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VOL. 126 | NO. 242 | Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Berke Earning Respect on Both Sides of Aisle

By KATHLEEN CARSON

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State Sen. Andy Berke said he had no expectations of what public office would be like when he was elected in 2007.

BERKE

In fact, he said somewhat sheepishly, he “literally had not been to the legislature since my fourth-grade field trip. … By the way, that’s a mistake. I now realize I should have been paying more attention all along.”

When he speaks to groups, he said he asks audiences to learn from his mistake.

Since his arrival, however, the Chattanooga Democrat has gained praise of colleagues in both parties.

“He’s always been prepared when he comes to committee work,” said state Sen. Jim Tracy, the Shelbyville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, one of two on which Berke serves. “He knows the issues and studies the issues. We may disagree on the issues (but he’s) always been prepared.”

Longtime state Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville calls Berke a bright man whose questions on legislation help focus discussion and help other lawmakers better understand the issues.

And state Sen. Dolores Gresham, the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, calls Berke a valuable member of the panel. “He is not above ‘ragging’ his colleagues on either side of the aisle ... even the Speaker! He is creative and innovative always seeking to make the work of the committee precise and effective. He does this in a collegial fashion which often gains support from other members,” she said via email.

Berke, 43, is a native Chattanoogan and practices law in the firm his grandfather, Harry Berke, founded. Berke hadn’t held elected office before running for the Senate and credits his father, Marvin Berke, with influencing his decision to enter public service.

“He equated being a lawyer with advocating for a person,” Berke said. “I don’t think of being an elected representative as being that different from what he did. He was an influence. … My family was very focused on helping people and this idea that community matters.”

Berke said he was always interested in government, even as a child, and the interest grew over the years. A post-college stint working for U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., plus campaign work, whetted his appetite for service.

“As I grew older I started to think to myself, ‘I’ve been around it so much … I need to see whether I can do it.’ It seemed like a natural progression.”

“He’s always been prepared when he comes to committee work. He knows the issues and studies the issues. We may disagree on the issues (but he’s) always been prepared.”

–Sen. Jim Tracy
Shelbyville, Tenn., Republican, chair of the state Senate Transportation and Safety Committee

Gordon was a big influence, Berke said. “I saw firsthand how hard he worked to represent the people of Middle Tennessee at a time when there was a lot of anger about Congress.”

“I’m a great fan of Andy and think he’s a major asset to the state,” Gordon said. “He doesn’t have a partisan agenda.”

And while Berke may differ philosophically from Republican colleagues, he’ll present an “honest, well-thought-out opinion” on legislative issues, Gordon adds. “Not everyone there does their homework, and Andy does, and I think he’s respected for that.”

Berke perhaps is best known for his work on education issues. He sees education as and economic development as working hand in hand.

“I am focused in the long run on finding ways to promote Tennessee to new and existing businesses so that people will expand here and bring business here,” he said. “I believe that in the long run we have to improve our educational system so that people have a quality work force when looking at Tennessee for their business but also so that Tennesseans can start and (execute) their own ideas.”

During the 2010 special session on education, called by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen so the state could qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in special federal funding, Berke played a key role.

He co-sponsored the Tennessee First to the Top Act, which was passed by wide margins and helped Tennessee receive $500 million in Race to the Top federal funding to improve education. Tennessee and Delaware were the first states to receive funds under the program.

To Berke, the special session represented one of the legislature’s finest hours. In 2009, he said, Bredesen convened a small group of legislators who would talk about education issues – mainly higher education reform – over lunch.

Toward the end of that year, Bredesen added K-12 education reform to the agenda, and the group eventually came up with two bills, the Complete College Tennessee Act and the First to the Top Act, he said.

“Everyone in that group, both Democratic and Republican, signed on as a co-sponsor … because we had spent time buying into the issue. … I can’t imagine a better experience in the legislature,” he said.

The Complete College Tennessee Act aimed to address the state’s low college graduation rate. On the one hand, Tennessee had been encouraging college attendance through the Tennessee Lottery-funded hope scholarships, but “along the way we neglected a focus on graduation,” he said. According to one measure by Complete College America, a nonprofit group quoted in a 2010 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, Tennessee ranked 40th nationally in percentage of residents completing bachelor’s degrees.

Complete College Tennessee changed the approach to funding state colleges to focus on graduation rates, which in turn encourages the schools to address the reasons students don’t finish, Berke said.

“It’s everything from people losing a focus and not knowing where to turn to having a hard time being away from their families,” he said.

Even simple measures like having instructors take roll at every class can help, he added.

“Tennesseans care less about party than they do about solutions,” he said. “My constituents are looking for people to rise above party and find ways to put people back to work, educate our children and ensure that our elderly have access to quality health care. The partisanship is a reflection more of politicians than it is the electorate and ultimately it hurts our state.”

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