NASHVILLE — As Tennessee Democrats’ electoral fortunes continue crumbling at the state and federal level, some of the party’s bright lights are alive, well and leading the state’s six largest cities as mayors elected in nonpartisan races.
Former state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, joined the select group when he was elected Chattanooga mayor in March.
Now there’s intense speculation the state Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, is eyeing a bid for mayor of Jackson after announcing last week he would not seek re-election next year to the Legislature.
Democrats also serve as mayors in Memphis (A C Wharton), Nashville (Karl Dean), Knoxville (Madeline Rogero), Clarksville (Kim McMillan) and Murfreesboro (Tommy Bragg). All six were elected in nonpartisan contests.
But for beleaguered state Democrats, the mayors present a glimmer of hope, a possible farm team in a state where Republicans now hold the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, seven of the nine congressional districts and supermajorities in the state House and Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, ascribed GOP dominance to Republican-drawn district lines he said “have been drawn to minimize urban influence and maximize” the strength of rural or rapidly growing suburban areas.
Kyle said he sees local office as “a place to build upon, an organization or rebuilding of the party and trying to get back to equal status, competitive status. It’s a start.”
Some see Tennessee’s largest urban areas, which often have major universities and institutions along with larger black populations, as more hospitable to Democrats.
“The cities do seem to be a stronghold, maybe the last stronghold for the Democratic Party,” said Ed Cromer, editor of The Tennessee Journal, a nonpartisan political newsletter. “You’ve got Democratic mayors not only in the four biggest cities, but you have them in every city with a population of 100,000 or more.”
In an interview last week, Berke said, “Well, I’m a Democrat. That’s how I served in the Legislature.”
But Berke said his job depends on results, not political affiliation.
“Ultimately I believe that I’m judged by whether I can make City Hall a place that has the outcomes desired by Chattanoogans,” he said.
That includes a stronger economy, “smarter students and safer streets,” Berke said.
“City Hall is a place where the rubber meets the road. As the old saying goes: a sewer doesn’t know whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. My job is to produce results,” he said.
In Nashville, Dean pretty much echoed those sentiments in a statement.
“There’s no Democrat or Republican way to make sure the trash gets picked up or potholes get filled,” said Dean, whom some Democrats hope to see as a future statewide candidate. “The job of mayor for any large city is to set priorities that help the economy thrive and that give residents a high quality of life.”
Rogero in Knoxville and McMillan in Clarksville could not be reached for comment. McMillan is a former state House majority leader who ran in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary but bowed out to Mike McWherter. McWherter, son of the late Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, lost the general election to Republican Bill Haslam, who was then Knoxville’s mayor.
Mayor as steppingstone
Unlike most Southern states, Tennessee has few steppingstones to higher office. Under Democrats’ long rule in the Legislature, lawmakers jealously staved off efforts, usually made by minority Republicans, to create an elected state attorney general, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and the like.
Now that they’re in power, legislative Republicans have proved to be no more eager to put new offices on the ballot.
And big-city mayors have tried and failed before to hoist themselves to statewide office.
In 1962, then-Chattanooga Mayor Rudy Olgiati challenged incumbent Gov. Buford Ellington in the Democratic primary and lost.
In 1986, Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton, a former Democratic congressman, came in third to state House Speaker Ned McWherter in the party’s gubernatorial primary.
But that all changed with Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, although it took him awhile. A self-made millionaire, Democrat Bredesen ran for governor in 1994, losing to Republican Don Sundquist, then in Congress.
Eight years later, in the midst of a GOP civil war over Sundquist’s championing of a state income tax, Bredesen defeated U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., in 2002 to take the governor’s chair.
Since then, two other Republican mayors followed the same formula. Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker defeated two former congressmen in the 2006 GOP U.S. Senate primary. Corker then beat U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a Memphis Democrat.
Four years later, Haslam followed suit, defeating the younger McWherter in 2010.
“Really, until Phil Bredesen won, mayors had not had much success running for governor. A lot had tried,” noted The Tennessee Journal’s Cromer.
“But you’ve had two mayors [elected governor] in a row. And of course, you still have a Republican-leaning state at the moment,” Cromer said. “But it’s more than that, it’s a conservative state. Bredesen ran as a businessman with a conservative business philosophy, and it may be that someone else may be able to do that, too.”
As to why big-city mayors have become more viable in recent years, Cromer said, “I think people see it as you’ve done something, you’ve run something before and it’s a valuable experience.”
And all three men’s campaigns were aided by their personal wealth.
The downside, Cromer said, is mayors often have to raise property taxes.
“That’ll be used against you. It was used against Bredesen, Haslam and Corker,” Cromer said.
Haslam and Corker argued that they left property tax rates at historically low levels. But critics said constituents still paid more taxes because their property values rose.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said he expects Democrats to become more competitive at some point down the road. A good way down the road, he emphasized, especially for statewide offices.
“I don’t see it in Tennessee for a while.,” Casada said. “Governor Bredesen was extremely conservative on business; maybe somebody of that tone, maybe. But you’d have to demonstrate it. … You have to prove that you are at least a fiscal conservative.”
“Little people’s republics”
Though most city races are nominally nonpartisan, GOP state lawmakers haven’t hesitated to block municipal initiatives that might have a Democratic cast.
In 2012, state lawmakers stopped an effort by Nashville’s Metro Council to bar businesses with city contracts from discriminating against gays. Last session, they barred Memphis from requiring a higher minimum wage for contractors.
“They [cities] are all economic generators for the surrounding counties,” argued House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, during the debate. “That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said last week that Republicans “have gone hard” after local governments. “If Glen Casada sees something that the city of Chattanooga’s doing [that he disagrees with], he’s going to interfere if he has the opportunity to do it.”
“Red to the Roots”
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney recently unveiled a “Red to the Roots” program. It’s primarily aimed at county governments and local judgeships.
A number of Tennessee counties have nonpartisan elections and Devaney wants that to change.
“There’s no doubt that their [Democrats’] bench is at the local level and where we can, we want to peel back that cloth they’re hiding in, which is the cloak of nonpartisanship,” Devaney said.
And despite state Republican bylaws that prevent similar actions with cities, he said, he’s got his eyes on municipalities, too, especially Chattanooga, where he once lived.
“I’m going to be interested to see what kind of mayor Andy Berke really is,” Devaney said. “Is is he going to be like the liberal state senator he was in Nashville or is he going to be a mayor like Bob Corker? I guess the jury’s still out on that.”
Berke shrugs off talk about the possibility of seeking statewide office in the future, at least for now.
“I am at day approximately 110 or so of my mayoral term,” Berke said. “My focus right now is on getting a budget passed.”
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...