Former state House Majority leader Bill Purcell shocked Nashville last week with the surprise announcement that he plans to run for mayor in 1999. Before Purcell invited reporters to the front porch of his East Nashville home on that muggy Thursday, it was widely speculated that he would be the state Democratic Party’s candidate for governor next year. In just a few sentences, however, Purcell put all such speculations to rest, and the party has been scrambling for a candidate ever since.
When he announced his intentions to run for mayor, Purcell nosed his way into a race that already includes, as he describes his competition, “two other individuals”Vice Mayor Jay West and former Mayor Dick Fulton.
Earlier this week, Purcell shared more of his reasons for wanting to lead Metro, as well as his thoughts on the current plight of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
LMG: Why do you want to be mayor?
BP: I think that’s the basic question. The state of Tennessee has done a lot of very good things, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of those reforms, but what’s become increasingly clear to me over the last year is that the place where those reforms are actually being enacted is at the local level.
My sense is that it’s a time now where a lot of the good ideas that we all participated in at the state level are going to be squarely on the plate of, and in front of, the people of this county. Realizing that meant thatif I was going to make a difference, if I was going to be in a position to helpthe place where I can do that, at this point in our history, is in local government.
LMG: An official announcement two years out is virtually unheard of, particularly when, during these months of speculation about the governor’s race, you’ve insisted that we need to spend more time on governing and less time on politicking and electioneering. Why announce now?
BP: First of all, there had been a lot of speculation and a lot of discussion about what I might be going to do. I looked up over the course of the last year and found myself described as going to Washington, though I’d made no effort or applications or sent my résumé or given any thought to that at all. I found discussions about statewide and local office. At one point, a radio program had me going to work for the Houston Oilers.
While all that was fun, in a way, and kind of interesting because it at least means other people are thinking nice things, it was increasingly clear to me, especially as the [Democratic Party’s] timeline for the statewide race came to a conclusion, that I needed to share my own decision about the statewide race. As I’d been thinking about all that, I’d also been thinking that, if you really care about families and education, crime, and quality of life, the place where someone like me might best be able to serve is at the local level. I was satisfied that that’s what I wanted to do.
So the question then becomes, if you know what you want to do, shouldn’t you just say it, particularly when you know you’re going to be asked?
The other thing that’s clear now is that people in Nashville are increasingly focused on who their leaders are and who their leaders are going to be. Right now in Nashville, there is some discussion, among political observers and people who pay a lot of attention to party politics, about who the candidates will be in the governor’s race, but there is not a lot of discussion in the neighborhoods about a race that is 15 months away. And yet there is considerable discussion about who the next mayor in Nashville will be.
The last piece of it is that it’s also apparent now that at least two other individuals who are very interested in this race and may actually participate in it have not only expressed their interest but have begun raising money.
LMG: The 1996 campaign season kept you busy working for Clinton/Gore. Since then, have you missed the public life?
BP: No, and I’ve been very lucky. First of all, there’s been a great advantage to being at home, spending more time with my family than I could before. To be able to focus, these last nine months, on the things I most care about and to be with my family virtually every day is a tremendous opportunity.
LMG: Ultimately, what led you to this decision to abandon hopes for Curtiswood Lane and run instead for mayor of Nashville?
BP: Like most personal decisions, it’s complicated. It simply became increasingly clear that, as much as some of my friends felt I could contribute at the state level and as much as my mind was drawn to that analysis, I continually found myself thinking more and more about what we can accomplish here in Nashville. Right now, the issues and the solutions are being advanced in local governments.
LMG: Do you feel the Democratic Party let you down by not embracing you soon enough as the consensus candidate for the party?
BP: No, not at all. First of all, the Democratic Party is the oldest continuously operating political party in the history of the world, which is a great tribute to it. But it’s also a great, big living organism of people and ideas and issues, and I think everyone who cares about the party understood from the beginning that it is a very difficult thing for this party to come together outside of the normal process.
We know how to have primaries, but the need for consensus was clear. My hope is that if, in some small way, my making clear what I wanted to do helps that consensus, then that’s a good thing.
LMG: Can we acknowledge that the consensus-candidate idea has led to an intensely disorganized decision process for the Tennessee Democratic Party?
BP: Yes, yes. There’s no blueprint for it. There’s no road map. It’s never been done before. I’m pleased and proud, actually, we’ve made it as far as we have, without much rancor and division.
LMG: What kind of reactions have you had from friends like former Gov. Ned McWherter and others?
BP: It’s all been encouraging. I think each of them know it’s what I really wanted to do. The interesting thing in politics is that your friends usually know whether this is something you really want to do or not. Obviously, a lot of these people don’t live in the county and are not in a position to do anything about it.
LMG: What about the response from other mayoral aspirants like Jay West and Dick Fulton?
BP: Jay was good enough to call me. I would have called him if he hadn’t gotten to me first. I talked to Mayor Fulton as well. And both of them were very, very nice about it all, and they understand it. Jay West and Dick Fulton are friends and have been friends and allies a long time, and yet they’ve found themselves both in the race already.
LMG: This is a yes-or-no question. If Mayor Bredesen were to decide to run again for mayor, would you stay in the race?
BP: First of all, Mayor Bredesen has, for a long time, been talking both publicly and privately about his plans. It was very clear to me, when I made this announcement last week, that Mayor Bredesen’s plans did not include running for mayor of Nashville again.
If everything we know and believe and have heard turns out not to be true, then I would expect to hear from the mayor at that point. We can all cross that bridge if we ever come to it. But I not only don’t see the bridge ahead, I don’t see the river that would require the bridge.
LMG:There has been some speculation in the last week among a sort of conspiracy-theorist crowd that you and the mayor have been secretly meeting, and that it has been decided that you’ll run for mayor and he’ll run for governor. Is that just crock, or is there anything to it?
BP:There’s no truth to that. As far as I know, the mayor has been doing just exactly what the mayor has said he’s been doing, which is seriously working on the problems of the city and thinking some about his own future. And I’m satisfied that when the mayor reaches a decision, a final conclusion, about the mayoral election, he’ll tell us.
Not only did it not happen, it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t work. These are much too important decisions for any two people to try to arrange the world.
LMG: How would you characterize the campaign you intend to run?
BP: It’s a campaign clearly about the future, as focused as I know how to make it on the issues that will dominate that future. While we’ve made extraordinary progress in my lifetime here, there continue to be a lot of questions in all of our minds about what kind of place we will be in in the years ahead. Mayor Bredesen took this city at a critical time, when confidence in local government was at an all-time low, and restored confidence in the government itselfnot just around large projects, but around the whole issue of economic development.
LMG: What are three specific things you can think of that you’d like to accomplish for Nashville?
BP: I’d like people in this community to feel safe, to have a feeling both in their homes and on the streets that they are safe. I’d like people to have a sense that the education system in this community is providing not just for their kids, but for everyone’s kids, the opportunity to take advantage of the promises the next century holds for them.
Lastly, I’d like to reassure people that the quality of life in Nashville will not simply be good but will keep them feeling as if there is no other place on earth they would rather be than here, a sense that not only is this a place where I happen to beit’s also a place where I’ve chosen to be.
LMG: So if Phil Bredesen’s tenure as mayor can be described as focused on economic growth, downtown renewal, and heavy spending on capital projects, yours, if you’re elected, could be described as focused on fundamental things that are important to peopleissues like crime and education.
BP: I think that’s fair. But I don’t want to underestimate the importance of maintaining what we have, building on what we have, and moving those things forward too. I don’t see us at a fork in the road as a city. I see us at an extraordinarily important point in our development as a city, and I think those things that are good and positive need to keep moving forward.
There’s a lot to digest. Everyone agrees with that. This has been a very active mayorship, a very active period in our history, and we have some digesting to do as a city. But that doesn’t mean we’re changing course.
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