
These are great results. No other city in Tennessee — and very few in the country — can claim them. But as important as they are, it's how we got them that matters more.
Four years ago, I talked about the need to build new bridges in our community — bridges of trust, of shared prosperity. All of what I've just described is happening because we built those bridges—together.
From our largest businesses to our most struggling communities, city government is working harder than ever to be a good partner. We have teamed with companies like Volkswagen to grow our economy, and we've worked with developers to bring quality, affordable housing to our community. Working with churches, we have built an early education reading initiative throughout the city. Alongside our non-profits, we have opened a new Family Justice Center to support victims of domestic violence.
When our citizens have good-paying jobs, when we're opening the doors of education to all, and when families are safe, together, in their homes, more Chattanoogans can write their own story.
Many cities would say, that's good enough. But that's not the city we are.
Public safety remains a priority. Violent crime and property crimes have fallen over the past four years. The challenge before us now is the scourge of gun violence. Too many young people have too many illegal guns on too many of our streets. The violence affects not only those directly involved, but the homes and businesses around them.
Gun violence must stop. It must. When a mother buries a teenage son lost to gangs, when a pregnant mom is shot on the street to settle a score, we know we must do more.
And here, I must pause to praise the hardest-working people I know, the brave men and women who make up our first responders. When shots are fired, when an EMS crew is needed, our police and firefighters are the first on the scene. And they are the last to leave, caring for victims and witnesses alike, restitching the fabric of our community.
The problems we see on our streets start early. Our city's public process, Chattanooga 2.0, has pointed out the difficult path our kids face—on the streets, in our school system, and in the job market.
So the challenges are there.
But here's the thing. After three and a half years on the job, I know we can make progress. I have seen it happen. And you have, too.
I have watched the parents learning computer skills at a Tech Goes Home class; heard from mothers who have gotten a job because of Baby University; witnessed citizens who have dropped everything to comfort the family of a fallen hero; and listened to veterans whose lives are changed by moving into an apartment.
Yes, a lot has been done, and yes there is more to do. But we are on the right path, and I have more confident than ever before that we can improve our city together.
A city that has worked so hard to build bridges can take the next step — and ensure that every single one of our citizens can get across them. To prosperity, yes, but also to safety. To opportunity. To the place of their hopes and dreams — right here.
That's why today, I am announcing my bid for reelection as Mayor of Chattanooga.
I am convinced we can do more to help kids get off to a good start in life. We can't be surprised when they have problems at 16 and 17 when they entered kindergarten behind their classmates.
A city that builds bridges needs to make sure our kids can cross to the jobs of tomorrow. Will you join a campaign that says every child in Chattanooga should enter kindergarten ready to learn?
Jobs are here, in our city. Yet too many go unfilled simply because we don't have the workers with the skills required. We need to build more paths to the middle class so people in every neighborhood have access to opportunity.
A city that builds bridges needs to make sure that those with willing hearts and hands — and heads — can cross to the economy of tomorrow. Will you join a campaign that's fighting to grow our middle class?
There are simply too many guns on our streets in the hands of those willing to do harm. Our gang violence, with the easy access to dangerous firearms, hurts families and businesses in neighborhoods where people are trying to build a better life.
A city that builds bridges needs to make sure those who carry illegal guns with the intent to harm others can't cross the street, much less anywhere else. Will you join a campaign that keeps illegal guns off our streets and punishes those who use them?
With a new park being built in Alton Park, a new center planned for Avondale, and a reimagined Miller Park, we know neighborhoods need investment in every part of town. By putting in more sidewalks, working to combat blight, and improving our infrastructure, we can strengthen every corner of our community.
A city that builds bridges needs to make sure they cross every stream in every part of our community. Will you join a campaign that says every street in Chattanooga should have a high quality of life?
Today's politics is too divisive and too negative. On a national level we watch as talking heads hurl insults and campaigns sling mud. Yet, here, we know we have made progress by choosing community action over petty words.
A city that builds bridges has citizens who want to see their neighbors who live across the way, who want the street across town to get better and aren't afraid to seek someone else's suggestions on improving their own.
Will you join a campaign that says we are at our best when we are united no matter who we are and where we live?
Chattanooga has the fastest, cheapest, most pervasive internet in the world and the first Innovation District in a mid-sized city. Yet there are still kids who don't have access to today's technology while building tomorrow's skills. We have all the pieces to be an example for how technology can improve lives for families; it's time to fit them together to make the puzzle a beautiful picture.
A city that builds bridges cannot tolerate a digital divide. Will you join a campaign that says Chattanooga should be the nation's example for how technology can build a fairer city?
Join with me. Join this campaign. Keep building bridges. And keep working to get all of our citizens across to the other side.
The next chapter of the Chattanooga story is waiting to be written.
All of us here have the power to write it together.