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Hinote's professional political career began in the 1980s in the office of former Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton, when he was just 22. It's how he met Riebeling, and eventually Dean, and they were formative years — for better and worse, depending on whom you ask.
Fulton was very much an old-style politician, and four different sources say Hinote has some of the "you're with us or you're against us" approach they see as a vestige of that era. But just as many say Hinote's meticulous attention to the smallest civic detail is no less a remnant of the Fulton years.
The story goes that Fulton would pick Hinote up at 5 in the morning, and make him drive the mayor around while he dictated things that needed fixing around the city into a tape recorder. A stop sign that needed to be replaced. A pothole that needed to be filled. When they got to the office, Fulton would put the recorder on his secretary's desk, and she would dispatch his findings to various department heads.
From Fulton's office, Hinote left for more political activity — including working on a governor's race in Florida — as well as time at Fulton's consulting firm. He spent a couple of years in the early '90s working overseas for an investment fund started by George Soros and Robert Maxwell, among others, aimed at investing in Eastern Europe as the Soviet bloc collapsed. Hinote was in Berlin when the wall came down, and has two framed pieces of it hanging above his desk at the courthouse.
He returned to the States, where he did his first brief stint as chief of staff for Rep. Jim Cooper, then representing Tennessee's 4th Congressional District. After completing business school at Vanderbilt University, he spent the rest of the '90s running a company that built school buildings.
When Nashville's 5th Congressional District came open, Cooper — who had previously lost a run for the U.S. Senate — recruited him again. Hinote ran the campaign and served as Cooper's chief of staff until Dean came calling.
Not surprisingly, Cooper speaks highly of the man who serves as godfather to one of his children.
"No one's more capable," Cooper tells the Scene by phone from Washington. "No one's more reliable. No one's more trustworthy. And yet nobody's more humble. The idea that you're doing a profile on the lowest-profile guy in government is kind of amazing."
In the hyperpolitical fishbowl that is the nation's capital, Cooper says there were "a lot of brush fires to put out every day." Hinote, he says, has a gift for "seeing which ones could be a major blaze. Which ones could burn themselves out. Which ones are just little sparks that really aren't going to go anywhere."
Cooper describes his two-time right-hand man as invaluable during a particularly trying period under the Clinton administration, when he came up against the woman who many believe could be the next president.
"I'm a conservative Democrat, as you know," he says with a laugh. "And we tend to get a lot of grief from the left wing. And I got a particular amount of grief from Hillary Clinton back in those days, because I had a more conservative health care plan. Greg was an essential ally in that fight. Because to have the first lady's wrath coming behind you — those were tough days."
In an interview with the Scene, Mayor Karl Dean says Hinote's name came up frequently in conversations about the deputy mayor position as he prepared to take office. That led to what Cooper calls "nothing short of a raid on my prime staffer." The job — which was created by Dean's predecessor, former Mayor Bill Purcell, and filled by Purcell's canny deputy Bill Phillips — is less defined than that of, say, Metro finance director. Undoubtedly, that has contributed to curiosity about just what it is that Hinote does.
"The way I see his role is he's in many ways an extension of myself," Dean tells the Scene. "He's somebody whose job I think is to make sure that the things that we want to get done, get done."
Hinote stays in contact with the various department heads, although they meet with the mayor directly as well. Asked how the two interact and how much autonomy Hinote operates with, Dean says he doesn't micromanage his deputy's work with various departments. Nevertheless, he says, Hinote reports back to him.
When it comes to the administration's goals and initiatives, Dean says he doesn't give Hinote specific assignments. But they "discuss what we want to get done, and he goes about doing it."
Asked about the notion that Hinote acts as the mayor's muscle, Dean deflects that term from the mob's vocabulary.
"I don't know if I would characterize it as muscle," he says, "but I would certainly say that part of his job, and part of what I do, is you have to negotiate, you have to persuade, you have to make your case. And so he's certainly involved in that."
Sources within the administration and without say you can't talk about Hinote without talking about Riebeling. The two are longtime friends who frequently work in tandem. Both have also attracted, and deflected, speculation as possible mayoral candidates. Riebeling tells the Scene he's "not interested in running for anything at this point in time." Hinote has said he won't be a candidate, and sources close to him say the same.
When it comes to wrangling the council, Marty Szeigis, a special assistant in the mayor's office, operates as a primary liaison between the executive and legislative branch. But if it involves an item high up on the priorities list — for the mayor's office or a council member — the discussion involves either Riebeling or Hinote, if not both.
One criticism of Hinote — which doubles as a criticism of local media — is that he has played a major role in running the city for six years, and done so mostly in the dark. As one source says, "He has achieved a maximum level of involvement with a minimum level of accountability."
For his part, Dean, well aware of his own accountability to citizens, rejects that idea in a tone that acts as punctuation.
"He's got accountability," Dean says. "He's accountable to me."
When considering Hinote as the mayor's mover and shaker, two events stand out, for good and ill. One is the 2010 flood, the oft-cited "defining moment" of the Dean administration. Dean was roundly hailed for his leadership as the water rose and receded in May 2010, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone saying Hinote doesn't deserve the same.
"It was 25 of every 24-hour day during that time period that Greg was on call, side by side with the mayor, working with and supporting the extraordinary department heads from Billy Lynch to the emergency management folks, to police and fire," recalls At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine, who has known Hinote since the Fulton days.
At the time Nashville most needed hands-on, pinpoint city management, Hinote worked his top-to-bottom contacts. He functioned as the mayor's human switchboard, connecting needs and providers.
"Hinote clearly distinguished himself," Steine says. "The mayor gets tremendous kudos for his leadership during all that, and I think you can certainly make the strong case that without Hinote's work at his side, the mayor would not have been as effective as he was."
If the flood marks the Dean administration's high point to date, its biggest political failure remains the debacle over the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. It's still a sore subject in the mayor's office, and given that the property's future is still uncertain, it hasn't gone away.
One Metro insider asked rhetorically whether the Scene hadn't already profiled Hinote — referring to a 2011 cover story by Liz Garrigan that was sharply critical of the mayor's handling of the fairgrounds issue. (See "Spinout," March 17, 2011.) It described Dean's administration as "an undisciplined, disorganized machine lacking in managerial sophistication" and called the "breadth and depth of miscalculations and incompetence on their part in dealing" with the fairgrounds issue "staggering." Hinote wasn't mentioned by name, but the criticism was implicit.
In its attempt to outmaneuver the fairgrounds opposition — which was far better organized and had its save-the-speedway message more on point than the mayor's office understood — the Dean camp stumbled, coming off as flat-footed, arrogant and bullying. In such instances, critics suggest that a sort of muscle memory from Hinote's days in D.C. sometimes leads him to overreact. They say he's too quick to apply political strategizing to matters of direct involvement — playing chess, as it were, when the game is checkers.
Riebeling says he likes the administration's batting average — "We'd be in the hall of fame," he says — but concedes that on the fairgrounds they struck out swinging.
"I think I can say that all of us feel some degree of responsibility for not carrying that out the way we should have," he says. "I carry my part on it, and I'm sure Greg does as well. We underestimated perhaps some of the intensity of people's attitudes. Clearly we should have done a better job of communicating and getting it out. We didn't do a very good job on that one."
But one thing that's certain about that affair — and his role in the immediate wake of the flood, and countless other matters of civic importance that he has touched, big or small — is that you haven't read an interview with Greg Hinote talking at length about it.
Earlier this summer, Hinote did something completely out of character: He spoke on the record about his job. A video of the speech he gave at the Kiwanis Club, which went unremarked upon at the time, has been sitting on YouTube for two months, hidden in plain sight.
"I'm the guy that lives in the cave of the courthouse 12, 14, 16 hours a day, six, seven days a week and makes sure things work," he said. He came off as focused and forthright, if a little nervous.
Of everything Greg Hinote told the assembled group that day in his exceedingly rare public address, one statement above others rang unquestionably true.
"I don't do this very often," he said.
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