NASHVILLE — As chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, Republican Delores Gresham sometimes worked with Sen. Andy Berke and sometimes fought with him over a GOP agenda minority Democrats thought went too far.
Gresham, a no-nonsense former Marine colonel from West Tennessee, said she developed respect for the 44-year-old attorney who is widely seen as the frontrunner in the Chattanooga mayor's race.
The other candidates are former city employee Guy Satterfield and perennial candidate Robert Chester Heathington Jr. The nonpartisan election is March 5.
"If [Berke] had a conviction about a certain issue, he would not hesitate to speak," Gresham said.
She and Berke were among lawmakers who worked with Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2009 as he began developing K-12 and higher education initiatives. Those bipartisan efforts earned Tennessee national recognition and a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.
"He's a great guy; he's a smart guy, and I always appreciated his incisiveness and insights even though I didn't agree with him 99 percent of the time," chuckled Gresham.
Berke's legislative experience will make him a "fantastic mayor," said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, "because he's gained an understanding of how government functions.
"I thought he was very effective," she said. "He was certainly supportive of any bills that were introduced to help promote jobs, particularly in Hamilton County. That can't help but be an asset, too."
In five years as a senator, Berke was known as a tough opponent but also someone willing to cross a partisan divide to advance goals he considered important, lawmakers say.
"He worked across party lines very well and generally did a pretty good job," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who joined with Berke on an economic development bill dealing with industrial brownfields in Chattanooga and elsewhere.
Berke, a Stanford University and University of Chicago School of Law graduate, won a special election in 2007 to replace former Democratic Sen. Ward Crutchfield, who was convicted in a bribery scandal.
Berke did not seek re-election in November but said he learned lessons at the state Capitol he thinks will serve him well if elected mayor.
"I've learned that the chief executive sets a tremendous amount of the agenda," he said. "What the priorities are of the administration become the priorities not just of the government but the entire community or state."
Second, he learned "how to make sure that I could make a difference and have real accomplishments, not only with my own party but members of the other party, to get things done."
Berke said some bills he pushed and sometimes passed on education, economic development, public safety and the environment reflect his priorities if elected.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said Berke "always made good arguments" and "thinks through the issue from different perspectives."
"Part of anyone's job in the minority is to be critical," Watson said. "He frequently argued against some of the [GOP] views of the world from a more liberal perspective than I do."
McCormick said he thinks Berke is a "lot more liberal than the average legislator up here, which is probably not hard to do."
Berke described himself as a "practical person who wants to move our city forward."
He said progress in public safety and education will lead to incredible opportunities for economic development."
"Politicians love to use divisive terms," he said. "Most people who are voting want to make progress."
The 'L' word
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said Berke was effective.
"He was a quick study, understood and learned the dynamics of how to get things done." Kyle said. "He could be persuasive on the merits, not on the politics. That would bode well as a mayor and a leader."
As for "the L word, the 'liberal' word," Kyle said, "I could not disagree with the analysis that Andy is more progressive than Gerald or Bo, although both of them have remarkably moved more to the center since moving into leadership."
Last year Berke worked with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the Department of Labor to create a pilot program to hook up the newly jobless with businesses.
Workers go through an eight-week, state-funded training program, and employers are encouraged to hire them full time.
Berke passed bills to create an accountability position within the Department of Finance and Administration and to help ensure more professional investigations of child abuse.
But he struck out on efforts to create small-business and entrepreneur tax credits and to put more state education money into classrooms.
Berke was among Democrats who tried to torpedo such GOP initiatives as ending collective bargaining for teachers, education vouchers and a dramatic expansion of publicly funded and privately operated charter schools. In 2011, he led opposition to a Republican-passed bill allowing for-profit companies to run public K-12 schools online.
Early in his Senate career, Berke backed a bill to let public safety employees bargain collectively over pay and other issues. It was fiercely opposed by the Tennessee Municipal Association, which represents cities, and didn't pass.
But Berke said it reflected his concerns about public safety and the risks police and firefighters face on the job.
"The mayor sets the tone and attitude for the city," Berke said. "Part of that means we have to support our first-responders. The people who put themselves in harm's way should have the backing of our mayor."
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, ...