Mayoral Mediocrity 

Big-money race, small-time operatives

Big-money race, small-time operatives

On one level, there is a very sophisticated ebb and flow in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Phil Bredesen. Last week, for example, in a televised debate between the candidates, former House Majority Leader Bill Purcell openly tore into former Mayor Dick Fulton for the first time.

The newspaper coverage focused on Purcell’s aggressive attack on Fulton, which was based on the former mayor’s education record. Taking this into account, along with Purcell’s significant television advertising, it became apparent that Purcell may well have overtaken Vice Mayor Jay West, who had been polling second behind Fulton and was regarded as the barking dog at Fulton’s heels. There was, in other words, a very real sense that the dynamics of the race were changing, that things were not so predetermined in favor of the monied Fulton after all.

Purcell’s anti-Fulton rhetoric was reminiscent of one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time, when Avis Rent-A-Car declared in the 1960s that it was second to Hertz but insisted, “We try harder.” At the time, Hertz was a front-runner in terms of market share, while Avis was locked in a seesaw battle for No. 2 with National Car Rental. By feistily defining itself in relation to Hertz—just as Purcell did last week with Fulton—Avis was able to position itself in the public mind as one of the Big Two. National got left in the dust.

But if the mayor’s race is finally beginning to take on the twists and turns that make politics interesting, it is, in another way, as primitive and as crude as the homemade political billboards perched in the beds of pickups. Fulton’s campaign reports having raised at least $1 million, and each of the other campaigns hopes to raise at least half that. But such hefty numbers don’t preclude the kind of petty bickering that goes on between fourth-tier campaign staffers trying mightily to get the upper hand and spin the media in the process.

Recent campaign folklore, for example, has staffers for two of the opposing campaigns arguing loudly in the foyer of a church. The quarrel was apparently over which campaign was the true originator of one of the many insignificant initiatives introduced by the candidates over the past several months.

As staffers snipe at one another, others busily assemble newsletters that often contain factual errors or gross overstatements. “Not much news today on the mayoral race in the mediaÉ,” the West e-mail newsletter read on Wednesday of last week, the same day that local media—including The Tennessean and the Scene—reported that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) had endorsed Purcell. It was a significant event, given Purcell’s past life as a public defender representing the thugs police officers spent their days arresting, and considering West’s 16-year career in the Metro Council looking out for the interests of police officers.

West is, almost without exception, humble and gracious. But individual staffers at the West campaign are not so much so, chalking up the FOP endorsement to the fact that a few weeks earlier, the FOP’s legislative committee recommended Purcell for the endorsement. One key member of the committee, the West camp argued, had car trouble and couldn’t make it to the meeting.

Excepting Fulton’s general campaign consultant—the endearing and talented, if utterly shameless, Bill Fletcher—the three campaigns exist from day to day in a mire of mediocrity. There are, of course, a few exceptions, but the cast of characters calling the shots for the next mayor is unimpressive at best.

If the campaign teams are any indication, the next mayor won’t have the same kind of high-powered talent Bredesen has had during his time in the mayor’s office, when he went in with such senior staffers as prominent Nashville attorney Aleta Trauger, esteemed and feared Banner reporter Tam Gordon, bulldog public relations/political strategist Dave Cooley, and Scene writer/MIT business school graduate Phil Ashford.

Hooker's boy

If any Metro Council candidate deserves recognition for refusing to suck up to The Tennessean—or refusing to play politics as usual at all—it’s former Nashville Sounds owner Larry Schmittou.

Asked by a member of the paper’s editorial board at a recent interview about his chances to win, he told the editorial board members, “It’s probably good so long as you don’t endorse me.”

Schmittou, regarded by some as an eccentric contrarian and by others as a sweet grandfatherly figure, could well be one of Nashville’s top finishers in the crowded Aug. 5 race for the city’s five at-large Council seats. But he’s not raising any real money, and he doesn’t plan to buy advertising or have signs printed. In fact, he has raised just $50.77 so far from 102 contributors, and his expenses exceed that amount by $17.91. He says he plans to raise no more than $99.

Among those Schmittou lists as contributors are prominent Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell ($0.36), The Oak Ridge Boys ($0.04), and Section U fans at Greer Stadium ($0.60).

To reach Liz, call 244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at liz@nashvillescene.com.

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