As the month of March roars in like a cold and blustery lion, the new month arrives in the final hours of next Tuesday’s city election, one where we are guaranteed a new mayor in Chattanooga and at least two new faces on the nine-person City Council. Unlike other years, when campaigning has often been heated and intense, there has been a quiet and calm air that makes me, of all people, a little nervous.
Andy Berke, for example, has been so quiet and reserved that I actually looked up the meaning of “titmouse,” which pertains to “various small birds.” Oh, Andy will surely win in a landslide – for lack of a serious challenger – but in a day where we seek eagle-like politicians, and fierce hawks to keep them on their toes, the promise and goals Andy has made public could fit on a 3-by-5 inch card and that’s using just one side.
That he is a Democrat in a state where the Republicans boast a “super majority” in our all-important legislature doesn’t bother me in the least, but in a conversation with a longtime political confidante, I am assured “Andy will do just fine if he recognizes he has no executive experience and no administrative experience. And I don’t say that in a bad way, not at all, but to help him prepare for some big decisions he will soon have to make.”
My go-to guy for local politics – I will freely reveal – is the unflappable Jack Benson. I have known him for most of my years and he’s a classic City Councilman who should be easily re-elected next week. Jack has served on the City Council for 12 years and, while he has some very admirable opponents in District Four, the beloved Benson will be a key figure in Chattanooga’s overall picture as a new mayor is seated.
“I knew Andy’s grandfather and I know both his father and his uncle. They are fine people and we should be proud Andy is dedicated to the growth and stability of our city,” said Benson. “But because he doesn’t have experience in some areas you wish a candidate would, how he listens and how he works with the City Council will be vital to the change in administrations.”
Asked about the incoming City Council – where only Russell Gilbert and Carol Berz are unopposed – Benson feels the other seven seats (his included) will be in good hands. “We have some good people running against one another,” he said in his wise way, “so I don’t foresee anything major that could get the Council off track.”
“I believe there will be several races that will be close and, while I would hope the incumbents I have enjoyed working with do well, I am pleased with the candidates in District One and Two” who will take the place of Deborah Scott and Sally Robinson, both of whom opted not to run again.
Asked about the biggest challenges the new Mayor and City Council will face, Benson was candid. “I first took office back in 2001 – when Bob Corker was mayor – and our city has leapt forward every year since then. We have to keep our momentum, eager for fresh ideas while holding fast to what is best for our citizens.
“When I was a student at UC, there was horrible air pollution here. If it had gone unchecked today we would be unable to breathe. But I saw on national television this morning where Chattanooga has become the greatest success story for air quality in the country,” he bragged, “but when the federal government forced us to clean it up, people were up in arms over it. It was a tough fight!
“The reason I mention it is because people don’t understand what is happening to us with wastewater. The EPA has fined us because it is so bad, but we can get the money back by way of grants and such, if we will simply clean up what runs into our river before we, in turn, drink the stuff. Wastewater is a top priority that we can’t ignore,” said the longtime councilman.
“I also believe we have to keep an open mind. When we fought over $35,000 to roof Engel Stadium, we had some people who were absolutely livid. But when Harrison Ford and the movie were made, and we got over a million dollars because the stadium was suitable, you didn’t hear from any of the naysayers. That, my friend, is called politics,” he laughed.
“No, don’t you worry … Andy Berke did a fine job as a state senator and he’ll do a fine job as a mayor. I have talked with him a good bit and advised him to ease into the job, learning as much as he can before he begins to change things he thinks will be beneficial. If he proves to be a team player – not just with the City Council but with our elected county officials as well, I believe you will understand why I am so excited instead of being nervous, as you call it,” again he chided me.
We talked some more, about more industry returning and the fact Chattanooga is getting such great recognition in so many areas from the national media, and finally Jack asked for a rare favor, “If you see any friends of yours you know who live in District Four … “
But it was my turn to laugh, cutting him off by telling him – in all honesty – “I wish I could vote for Jack Benson!”