A stocky fellow with a mop of jet-black hair, a cheesy mustache (until recently) and a sparkling pinky ring, Eaton turns the old political joke “Would you buy a used car from this man?” on its head. That’s because he really is a used-car salesman, and he’s sold so many cars over the years that he’s made himself a millionaire. Eaton, who says he’s worth around $5 million, now owns a slew of low-rent houses around town. Not bad for a South Nashville guy with a high school education who opened his first car lot at age 18 with money he socked away cutting grass.
“I’m not your politician in this race” is how Eaton opens his campaign spiel. “I’m your businessman.” Then he launches into a Ross Perot-like rap, promising to look under the hood of the city’s engine and fix whatever’s wrong. Once he’s the mayor, he says he’s going to bring in his buddy the bookkeeper to give Metro’s budget a good once-over. “I guarantee we’ll find enough money to handle the city’s needs,” Eaton says.
The way Eaton puts it, it sounds as simple as jump-starting a Pacer. “Let’s go in, let’s clean it up, let’s audit the books, let’s cut the garbage out and put the money where it needs to go,” he says.
Eaton, 49, honestly thinks he can win the election. “Or else why would I be wasting my time like this,” he says. But with the possible exception of his beautician wife Toni (who wasn’t entirely sold herself at first), no one else seems to think he has a prayer.
The Nashville Arts Coalition didn’t bother to invite Eaton to its forum for the candidates last week, and The Tennessean is refusing to make him the subject of one of the newspaper’s signature candidate puff pieces. But Eaton takes the snubs in stride.
“They say I’m not a viable candidate because I’m not electable,” he sighs. “I’ve heard that from a lot of people. It’s total disrespect. I’m at least as smart as the rest of these guys. Most of them are attorneys. I know all about attorneys. Give an attorney something to do and, before it’s over with, they’ll screw it up every time.”
Eaton also ran in 2003. He got the idea after the city took his North Nashville car lot for low-income housing and tried to give him only about a quarter of what he thought it was worth. As payback, Eaton thought, why not make a total nuisance out of himself by running for mayor?
“I’ve always taught my kids, ‘if you have an issue with something, don’t fuss about it. Do something about it,’ ” Eaton says. “And so I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to run for mayor.’ I told my wife and she said, ‘You’re joking.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m for real.’ And she said, ‘There’s no way.’ And I said, ‘For real.’ ”
That first election, Eaton won only 1,244 votes. But he learned some things. First, billboards aren’t worth it. Yard signs are better. Second, his ponytail had to go. He wanted to keep his mustache, but in an extreme makeover the other day, he finally shaved it off on the advice of a friend, who pointed out that voters like a clean-cut candidate.
Eaton only had a couple hundred dollars in his campaign account at last report. He says he may toss in a few thousand dollars of his own money at some point if he feels like it.
Whatever happens in the election, Eaton figures that he’s performing a valuable service to democracy. He provides comic relief at the mind-numbing candidate forums around the city, and he takes special glee in putting his rivals on the spot. At the Antioch forum, he bitch-slapped Vice Mayor Howard Gentry for saying, “Antioch was a mistake”—an odd, if candid, response to a question about out-of-control development in that part of the city. (The line has become a kind of catchphrase on Capitol Hill.)
And he called out former Congressman Bob Clement for understating the size of the Metro budget by a few hundred million dollars at the Bellevue event. He’s constantly harping on the inadequacies of the Metro Council, causing council member David Briley to visibly twitch in irritation onstage. That’s got to be worth something.
Eaton has convinced his wife anyway. At her 50th birthday party, she had it written on her cake: “Future First Lady.”
Queer Eye for the Church of Christ Guy
Council member Buck Dozier appears in a startlingly garish outfit in the first TV ad of his mayoral campaign. Stripes on plaid? Puhleeeeeze! What was he thinking? We hope his hometown security plan increases funding for the fashion police.
“The silver lining in that sports jacket is that you’re still writing about my ad a week after it began airing,” Dozier jokes.
The good news is that not many people will see the ad. Dozier’s campaign doesn’t have enough money for a big buy but went ahead and made the spot anyway for something to show to potential contributors. Having a TV ad makes a candidate seem serious. Even if he does dress like a carnival barker.