published Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Andy Berke shows broad fundraising reach


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga mayor hopeful Andy Berke addresses the crowd during a fundraiser.
Chattanooga mayor hopeful Andy Berke addresses the crowd during a fundraiser.
Photo by Connor Choate /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

View a related story: Spending up in City Council races

The roots of green that run from Andy Berke's campaign extend beyond the city limits of Chattanooga and across the state.

At least 40 percent of donors to Berke's campaign live outside the city, campaign disclosures show. Some donors live as far away as Hawaii and Maine.

In public appearances and in media ads, Berke boasts that he is running "the largest grass-roots campaign in the history of Chattanooga."

Lending credence to Berke's claim, 40 percent of his donors gave $100 or less.

But he also drew donations from some of the community's most prominent families as well as others in the well-heeled areas of Lookout and Signal mountains, campaign disclosures show.

His fundraising prowess also extended to Nashville, where he spent five years as a state senator, and to Knoxville.

"He's got a huge, powerful organization," said Dr. Richard Wilson, political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The Times Free Press reviewed two of Berke's financial disclosure forms during the mayoral campaign, a disclosure looking at the period of July 1, 2012, to Jan. 15, 2013, and April 1, 2012, to June 30, 2012.

The numbers are staggering for a Chattanooga mayoral campaign.

Since he formally announced in May he would run for mayor, the former state senator has raised $675,000, the most raised for a mayoral run in Chattanooga history, election records show. He has spent almost $150,000 on campaign events, advertising and billboards.

Berke's nearest opponent has raised nothing and spent $1,800.

Barbara Murnan is one of Berke's smaller contributors. The Harrison resident was in a women's group meeting in November at the Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute when Berke's campaign stopped by to ask for donations.

She slipped a $10 bill to campaign staff.

"I think he's a good choice," Murnan said. "We need someone progressive."

Murnan's modest donation contrasts with the contributions from some of the area's most influential families. The Lebovitz family, which owns and operates CBL & Associates Properties Inc., gave more than $13,000, financial disclosures show. The Probasco family donated $5,600.

Most of those in each family gave the highest individual amount allowed by law -- $1,400.

Four Probasco family members contributed more than $5,000 to Berke's campaign, while 10 members of the Lebovitz family contributed more than $13,000.

Michael Lebovitz, an executive vice president at CBL, said supporting political candidates financially is not uncommon in his family. Family members supported U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., he said.

His family supports Berke because he has proven himself as a good leader, Lebovitz said.

But Lebovitz said no one expects favorable treatment as a result of the campaign donations.

"Oh no," he said. "This is individual."

Former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey contributed $1,400 to Berke's campaign warchest.

"I certainly raised money outside the city and Bob Corker did as well," Kinsey said about how political candidates frequently reach out to donors who are not eligible to vote because of residency requirements.

Reaching outside of Chattanooga, for example, helps build relationships beneficial to the city, he said.

He pointed out that he raised $500,000 and Corker raised more than $600,000.

"I had a wide swath of support," Kinsey said. "So did Corker. It bodes well for how he can govern. It's a very good thing."

Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said he had no concerns with people from Lookout Mountain or Signal Mountain giving to the campaign because they could be property owners within the city and could be affected indirectly by any policy actions Chattanooga takes.

But he said he does have issues with money coming from outside the county, particularly from Nashville or Knoxville.

"It should make voters stop and ponder whether this is good for the city," West said. "The question should be why are they contributing? Is this a step toward a bigger run at something on the state level?"

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said Berke's time as a state senator allowed him to make connections beyond city and county borders.

"There's a lot of people who like him or may owe him favors or just generally think he's a good guy," Oppenheimer said.

But he said there could be meaning behind the massive amounts of money being raised by Berke, along with the large number of volunteers working for his campaign.

"It's sending a message now, and maybe for later, that I can run a successful campaign and maybe in the state," Oppenheimer said.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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