It’s still not entirely clear why former Mayor Dick Fulton, 72, a financially secure and generally well-regarded Nashville citizen, is running for mayor again, or, as his critics put it, why he wants another “slop at the trough.”
His own explanationhe’s frequently taken to “there’s so much left to do”doesn’t do much to satisfy the curious. One Nashvillian whom Fulton approached on a recent campaign stop asked the former mayor why he was coming back. “It’s for the people, isn’t it?” the man said at least twice, desperately wanting Fulton to agree. Instead, Fulton responded, “There’s so much left to do.”
It could be that Fulton seeks a return to office because his role as mayor and politician is what defines him as a person. One observer recalls an exchange a few years ago between Fulton and Mayor Phil Bredesen in which “Phil was calling Dick ‘Mayor’ and Dick was calling Phil ‘Phil.’ People will always call Dick mayor because that’s so tied up with who he is.”
Fulton may be a kind of tongue-tied version of Frank Skeffington, the protagonist in the classic Boston political novel, The Last Hurrah. Skeffington, a legendary Irish politicocoincidentally enough, also 72decided to run one last time for mayor of Boston in a race matching the old-style machine politician against the new media politician of the second half of the century. The tale is seen through the eyes of Skeffington’s young nephew, whom the candidate takes under his arm to observe the final race. Early on, Skeffington gives a public and formal explanation of why he’s running again. But he confides to his nephew the real reason for his campaign, which is simply this: “I want to.”
Despite all his years of public life, it’s still not easy to figure out just who Fulton really is. He is, even his friends admit, the kind of man who lets few people pierce his bubble. He’s quiet, shy, not prone to argument, someone who is probably more comfortable working in the garden of his house in a gated West Nashville development than slapping backs at a party. But one thing about the man is clear: Fulton cares deeply about Nashville. “I’ve seen tears well up in his eyes talking about East Nashville,” says Metro Parks director Jim Fyke, who was also director under Fulton. “He truly loves this city as much as anybody you’re going to find.”
Perhaps the real question, then, is not what motivates Fulton to seek office again. Instead, given the changes in Nashville, the question is whether Fulton is the right shepherd to carry the staff now.
Dick Fulton is a man of mixed reputations. He is hailed, on the one hand, as a political hero for civil rights at a time when such advocacy in the South was more likely to engender death threats than political support. Aside from his congressional votes, Fulton was the first member of the Tennessee congressional delegation to hire a “Negro” staff member. The Wall Street Journal reported in June 1963 that Fulton’s hiring of Mattye Purla Cox to a secretarial position in his office was the first such hire by any Southern U.S. House member.
Even in the current political climate, Fulton seems to be trying to reestablish himself as the candidate most interested in the welfare of the Nashville black electorate. He announced recently that if elected, he would propose a charter amendment to eliminate the five at-large Metro Council positions, each of which represent the entire county. (No African American has ever been elected to a countywide at-large Metro Council seat.) In their place he proposed the creation of five “super” districts, which conceivably could lead to more blacks being elected to the Council. The proposal didn’t go over well with some, including black at-large Council candidate Howard Gentry, who said the timing of Fulton’s proposal could undermine his candidacy.
As mayor, Fulton is remembered as a detail man. He was so interested in the efficiency of Metro government that he would follow Water Department trucks, raising cain and busting heads when the employees traveled at a snail’s pace or showed little hustle on the job.
Fulton was also the kind of mayor who would make surprise visits to Metro offices and agencies. On one such stop early in his first term, he found open gasoline containers on the floor of a Metro Fire Department training center. “If the fire marshal came to my house and saw something like that, he would probably issue me a citation,” he said at the time.
Fulton’s idea of the office is very much old-style, a return to the days of dictating into a tape recorderhe doesn’t use e-mail, although aides say that doesn’t mean he won’t. When he was mayor, he would reel off lists of small tasks and send those “to-dos” to various department heads. Fulton is so proud of the method that he touts it in his recently released “Vision in Action” plan, which outlines what he would do if Nashvillians elect him again.
But Fulton also governed the city at a time when promotions were perceived to have more to do with political patronage than on-the-job performance, especially in the police department. Critics point out, too, that tales of questionable promotions in the police department didn’t just happen when Fulton came into the mayor’s office 24 years ago. They were still happening just 12 years ago when he left office.
Concern among rank-and-file police officers about a return to such a system is real enough that, when the police union interviewed the candidates for endorsement, each candidate was asked if he supports the merit-based promotion system now in place. All three major candidates told the union they support the current system.
Even at a time of growing public concern over shady politicsGov. Ray Blanton went to prison then and state legislators were under investigation for their own abusesthe patronage in the police promotion system apparently continued. “Anyone who was even slightly reflective of the way the political world was arranged at the time was on notice that things were changing,” one observer notes.
Fulton served three terms as mayor. He ran unsuccessfully for governor twice during those 12 years. His career predated the ethics and campaign finance laws now governing Tennessee politics. For his ’86 governor’s campaign, for example, Fulton accepted a massive check from developer Franklin Haneyrecently acquitted in a Washington, D.C., trial on charges of making illegal campaign contributions to Democrats Al Gore, Jim Sasser, and Jim Cooper. Haney gave Fulton $70,000, which was believed at the time to be the largest single political gift in state history.
Also in his ’86 race, Fulton was criticized for raising more money in New York than in Memphis, which was Tennessee’s largest city at the time. His campaign was hitting up Big Apple lawyers and investment bankers who had done business with Metro. Beyond that, during Fulton’s tenure, millions of dollars in Metro legal work were given to Fulton friends, such as attorneys William R. Willis Jr., George Barrett, and the late Jim McKinney.
At the time, Fulton defended hiring his friends to perform Metro legal work, saying it wasn’t a form of political patronage. “All I can do is follow the advice of the director of law,” he told the Nashville Banner in 1984. “And when he tells me he doesn’t have the staff to meet legal challenges, we hire somebody.”
As Fulton makes his way through the 1999 mayoral campaign, his loyal supportersand there are manyspeak glowingly about the year 1979. Fulton was campaigning then, too, seeking his second term as mayor. Supporters point to that campaign because 20 years ago, he was very much the candidate he is claiming to be nowactive and perhaps even visionary. His initiatives during his mayoral termsthe Nashville Convention Center, Riverfront Park, and other downtown projectsare frequent talking points as he asks voters to elect him to an unprecedented fourth term. (Of course, the failed Church Street Centre doesn’t come up quite so much. The downtown mall was recently demolished to make way for a new main library.)
Ironically, Fulton is focusing on his old projects to convince today’s electorate that he has a vision for the future. At the time, many of his undertakings were controversial. He took considerable heat for both the Convention Center, “Fulton’s Folly” as it was called then, and Riverfront Park. In the case of the former, it is fair to say that he proved his critics wrong. But a recent Convention Center report finds that it is essentially obsolete, operating at maximum capacity and no longer large enough to meet the city’s needs.
As for Riverfront Park, Fulton predecessor Beverly Briley envisioned the development, but it was Fulton who carried it out. The two projects, along with Fulton’s early efforts to revitalize Second Avenue, have certainly been successful, and each July 4th and every Thursday during the summer at “Dancin’ in the District,” Riverfront Park is aglow as a lasting legacy to Fulton’s initiatives.
In many ways, therefore, Fulton preceded Bredesen as a politician willing to undertake large, capital projects to make downtown a viable destination. Still, Fulton may have a hard time this go-round convincing today’s Nashvillians that he is the man to elect as the next mayor. He may have been a goodeven greatmayor during his three terms, beginning in 1975 and ending in 1987. But the demographics and attitude of Nashville, and of Metro Government itself, have changed.
When Fulton left office, Metro department heads and employees collected money and gave him a midnight-blue Cadillac. No one expects that Bredesen will receive such a gift. The political machinery and patronage that Fulton used as mayorand that Fate Thomas lubricated as sheriff until a 1990 conviction sent him to the federal penitentiarywas ultimately replaced by computer whiz Bredesen, who instituted an ethics policy and who conducts much of Metro’s affairs on his PC.
Richard “Dickie” Harmon Fulton was born Jan. 27, 1927. His father, Lyle, was a blue-collar railroad worker from Rutherford County. His mother, Labinia, came to Nashville in 1914 from Linden, Tenn., to attend what was then Draughon Business College. His father died in 1953, his mother in 1972.
Dick, one of four children, grew up at 628 Fatherland St. in East Nashville. His fourth-grade teacher at Warner School, 93-year-old Mildred Bean, whom Fulton recently dropped in on, says that, as far as she can remember, Fulton was a quiet boy with good manners. “He was a nice little gentleman,” she says. Fulton himself characterizes his academic performance as good, if not stellar. “I was a B student,” he says. Bean, incidentally, says she’ll vote for her former student.
Fulton attended East High School (now East Middle School) and, despite skipping second grade, was a high school football star. “At age 15 or 16, I was playing against guys who were 17 and 18,” Fulton recalls.
As a high school junior, Fulton was also the secretary of the Student Council. His senior year, the handsome young Fulton was elected class president. After graduation in 1945 and a brief stint in the Navy, the 18-year-old Fulton married his high school sweetheart, the blond-haired Ruby Jewel Simpson, also 18, who first attracted his attention when she was a ninth-grader. Two days before Christmas, they were married.
Married and back from the Navy, Fulton got a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee, but he dropped out of school after a year and moved back to Nashville to start a business of small retail stores with his brother Lyle, who was the more gregarious of the two.
As the pair built their “variety stores,” as they were called at the time, Lyle was getting ideas about beginning a political career. And, indeed, he did. But after winning the state Senate primary by a landslide, Lyle was diagnosed with a malignancy and died two weeks before the general election. So Fulton was pushed into politics to replace his brother on the ballot. Before the state Democratic Executive Committee recruited him as a replacement, Fulton hadn’t given much thought to a political career. Little did he know that he was about to win the general election.
Deep inside the photo archives of the Nashville Banner is a black-and-white image that captures the scaredalmost pitifullook of young Dick Fulton when he went to the Legislature in early 1955 to begin his Senate term. Standing in front of a WLAC radio microphone, the 27-year-old Fulton looks like a worried kid. Actually, he had reason to be nervous. The Senate refused to seat him because he didn’t meet the minimum age requirement of 30. Nevertheless, he ran again for the seat three years later and won. That began a political career that took him to Congress and, later, brought him back home as a popular three-term mayor.
Watching Fulton today, that look of frightened insecurityindeed, shynesshasn’t changed much in the 45 years since he stood in front of that radio microphone. The aging Nashville native, who still dresses to the nines and keeps his shirt sleeves buttoned despite the summer heat, doesn’t like idle time inside campaign headquarters. So he frequently makes his way to places like the Farmer’s Market and Home Depot, where he can greet large numbers of people and ask them for their vote in the Aug. 5 election. But approaching people cold doesn’t come easily to Fulton, a reserved man taken to mumbling and someone who makes the aloof Bredesen seem like the municipal version of Bill Clinton.
There is even a joke about how Fulton is prone to forgetting names. Occasionally, when he sees someone he recognizes but whose name he can’t remember, he’ll call them “Vern” under his breath.
There is another story often told by reporters who covered the last of Fulton’s two failed gubernatorial bids in 1986. On the campaign schedule one day during Fulton’s continuous, 60-hour “Campaign-athon” was an early morning stop at a Shoney’s restaurant. Approaching the door with an entourage of journalists in tow, Fulton couldn’t bring himself to go inside, chalking up the aborted stop to the idea that many of the customers were from out of state anyway.
“It was the only campaign I ever covered that always ran ahead of schedule,” says Scene writer and former Bredesen staffer Phil Ashford, who was covering the campaign for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I’ve always thought he didn’t really want to go into politics, that it sort of got thrust on him when his brother died.”
But, Ashford recalls, “It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to put in the hours. It wasn’t that he was lazy. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. For all that, he loved being in office. But the politics part just really pained him.”
Fulton’s not much of a talker, and he is, in fact, shy and socially awkward. (Singing “Poor Little Paper Boy” onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in January of 1968, Fulton, introduced as the “singing congressman,” said then that it was more terrifying than giving his first speech on the floor of the U.S. House.) Many people have given him poor marks on the campaign stump, chalking it up to his advanced age, but the truth is, he was never a very good public speaker. None of this helps to dispel the notion that Fulton is a man past his prime, a political character who’s already had his share of opportunities to make a difference. He’s the only major mayoral candidate eligible for membership in the AARP, and he’s been eligible for 22 years. That is a point, however, that offends his friends, who say it is a form of discrimination. Ronald Reagan, George Barrett points out, was reelected to a second presidential term when he was 74. Winston Churchill served as prime minister until he was 80.
It may be difficult for young voters to figure out why Fulton would want to make another bid for mayorand the 17th political run of his career. But there’s no escaping Fulton’s legacy as nothing short of a courageous congressman and a generally efficient mayor. “This guy’s a genuine political hero of the 1960s,” says one Metro insider who doesn’t even support him.
Fulton, who to this day cites President John Kennedy as his greatest political hero, cast what he calls “lonely” votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the open housing laws of 1968. Also, he cast the deciding committee vote for the creation of Medicare.
After the state Senate refused to seat him in 1955, he ran for the Senate again in 1958, served one term, and then ran for Congress again in 1962. (Two other congressional bids, in 1956 and 1960, were unsuccessful.) One of his biggest backers then was The Tennessean, which uncovered the voting fraud that almost took away Fulton’s victory that year. When the votes came in on election day, it appeared Fulton had narrowly defeated the incumbent, Carlton Loser. That’s when election officials began counting a handful of disputed absentee ballots gathered by local political figure Gene “Little Evil” Jacobs, who supported Loser.
When the bad votes were all counted, Loser came up the victor, by a handful of votes. The Tennessean assigned a team of reporters and photographers to investigate the corruption and vote buying, and when it was all said and done, a rerun of the election gave Fulton a victory spread of 17,000 votes. After the 1962 voting debacle, Nashvillians sent Fulton back to Washington for six more terms.
Those years made Fulton a hero, and they also made him a tragic figure. His wife of 24 years, Jewel, 42, committed suicide in November 1969, apparently because of depression and illness which she kept from her husband, who was in Washington at the time. The couple had five children, four of whom were still in school. The oldest, Richard, was 21 years old and married.
Just two months later, Fulton lost his son Barry, 18, to a boating accident. Barry, a freshman at Peabody College, was fishing at Percy Priest Lake with a family friend, the Rev. John A. Bozeman Jr., when their boat capsized and the two drowned. It was on the 11th day of the marathon search when rescue workers finally found young Barry. Keeping vigil on the shores of the lake during the long search, along with Barry’s fiancee, was the congressman himself.
But if tragedy came in large doses, Fulton saw happy times too. It was during that year that he met the woman who would become his second wife, Dallas native Sandra Fleisher, who had worked for Nashville businessman John Jay Hooker. The two first met briefly in 1968 when Fulton came to see Hooker. Two years later, in 1970, the two met at a social function. “I was there with a date, and I saw Dick across the room talking to some people,” Sandra Fulton told the Banner shortly after her husband was first elected mayor. “We went over to say hello to the congressman. He pretended to remember me, but I found out later that he didn’t.”
The two were married at McKendree United Methodist Church on Nov. 5, 1970. Sandra, divorced with two children, was 11 years his junior.
Sandra Fulton was credited with being the force behind Fulton’s return home in 1975, when he announced to his dismayed congressional colleagues that he wanted to come back to Nashville and be mayor. At the time, Fulton’s annual congressional salary was $42,500 a year. The Nashville mayor earned only $25,000.
It’s fair to say Fulton got considerably more support for his decision to run in 1975, at age 48, than he is getting now. He was the hand-picked choice of outgoing Mayor Beverly Briley, and he received endorsements from the major employee unions, which were admittedly stronger politically in those days. The Tennessean was certainly behind him. And on election day, he cleaned up, capturing nearly 70 percent of the vote.
This time around, Bredesen is doing no such hand-picking, and the employee unions are much more circumspect about Fulton. The local unions representing teachers and police officers, both of which backed Fulton in 1975, are now behind Fulton opponent and former state House Majority Leader Bill Purcell.
But in other respects, his support in the business community may be stronger. If he was viewed suspiciously as a liberal Democrat by Nashville’s governing business elite two decades ago, his support is measurably greater today. That may owe to the fact that during his 12 years in office, he developed a positive working relationship with many of the city’s business leaders. What that has translated to in this race is a healthy campaign treasury, which is the largest of any of the candidates.
In the current campaign, Fulton is touting an overall position paper he calls his “Vision in Action” plan, a 36-page collection of proposals interspersed with facts about Nashville. Unfortunately, the plan leaves the reader wondering whether what Fulton wants to do now really constitutes a vision. To give him credit, paving the way for the viability and growth of downtown Nashville truly was something he wanted to do in his first three terms as mayor. And he can lay claim to having done that.
But his overall approach to government then was based on his 12 years in Congress more than anything else. “The kind of operation processes he brought to the city which were not there before was this system of constituent response,” says Peter Heidenreich, who was the acting Public Works director for eight of Fulton’s 12 years as mayor and who is now heading lobbying efforts at the Ingram Group. “He brought that template and laid it down on Metro government. What that did was offer an enormous opportunity for people to tell elected officials what was wrong.” But, in the process, Heidenreich says, “We lost our focus on the big picture, and we became so focused with constituent service that it ate up a lot of our resources.” For his part, Fulton says he “was able to focus on the big picture as well as the small things.”
When Bredesen boasts of his contributions to local education initiatives and funding, he pulls out a set of figures on grid paper that compares his record with those of previous mayors. Those numbers show, among other things, that Fulton decreased the funding for schools in the city budgetas a percentage of total Metro revenueto 40 percent during his term, down from 47 percent under Briley.
In defense of his education funding record, Fulton emphasizes that the dollar amount schools received during his three terms increased every year. As for his record of passivity on education issuessomething that opponent Bill Purcell is focusing on in the campaignFulton says that there were few mayors around the country who were education activists at the time. His argument is that there was just no precedent for it.
Fulton has also been denounced for leaving office without a strategy to fund an expensive employee pay plan that his office negotiated with city workers. Boner, who was left holding the bag, was highly critical of Fulton for the maneuver. Bredesen himself has criticized Fulton for how he handled the pay raise issue. In fact, while Bredesen has certainly acknowledged Boner’s failings, he has consistently given Boner significant credit for his fiscal management in a time of economic crisis.
Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington, a Metro Council member during Fulton’s first mayoral term whose office has consistently been recognized as one of the most efficiently run in the city and state, says Fulton’s fiscal practices left something to be desired. “The problem I had with Fulton was his use of one-time revenue sources as if they were annually recurring revenue sources,” he says. “In government, it’s the ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ principle.”
Fulton’s campaign defends his fiscal record. “The true measure of fiscal management is the market,” says Fulton campaign consultant Bill Fletcher. The city, in other words, never lost its favorable bond rating.
Perhaps the final blow to Fulton’s legacy swirls around the $49 million Metro office building he sought, and received funding for, during his last year in office. The project, a controversial lease-purchase arrangement, was so divisive that then-District Attorney Tom Shriver sued Fulton and the city to stop the project, claiming that Fulton was trying to circumvent competitive bidding requirements. While Shriver’s objections were ultimately thrown out because the courts found that he didn’t have standing to sue the city over a building project, the effect was to delay the project until the Boner administration. Boner quickly nixed the idea altogether.
Both of Fulton’s major rivals, Bill Purcell and Jay West, say that Fulton has begun to parade the notion that he is vulnerable in this contest. They point to the fact that he was the first to run a negative TV spot about his opponents.
The commercial characterizes Purcell, a former public defender, as soft on crime. But that may have been debunked by prosecutors and police officers who support Purcell’s candidacy. Meanwhile, the same commercial attacks West for having been a lobbyist. But Fulton is also open to the same chargehe founded his own lobbying company, The Fulton Group, after he left the mayor’s office. Fulton has since sold his share of the company, which has been renamed.
Asked during a televised forum last week why he went negative before any of the other candidates, Fulton said he wanted to “set the record straight” about his education policies. Yet, the commercial makes no reference to education or to his record as mayor.
Meanwhile, at the countless mayoral forums that have been sponsored this year, Fulton often responds to questions by discussing his record as mayor years ago. “I try not to go back and refer too much to the past even thought I think it’s important,” he tells the Scene. While there seems to be little argument among Nashville voters that the city needs a mayor with an eye for the kinds of details that have been ignored under Bredesen, Fulton often discusses questions about contemporary life in Nashville by discussing things that no one either remembers or cares about.
There may be little debate that Fulton cared deeply about details when he was mayor. But critics fear that, if elected, he will bring with him the baggage of a bygone political era. Or that he is simply not capable of understanding the contemporary dynamics of the city, or of projecting his understanding of the city well into the future.
While some of the questions about Fulton’s age may be off the markcritics point out that he will be 76 at the end of his termone wonders whether his outlook is a forward-looking one. No one can question Dick Fulton’s loyalty to the city. But, like the man himself, his vision oftentimes sounds weak and distant, the product of something long ago.
I didn't realize Betsy was a paid staffer at the Tennessean.
Yawn. Bitching about "the Christians" is like bitching about the rain. It makes good conversation…
So Betsy, instead of whining about what the Tennessean is doing or not doing, why…
>>Not that its my job to do your googling<<
A) *I* didn't make the…
All pederasts are gay. That is a fact. Read this column about what is happening…