Local leaders acutely aware that a black has never been elected to an at-large Metro Council seat are taking particular note of former Tennessee State University athletic director Howard Gentry’s candidacy for the 1999 election.
Gentry, now the assistant vice president for university relations and development at TSU, says he wants to fill one of the five countywide at-large seats in the Metro Council when elections for the local legislative body are held next summer. Many observers consider him perhaps the most credible African American to seek an at-large position since Metro Council’s inception in 1963. Should he be among the top five vote-getters for the at-large seats, he would become the first black ever elected to an at-large position in the Metro Council.
Gentry, 46, says he recognizes the possible significance of his candidacy, but he won’t be using the race issue to get himself elected. “I’m definitely not going to run on the platform that I’m African American,” says Gentry, who has good name recognition in the community and significant support among white voters as well. Still, he says it’s “unfortunate” a black hasn’t been elected to serve in the Council countywide, and that “it should have happened before now.” As it stands, blacks hold eight of the 35 district Metro Council seats.
Notwithstanding the school board, Metro Council seats are perhaps the least glamorous of locally elected positions. But the Council is, nevertheless, the body that dictates the property-tax rate, argues about luring sports teams, and outlaws smoking in the downtown arena. It is the body whose decisions most closely touch the lives of Nashvillians.
It seems reasonable, then, that the countywide members of the body should represent the makeup of the county. Right now, five white men serve in those at-large seats. Three of them are middle-aged. The other two are 29-year-old Chris Ferrell, and 76-year-old Vic Varallo.
A new “personal hygiene” policy at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is causing some consternation among employees of the state park system.
The policy goes to great lengths to define what hairstyles, “physical structure” (an appropriate percentage of body fat), and accessories are appropriate for park employees. Specifically, the recent directive ordered by department commissioner Milton Hamilton Jr. prohibits park rangers and managers from wearing beards, goatees, or handlebar mustachescontroversial restrictions for male park employees across the state who have worn facial hair for years.
“The first people our visitors see are our park rangers and managers,” says assistant commissioner Walter Butler, who directs the state park system. He says the department only wants its employees to be “very friendly, very positive, very professional.”
Employees complain that the policy is more restrictive than what the National Park Service requires of its employees, and they question what could possibly be offensive about a park ranger wearing a beard.
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, says the policy may not be legally actionable, but wonders “if it violates some expression rights” for public-sector employees.
“While I don’t think it’s the most pressing civil-liberty issue, it certainly doesn’t encourage free expression,” she says.
Senators at odds
Distracted by the dramatic release of Kenneth Starr’s titillating independent counsel report, few Americans noticed that the U.S. Senate took an important vote last week that effectively killed a sweeping campaign-finance reform bill.
The vote effectively killed the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform proposal for the rest of the year. It came as Senate supporters of the measure tried unsuccessfully to end a Republican filibuster on the issue.
The House had voted overwhelmingly last month to revamp the way the country finances political campaigns, which led many observers to believe the chances for passage in the Senate had improved. The proposal would have banned unlimited, unregulated contributions to political parties, known as “soft money.” Investigators have uncovered a number of campaign-finance abuses in the presidential election two years ago, many of which had to do with soft money.
On the Senate floor, Tennessee’s two Republican senators found themselves on opposite sides of the snowballing issue.
“I must say that, in my opinion, we now have the worst campaign-finance system that we have ever had in this country,” Sen. Fred Thompson, a longtime supporter of reform, said as he spoke on behalf of the McCain-Feingold proposal. “In fact, you cannot call it a campaign-finance system at all,” he said. “It is a situation that is an open invitation to abuse. It is an open invitation to corruption. It is an open invitation to cynicism.”
Thompson was one of just seven Republican senators in support of the measure. Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, meanwhile, was on the other side. Frist says the McCain bill too severely limits free-speech rights and may be unconstitutional. He points out that it also doesn’t address the needs of congressional challengers who don’t have the advantagesname recognition and media access, for exampleof incumbency. Any restriction on spending or capping of spending is ultimately an advantage to elected officials, Frist told the Scene.
“There has got to be campaign-finance reform, but the McCain-Feingold bill is simply not the way to go,” he said.
Despite the defeat, Tennessee reform advocates pledge to keep the heat on the issue. “These guys who are defending this rotten, corrupt system cannot keep winning,” says Phil Schoggen, chairman of Common Cause of Tennessee.
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