The honeymoon is over. Just about every day this spring, The Tennessean has featured a prominent quote from a disgruntled parent, blasting the mayor for slashing Metro's education budget. For Purcell, who had increased funding for public schools by nearly 25 percent in his first term, the ongoing outcry has been a gut buster.
And there's nothing like a budget crisis to raise the volume on complaints of both a substantive and stylistic nature. Chatter is more charged than ever about the mayor's pressure tactics, temper and general intensity. Consider this recent anecdote:
Attorney Tom Sherrard walked into City Hall to attend a rally for the Nashville Predators. Earlier, he had told a reporter that the mayor's budget cuts could disrupt the momentum that had been built for public education. The mayor pulled him into his office and had a word with him. Sherrard, the chairman-elect for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, tells the Scene that their impromptu meeting was "cordial." Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips contends it was "gentlemanly." But at the time, word spread that the mayor blew up at Sherrard, flashing a marked temper that's been known to take many by surprise. Even Phillips concedes that Purcell wasn't pleased.
"It wasn't a hostile meeting," Phillips says. "We read a quote in the paper, and the mayor, instead of simmering, asked him to come in and said, 'You didn't have all the facts, therefore your quote is inaccurate,' and that was it."
And that really was it. Since his encounter with the mayor, Sherrard's been quoted several times in The Tennessean about the issue of education. Not once has he been even mildly critical of the mayor. Apparently, he's learned his lesson.
It's the worst kept secret in Metro. Mayor Bill Purcell, an otherwise charming, funny and very gifted politician, broods and steams. He loses his patience. And he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Purcell doesn't throw paperweights and slam doors. He's more civilized. Typically, when he's operating in a mild fury, he'll deliver a sarcastic comment or a relentless series of questions that will rattle the most knowledgeable department head, elected official, committee chairman or staff subordinate. A former attorney, whom his peers say could have become the best courtroom attorney in Nashville, Purcell can poke a hole in any argument or position. And while this is an undeniable asset in a mayor, his intermittently icy style can rub many people as condescending, if not downright belligerent.
"You hear about his temper from all walks of life," says one department head. "And it's not just from Metro groupies. It's from the business community, neighborhood leaders, you name it."
After an astonishingly successful first term during which the mayor pushed through nearly all of his initiatives without much rancor, Purcell has stumbled into his first crisis since he took office in 1999. Forced to make nearly $100 million in budget cuts, Purcell has angered his progressive base, which has always loved his policies more than his personality. Now, with Purcell slashing, if not eliminating, funding for a mental health court, affordable housing, legal aid and other more liberal-minded programs, none of them is rushing to his defense.
Meanwhile, the mayor's conservative detractors, including Metro Council members Charlie Tygard and Chris Whitson, are trying to amend his proposed budgets, claiming that they can restore funding for the school system. It's a difficult time for the mayor, and to some it's showing now more than ever.
Phillips says that he's never seen his boss lose his temper. "He is not somebody who screams or pounds on the table. When's he's beginning to get irritated with something, he gets quieter."
But many Metro Council members, regardless of whether they support his initiatives, say that the mayor can turn a minute political disagreement into a drag-down feud. "He is a master of debate," says one Metro Council member. "He is just very good at it, and he normally wins. And you'll get your ears laid back if you don't agree with his stance."
"He has a temper," says another council member. "Everyone knows about it."
Council member Jim Shulman is more forgiving of Purcell than many of his colleagues. But even he acknowledges that the mayor's temperament can be jarring. "I think the mayor can be very direct when he believes in something, and he can be very forceful. In a way, that's a great thing. In other ways, it can be too forceful and tend to surprise the person he's talking to."
"I think he's frustrated with our situation," says another Metro Council member. "He believes that the cuts are not the fault of Metro. He believes that the cuts at the federal and state level, plus a changing economy, are responsible. That's why he's frustrated these days."
Not wanting to end up on Purcell's bad side, few Metro officials are comfortable raising their disagreements with the mayor or his style publicly. But ever since the mayor took office, his temperament has been discussed around City Hall and has been the topic among local reporters over afterwork cocktails. Lobbyists fear him. Even people who have never seen the mayor so much as raise his voice acknowledge that stories of the mayor's dark side run rampant.
"I've heard the storiesalmost anyone who has observed Metro Government has heard the reports," says Pat Nolan, the seasoned political commentator for WTVF-Channel 5 and a senior vice president for Dye Van Mol & Lawrence. But Nolan says, "I've never seen anything firsthand."
Sheriff Daron Hall, who has publicly feuded with the mayor for failing to solicit input from his office on the jail expansion project, says that he has never seen Purcell lose his cool. But he says that he's heard from his colleagues. "We haven't always agreed, and his style of leadership is a concern, but he's never once gotten angry with me. I have heard other people say, though, that he has."
Patrick Willard, counselor to the mayor, began working for Purcell in 1991 when Purcell was a state representative. He says that when Purcell became House majority leader in the mid-'90s, he'd stay up late at night studying the many details that typically remain hidden in the general rhetoric of proposed legislation. He wanted to know everything, Willard remembers. Now, Purcell brings that same focus and intensity to the mayor's office, which can unnerve someone who is not similarly prepared. "When you talk with him and you have an idea, he can point out things you hadn't thought of and will affect that idea," Willard explains. "And if you think about it, he's usually right. And I think some people are intimidated by that."
Even if that's all it is, the perception that Purcell's people skills fall somewhat short of collegial have grown from a fleeting topic of courthouse conversation to a matter of common knowledge. Last summer, The Tennessean, in an otherwise rousing endorsement of his re-election campaign, acknowledged the clumsy manner in which his administration deals with city officials.
"The mayor is focused, involved, energetic and cautious. The city has benefited from his prudent stewardship," the editorial read. "Yet there are two aspects of his leadership that have drawn negative remarks. One which often arises in discussions with city officials is the fact that his administration, if not the mayor personally, uses a heavier than necessary hand in dealing with other elected officials. The other aspect of this term that causes concern is that Purcell has not exercised vocal leadership on some issues of importance, the most obvious being the gay rights ordinance defeated by the council last spring."
Interestingly, the two aspects of Purcell's leadership that the editorial cites are intertwined. Purcell has a very disciplined view of what he wants to accomplish. He looks to improve education, tend to quality-of-life issues in local neighborhoods and the downtown core and make Metro government run tightly and efficiently. A smart, detail-oriented mayor like Purcell can influence those things. The rest, whether it be a gay rights ordinance or a department head with a new idea, take the eye off the prize. And that seems to drive him into a fury.
"The mayor is very confident and very focused and has very little patience for people who are not similarly focused," says one downtown attorney who has had a number of dealings with the mayor. "He expects to engage people who are equally ready. What I would say about Bill, more than any other political figure I have seen, is that he stays on message, and there is no greater sin than being off-message. It's not that it's a temper; it's a state of mind. It's hard work to move a government. It takes discipline and focus, and he expects the people he deals with to have discipline and focus. I think what some people see as a temper is just a level of intensity in what he does."
The Scene read the above quote to Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips. "I don't disagree with that," he says. "He doesn't have a whole lot of patience for people who expect mediocrity as a standard."
When asked, Phillips says that if he were advising a department head or committee chairperson preparing to discuss an initiative with the mayor, he'd tell them to come prepared. "I'd have my facts together," he says. "He doesn't have a whole lot of patience for people who say 'What do you want me to do?' ''
Purcell has always had a razor-like focus on the task at hand. When he was practicing law, he knew every fact about his cases, exhibited sharp analytical skills and always came prepared. He hasn't lost that zeal as mayor, a job in which even a former Harvard physics major like current Gov. Phil Bredesen, Purcell's immediate predecessor, would sometimes lose interest in the day-to-day. "He is an intense person, and he demands the very best that's available," says attorney Bill Farmer, who practiced law with Purcell and characterizes him as a "phenomenal" trial lawyer. "His sense that there is a shirking of duty or quality is sometimes, I think, intolerable for him."
That sense of indignation trumps any of Purcell's latent instincts toward collegiality. In his first budget hearings five years ago, the mayor took then-Metro fire chief Buck Dozier to task and then needlessly used him as a punch line in a meeting before Metro Council members. The mayor told them that Dozier had suggested Metro could save $66,000 in the coming fiscal year by simply forgoing its monthly $5,500 contribution to the city of Goodlettsville. Purcell recounted to the council how he then asked Dozier why the department was making the contribution in the first place. "We don't need to do it anymore," a hapless Dozier told the mayor. "But why did you ever?" Purcell asked as he recounted his conversation to the council.
Kicking Dozier's dead horse one last time, Purcell remarked to the council that the fire chief didn't really know why it was paying out the cash. Dozier later resigned and now is an at-large council member. He's bucked the administration more than once, and can be counted on to turn a skeptical eye to any Purcell-stamped initiative. No one would argue that the mayor shouldn't have held Dozier accountable for his department's many failings, but the public roastings haven't done anything for the mayor's vote counts in the council.
It would be one thing if Purcell were guilty merely of not suffering fools gladly. But even his supporters say that the mayor can show a petty, mean streak to people with the best intentions. Council member Jim Shulman draws from pretty much the same progressive, neighborhood-friendly constituency as Purcell. He also votes with the administration nearly all of the time. But two sources tell the Scene that after the Green Hills-area council member voted against Purcell's plan to close the downtown thermal plant, the mayor's office barely talked to him for six months. The mayor won that vote by a resounding margin, but according to many council members, if he's not winning 40-0, he's not happy.
Purcell has also had tiffs with former at-large council members Leo Waters and Chris Ferrell, two of his most loyal supporters, for trying to delay a vote on capital appropriations bills. Both members supported the measures, but they wanted the council to study them further. Then, in an incident that's become infamous among City Hall gossips, the mayor announced the creation of an affordable housing initiative when Ferrell was out of town at a National League of Cities meeting. It was Chris Ferrell, not Purcell, who crusaded for affordable housing and made it a high-profile issue. Many people familiar with the issue regarded Purcell's timing as a strategic way to upstage Ferrell. Ultimately, Purcell endorsed Waters for sheriff and announced that he'd support Ferrell while Ferrell was contemplating a bid for a then-open Fifth District congressional seat. But the way the mayor treated the two before then is what many of Ferrell's and Waters' friends remember.
Patrick Willard says that the administration is aware of the criticism that it is thin-skinned and temperamental. But he says the mayor is often misunderstood, especially by his allies. "Many of them come in to his office with an expectation that he'll agree with them, and then the mayor says, 'Well, you have to look at this point or look at that point,' " he explains. "Then they'll see that as disagreeable."
Bill Phillips says that people in Metro should be complaining about his temper, not the mayor's. (And, actually, they do.) After Purcell met with Sherrard about the quote in The Tennessean, Phillips had a conversation with chamber President Mike Neal about a mildly critical comment that one of Neal's staffers made to the press about the school system. "I'm confident I was harsher with Mike than the mayor was with Sherrard," he says. "The point I was trying to make with Mike is that this mayor has done more for education in a little over four years than has ever been done by anyone, and he has been extremely supportive of the chamber's efforts. Then we pick up a newspaper article and see someone representing the chamber being critical without checking all the facts."
And they wonder why people think the administration is too sensitive?
Phillips says that in Metro, especially, people confuse disagreement with anger. His boss takes a very methodical approach to projects and asks a lot of questions. Some might mistake that for hostility or aloofness. But really, Phillips says, his boss is restrained when expressing his personal feelings. He can even be magnanimous...to a point. "I think he's very forgiving," Phillips says. "That's not to say he forgets, but he is very forgiving."
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