It’s Friday at New Masters Barber Shop and Car Wash, and more than a dozen men are lounging in the shop’s cool interior, getting trimmed and primped for the weekend. They gossip and watch the local news on one of many flat-screen TVs while a couple of younger guys play football on one of five or six Xbox stations.
On the wall above Lamont Foster’scutting station are the visages of Tupac, Aaliyah and Left Eye smiling down on him as he pauses, straight razor in hand, above a customer’s head. “I think that Mrs. Gilmore is going to win,” he says of District 1 Metro Council member Brenda Gilmore, who is term-limited as of next year and is bullying for a fight in the Aug. 3 election for state Rep. Edith Langster’s seat. Foster is owner of New Masters, and he may be a bit biased. “I cut her hair,” he says matter-of-factly of Gilmore before resuming work with his razor.
This would explain the Nashville political season’s version of yard art out front: a parked pickup truck bearing two large “Gilmore for State Representative” signs.
Robert, a young clipper artist who doesn’t wish to provide his last name, says “Gilmore is the most visible in the neighborhood.” He wears blinding bling in the form of two large diamond-like studs embedded in one of his front teeth and also offers an endorsement for Sen. Thelma Harper, who represents the sweeping District 19 that covers parts of North Nashville and runs nearly the entire width of Davidson County.
“She’s been around for a long time. I grew up with her,” he says of the incumbent senator, throwing his arms wide.
In this community (home of TSU, Hadley Park, Hair World and Swett’s, among many other landmarks), the names, images and campaign literature of the three political matriarchs—Gilmore, Langster and Harper—are everywhere. Because there’s no Republican challenger in either race, this primary election will decide the leadership of the districts that encompass large blocks of black voters north of downtown. Although there are men running in this election, asking around about them produces little more than dismissive (dare we say, flaccid) shrugs.
In addition to a credible and feisty challenge from the council’s Gilmore, 11-year legislative veteran Edith Langster is faced with the limp candidacy of Nashville architect Melvin Gill, a perennial contender whose second-quarter financial disclosure shows only $400 in contributions. “The sort of thing that they have going for them is that they are both members of different sororities,” Gill says of his opponents. “So not only is it a female thing, it’s a sorority thing, and I’m hoping that that will help me.”
Here’s to hoping.
As for Harper, her challenger is Jesse Frank Tucker, husband of at-large Metro Council member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker (what’s with the middle names?) and widely believed to be his wife’s put-up candidate. When asked what prompted Tucker the groom to run for office, the first words out of his mouth are, “Well, you know that my wife is in the city council….”
The significant backdrop of these races is that incumbents Harper and Langster are notoriously ornery with one another, each viewing the other as a threat to their North Nashville preeminence. In that way, they’ve become fist-wielding caricatures of themselves. Worse, this antagonism works against them, and their districts, at the Capitol. That Jesse Tucker has entered the quarrelsome fray is perhaps an indication that his wife is making the animus three-way and hatching a play for political dominance too.
In fact, such a state of affairs is one reason Gilmore decided to run. “Squabbling” within the Davidson County delegation, she says, makes the county’s 14 legislators in the state House and Senate collectively ineffective. “I want to work in cooperation and as a partner with all of the Nashville delegates,” says Gilmore, who has drawn fire in recent months from opponents of developer Jeff Zeitlin’s Bells Landing proposal in the rural part of her Metro Council district. They think that she’s been a shill for the New Urbanist proposal. (Zeitlin, in fact, has contributed $1,000 to Gilmore’s legislative campaign.)
Langster has served in the House since 1995 and helped pass this year’s $21.6 billion state budget with no new taxes and a one-time $350 bonus for state workers. Gilmore says that it wasn’t nearly enough bacon, noting that when Gov. Bredesen asked legislators for requests on how to spend $44 million in discretionary state money, Langster asked for only a paltry sum for the district. Hey representative, where’s the swine?
Langster counters that requests for local initiatives weren’t applicable. “I was told by the budget chair, the speaker of the house and the majority leader that no local initiatives would be funded.”
Instead, Langster says, she managed to chisel out funding for a landfill-related environmental impact study to be carried out by Tennessee State University and Middle Tennessee State University.
While Gilmore has been a vocal critic of the incumbent’s record, Langster has been out personally loading up vans in her district and carting constituents to early voting polls. But, alas, Gilmore says, “Unfortunately, I don’t get asked about a lot of issues. I think it’s mostly a personal type campaign.”
Hair World is housed in a small, windowless, perfectly square building on Clarksville Pike. Inside this building you will in fact find a world of hair. It hangs in bags or sits in colorful, lifeless clumps on shelves. Straight, braided, curly. It’s all there.
There are also hair products. Products to make hair straight and products to make hair curl. Tonics like Dr. Miracle’s “Feel It” Formula, Free Tress Weave Lotion and something called the Black Silk Therapeutic System, which is advertised as “Flame Retardant!”
In front of the store are signs for both Sen. Harper and her challenger, Jesse Tucker. A quick poll of those shopping inside—both male and female—gives Harper a distinct advantage. Again, not a surprise for anyone who’s spent time in the north side of town lately.
The thrust of Tucker’s campaign has been to attack Harper as an absentee senator who isn’t in tune with her constituents. “I hear from a lot of constituents that she won’t return calls,” says Tucker, who worked for state government for three decades. He adds that he routinely fields calls from his wife’s constituents seeking help with state-related questions when they can’t reach Harper. “The least a person can do is return a phone call.” (We should note that it took Tucker a week to return repeated phone calls for this story.)
The senator’s campaign is headquartered in a stout little brick house off of Jefferson Street. Stuck in the neatly trimmed front lawn are a dozen campaign signs. It gives the block a festive air, as if the campaign to reelect Sen. Harper is sponsoring Christmas in July.
Inside, Harper dismisses her opponent’s claims that she has been anything but attentive to the voters of the 19th District. “I hold community meetings on big issues,” she says as she lowers the volume on a daytime soap opera. She specifically cites the period when the state was considering the creation of a state lottery. “The lines were out the door” for those meetings, she says.
At this point in the interview, the soap opera heats up. A buffed and shirtless man is in bed, cavorting with an enhanced blonde woman.
“See, this is the problem,” she says. “What young people see is folk kissing and lying in bed all day. You got to get up and go to work.”