All politics are local, and that has never been more apparent than in Mayor Andy Berke's State of the City address on Thursday.
The broad-brush topics he talked about are national — even universal: Environment, infrastructure, jobs and wage gaps, housing the homeless, education and safety.
But the emphasis he put on taking action was purely local.
To be sure, those are the same important issues a mayor of Chattanooga 50 years ago was talking about, but times are different now. The topics may be the same, but the nuances are shaped by new challenges and informed by history.
Berke reminds us that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Walter Cronkite's March 1969 newscast that shamed Chattanoogans with the pronouncement of our town as "the dirtiest" city in America, thanks to air pollution. Dirty was measured with years of data collected by the National Air Pollution Control Administration and the air pollution section of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, according to Chattanooga Times news stories at the time. The study was, in part, empowered by the Air Quality Act of 1967, a law which essentially gave state and local governments the primary responsibility for air-pollution control, but did not establish standards for that control, according to "Cleaning America's Air: Progress and Challenges," an online book produced by the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
Many of us who lived here then recall the brown hazes that settled in the bowl of Chattanooga. We remember cars traveling downtown on cloudless, sunny days with headlights on to pierce the acrid, dirty fog.
Chattanoogans, with the nudge of that incriminating data from the federal health study, began making many other improvements, locally and nationally. Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker reached across the partisan aisle to Democratic Sen. Edmond Muskie and led the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. It was about that time, too, that then-Chattanooga leaders began an effort to turn the city back to the river — something that continues to bring renewed economic success here.
Still, there is more to do. Especially if Chattanooga and other local cities are to remain, as Berke puts it, "resilient" as climate change begins to show its impact in our region.
Berke notes that just since he became mayor, the city has seen historic rainfall, floods, forest fires, and tornadoes — the kinds of extreme weather we'll see more of in coming years.
With that in mind, Berke and other local mayors in a bipartisan group across county and state lines plan to work together this year to create a new regional resiliency plan for emergency response, disaster prevention and preparedness, business support, development planning and smart grids. We have a great head start with EPB's smart grid power repair system.
In one recent storm, more than 11,000 homes and businesses lost power in East Brainerd, but Berke says EPB's automated power grid technology, within 38 seconds, rerouted and restored power to 10,000 customers. Within seven minutes everybody had power again.
Another part of resiliency, Berke reminds us, is reducing the city's carbon footprint through better building. With its new solar panels, our airport is the first energy-neutral one in the country, and Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant will in the future provide some of its own pumping power from the sun.
Those efforts translate to taxpayer gains, too, saving about a $1 million a year.
"Our federal government is dysfunctional. State government doesn't really speak on some of these issues. I wish it were someone else's responsibility, but the things that I'm talking about are all of our responsibilities, and we can't just shrug them off with a wish," Berke said last week.
He was speaking in that moment about climate change, but his message — that we can't wait for Nashville or Washington to take action — is equally true for a resilient economy that depends on good education, economic mobility, safe communities and solid durable infrastructure.
Al Gore, a former vice president and another Tennessean, writes in the last chapter of the Baker Center's "Cleaning America's Air: Progress and Challenges," of America as a problem-solver.
"At other points in history, the United States has solved problems that many thought were intractable. Many contended that we couldn't stop polio, but we did. Others insisted that we couldn't end segregation or land on the moon. After 50 years we brought Communism down in a bipartisan way. We ended apartheid. We've even solved a global environmental problem — the hole in the ozone layer. We took the lead, and the rest of the world followed.
"It's up to us," Gore continued, "to use our democratic processes and our God-given democratic rights of self-expression and self-governance to make the tough choices — to do what Sen. Howard Baker and Sen. Ed Muskie did on behalf of our country in 1970. We need to force the technology, raise the standards, and take responsibility for the future consequences of our present behavior. And we need to bring people together to do it."
Gore was talking about national leaders.
But the truth is, it has to start locally. Just as it did — and will, again — in Chattanooga.