“Every campaign, we start hearing right about now that the black leadership and the black churches are not fully behind me,” the vice mayor says. “It happened in (Harold) Ford’s campaign. It’s happening in (Barack) Obama’s campaign. And now it’s happening in my campaign again.”
But he adds, “Certainly, out of all the black ministers there’s going to be some who are not going to be as excited as others. I take full responsibility for those who are not excited yet and I look forward to getting them excited.”
Even Gentry’s supporters among the pastors of Nashville’s mostly black congregations acknowledge enthusiasm for Gentry has been surprisingly tepid. They give two reasons: (1) Gentry hasn’t raised enough money to compete effectively. He had only $87,000 cash remaining at last report at the end of March. (2) He has seemed to take some of the pastors for granted and failed to court them in the manner to which they’re accustomed.
“Howard’s a church man, but for whatever reason they’re wavering,” says the Rev. George Price of Bethesda Original Church of God. “You gotta have money to win. I’m not a politician but I do know politics, and you gotta have money to win. And unless he can raise that money, it’s going to be difficult. But I still got faith. I hope he’s got some money coming in.”
“I know I’m not going to drop Gentry, but I know there are a lot of folks talking about it” because of his weak fund raising, says the Rev. James “Tex” Thomas of the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church.
Thomas says pastors who are refusing to support Gentry are making it harder for him to raise money. “The larger community doesn’t think blacks are behind Gentry. If they thought we were behind him, if we were as visible as we were for Ford (in the 2006 Senate race), then that money would come.”
Another influential black pastor, the Rev. Enoch Fuzz of Corinthian Missionary Baptist, says, “What I hear is that Howard has not asked the leaders to support him. He should go and ask people. Say, ‘I need your support. May I have your support.’ Karl Dean came and asked me. David Briley asked me several times. Howard Gentry kind of told me.” Fuzz, who hosts a weekly radio show on WVOL, says he won’t endorse any candidate for mayor.
Gentry is in no danger of losing black voters in significant numbers to other candidates. Turnout is the issue. He needs the enthusiastic backing of the pastors to energize supporters. Blacks could account for 20 percent of voters. In the crowded field of five candidates, Gentry could make it into a runoff with black support alone if turnout is strong.
Gentry’s opponents have been paying their respects to black voters, attending their churches on Sundays and going to candidate forums in North Nashville, but they have not aggressively sought their support in deference to Gentry.
“We don’t want to do or say anything to make Gentry look bad,” one campaign staffer says. “It’s kind of a dignity thing. You don’t want to be sticking fingers in Gentry’s eyes. Black votes won’t be available as a practical matter until the runoff anyway. The pastors are going to show lip service to any black candidate. It’s smart politics. We’re saying, ‘We understand and we respect your decision and we just want you to be with us in the runoff.’ ”
Gentry says his candidacy is underestimated. “Every race I’ve run there are people who think I can’t win because nobody who looks like me has won before. I have to be prepared to push on in spite of the concerns about fund raising and the doubts about what has not occurred before. When I go to church, what I hear more than anything is don’t underestimate small beginnings. God is always taking nobodies and making them into somebodies.”
A laptop for every child!
David Briley’s underfunded mayoral campaign is showing signs of life, winning the endorsement of the 3,500-member Metro Nashville Education Association. It’s the first major endorsement of the contest and, as the Briley campaign points out, it’s more important than most because polls show education is the No. 1 issue in the election.
Briley has become a crowd-pleaser at community forums around town. Last week in East Nashville, the at-large council member’s home turf, he drew a rare burst of enthusiastic applause from the audience by promising a digital-age version of Herbert Hoover’s “a chicken in every pot.” Briley vows there’ll be a laptop for every child if he wins. He says he wants to blanket the city with wireless Internet access and give laptops to children beginning in middle school.
“We need to be thinking about our children,” Briley says. “We need to be thinking about whether we are providing them with the skills that they need to compete in the new marketplace. And that means every child in this community needs to go home with a laptop once they’re in, say, seventh or eighth grade. And they need to be hooked up to a wireless network that’s free because that’s the new economy. It’s not an economy of burgers. It’s an economy of ideas.”
How would he pay for a Wi-Fi city? Nashville would donate space for antennas on city buildings and light and phone poles. In return, Briley says he would insist on free wireless Internet access for Metro schools. Wi-Fi network operators could make money by charging customers increased fees for high-speed services or by showing ads on their free or low-cost services. More than 300 cities have already started plans for Wi-Fi networks.
Briley admits giving a laptop to every middle-school child might run a few million dollars a year, and he would try to hit up the private sector for most of that. At the least, he says, Nashville could provide laptops for children from lower-income families and arrange discounts for everyone else.
“A lot of children just can’t afford it, but as a community we can’t afford to ignore the fact that if they want to participate in the new work world they’ve got to have those skills,” Briley says.
Too bad not many people are hearing Briley’s ideas. At the end of March when the last public disclosure was made, he had only $150,000 in cash remaining and, unless he starts raking in contributions at a faster clip, he won’t have enough to compete effectively on television. His best hope is to have enough money to make moderate TV ad buys for the final month of the contest. Karl Dean has bought more than that much TV air time already.
Dean is outspending the rest of the field by far. Alone among the candidates, he has been airing TV ads for the past five weeks at a cost of more than $250,000. His third spot went up this week on cable channels. His first piece of mail has landed in mailboxes, and phones across the city are ringing with robo-calls from his campaign—both delivering an education message to give a little more oomph to his TV spots on the same subject.
Dean, the former Metro law director, can spend so freely because he can self-finance his campaign from his heiress wife’s wealth. He wrote an early $50,000 check for his campaign, and he has put more of his own money into the campaign since April.
Dean is worried that voters will feel he’s trying to buy the election—so much so that campaign manager Jim Hester at first denied this week that Dean had spent more family money. “At this point,” he said, “we’re paying as we go.” The next day, though, he acknowledged the candidate has given more, but wouldn’t say how much. It won’t have to be publicly disclosed until July 10.Almost unknown to the public when the campaign started, Dean is expected to poll voters soon to find out whether his TV ads are working. Bob Clement, who is seen by many as the leading contender, is also taking a poll to find out how Dean’s doing.