Finding Metro 

Council elections include blockbusters and flops alike

Council elections include blockbusters and flops alike

There’s nothing Hollywood about the Metro Council except one thing: Forecasting political fortunes is a lot like handicapping a movie’s success at the box office. You can have well-informed hunches on what will do well and what will flop, but no one can really predict what will resonate with a fickle public. With that in mind, we’ve divided the at-large and a few district candidates into four categories: blockbusters, hits, disappointments and, well, “Giglis,” the new shorthand for box office disaster.

Blockbusters—Buck Dozier, Diane Neighbors and Carolyn Baldwin Tucker

This at-large trio scored resounding victories in last Thursday’s elections, all winning outright and avoiding a time consuming, expensive and unpredictable runoff campaign. What do the three have in common? Very little. Although Tucker and Dozier pull from the social conservative, Church-of-Christ side of the political fence and aren’t known for being policy wonks, Tucker is black and Dozier is about as white as your average WTN listener. Neighbors, meanwhile, is a do-gooder progressive type, who talks in detail about how Metro agencies can work to better childhood education and health care. Unlike Dozier and certainly Tucker, Neighbors believes in basic rights for gay people. Neighbors says she would have supported the defeated anti-bias measure that would have protected gay Metro employees from discrimination and, more importantly, would have marked a symbolic civil rights victory for the city’s gay community.

Tucker, an incumbent, didn’t just vote against the measure; she vilified it and the gay and lesbian community it ostensibly would have helped. At a time when gays star in popular television shows and win victories in the Supreme Court, Tucker became the poster child for the county’s latent homophobes, who saw her as a hero. There’s no other way to explain Tucker’s outright victory last week. It’s not like she offers policy reforms on codes enforcement, mass transit or infrastructure development.

A tad less regressive, Dozier told the Scene that while he plays racquetball with gays and would be happy to sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to them about their private lives “in the bedroom”—we’re guessing he hasn’t had any takers—he would have opposed the anti-bias ordinance.

But while last Thursday’s three victors don’t seem to have much in common, they’re all candidates whom people get passionate about. Outgoing at-large council member Chris Ferrell says that, to win countywide, you have to pull from different constituencies. All three candidates did that: Tucker did resoundingly well in the black precincts—where voters obviously don’t find homophobia akin to racism—and in Madison, Goodlettsville and some rural precincts where there were probably a good deal of older voters supporting a black woman for the first time in their lives. A longtime educator in the Metro public school system, Tucker also probably won many votes from teachers and administrators who want one of their own on the city’s legislative body.

Like Tucker, Dozier did well in areas known for social conservatism. But to his credit, he held his own in just about every precinct, doing particularly well in the inner city. A former at-large member himself, Dozier served as the fire chief until he departed Metro after repeated clashes with Mayor Bill Purcell. Still, even though his management skills are suspect—or perhaps because of that—Dozier is beloved among the city’s firefighters, and they typically do a good job rallying support for their candidates. Finally, Dozier is popular with older voters and also appealed to those who want a few people in the council willing to stand up to Purcell. Dozier will certainly do that.

As for Neighbors, her campaign was the breakout hit of the summer. It’s been a long time since a challenger with no council experience won outright on his or her first try. How did she do it?

“I think the key was starting 18 months ago,” she says. “I started going everywhere I could in the county and talking to everyone that I could.”

Neighbors also spent around $90,000, nearly half of which she and her husband gave to the campaign. Neighbors’ television ads also seemed effective; she came across as empathetic and practical, the kind of woman who bakes blueberry muffins for the neighborhood kids. That soft, suburban image—she actually lives in a gentrified part of East Nashville—no doubt helped her in precincts like Neely’s Bend and Lakewood, where the average voter leans far to her right.

Most of all, Neighbors did well among the liberal intelligentsia and the East Nashville crowd. There also seems to be this amorphous group of female voters who offer their unabashed support to any woman in public life, whether it’s Norma Hand or acting Police Chief Deborah Faulkner. (Notice the letters to the editor in The Tennessean and City Paper urging Purcell to make the checkered Faulkner the permanent chief. What’s driving that support?) That same group probably gravitated toward Neighbors to the detriment of incumbent David Briley, who was probably the next most liberal candidate on the ballot.

The Hits—Adam Dread, Larry Schmittou, Chris Whitson, Mike Jameson, Eric Crafton, Erik Cole

At-large candidates Adam Dread and Larry Schmittou fared better than most people expected. Dread, who won Howard Gentry’s seat last December, finished just a couple hundred votes from winning outright. Logic would dictate that he’s a safe bet to win next month, but in a runoff election where the polls will be about as crowded as David Spade’s bedroom, anything can happen. Still, Dread has developed a strong constituency in many West Nashville precincts. He just has to get those people voting again.

While fellow candidates Roy Dale and Trey Rochford invested no shortage of time and money, Schmittou made it to the runoff by coasting on his high name recognition. The founder and owner of the Nashville Sounds from 1977 to 1997, Schmittou spent countless summer evenings greeting thousands of baseball fans as they walked into Greer Stadium. That kind of goodwill lasts long after the final out.

But if Schmittou actually wants to win the runoff, he’ll have to work for it. He made it to the runoff in 1999 as well, but lost to Tucker, David Briley and Howard Gentry. A runoff election usually draws an abnormally low turn out, which can work to Schmittou’s advantage if his older, über- conservative base shows up at the polls. (He makes Tucker look like an Indigo Girl.) But he’ll have to work hard to make sure they vote for him in a month, something he failed to do four years ago.

“I did nothing during that runoff. I started plans for my new business,” he says about the bowling and amusement franchise he developed. This time around, Schmittou plans to differentiate himself from the other candidates in the race, something he does as soon as he opens his mouth.

“Pat Nolan, the political commentator, said on TV the other night that I’m the most conservative of the group. I plead guilty to that,” Schmittou tells the Scene. “People don’t like these 25 percent property tax hikes. And certainly I’m against this gay thing. I make no bones about that. I don’t agree with that lifestyle, and I don’t want gays and lesbians teaching my grandchildren. They recruit. They don’t reproduce.”

Alrighty then. Moving to the district races, attorneys Mike Jameson and Chris Whitson crafted impressive victories in Districts 6 and 23, respectively. The two are not ideological soul mates but will add some smarts to the city’s underwhelming legislative body. At 30, Erik Cole will be one of the youngest members of the Metro Council. Formerly the director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, Cole won the vacant District 7 seat formerly filled by Earl Campbell. And Cole lived in the district for less than 18 months.

“It never really was an issue,” says Cole, about his lack of deep roots in his far East Nashville district. “I went out and walked and went door to door and the things I was interested in are the same things the district was interested in.”

Meanwhile, the polarizing Eric Crafton, who opposed pro football and waffled on the Wal-Mart controversy, returns to the Metro Council after losing a reelection bid four years ago. A magna cum laude graduate from Vanderbilt, the new District 22 council member should also add some brainpower to the city’s legislative body. And like Dozier, Crafton might make life a little less predictable for the Purcell administration.

“I’m always willing to speak my mind,” Crafton says. “I don’t expect there to be any great controversies, but if I see something that doesn’t make sense, I’m not afraid to ask the tough question.”

The Disappointments—David Briley, Roy Dale, Jack Johnson

Leading up to last Thursday’s Metro Council elections, everybody seemed to have different opinions about which at-large candidates would win outright or make the runoff and which ones would flop. Except for one thing: Just about everyone, candidates included, assumed that incumbent council member David Briley would not only win outright, he’d lead the ticket and maybe even eventually turn the momentum of an impressive victory into a run for higher office. The grandson of former mayor Beverly Briley, the East Nashville council member seemed to have it all: He’s smart, understands public policy, chooses his battles wisely, plays well with others and while he leans to the left, he doesn’t rub anybody’s nose in it.

So what happened? No one really knows. His support of the anti-bias measure hurt his candidacy, a few wags suggest. But that doesn’t explain how Diane Neighbors and incumbent Adam Dread, both supporters of the failed bill, earned more votes than him. Others note that while Briley is one of the more effective members of the council, his pragmatic approach to politics doesn’t inspire the core base of support needed in a low turnout race. In fact, while Briley did well throughout the county, he didn’t have a handful of precincts where he flat-out dominated. Finally, other observers say that Briley simply didn’t work hard enough, sent out only a handful of mailings and neglected television.

Still, no one offered any of those theories before last week’s results. It could just be that in a low turnout race, the unpredictable happens.

“I wouldn’t say I was disappointed,” Briley said disappointedly. “You always want to do your absolute best, and I don’t think we did.”

Given how well Neighbors did, many political types don’t understand how at least some of her supporters obviously didn’t vote for Briley too. After all, voters can choose up to five candidates. If your typical local lefty punches Neighbors’ name first, that still leaves room for Briley and three other candidates. And for progressives at least, after Neighbors, Briley’s all you got. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” says former council member Stewart Clifton, who closely followed last week’s election. “I think a lot of people just voted for one candidate, and I think a lot of folks just thought David was going to win.”

Another disappointment was Roy Dale’s candidacy. He spent over $120,000 and worked as hard as anyone, but he seemed to lack any grassroots support. He barely made it into the runoff and, in fact, didn’t even win his old Donelson council district, a poor harbinger of things to come. Jack Johnson, a SunTrust consultant, looked like he was gaining momentum after a surprising endorsement from The Tennessean, but the city’s business class didn’t rally behind him.

The Giglis—Trey Rochford, Tony Derryberry, the Tennessee Taxpayer Protection Pledge

Maybe it’s a sign of progress that while Carolyn Baldwin Tucker triumphed last week, her middle-aged white male equivalent, Tony Derryberry, got humiliated. Challenger Carl Burch trounced the District 13 incumbent, who had turned into the John Shumaker of the Metro Council. Just a few weeks before the election, The Tennessean exposed Derryberry as among the legislative body’s most prolific spenders. Shortly after, WTVF-Channel 5 aired footage of him jogging across the street to his car, which curiously had a handicapped tag. Trying to prove to the station that he was handicapped, Derryberry rolled up his pants and showed off his infirm knees to the camera. Derryberry also joined Tucker as one of the angriest detractors of the anti-bias ordinance, but, unlike her, he’ll have all of his Tuesday nights free for the next four years.

Trey Rochford flooded the airwaves early with television ads and seemed to have a sign in every yard in Belle Meade. He was supposed to be the candidate for sensible conservatives. But his television ads were abysmal. One of them had him looking from a bridge onto an interstate talking vapidly about easing congestion. He had no real message. His talk on education was about as detailed as his views on traffic. And he seemed to forget that east of the Cumberland River there are all sorts of people who are allowed to vote in countywide elections. At the Rosebank and Tom Joy precincts in East Nashville, Rochford convinced a grand total of 12 people to vote for him on election day.

Voters eagerly rejected the six at-large candidates who signed the Tennessee Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a gimmicky promise not to raise property taxes for four years. Among the casualties included Rochford, Johnson and David Scott. District candidates who signed the pledge also found that pandering to voters by making empty promises doesn’t work. Gail Pusey, Greg Gaines, Sarah Moore and Dorrence Stovall are among the pledge’s more notable victims.

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