Mike Stewart and Rob Briley live just a few blocks away from each other in East Nashville. They’re both well-educated, slightly yuppified attorneys with an interest in public education. Each is in his early 30s; each has a wife who is a successful young professional. In 1996, in fact, Rob Briley’s wife, Pier, served as campaign manager and treasurer in Stewart’s unsuccessful bid for the state Legislature.
Now the two neighbors are political opponents. Both plan to run in the August Democratic primary for the 52nd House District seat in the state Legislature, the seat now held by former Nashville Mayor Bill Boner.
Boner, meanwhile, plans to exchange his legislative seat for the local register of deeds job. The Democratic primary for the register of deeds election is May 5, and Boner says if he wins that primary, he won’t seek reelection to his seat in the General Assembly.
When the former mayor came out of political exile two years ago, he reemerged as representative for the state legislative district that includes his old East Nashville neighborhood. Boner had plentiful competition in that Democratic primary, but the level of opposition worked in his favor.
While his competitors were busy splitting the anti-Boner vote among themselves, Boner drew support from an established, loyal following who forgave his past reputation for philandering and accepted the explanation that he was a born-again Christian. He got just over 2,600 votes in that race, beating out Stewart, who got 2,080 votes.
Once again, a legion of opponents has lined up to run against Boner in the register of deeds race, leaving him in a competitive position to win the Democratic primary in early May.
While Boner has never lost a political race, he says he has never predicted victory and doesn’t plan to start doing so now. He notes there are several strong contenders among the nine Democrats vying for the register of deeds position. In particular, he notes retired Metro Water Services employee Parker Toler and Bill Garrett, son of former Metro Trustee Bill Garrett.
Who is thy neighbor?
Mike Stewart, an attorney at the law firm Waller, Lansden, Dortch & Davis, lost the 1996 race to Boner, but he scored high marks as an emerging political figure. He managed to maintain relative calm in the face of strong criticism from another anti-Boner contender, Citizen Action lobbyist Brian McGuire. McGuire sent out mailings criticizing Stewart as a mouthpiece for a law firm representing big business and asked the question, “What is Mike Stewart hiding?” Stewart defended himself with his own mailing. He also pointed out that he personally didn’t represent the big business to which McGuire referred.
The 1996 election is best characterized as a poorly coordinated effort by progressives to scuttle Boner’s plans for a political resurrection. It simply didn’t work, largely because there was no consensus within the anti-Boner camp as to who should run against the former mayor. And the fact remains that Boner happens to be an incredibly nice guy, a public figure who goes out of his way to help people.
Still, coming off the defeat, Stewart was identified by his supporters, and even by some disinterested observers, as a contender who was likely to make a return appearance in the political arena.
Now Stewart, a University of Tennessee law school graduate and a Desert Storm veteran, has resurfaced, but his reemergence is surrounded by some rather curious circumstances. East Nashville is known for its working-class constituency and for its politically active, community-oriented, intensely involved citizenry. At times, East Nashvillians can be so active that even groups with complementary ideologies fight among themselves. It isn’t unusual for East Nashville neighborhood groups to splinter or for once-popular Metro Council members to fail at reelection time. But even in East Nashville, Rob Briley’s candidacy against Stewart, whom he formerly supported, has attracted significant attention.
Briley, the grandson of the late Beverly Briley, who served as Nashville mayor from 1963 to 1975, says his reasons for entering the legislative race aren’t personal. He says he and Stewart aren’t lifelong friends, by any means, even if he did work for Stewart in the 1996 campaign.
In fact, Briley, 31, says he and his wife “did a lot more than just support Mike last time. I worked my fingers to the bone for him. But before that time, we had never met.”
Mark Pickrell, a local attorney and Stewart’s campaign manager, says he is a little mystified about Briley’s candidacy but agrees that “politics isn’t personal” and that “Briley has as much right as anyone else to run.” Pickrell says the two candidates have talked, at least briefly, about the race.
Briley, a Vanderbilt University law school graduate who clerks for Circuit Court Judge Tom Brothers, has not formally announced his candidacy. Neither has he started raising money. Still, Briley, who plans to leave Brothers’ office, readily points out a number of “basic differences” between him and his neighbor.
Unlike Stewart, who isn’t from Nashville, Briley is a Nashville native whose family has a history of public service. In addition to his grandfather, who served 12 years as Metro mayor, Briley says two of his distant uncles served as sheriffs here.
“East Nashville is kind of a unique place,” Briley says. “I just don’t think Mike has the soul of an East Nashvillian.”
Briley has also taken up the mantra of former candidate Brian McGuire, saying Stewart’s work for a big business-leaning law firm “creates the opportunity for conflicts of interest to arise” in the Legislature. Waller Lansden’s clients have included Bridgestone/Firestone, Tennessee Eastman Chemical, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., and the Tennessee Oilers, Briley says, adding, “The bottom line is you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
“Waller Lansden has a number of registered lobbyists. Is it going to be easier for them to go in and talk with Mike than it would be for just regular people?”
Both Stewart and Briley look like picture-perfect all-Americans. Both are interested in worthwhile, important issues such as education. Stewart is interested in increasing the presence of police officers in his community, while Briley emphasizes the important relationship between state and Metro government.
Their similarities are numerous, but their differences may be harder to define. Because of that state of affairs, if Boner wins the Democratic primary for register of deeds, he may still play an important role in the House district race.
There’s a chance Boner might lose the register of deeds primary, and in that case he’ll run for reelection, with all the advantages of incumbency. But if he steps aside, his support could help any candidate for the 52nd District. For now, Boner says he probably won’t get involved in that race because he has his own campaign to worry about.
But it’s worth remembering that, after Boner beat Stewart in the 1996 primary, Stewart offered Boner little or no help, even though Boner still had to face Republican Roy Dale in a general election. While Brian McGuire and Stewart’s campaign manager, Pier Briley, both signed letters of support for Boner after the primary, Stewart did not. “We don’t need sore losers coming out of the primary,” Briley says. “I think that’s a problem.”
Briley says he’s talked with Boner about the race. “Anybody who’s running for elected office who doesn’t go see the current incumbent is a fool,” he says, adding that he hasn’t asked forand Boner hasn’t pledgedsupport for his candidacy.
But, Briley says, “I think he believes that I would be a person that he would trust to turn over the 52nd District to.”
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