NASHVILLE — National Republicans' path to Donald Trump began in part in places such as the GOP-dominated Tennessee General Assembly, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke told state delegates to the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.
A former Democratic state senator himself, Berke sought to underscore his assertion by reading controversial quotations from GOP presidential nominee Trump, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, former state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"Some of your Republican friends — the ones who claim to be reasonable — they're going to talk about Donald Trump as an aberration," Berke was quoted as saying by The Tennessean newspaper at the Philadelphia gathering. "Something out of the blue. They want you to think he's on the edge of the cliff, saying these things just by himself."
But the mayor said many, including Tennessee elected Republicans, "built the path to Donald Trump standing on that cliff every single day."
The mayor's comments came during the Tennessee delegation's breakfast meeting on the last day of the convention where Democrat Hillary Clinton accepted the party nomination.
Berke is backing his deputy administrator of economic development, Nick Wilkinson, in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary in Senate District 10. The winner will face Gardenhire in the Nov. 8 general election. Khristy Wilkinson, no relation to Nick Wilkinson, and Ty O'Grady are also running in the Democratic primary.
The mayor also questioned Republicans' achievements since they took control of the governor's mansion, as well as gained absolute power in the state House and Senate, reducing former majority Democrats to super-minority status.
And he warned Democrats that "we can't just think about Trump. We need to take care of the people who built that path that led us to Cleveland last week. State rep, state senate, Congress — these are the races that determine our political environment."
Later by phone, state Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said Trump didn't just happen out of the blue. "We've seen more than our fair share of legislation aimed at division rather than doing the right thing for Tennessee," he said. "As the Trump campaign has repeatedly set new lows, we've heard nothing but silence or even support from the majority."
If Tennessee Republicans "are not the party of Trump," Yarbro said, "they need to say so and they need to reject that agenda when it counts — in the legislation they enact."
Brent Leatherwood, the Tennessee Republican Party's executive director, fired back at the mayor, saying Republicans "have paved the way for the creation of over 325,000 jobs since taking the reins of the state, the fastest-improving results in education in the nation, and the largest tax cuts in state history.
"We would welcome the opportunity to compare that record of achievement with Mayor Berke's unremarkable and unflattering time as mayor," Leatherwood added.
"Every race is important right now for Democrats" in Tennessee, Berke said. "There's a substantial super majority for Republicans. You know, one of the things that we need is a balance of people who can articulate the other position and be heard so Tennessee voices are represented. That [Gardenhire] race is certainly one that Democrats will be paying attention to. What we need is a government focused on solving problems for people."