When Metro Council members Megan Barry and Ronnie Steine took up the 2009 effort to extend workplace protections to GLBT city employees, they spent some six months hustling behind the scenes to create a favorable political environment for introducing the bill. Like cautious politicians for time immemorial, they figured a broad coalition working outside the purview of media or either-side extremists would counteract the inevitable culture-war rhetoric.
In the end, they were right. The bill passed 24-15, although what Nashville got — protections only for government workers — stands far short of the norm among such world-class metropolises as Peoria, Ill.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Kalamazoo, Mich. They're among the 133 other cities and counties already offering protections for all citizens, regardless of their employer.
There is, however, another way to enact reform: Seize on a controversy that illuminates the shortsightedness of the current law to make it stronger, and don't shut up until you get there. That's the approach Councilmen Mike Jameson and Jamie Hollin have taken with a bill that would require Metro contractors to carry a nondiscrimination policy identical to the city's, if they want to pocket taxpayer money.
The legislation, which came in response to Belmont University's controversial parting with women's soccer coach Lisa Howe after she came out to her team, has stirred a new confrontation between the bill's sponsors and otherwise like-minded council members. The tussle embodies a more serious fracture among council progressives who might vote for the legislation in the end, but have stark conflicts about how to get it there.
Hollin and Jameson, both outspoken and in the twilight of their council stints, have clearly tweaked the opposition. The ultraconservative Family Action Council of Tennessee already held one secret meeting with some 40 local businesspeople and two elected officials to spitball ways to defeat the marching "homosexual agenda" (as one organizer put it in an email to supporters). And the organization has twisted itself into a bunch, cloaking its own agenda in a semi-coherent "bad for business" argument.
That hasn't stopped more than 40 local businesses (and counting) from formally endorsing the bill. But within the council, a rift has widened between pragmatists and progressives over Jameson and Hollin's aggressive push. At-large Councilman Steine, a veteran of the 2009 campaign, says the pair has taken a cavalier approach.
"The sponsors, prior to filing this, did not take the time to consult with those that had been in leadership of the 2009 effort and to my knowledge were not in consultation or collaboration with the leading proponent groups in the city on the issue," says Steine. Nonetheless, he tells the Scene he plans to vote for the bill on second reading, which could come as early as Feb. 15.
It's certainly true that Hollin and Jameson didn't talk to Mayor Karl Dean beforehand, his office confirmed. They didn't ask the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which hasn't offered a position on the issue despite numerous press inquiries. They didn't consult Steine or Barry, viewed as the parents of the late nondiscrimination push in Nashville. Nor did they discuss their plans with leaders of the Tennessee Equality Project, the leading GLBT rights group.
Steine says this lack of cohesion — which might explain Dean's relative silence thus far — could undermine the bill in a council that might kill it (per his count) by a couple votes.
"On issues like this, when there is not preparation and consultation and collaborations formed, it lessens the chances for success," he says — adding that if the council defeats the bill, it will likely be seen as a failure of conscience when it's more accurately a political collapse.
It's not failure of conscience the bill's active advocates fear; it's failure of nerve. Hollin says slogging through a long, quiet negotiation would've blown the lead Belmont unwittingly gave the council with an embarrassing two months of near silence. That finally ended last week, when the school's board of trustees added sexual orientation to Belmont's nondiscrimination policy. Waiting could also give an opening to state Rep. Glen Casada, who has said he's working on a bill that would bar municipalities from enacting their own nondiscrimination policies.
Hollin says he's confident the bill will pass both second and third readings, which are expected soon. He says Steine, who had planned to introduce his own extension of the nondiscrimination law later this year, is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy for political reasons.
"He is perhaps intentionally sending a signal that the effort lacks coordination, which is false, to those on-the-fence council members that it's OK to vote no," Hollin says.
Jameson is more circumspect.
"I know it sounds Pollyannaish, but my preference would be that we each weigh our own consciences and vote accordingly," he says. "I am told that by the slimmest of margins, we have the votes for passage. I'm delighted to hear that, but I don't need to hear that 20 other council members are supportive to find my own moral compass."
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