Nashville: Open City

In the past decade, Nashville's local politics has moved from backrooms to front yards.

When Fate Thomas died in a Nashville hospital room 18 months ago, he was celebrated by old friends and even old foes as one of a disappearing breed. Thomas (whose given name was Lafayette) had been sheriff of Davidson County from 1972 to 1990. More importantly, he had been a political kingmaker, the engine of a Democratic party machine whose power some resented but no one doubted. It is a testament to his range of influence that even when he completed the all-too-predictable career trajectory of Tennessee sheriffs, landing in federal prison after pleading guilty to theft, mail fraud and conspiracy, his friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson petitioned for his release. When Thomas got out of jail, associates including former governors Lamar Alexander and Ned McWherter contributed to a fund to pay off his tax debt. And just two weeks before his death in July 2000, he received a hospital visit from Vice President Al Gore, who later described Thomas as "a real legend in our own time who will be missed by us all."

Gore should know. "If it wasn't for my dad, [Gore] would have never won his first term as a congressman," says Fate Thomas Jr., who has eschewed his father's political mantle in favor of barbecue—he runs Fate's Pig and Pie, a pork joint in West Nashville.

But the Nashville that Fate Thomas Sr. helped create and control was already fading to a Music City memory long before the heart attack that killed him. Political players and observers in Nashville may not agree on whether things have gotten better or worse, but they all concur that the city's political landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade.

Viewing Nashville's Metro government from a Knoxville perspective, the most obvious thing that leaps out is that it is metro. Since 1963, Nashville/Davidson County has embraced what Knox County voters have repeatedly resisted: a unified government. The union was not exactly graceful, and it led to a somewhat awkward framework. The mayor heads up an executive branch that includes a bewildering array of department heads, some of whom are directly hired by the mayor (most notably the Finance Director) but most of whom are hired by various boards whose members are appointed by the mayor. The Law Director is hired by the mayor but, thanks to a complicated legal ruling, can only be fired by Metro Council.

The Council itself has a staggering 40 members—35 district representatives and five at-large—which ranks it with Chicago and New York as one of the largest municipal legislatures in the country. (The mayor-and-Council ensemble is cheekily known as Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.) The county sheriff gave up all law enforcement duties in the governmental merger, and is responsible solely for running the Davidson County Jail and serving court papers. In one of the most obvious signs that Things Have Changed, the position is currently held by Nashville's first-ever female sheriff, Gayle Ray. Likewise the Nashville school system recently hired its first Latino superintendent, Pedro Garcia. (The superintendent is hired by the school board, which is elected independently. Similarly to Knox County, the schools' budget is allocated by Council but actual spending decisions are made by the school board. This creates periodic tension, but nothing like the current firestorm between Knox County Commission and our own school system.)

For all the twists and turns of its construction, however, Metro Nashville operates in a fairly straightforward way. By charter, the preponderance of power rests with the mayor, and that office—especially as personified by its two most recent tenants, Phil Bredesen and Bill Purcell—clearly maps the course for the city.

"The mayor sets the agenda," says Pat Nolan, a longtime Nashville political reporter and commentator who now works for powerhouse public relations firm Dye Van Mol & Lawrence. "If it were left to Council to set the agenda, we'd probably never get there."

In practice, Nolan says, most Metro mayors have been able to muscle, cajole or otherwise finesse their programs and projects through the government's organizational thicket. The district representatives on Council tend to be more concerned with issues specific to their neighborhoods than big-picture questions. But if that's been true for nearly 40 years, what has changed in the past 10 years is where the mayors come from and who has their ear.

"The political power in this county used to all be east of the river," Nolan says, referring to the white working-class neighborhoods between downtown and the Nashville airport. "The first three mayors under Metro government were all from East Nashville."

So was Fate Thomas. Despite the diminution of the sheriff department's role under consolidated government, it still boasted a large payroll—most of them Democratic party loyalists who could be turned out reliably for everything from neighborhood clean-ups to fundraising dinners (Thomas hosted an annual rabbit supper that drew up to 5,000 supporters) to the crucial task of hauling voters to the polls. Thomas harnessed that power, and—his prison sentence notwithstanding—not solely for his own gain. His son ticks off a list of achievements: changes that allowed more detainees awaiting trial to be released on recognizance, the hiring of more women and minorities, the symbolic fact that Thomas was one of the first Catholics to be elected countywide. "He was a heck of a guy," Fate Thomas Jr. says. But he clearly relished his role as backroom kingpin in everything from Council to congressional races.

"He had a hand in just about every election," his son says. "If he was for you, he'd help you. And if he was against you, he'd put somebody in that race to try to beat you."

Among his strongest allies were the succession of East Nashville mayors: Beverly Briley, Richard Fulton, and the unfortunately named Bill Boner. Boner's single term, from 1987 to 1991, in many ways brought that political era to a close. Hampered by a faltering economy and embarrassing personal scandals (one of which infamously led him to accept an invitation to appear on the Phil Donahue show, where the host grilled him mercilessly), Boner made for an unusually vulnerable incumbent. In 1987, he had fended off a little known West Nashville millionaire named Phil Bredesen. But by 1991, with Thomas in prison and long-simmering dissatisfaction in the business community and elsewhere approaching a full boil, Bredesen seemed like a welcome break with tradition.

Sweeping into office with a CEO's brisk confidence and—thanks to having financed his own campaign—little obligation to the usual political suspects, Bredesen was a fresh face for a city poised to shake off a lingering hick-town inferiority complex and enter the national arena. It didn't hurt that two of Nashville's signature industries, country music and health care, were on the verge of their own breakthroughs. Bredesen's first term started just as Garth Brooks was leading the pop-country crossover assault and Columbia/HCA was collecting hospitals like trading cards. Bredesen initiated corporate-style performance evaluations of Metro services. In one instance, the mayor asked his department heads to show him what they would cut if faced with a 5 percent budget cut. Then, in most cases, he forced them to actually make the cuts. Observers say that commitment to efficiency, which Purcell has continued, has allowed Nashville's last two mayors to push through four property tax increases (three under Bredesen and one under Purcell) with relatively little fuss. Nolan notes that Purcell's 88-cent hike, most of it for teacher salaries, was under consideration last summer at the same time that some Nashvillians were circling the state Capitol building in angry anti-income-tax demonstrations. But just down the street at the county courthouse, "there was nary a one."

"Both mayors did a good job of explaining to the community the need for the tax increases they were asking for," says at-large Metro Councilman Chris Ferrell. "Those increases weren't going for extravagant things."

Ferrell, a 32-year-old professional marketer, is himself a sign of the city's political shifts. He first ran for Council in 1995 as a Vanderbilt graduate student, spurred by distress at the Tennessee Republican ascension of 1994. To his surprise, he won. He's one of a new kind of Council member, a veteran of neighborhood groups and an advocate of planning and urban redevelopment. He served during Bredesen's second term, when the dominant issues were the mayor's monumental proposals for downtown development: the deal that brought the Titans-née-Oilers to town, the relocation of the Country Music Hall of Fame to a huge new building, the magnificent new downtown library. He admires both Bredesen and Purcell, and he says both have maintained good relationships with Council. (It is also significant that neither Bredesen nor Purcell was born in Tennessee—both moved here from the Northeast.)

"They're both brilliant men," Ferrell says. "Bredesen tended to focus on one big initiative at a time and really take charge of that and devote a lot of time to it. Purcell has tended to take a role in many more things at once—not as big, not as dramatic...smaller-scale, but more breadth."

Purcell was a popular state legislator who emerged as a favorite in a five-way race for mayor in 1999. Although there's some uncertainty about whether or not term limits passed by Nashville voters in 1994 apply to the mayor's office, Bredesen had always said he wouldn't serve more than two terms. (He is now, of course, running for governor.) But no one knew how much of a favorite Purcell was until he won the primary in a landslide. The distant second-place finisher was former Mayor Richard Fulton, who agreed not to campaign in the run-off, letting Purcell take the office almost by acclamation. It was a clear victory for a new generation of Nashville leadership. Purcell is from East Nashville, but a different part than the old Thomas-Fulton-Boner crew—he lives in Edgefield, a redeveloping neighborhood just across the river from downtown where young professionals in recent years have been renovating old houses and opening chic bars and restaurants. And if Bredesen's tenure marked the ascendance of Nashville's business and commercial class as a dominant political force, Purcell's election signaled the maturation of yet another power: the neighborhoods.

"Starting late in Fulton's term," Pat Nolan says, "there was the beginning of a neighborhood movement. Unlike a lot of big—particularly Northern—cities, Nashville had never really seen itself as a collection of neighborhoods."

Neighborhood groups started organizing in the Hillsboro area near Vanderbilt, and then in Edgefield and the near-north area called Germantown. John Stern has been part of it almost from the start. He currently is president of the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance, an umbrella organization with considerable lobbying power.

"It's grown over the last 20 years from what was probably a half-dozen people sitting around talking to an entity where we're now in regular contact with over 200 organizations," Stern says. "Neighborhood groups have bloomed and blossomed and have become, both collectively and individually, a political force. It's starting to level out the voice of the old-time political power-holders and powerbrokers. The power has gotten much more diffused."

The Neighborhood Alliance gained influence under Bredesen, but Purcell was the first mayoral candidate to actually run on the promise that he would be "the Neighborhood Mayor." He ran a TV spot showing him with his desk and office equipment out in his own front yard. His first two years in office haven't disappointed Stern. He's especially pleased with Purcell's planning director, Rick Bernhardt, who Stern says is committed to engaging communities in setting their own priorities.

"One of the biggest tenets our organization holds is ensuring the significant and meaningful involvement of Nashvillians in public decision-making," Stern says. "You're not going to end up with a city that people want unless you create an atmosphere where people are encouraged to participate."

Meanwhile, Nolan says, some of the other power bases have actually gotten less involved in local governance. Increasingly, Nashville's major industries, from music to insurance to banking to media, are controlled by large corporations with headquarters in other states and countries that simply aren't that interested in local politics. So, it's no surprise the people who actually live in the community end up as the loudest voices.

Fate Thomas Jr. agrees that the city's centers of influence have shifted, but he's not sure it's all to the good. His own father distrusted both Bredesen and Purcell, seeing the former as a product of big-money interests and deriding the latter's advisers as a bunch of "do-gooders"—"He just didn't have a taste for them." Fate Jr. is less severe in his judgments, but he thinks the recent administrations have seemed less concerned with "little people" than those of his father's time. The fervent dedication to constituent service that kept the East Nashville machine running has slipped a little in pursuit of all those lofty goals, he says.

Still, no one denies that the modernization and demographic changes in Metro Nashville's governance has accompanied an era that has turned the city from a Minnie Pearl punchline to a significant national presence. (The Titans' Super Bowl appearance a couple years back obviously didn't hurt.) Even as Tennessee as a whole has struggled and muddled through the past few years, Nashville has kept surging ahead. If that means a certain slick professionalism, a loss of some of the city's old-fashioned grit and personality, it's a price people seem willing to pay. The era of colorful, powerful men with names like Fate and Boner has given way to the era of neatly dressed technocrats with names like Phil and Bill.

"I think we've seen a much higher percentage of those running for local office doing it for the right reasons," John Stern says. "We've come a long way. We've got a ways to go, for sure. But I think we have a much more enlightened populace and politicians....It's a cool time to be living in Nashville."

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.