Joe C. Davis Jr., one of the most successful businessmen of 20th century Nashville, was a legendary tightwad. Despite his wealth—which he earned mining coal—he flew economy class, drove an old car, bought his shirts out of a discount catalog and played golf wearing worn-out sneakers at Belle Meade Country Club. What would the frugal Davis think about the current spending plans for a fat slice of the fortune he left behind when he died in 1989?
Some as-yet undisclosed sum of the Davis inheritance is about to be tossed out in a crapshoot to win the mayor’s office for Karl Dean, husband of one of the Davis heirs.
The Dean campaign has started airing the first TV ad of the mayoral race at a cost of $60,000, enough to ensure that it’ll be seen five times by week’s end by the average Nashville viewer.
It’s a moderate buy, as political ad purchases go, and Dean says he’s put only $50,000 of his family money into his campaign so far. But more ads are on the way. Dean says he will air commercials almost continuously from now until the Aug. 2 election day. The campaign, which had only around $200,000 in cash on hand at last report, expects TV ads to boost Dean’s single-digit poll numbers in the crowded mayoral field. That, in turn, would help fund raising. But contributor cash can’t possibly keep up with the outflow of money for an ambitious TV ad campaign, and the candidate—who acknowledges that his family is worth “quite a bit”—says he’ll spend whatever it takes.
“I’m running to win,” says Dean, the Metro law director. “That’s definitely why I’m in this.”
Self-financed political campaigns are a matter of growing concern nationally. The costs of campaigning have risen so high that political parties have taken to recruiting wealthy candidates willing to spend their own money. The candidates say running with their own money makes them more independent of special interests. Critics say it’s causing an even greater escalation of campaign costs, making it impossible for the average Joe to run and creating a class of elitist politicians.
In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist spent millions of dollars of their own money running for offices. Their personal wealth is what made them viable candidates in the first place. Voters never seemed to mind. But Bredesen and Corker earned their money—Bredesen in the health-care field and Corker in the construction business—and Frist’s wealth at least came from stock in his own family’s hospital chain.
Will voters give Dean a pass too? He didn’t earn his money; he married it—his wife, Anne, is Joe Davis’ niece—and the other candidates aren’t above pointing that out.
“Without spending his wife’s money, he wouldn’t have a chance to win,” council member David Briley sniffs. “That’s the bottom line.”
Dean is obviously expecting accusations that he’s trying to buy the election. He emphasizes that his campaign is trying to attract contributions and raised about as much money as his main rival, former Congressman Bob Clement, in the last quarter. Also, he says he’s not just relying on TV ads to connect with voters but running an old-fashioned field campaign too. He says he’s going door-to-door asking for votes.
He won’t say how much of his family money he’s willing to spend. But political observers say Dean probably is going to have to let loose at least $1 million if he wants to seriously challenge Clement through a runoff election. No other candidate can come close to matching this level of spending. Council member Buck Dozier says he’ll air his first TV spot within a week, but he can’t sustain advertising without anything like the personal resources of Dean or the contributor base of Clement.
Man of mystery
Dean, who is all but unknown to voters, used his first TV ad to introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Karl Dean, running for mayor. I bet you’ve never heard of me before,” he jokes at the start of the 30-second commercial.
“I worked seven years as Nashville’s law director making sure that Nashville, well, followed the law,” he goes on to say. “Before that, I was public defender, elected three times. It was in this job where I saw way too many kids here in court when they should have been here in school. Our No. 1 priority will be to reduce the dropout rate and actually getting kids to return to school. I’m Karl Dean and next time we’ll talk about how we can get that done.”
Voters will hear a lot more about Dean’s time as public defender, but probably not much more about what he learned on the job about helping kids in trouble. The Clement campaign is getting ready to emphasize another aspect of Dean’s tenure as public defender—his representation of violent criminals and drug pushers. Clement will probably hold his fire until late in the campaign unless Dean starts rising in the polls too quickly.
Guffaws for Clement
Bob Clement drew surprised looks from the other candidates when he suddenly announced at the end of a campaign forum that he thinks Nashville ought to bid for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. In a later news release, Clement’s campaign called it a “truly visionary proposal,” but at least a couple of his rivals think it’s truly goofy.
As Scene blogger Bruce Barry pointed out, “We learned just a few days ago that the 2012 Olympics in London will cost British taxpayers $18 billion (yes, billion), which is three times the original estimate. As part of its 2016 bid, Chicago’s city council has ponied up a $500 million guarantee to cover possible cost overruns. In Nashville budgetary terms, that’s close to an entire year’s budget for the school system. The state of Illinois has said it’s good for another $150 million in losses. Even the process of just developing a bid involves tens of millions of dollars: Vancouver, for instance, spent $34 million (Canadian) back in 2002 to bid for the 2010 winter games.”
Vice Mayor Howard Gentry couldn’t stop chortling when asked to comment on Clement’s idea. “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh,” Gentry laughed, before dismissing the idea as impractical. “Nashville isn’t big enough,” he said flatly.
David Briley said he thought it was some kind of joke at first. “But they sent out a press release, so I guess they really mean it.” Briley slammed the “outrageous expense” of Clement’s idea and then took the opportunity to slap the former congressman as a typical Washington politician.
“It sounds like an idea that comes from somebody who’s voted on a bunch of unbalanced budgets,” Briley said. “It sounds to me kind of like a Washington mentality for decision-making. If we don’t balance our budget in Nashville, we lay people off. We don’t print new money.”
After months of mindless campaigning, it looks like the candidates are finally starting to have a little fun.