Last week, as 30 members of the Metro Council debated and voted on public policy, Buck Dozier watched a hockey game. Granted, the at-large council member showed up to perform most of his duties as a countywide elected official, but at some point he slipped out the door and headed over to the arena. Dozier managed to catch the last period of the game but missed votes on six bills up for third reading and eight memorializing resolutions. Like every recorded vote last Tuesday, they all passed unanimously.
“All my bills were passed, so I tried to support the Predators a bit,” Dozier tells the Scene, noting that he had been in committee meetings since 2:30 that day. “I don’t make a habit of that. It was just an unusual situation.”
Now, leaving a council meeting early to watch sports doesn’t constitute a hanging offense, or even a firing one; most folks are hard-pressed to pay attention to city government at all. But most folks aren’t at-large council members, and most don’t wake up one morning feeling that, among the half-million or so other folks in Nashville, they are the most qualified to be the next mayor of Nashville. This time, Dozier chose fang fingers over sewer easements, but what happens the next time a terrorism drill conflicts with a Titans game? “Looks like you’ve got it under control, boys,” Mayor Dozier will say in his best Chief Wiggum voice. “I’m headed over to catch the second half. Gotta support the hometown team, you know. Besides, I’ve been working all afternoon.”
Ironically, the current mayor of Nashville, Bill Purcell, was at last week’s hockey game too. And the next day, he found himself at Nashville’s other main sports venue, the (Your Ad Here) Coliseum, to promote a May soccer match between the U.S. and Moroccan men’s teams. We had spent the last couple of hours driving around the city in Hizzoner’s Saturn—by the way, sir, sorry about that ink stain on your dashboard—talking about the accomplishments he hoped would define his tenure as mayor, so you could forgive the man for having his legacy on his mind. And sure enough, after a press conference in a well-appointed lounge on the club level of his predecessor’s giant stadium, as he stares out across the river at the soaring skyscrapers of downtown Nashville, the mayor’s gaze falls upon a sidewalk meandering between the Coliseum and the Cumberland. At one of the best vantage points in town, Bill Purcell pulls me over to the window to talk about greenways.
“I think a kid in Donelson is going to get on his bike and ride downtown,” he says. “I think kids from East Nashville are going to get on their bikes and ride out to Wave Country. Or to the skate park. To Bells Bend.”
It was, as the saying goes, vintage Purcell. Not 20 feet from Bruce Arena, head coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, he was literally standing inside of a major mayoral monument to his predecessor, Phil Bredesen. I had invited him to take stock of his own achievements in grand fashion—What will you be remembered for, Mr. Mayor?—and the guy paints his self-portrait with a milquetoast palette of parks and sidewalks.
But to Purcell, that’s the stuff of cities, of government run well for the citizens it serves. Those parks are healthy things to do, for free, open to everyone; the greenways get you there. It’s about connectivity, convenience, comfort. It’s the essence of quality of life in this city, and what government can do to improve it.
But it can be hard, sometimes, to remember that Purcell has a long view amid the incessant talk of sidewalks and schools, handicap access ramps and neighborhood meetings. At first glance, it seems he lacks those major markers of mayoral legacy. He’s been building community centers, not coliseums, branch libraries, not a central one, bridges and boulevards, waste management plans and police precincts, but no arena, no core curriculum. Lacking such signature big-ticket items, will Big Man history forget Bill Purcell?
It’s too soon to tell. What’s becoming increasingly clear, though, is that Purcell will leave twin legacies, one intended, one not. The on-purpose trail of breadcrumbs in his rearview has to do with the good government agenda he’s been deliberately laying out and implementing for the past six-and-a-half years. (See “sidewalks, schools and community centers,” above.) Soon Hizzoner will cement his place in history with a months-long “Celebrate Nashville” campaign that his advisors stress is not about his legacy. He just loves history and loves Nashville.
The unintended consequence of Purcell’s two terms in office may be a pendulum-like shift back to patronage politics, that provincial standard in which your chamber of commerce dues (or your daddy’s) buy you a proportional seat at the policymaking table. In bygone times, the local version of the World Economic Forum went by the name Watauga and made the city’s most important political and economic decisions. Today, the business community, echoing the complaints of second-tier city officials, is trying to organize itself once again into some kind of political force. Basically, everyone’s sick of Bill Purcell getting his way all the time, even if his neighborhood-friendly priorities are mostly unimpeachable. If you haven’t felt the fatigue, ask any candidate for mayor what they think of Purcell’s “management style.” They’ll tell you.
And there’s the rub: after eight years of good government, a plethora of irritating performance audits and a host of small-to-medium-sized projects that add up to a wholesome, if unsexy, agenda—well, the guy who ditches council for a hockey game could be the next mayor. Or if not him, it could be the smiling, inoffensive vice mayor with a finger perpetually in the wind. Or if not him, it could be the drawling former congressman who spouts tired clichés like he’s been in politics since he was born—which he has. Point is, these guys may be more likable than Purcell, but they’re nowhere near as smart. Will local business leaders ride them back to power?
It’s lonely at the top, running a city well just for the sake of running a city well, and running it from the top down. In a search for outside validation of his agenda, and hearing a deafening silence from local business leaders, Purcell preens almost comically over Nashville’s twice-in-a-row designation as “America’s Hottest City” for business expansion and relocation. Granted, more people read the Nashville Scene every week than Expansion Management magazine, but the mayor says the city’s high ranking two years running means business leaders across the country think of Nashville as a great place to live and work. In any case, it’s nice to have someone notice. Take that, locals.
The funny thing is, his agenda is so workmanlike and piecemeal that even those who’ve paid pretty close attention to the mayor for the past several years haven’t really gotten the scale of Bill Purcell’s Big Picture. Sure, he’s a micromanager. His attention to detail borders on the pathological. But as it turns out, the guy’s been using the same words to articulate the same unified vision for almost seven years, and little by little, putting his plan into action. It manages to impress and bore at the same time. Who knew it could be done?
“If there’s sort of one message I hope to leave, it’s that you can’t stop paying attention to the infrastructure of the city….” Purcell told the Scene in 2003, in words almost identical to comments he made last week. “It’s critical to everything, it’s critical to neighborhoods, it’s critical to how people feel about their community. It needs to be part of our culture, part of our routine.” When your message to the city involves the word “infrastructure,” you’ve really got to pound it into people’s heads. And people get tired of the pounding.
Purcell’s critics admit that he works harder than anyone in the government business. He has to. He knows everything and is everywhere, stops by every school and cuts every ribbon. It’s because the man lives, eats and breathes local government. He genuinely loves his job. That, and he has no friends who will help him. “Who’s his best friend? Who does he pal around with? That’s a good question,” says one Purcell associate, genuinely stumped at the Scene’s straightforward question. After a couple of minutes, this person manages to think of one paltry, non-family name.
So how will Nashville remember its best friend, Bill Purcell? (Hint: they won’t be naming any convention centers after him.) What will his tight-fisted management style do to Metro government, and how will it shape the next mayor’s race? In short, who can follow the Infrastructure Mayor? Will Nashville miss its micromanager?
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the skipper of the city of Nashville is cruising up Eighth Avenue at the helm of his Saturn L300. We are embarking on a three-hour tour of Bill Purcell’s legacy, as led by Bill Purcell. First stop is the Howard School complex south of Broadway downtown, a multifunction government campus that’s currently undergoing renovations under the mayor’s watchful eye. We head up the stairs and through the door of the Old Metro Office Building, and instantly, Purcell is talking about the project’s most minute details.
“They say the elevators are slow,” he says as we zigzag through office space, where he greets Metro employees with politician jokes. (“Codes has wanted to be over planning for years,” he kids lifelong Codes worker Sonny West, noting his new office space above the Planning Department.) Next comes a discussion of whether the north stairwell or south stairwell is open, how the ceilings were raised, the innovation of hollow flooring with wires in it. His knowledge of detail is frankly alarming.
But just when you start to think he’s all trees and no forest, Purcell surprises you. In this case, he opens a glass door that leads onto a section of roof, and the panoramic tour begins. “The vision was—and what I hope we’ve created—was two basic main campuses for the function of government,” he says, pointing out the courthouse in the distance. When he and the Metro Council and, eventually, courts move back into the newly renovated courthouse and new criminal justice building across the street, it will constitute a fully functioning home campus for the city’s legal system. Laws will be enacted, enforced and interpreted within one city block.
The Howard School campus, then, represents the administrative headquarters for city government. Between here and the Internet, Purcell notes, the goal is for citizens to have one-stop shopping for all their government needs, be they in codes, planning, arts or elections. (To drive the point home, he uses the visit as an opportunity to vote.) Moreover, Purcell says, it should be a physical space that welcomes people. “The workplace of government is important not only for the people who work in the government but for those who interact with it,” he says, lapsing into talk that sounds like it was meant to be inscribed somewhere. (He says he has no plans to inscribe anything on the Old Metro building, despite a ready space.)
From that vantage point on the roof, you can see Greer Stadium, Vanderbilt, most of downtown Nashville and Rolling Mill Hill, a never-ending residential development project that Purcell took on when he came into office. The fire headquarters is coming. The children’s theater will be redone. And Rolling Mill Hill is really rolling now that it comes complete with a stadium. “People will soon begin to see—and feel—how aggressively this is moving,” he says of the area.
Not long afterward, as our tour sedan heads up First Avenue, he continues his near-constant narration. The train station is attractive—yep, they’re building a little train station downtown—the symphony hall seems like a good deal, given the amount of private money going into it, tourism is humming on Lower Broad despite the naysayers’ claim that it would never rebound after Sept. 11, Gateway Boulevard is partially open, the Demonbreun Bridge looks interesting. There is his beloved Church Street overhaul and the new lines on Second Avenue. Face it—the guy’s got lots of stuff to point to.
And then, the centerpiece: a public square built outside a renovated courthouse. We drive around the block, and then he turns into the construction entrance to get a better look at the square. A group of construction workers eyes him suspiciously, but he’s unflapped, projecting the aura of a man who owns the place. He’s coming to check on his legacy. “I really do think this will end up being the public square it was intended to be,” he says, noting that soon Metro will quit using Deaderick Street as a bus depot and start using it as a boulevard that connects Legislative Plaza with the new courthouse square. It’s the kind of spatial government synergy that really gets him going. He’s a government man and a planning fan.
“You can build buildings any way that you want. You can build them like this if you want,” he says, gesturing toward the awkward-looking downtown police station. “But at the end of the day, they don’t inspire this city or the people who work here.”
The tour continues north of James Robertson, past the Stockyard restaurant, eventually arriving at the Metro water treatment facility. That’s right, Bill Purcell wanted to stop by the shit plant.
“Do you smell it?” he asks, with a slightly crazed look on his face. “It just pours, open, into the air!” The mayor rolls down the driver’s side window. If his passengers—a senior advisor, a press secretary and a reporter—didn’t smell it before (which we did), the message was loud and clear: this place stinks. Purcell, who, let us repeat, included the poop processing facility on his legacy tour, says it’s crazy that Metro never thought to deal with its crap indoors. He may be prudish, and he’d probably never use the s-word to describe it, but he’s right. As we watch dried human feces drop into a truck, the mayor’s point couldn’t be more vivid: a city must deal with its own crap. We used to send it to Show-Me Farms in Goodlettsville, he says, where they spread it on earth and it trickled into groundwater. But now we’re building a state-of-the-art indoor facility to process it.
Purcell seems genuinely amazed that Nashville would throw its own waste around en plein air for so many years. Good government, to him, means disposing of your own poop. In the face of such an abdication of responsibility, he is dumbfounded, as close to speechless as he ever gets. Bill Purcell is a man who cannot fathom why government would dump sewage out in the open. In a Sharptonesque turn of phrase, he blames it on apathy due to “who lived there and how few lived there.”
“It’s not just about a smell,” he explains. “It’s about taking care of the needs of a city.”
And that pretty much sums it up. Cities have needs, they have certain functions, and Purcell wants to take care of those needs and perform those functions. He is a local government man to the core. That’s why he starts every speech, and by his own admission 75 percent of all job-related conversations, with a 15-minute history of Metro government. It’s nerdy, the stuff of parody, but it’s his passion. His strange passion.
Which brings us back to the Coliseum, where Purcell dutifully welcomes U.S. men’s soccer coach Bruce Arena to Nashville. In his remarks, he manages rhetorically to link international soccer with Metro public education, in response to a sporting challenge from this reporter. After the speech, as we walk over to the tall stadium windows, he asks if I noticed his education reference and accompanying nod in my direction. I had. Then, as we survey the city—or at least the bike path—I ask him what, specifically, is next for Nashville. What does the city need?
“I can make a list of fix this, do that—I can do it right off the top of my head,” he replies with measured arrogance. “But you’ve got to step back and stay focused on the whole.” Purcell explains that some mayors get sucked into their downtown areas, but he’s worked to keep his focus as broad as possible. Hence, the incessant neighborhood meetings and ribbon cuttings. In many ways, he has devised a recipe for running a city: one part downtown development, one part public safety, one part education and a liberal dose of neighborhood sidewalks, all held together by a procession of audit-wielding task forces. He’s taken the guesswork out of governing.
He’s also taken the humanity out of it—or so his critics say. No mayor in recent memory, perhaps, has engendered so much dissent within his own government. While Purcell remains popular in the community, his friends and ideological allies grumble in louder and louder whispers that he runs the government by fiat, forming task forces and commissioning studies to legitimize his every step. Then, he takes credit for doing it. “Why do I gotta talk about Purcell?” says Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, a candidate for mayor, when asked for a comment on the mayor’s legacy. Gentry, who’s never quite grasped parliamentary procedure, struggles to this day to run the Metro Council. It’s clear he’s getting tired of playing second fiddle.
Another Metro official describes running a city department these days as “going to dinner and somebody telling you where you’re going and what you’re going to have, and then taking credit for taking you to dinner.” Even the mayor’s strongest allies concede that his me-first management style has cost him a lot of goodwill. It would have been fun to watch him run for a third term.
But such is life under the Purcell regime—an audit, a task force, a plan and a press release—and it’s quickly becoming an issue in the 2007 mayor’s race. In coffee klatches and over high-powered lunches, business leaders chafe that Purcell has taken away their megaphone. Veterans of city government, for better or worse, complain that finance director David Manning has stripped them of any autonomy. (“Manning is a ridiculous diplomat,” says one. “He flips his nose at whoever asks a question.”) There are no politics but Purcell’s. Nashville government is a tightly run ship, and the crew is talking mutiny. “At the end of the day, does Purcell really know what the people who work with him think of him?” one city official asks rhetorically. “There’s a sadness either way.”
Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall, who has flirted with mayoral ambitions in the past but says he’s not making a run this time around, is diplomatic but direct. “Personally, I’ve agreed with most of their issues, but I’ve seen for myself that there are better ways to do things,” he says. “I would have liked more insight from the people who run the departments, rather than just audits and consultants.” Hall calls Purcell “very hardworking,” but worries that he has transformed the position of finance director into a city manager, with purse string power and weak council oversight.
He’s not the only one. In the early stages of the 2007 mayor’s race, all three candidates are working hard to champion parts of Purcell’s agenda while distancing themselves from his overall style. Grab the baby, drain the bathwater.
“I do think that Purcell has been very attentive to his job. He’s been very good on details, and he’s worked very closely with the neighborhood organizations,” says Bob Clement, a former U.S. congressman with an eye on the mayor’s office. “I’ve had people say, ‘Bob Clement, if you run for mayor, we expect you to be somewhere between Bredesen with the big projects and Purcell with the neighborhood projects.’ Maybe there’s a balance between business and the neighborhoods.”
Clement’s just getting warmed up with his polite critique of the mayor. Does he hear concerns about Purcell’s management style? “Absolutely, I hear that. It’s no criticism of Mayor Purcell because he has done a good job, but I would put more emphasis on decentralization…. Hold managers responsible and accountable, but give them the authority to do their jobs.”
Dozier, too, knows the complaints well. “I’ve heard a lot of that,” he tells the Scene. “Too much control has stifled initiative in the departments…. I think management style will be an issue and should be an issue in the mayor’s race. I think the employees should have a very clear understanding of the next mayor’s philosophy.” He calls for a “kinder, gentler government,” one that “stays in touch with all segments of the community.”
Gentry is the most polite of the three candidates, and not coincidentally the most personally wedded to Purcell’s legacy. Almost instinctively, he moves to deflect controversy, as if he thinks he’s being tricked. Asked if he worries about a power vacuum when Purcell leaves office, presumably taking his finance director with him, he says no. “I think that we could make it a concern, but the reality of it is there have been different management styles in each administration,” says Gentry. “I just don’t believe that that problem or that perceived problem is as real as people say it’s going to be. I think if it were real it would probably occur with every administration.”
The vice mayor continues on his tightrope. “There are always concerns with every administrative change that there will be some letdowns and some voids…. That’s why you have a transition team and a procedure to shore that up before you take office. I don’t see Purcell or his administration’s management style being any more of a challenge to the new administration than anyone else.”
Nonetheless, it promises to be a signature issue of the upcoming mayor’s race. But as some point out, beneath Dozier’s rhetoric of soliciting input from all segments of the community and Clement’s talk of tourism, jobs and “saving our downtown area” lie some pretty loud messages to the business community. Vote for us, and you’ll have more power than you do now.
Rick Bernhardt, director of Metro’s Planning Department, takes issue with the notion that the bizpigs are being unfairly shut out of the governing process. “Let’s talk about that,” he says with a hint of attitude. “The question is, does business have a seat at the table or does business have the only seat at the table? I think the table has been enlarged a bit under Bill Purcell…. I think you need everybody at the table, and that’s kind of what the mayor has been saying.
“He’s asked for professionalism,” Bernhardt continues. “I’m a professional manager, and I find that hard to argue against. If the alternative is patronage, and who has the most clout, and who can yell the loudest—well that’s not to me the way to run a government.”
It’s certainly Nashville’s past, but will it be the future, too?
Every politician carries a mental file of anecdotes to get their points across. Here is Bill Purcell’s 15-second parable on patronage politics. Soon after he was elected mayor, someone from the Public Works Department came to him and told him that when it snows, city snowplows generally start clearing streets at the mayor’s house and proceed from there. Would he like that to continue? “I said, ‘No—you should start where the roads need clearing,’ ” Purcell recalls. “It didn’t make any sense to me.” Street paving, sidewalks, snowplows—pretty much everything Public Works gets its hands on has a long history of patronage. Across the board, Purcell developed systems and plans to replace who-you-know politics. He also left a lot of politicians without roads and sidewalks to bestow upon their constituents, and no shortage of wealthy business elites waiting their turn like everyone else.
He may have inadvertently made good government the target. Will a Dozier or a Clement or a Gentry, likeable guys courting the traditional power bases Purcell has ignored, revive patronage politics? Wittingly or otherwise, will the good-ol’-boy system ride again?
Clement, for one, says no, and drives his point home with a comic litany of clichés. “Nashville has changed. Nashville is cosmopolitan. Nashville is a cultural center. We’re not going back, we’re going to go forward. People don’t want to go back to business as usual and the status quo. We’re a dynamic city, and we’re on the move. We’re known all over the world…. I can bring Nashville to the world and the world to Nashville, and build those bridges.” Does this machine have an off switch? And isn’t Clement the status quo?
Say what you will about Purcell, but he’s smart. He’d sooner defeat you with reasoned arguments than tired political slogans. And he’s worked tirelessly—not satisfied with merely running city government, Purcell has become city government. Yeah, he’s anal. Sure, he’s condescending. He’s got his smug moments, and let’s not forget his legendary passive aggression. In the end, he may be a sonofabitch (aren’t they all?), but he’s our sonofabitch, dammit, and his priorities for the city sure haven’t led it astray. Given the current political options, there are worse things out there than a smart guy who’s hard to deal with. Like a dumb guy who’s easy to control.