Roy Exum: Are You Sure, Andy?

Friday, September 9, 2016 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Many more people than you can realize raised an eyebrow on Tuesday when Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, announced he would run for re-election in March of next year. Heck, there were so many who were startled by Berke’s timing that had they showed up, there wouldn’t have been any place for “the elephant on the room” and that, my friend, is what they are all clamoring to see.

Exactly one week after Berke’s Tuesday announcement, the mayor’s senior adviser and her husband are scheduled to appear in General Sessions Court (Tuesday, Sept. 13,) as Bobby Stone will answer charges of domestic violence. His estranged wife, Lacie, brought charges after a much-publicized altercation that has stirred the imaginations, the back-bar rumors and the public’s callous innuendo as briskly as any kettle of fish in the city’s history.

Bobby’s open belief his wife was having an illicit affair adds ample spice to the stew and the alleged involvement in the aftermath of the altercation by others on Berke’s staff, including a police chief who works at the mayor’s whim, have resulted in a TBI investigation. Just on its face, this is a titanic mess that has only grown in size as it has lingered since May with Mayor Berke, like it or not, most assuredly a principal figure in the drama. 

I am neither a political expert nor a crisis analyst but it appears to one and all that this is the worst time to call a press conference and say, “Vote for me.” The mayor may well be as innocent as the driven snow but, in any political scandal, it is the smoke the voters are seeking and I don’t see this turning out to be “happily ever after.”

Lacie was hired as the media spokesperson for Mayor Berke but sometime last year the Mayor bumped her salary, and in fairness her responsibilities, up from $65,588 to $80,000. That is when rumors began to swirl and Stone began to allegedly tell his closest friends there was a romance involving his younger wife that was brewing at City Hall.

The domestic incident took place on May 21 and at that time Stone was quoted in police documents as saying “my wife is (having sex) the mayor.” During the melee, Stone claimed he was assaulted by his wife – he was quoted as saying he was hit several times -- while she told police he dragged her by her belt across the room and then threw a rock, or similar object, through her car’s rear window as she fled.

Reportedly distraught and changing her story, Lacie contacted Police Chief Fred Fletcher, who with his wife had just enjoyed a dinner party with the Stones. Chief Fletcher told her to come to his house. Stone was arrested by police but before being booked on a $3,000 bond at the jail, he was rather oddly taken to the police headquarters where he reportedly was detained for four hours.

The matter is so murky that Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston requested a probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A hearing was then scheduled for Aug. 9 but because the TBI file was still open, the case was passed until next week. The TBI has steadfastly refused to comment on the investigation.

So that brings us to the mystery of why Berke would announce his plans for re-election with next week’s hearing hanging over his head like Cicero’s Sword of Damocles? Granted, he has pleaded his innocence from the beginning and, from strictly a legal standpoint, the mayor should have nothing to fear but why swing at a hornet’s nest until you must? This is a high-profile matter, especially with state Democratic leaders pointing Berke towards a run for the governor’s chair.

Berke’s tragic response of “let me be clear” during his denial was worse than waving a red matador’s cape at the media. Berke’s popularity with the general public may be the worst of a Chattanooga mayor in memory – he’s too reclusive -- and in both county government and state legislative circles, Andy is hardly what you would call a team player. So why would the state Democrats consider him a state favorite? It ain’t like there is a very big pool from which to pick.

Perceived as arrogant, aloof and said to be “shy,” Mayor Berke does not have the personality, the sales ability, or the charm one would expect for any mayor of a middle-sized city in America. Because of that public perception – growing worse since the Stones’ problems -- and his questionable pet projects, he is expected to face a hard campaign against City Councilman Larry Grohn and any other possible challengers. Add the fact he is Democrat, this at a time when those aren’t popular in “red states” like Tennessee, and it is perplexing why Andy pulled the rabbit from the hat while all eyes instead are already transfixed on Sessions Court.

It all goes back to the first rule in any crisis. Don’t say a word – you can’t be quoted on what you don’t say. Batten the hatches until the storm has passed. Lay low, brer rabbit. But, oh no, Mayor Berke comes out in the very face of what will undoubtedly be quite a tempest and says, “I’m a real good mayor. Vote for me.”

It is believed the TBI report may not be ready for Tuesday’s hearing and that could mean yet another continuance. If so, the silence will only get louder.

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