Harold White says he’s not a coward, but he votes like one. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t vote like one. The first-term Metro Council member wasn’t at all pleased with last year’s hotly debated gay-rights measure. Colleagues say that’s why he led an informal movement to block its sponsor, former Council member Eileen Beehan, from appointment to the traffic and parking commission.
The craven part is that White didn’t actually vote against her. Instead, he and 16 others simply abstained, leaving the Council without sufficient votes to appoint her. The move effectively denied her a chance to serve on a volunteer citizen’s committee. Beehan, publicly humiliated, left the meeting in tears.
Beehan’s rejection was a defining moment for the Metro Council, an act that will characterize it as a petty, dysfunctional body for the next three-and-a-half years. Supporters of Beehan and the bill were stunned. Council members are used to debates and ideological differences, but this was something more. This was a vicious political payback, a sideswipe directed against a hard-working former colleague with a record of public service.
To make the maneuver even crummier, the revenge exacted by the Council’s backstabbers wasn’t even sweet, let alone just. For one thing, the bill’s foes carried the day: beating up Beehan all over again is just bullying. For another, it’s not as if traffic and parking has jack to do with issues of sexual orientation. Indeed, “sexy” is the last word anybody would apply to the humdrum commission. Instead of dealing a sucker punch to Beehan, her opponents denied her many hours of thankless unpaid gruntwork.
What stings, though, is the insult and the venal pettiness of the retribution.
“I’m still in disbelief,” says Council member Adam Dread, who, uncharacteristically, was at a loss for words. “I see no correlation between the job she could do on the traffic and parking commission and any legislation she might have sponsored in the past. The city loses out. We had an overqualified city servant willing to volunteer her time to a very boring job.”
Some Council members who opposed Beehan’s nomination, such as Buck Dozier, are blatant pawns of local Church of Christ ministers. Others should know better. Goodlettsville Council member Rip Ryman served as a legislative liaison under Mayor Phil Bredesen and has worked as a registered lobbyist. Of all people, he should know that any legislative body must have some degree of collegiality to function smoothly. And yet Ryman contributed to the ugly public rift, abstaining right along with Beehan’s opponents last Tuesday.
Ryman at least admitted that he knuckled under to the religious right: “A couple of preachers called me.” That’s pretty much all he had to say. Like White, Ryman is apparently a lot more comfortable saying and doing nothing.
Yet Council member David Briley says that the opposition to Beehan wasn’t driven only by her support of last year’s bill. Some members wanted to flaunt their independence from the mayor, he explained.
“This is an indication that the mayor’s office is going to have a lot more trouble with this council than others,” said Briley, whose support of last year’s measure nearly cost him a second term. “The last council could have scrutinized things a little better, but this kind of juvenile retribution won’t help that.”
Mayor Bill Purcell’s office deserves no small amount of blame for the fiasco. Council members say that Purcell’s legislative liaison, Jane Alvis, failed to aggressively lobby on Beehan’s behalf. (Alvis could not be contacted by press time.) The thinking is that while Alvis knew White would oppose Beehan, she had no idea his push to reject her had so much backing. Beehan herself says as much.
“I said to the mayor’s office Tuesday morning to let me know; we don’t have to do this,” Beehan says. “But they were sure they had the votes.”
In addition, Ryman says the mayor’s office knew for at least a week that White was planning to lead a group opposing Beehan’s appointment. But when Ryman talked to the mayor’s office about a separate matter, they never asked him whether he’d vote for Beehan.
Asked to explain why he didn’t vote, White refused comment, just as he did to The Tennessean. Then the question was put to him directly: Wasn’t this maneuver downright cowardly? “It wasn’t cowardly,” he said, without really seeming to believe his own words. “I choose to abstain from voting.”
When asked how it felt to be blasted in editorials by both The Tennessean and the City Paper, two publications that rarely say anything bad about anyone, White replied, “Well, I’ve received a lot more calls pro than con.”
East Nashville Metro Council member Mike Jameson, who supported Beehan, says that he received an early primer on serving in the city’s legislative body. “The first rule I was taught was to always take a position,” Jameson said, “and if you don’t, you’re a coward. I was told that if I didn’t vote, you weren’t serving your constituents.”
It’s good advice, but you can’t blame the Harold Whites of the Council for not taking it. That second-term Council member who offered Jameson those words of courage and wisdomwhere did he stand last Thursday? The record doesn’t show. He chose not to cast his vote. What was it James Brown said about talking loud and saying nothing?