Candidate Building 

Nashville bizpigs want to be a political force—and claim they’re not one already

Nashville bizpigs want to be a political force—and claim they’re not one already

To hear Charles Fentress tell it, the most persecuted minority in Nashville these days is the business community. The good-natured 72-year-old former Metro Council member doesn’t seem bitter about the way the city’s been run for the past few years. He just thinks business interests are underrepresented in the local decision-making process. That’s why, in 1999, a group of local commerce and industry captains—including several veteran Chamber of Commerce board members—came together to form the Nashville Business Coalition, a political action committee whose goal is to recruit, support and fund business-friendly candidates for local elections.

Fentress suggests it was necessary to mobilize business bucks because Mayor Bill Purcell and the Metro Council haven’t been dancing enough for the business community. “I think Mr. Purcell ran on a promise of trying to get back to the people, a little different style than [former Mayor Phil] Bredesen’s,” says Fentress, adding vaguely, “I think he’s done a lot of things a lot of people like.” But then, Fentress rattles off a laundry list of complaints. “I’ve heard from some folks in the business community that he hasn’t created many jobs; there’s a lot of talk about downtown not being as vibrant as it once was. I don’t eat out much, but I hear there aren’t many restaurants downtown these days, and of course the roads are in disrepair. And the building community feels that Metro planning has changed in a way that brings more red tape into the process....”

No, it’s not like Nashville’s good ol’ days, when business had a bigger seat at the table. “If you went back 50 years ago, you would have found more business people on the council than you do now,” says Dan Haskell, a coalition board member and local attorney. He contends that business leaders back then were more likely to give themselves or their employees time off to serve as public officials.

Chris Ferrell, however, manages to juggle the demands of public office and those of a small business simultaneously. He is the 33-year-old at-large Metro Council member who ran an unsuccessful campaign last year for vice mayor. Ferrell lost in a runoff election to Howard Gentry, the candidate most generously supported—to the tune of at least $4,250—by the Nashville Business Coalition. And Ferrell, for one, thinks that the group is deeply rooted in the past. “I think you’re dealing with an old way of seeing business vs. a new way of seeing it,” he says. “In the past, people said that generous government incentives and low wages were the only way to make money. Today things are different. As a small businessman, I want an educated work force, people who are here in Nashville because they care about quality-of-life issues. I don’t hear the Nashville Business Coalition advocating those things at all.”

Fentress disagrees. Among the issues on which the coalition bases its endorsements are “incentives to make Nashville competitive with other cities,” though Fentress insists Nashville doesn’t have to give away too much. The group also seeks candidates with a business background “who will scrutinize tax increases.”

The coalition’s 2003 candidate questionnaire asks all candidates for local elections to weigh in (by checking “Support,” “Do Not Support” or “Undecided”) on a host of local issues. Among them is the local living wage, a proposal from two years ago that the business community all but characterized as socialist in nature. The coalition used Ferrell’s support for this failed legislative initiative to pump up his opponent Howard Gentry’s vice mayoral campaign last year.

The coalition also asks candidates about tax breaks to attract corporations, tax increases for a variety of causes and even about integrating “foreign-born workers residing in the Metro area into the workforce,” which seems like code for improving business access to cheap immigrant labor. More litmus tests include whether candidates plan to accept union contributions (service employees and the teachers’ union get special mentions) and whether they support privatizing government services.

A candidate who successfully navigates this questionnaire—which is reportedly less loaded, aggressive and invasive than those of some other civic groups—moves on to an interview with at least two members of the coalition’s board. After that, the full board votes on endorsements, and the checks are mailed.

No word yet on how big those checks will be, as the latest financial disclosures aren’t yet due. And Fentress is uncharacteristically tight-lipped: “We’re doing pretty well” is all he’ll say with regard to the group’s $100,000 fundraising goal. Its most recent financial disclosure lists gifts—most of which range from $250 to $1000—from a few dozen wealthy Nashville businessmen, as well as political action committees representing local biggies HCA and Gaylord, along with some banks, law firms and the like.

In the meantime, the Nashville Business Coalition will continue to put the business community’s money where its mouth is. The only problem is, there are many different mouths in the business community. “The coalition represents a narrow slice of business interests,” Ferrell says. “I don’t believe they represent my business at all.”

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