Barely six weeks ago, the heads of eight of Nashville's most influential commissions — including the Board of Education and the Convention Center Authority — received a terse 126-word form letter from Mayor Karl Dean. With swift economy, he requested that they voluntarily adopt the city's 2009 law banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"The public sector has a responsibility to show leadership on significant public issues such as the one embraced by this ordinance," he wrote, concluding that he'd prefer "prompt attention" were paid to the matter. Dean attached a copy of the 2009 law. At least half of the eight adopted identical policies post haste. One already had such a policy, and the others will consider doing so at future public meetings.
It was a quiet push that got results. Dean's admirers say it's typical of his managerial style: lead by example, expect others to follow. But with a crucial nondiscrimination bill coming to the fore soon — and conservative foes strategizing in secret how to kill it — the voice that's conspicuously absent on the matter is the mayor's.
Some history is in order. Before his letter, Dean had been silent about the controversy raging three miles south of the Courthouse at Belmont University. That's where women's soccer coach Lisa Howe was forced out of her job on Dec. 2, a week or so after announcing to her players that she and her female partner are expecting a child. The issue raised essential questions about the city's identity — are we progressive? fundamentalist? — and a furious public demanded answers few city or university officials seemed willing to provide.
After two weeks of stonewalling from the Christian university, Metro Councilmen Mike Jameson and Jamie Hollin proposed a bill that would do more than slap the university's wrist for supposed anti-gay discrimination. It would rescind the city's contract with Belmont for use of Rose Park, a hub of school athletics.
The same day they proposed the bill, Dean issued his letter. At that point, the two councilmen dropped their Belmont-specific bill in favor of one with a wider reach. Along with Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, they filed an ordinance several weeks ago that would add protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination clause of the city's procurement policies. If anyone could be counted on to support it, they say, it's Dean, who has championed racial and gender diversity since his election.
Yet the bill has drawn much public comment — except from the city's ostensible leader.
If the convention-center debate showed a Dean who was increasingly comfortable with his leadership position, critics say this latest challenge has him looking once again timid and uncertain. What little Dean has said leaves him with a foot in each camp, not a stance.
The city's latest test of its progressive mettle went public during last Tuesday's council meeting, where some 1,000 people came to watch the 40 members debate the future of the fairgrounds. At the same hearing, conservative Councilman Robert Duvall pulled the nondiscrimination bill — officially called the Contract Accountability Nondiscrimination Ordinance, or CANDO — for a rare vote on first reading.
The purpose was clear: Duvall wanted to see whether his fellow elected officials would have the nerve to take a philosophical position on the matter. It passed easily, but that may say as much about council members' respect for process as it does about their social mores.
A few hard-right council members are not the bill's most formidable enemies, though. On the morning of Jan. 12, about 40 local business people, members of Christian organizations and two Republican representatives got together for a breakfast meeting at the LifeWay Building. Their purpose was to discuss, as organizer William Morgan (president of John Bouchard & Sons Co.) wrote in an email, "the wide-reaching impact of this ordinance, what can be done to defeat it, and the next item on the homosexual agenda if this passes (which is to require all businesses domiciled in Davidson County to adopt these same policies)."
The result of the meeting — after a lot of anti-gay bluster and pomp, according to one attendee — was a twofold strategy: If the morality play about the impending march of the "homosexual agenda" proves ineffective (with some there acknowledging it already had), try tapping into pro-business sentiments that guard against over-regulation.
On his way out the door, Councilman and state Rep. Jim Gotto parroted that line of thinking to a City Paper reporter (who was barred from the room). The other elected official on hand, state Rep. Glen Casada, was expected to file a bill this week that would keep cities from requiring that their contractors adopt their own nondiscrimination policies.
Withered though it may seem, this approach has gained a foothold with two of the city's most influential entities: the mayor and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Aside from his letter, Mayor Dean's only public comment on the new bill was in December —an abrupt 180 from the message he sent the commissions.
"In general, the less regulation we do of businesses, the better," Dean told The City Paper's Joey Garrison, in his last public words on the matter to date. "My general reaction is not for the public sector to immediately begin regulating the private sector. I look at regulating the private sector very, very cautiously."
Yet sources tell the Scene the mayor and the chamber remain at odds over the measure. Both denied such a rift exists. Stephanie Coleman, the chamber's spokeswoman, says the group is polling its member businesses to gauge what position, if any, it will take. And a staffer at the mayor's office said last week that the issue hasn't been discussed there since the City Paper interview in December.
The bill's co-sponsors both said last week they would defer it at the next meeting, adding that the break would be brief. Hollin says he wants to meet with the chamber in a "formal setting" to work out details of the bill and answer questions. As for the argument about over-regulating businesses, he says it's bunk.
"From the chatter I hear, absolutely [it's about gay rights]," Hollin says. "They're going to try to frame the debate as a business issue, but that's a head fake. They're calling it the 'homosexual agenda.' "
In Nashville, that agenda, so to speak, dates back most infamously to 2003, when the bill to extend the same protections to all of Davidson County failed by one tie-breaking vote. The bill, sponsored by former Councilman Chris Ferrell, now CEO of Scene parent company SouthComm, brought all manner of drama both private and public. That included a council request for a legal opinion on the bill's constitutionality from Metro's then-director of law.
"While municipalities cannot adopt ordinances which infringe the spirit of state law or are repugnant to the general policy of the state, they can adopt ordinances that go beyond the state and require more," the city's legal director responded in affirmation. His name? Karl Dean.
At the time, at least 92 city and county governments across the U.S. had adopted such protections. That figure has jumped to 136, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Some of Nashville's largest corporate citizens already abide by private practices that are similar to Metro's, including AT&T and Corrections Corp. of America. CCA is one of Metro's largest contractors; in 2010, the city budget dealt the company $16.5 million, with its contract calling for more than $80 million over five years.
For Dean, a city executive with an avowed interest in pleasing private business and its boosters, meddling in a university's employment matters would be about as popular as renaming the Courthouse in honor of Vince Young. Even adversaries acknowledge him as a social progressive who is caught in a difficult position with the city's more regressive business elite.
"I think I know where his heart lies, and I get not wanting to piss off the chamber, but for God's sake," Jameson says. "The guy's got a paper trail that tells you exactly where he should be on this."
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