Andy Berke seized tonight the Chattanooga mayor's seat for the second time, coming out on top in a four-way race.
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Voters cast 11,991 ballots in favor of Berke's bid for re-election, sweeping aside Councilman Larry Grohn to a distant second with 4,941 votes, followed by former three-time city councilman David Crockett and architectural consultant Chris Long. Crockett and Long mustered 1,438 and 407 votes, respectively. The race also generated 95 write-in votes, although no write-in candidates have been certified.
"We've seen this city move forward over the last four years," Berke said. "Clearly, people want us to build on the improvements we've made to public safety, economic development and investing in our young people. We've received a mandate to continue to push forward."
Grohn said his campaign workers believed they had run the best race they could run, but that's not the end of the story.
"We will continue to work towards a better Chattanooga in whatever ways we are led to do," he said. "I congratulate Mayor Berke and certainly hope he fulfills the campaign promises he made."
Crockett said he was disappointed at the voter turnout and contested whether Berke really had a mandate for anything that his administration has actually done. Instead, he pointed to Berke's fundraising ability and political savvy as the reason for his victory.
"I think we made some significant points," Crockett said of his campaign. "I don't concede any of the ideas we raised at all."
Long's election-night comments were straightforward and to the point.
"I want to congratulate Andy," Long said. "I hope the city pulls together to address all the issues the candidates brought forward."
Berke's unofficial vote count placed him at 63.5 percent of the total votes cast in the race, well exceeding the 50 percent-plus-one vote threshold needed to secure an outright victory and avoid a runoff election.
Although Berke fell short of his victory margin in the 2013 mayoral race — a whopping 72 percent of votes — he faced a different set of circumstances this time around.
Last time, the mayor's race was an open field and Berke, a well-funded former state senator, faced two former city employees: Guy Satterfield and R. Chester Heathington. This time, Berke faced two challengers who had successful campaigns in their runs for City Council. While Long was an outsider in the political arena, Crockett and Grohn had established themselves.
Berke again ran a campaign outraising and outspending his opponents, but he also had a four-year track record on which to make his case for re-election. His opponents, however, had that record as a basis for challenging Berke's fitness to serve another four years as Chattanooga's mayor.
Two major tragedies have confronted the Berke administration over the last two years: the July 16, 2015, shooting that left five servicemen dead and the Woodmore Elementary School bus crash that killed six children in November.
Between those two events, the mayor's office itself had to weather allegations that top adviser Lacie Stone had been having an affair with Berke. Berke denied having an inappropriate relationship with Stone, a claim made by Lacie's then-husband Bobby Stone after he was charged with domestic assault in late May. The charge later was dismissed.
Grohn, who has long positioned himself as a critic of the Berke administration, continued to wear the mantle throughout this election cycle. With a motto asking voters to "believe in better," his campaign consistently dished up a narrative of grievances, taking on the mayor's record on affordable housing, anti-gang measures and other initiatives.
He took a stab at Berke's ethics on a number of fronts, including the use of encrypted text messaging by the mayor and his staff. Grohn also called for a special audit of the Youth and Family Development office after its administrator, Lurone Jennings, received a one-week suspension in connection to the misuse of nearly $30,000 in nonprofit money.
While Grohn was not the only challenger to question Berke's long-term commitment to Chattanooga, he was the only candidate to claim he had documented proof of the mayor's higher political aspirations. At a news conference in early February, he showed copies of presentations indicating Berke's "major focus" actually had been Nashville and Washington, D.C., instead of Chattanooga.
Berke dismissed the allegations, claiming they were graduate school homework projects created by Stacy Richardson, his chief of staff.
"This is one of the best laughs we've gotten in the last year," Berke said at the time.
Crockett, an old hand in Chattanooga politics and key player in the launch of the city's renaissance in the 1990s, fired his share of shots, as well. He often described his mayoral bid as an "intervention," claiming Berke failed to sustain the enthusiasm and commitment to the long-proposed bullet train connection to North Atlanta.
He also tried to take the mayor to task for being unwilling to champion an effort to let Chattanooga and other large Tennessee cities separate from their counties, a counter-move to proposed deannexation legislation aimed at letting areas separate from cities if they were annexed after 1998.
Such a move would liberate city residents from county taxation and save Chattanooga from an antiquated system of taxation, Crockett said.
Crockett himself admitted the mayor had no power to make it happen; he could only rally Chattanoogans to push state lawmakers to enact such a wide-sweeping change.
Berke and the other mayoral hopefuls had a field day with the notion, describing it as divisive and unrealistic.
Long continually zeroed in on the city's stormwater program, a recurring and contentious topic for Chattanoogans, alleging stormwater fees had stifled development.
Of course, none of this prevented Berke's challengers from taking swipes at each other when they weren't knocking the mayor's record or character. Long repeatedly categorized Crockett's ideas as "pie-in-the-sky" thinking. When Crockett continued to harp on the transformational possibility of the federally funded bullet train connection, Grohn simply asked how much influence the Chattanooga mayor really has over matters that fall under the purview of higher authorities.
Campaign strategy and money aside, political experts and operatives acknowledge Chattanooga's nonpartisan mayoral elections don't happen in a vacuum free of partisan identities.
Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the reality of this election was that Berke stood as the sole Democrat against an array of challengers who would divide the Republican pool of voters.
Local elections generally draw small numbers of voters except for those who are "highly committed and have already made up their minds and usually vote on partisan lines," Wintersieck previously said.
The day before the election, Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Joe DeGaetano fired off an email urging fellow Republicans to vote against the city's "Democratic mayor" who had spent tons of money on "slick mailers and TV commercials designed to distract attention from the reality of failed policies and poor decisions."
While the message never names Berke, it repeatedly hammers home the threat of Democratic politicians, interests and money.
"Fortunately, no amount of money can take away your right to vote for a change in leadership in Chattanooga," DeGaetano said. "The hay is in the barn, and all that matters now is votes."
The Chattanooga mayor earns a $158,650 annual salary.
CORRECTION: in an earlier version of this story, vote totals for mayoral candidates Larry Grohn and David Crockett were transposed.