No matter how many structural or organizational mutations have modified Nashville politics over the past decade, one single development, arguably more than any other, has dominated the landscape, complicating it at the same time it has simplified it.
“I think the single biggest thing that has happened in Nashville politics in the last decade is that a non-Nashvillian was elected mayor,” says Rob Briley, a state representative from East Nashville and the grandson of the late Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley.
Political watchers agree that Mayor Philip Norman Bredesen’s political success, which came in 1991 after an unsuccessful mayoral bid against then-Congressman Bill Boner in 1987, has been the most significant force in the community’s recent political life. “Phil Bredesen brought with him no real political debts,” former state legislator Tommy Burnett observes.
When Nashville voters elected this Harvard-educated Northerner, who first came here in the ’70s and made a fortune in health care, it was a time like no other. Voters knew more about outgoing Mayor Bill Boner’s sex life than they did about the issues facing the city. They were clearly ready for an ethically minded progressive who was, as mayoral candidate Murray Philip characterizes Bredesen these days, “uncorruptible.”
Bredesen is perhaps the first mayor of Nashville to be elected without the necessary support of a handful of political operatives doling out endorsements. Nor has Bredesen, like the mayors before him, handed out police and fire promotions in exchange for political support. “It used to be there were 10 people you could go to for support, and if you had them, you could get elected,” Burnett says. “Those days are just pretty well over.”
Bredesen’s tenure has also coincided withif not given birth toa more passive Metro Council, one perhaps so intimidated by his wealth and power that it has been less willing to stick it to the heavy-handed chief executive. To some, the Council’s apparent reticence is seen as nothing short of a damn shame. “I don’t know why it’s this way, but I think we have a Council that’s afraid to ask questions or afraid to disagree,” says Metro Property Assessor Jo Ann North, who was the first woman elected countywide when she won an at-large Council seat in 1979. “We just don’t have a Council like that anymore.”
Bredesen himself, though, sees it differently. He attributes his success in the Council to the willingness of the Council members to be more reasonable. “I have a sense that the decisions and processes [in the Council] are more rational,” the mayor says. There’s less consideration about whose “ox is being gored,” and “people are looking out for the city, which I think is really good.” That change, the mayor says, bodes well for Nashville voters. “I’m sort of a Jeffersonian at heart. I think it’s possible to make rational decisions in politics.”
Another permutation in Nashville and Tennessee politics over the last decade has been the institution of limits for political campaign contributions. In 1996, state legislators passed a bill prohibiting individuals from giving more than $1,000 to a candidate per election, while political action committees can give no more than $5,000.
During his mayoral campaigns, Bredesen demonstrated the power of a wealthy individual to buy name recognition in a community where he had none. His name filtered into tens of thousands of living rooms by television. The trend toward TV in the city’s large races may not be noteworthy, but it is significant that TV-based campaigns have trickled down to races that aren’t even countywide.
“There’s more professionalism in campaigning,” says Bill Fletcher, a Democratic political consultant and strategist now fully engaged in the push to elect Fulton to a fourth term as mayor. “Ten years ago, it was rare for a state legislator to have polling and television, and now it’s required.”
Former Davidson County Sheriff Fate Thomas, who took a vacation at the federal penitentiary after his conviction in 1990 for misusing government property, says the increased political professionalism is a problem, not a virtue. He blames it for making the electorate dramatically less interested in politics than it used to be.
“Here in the last 10 years, voting has gone down,” he says. “I really think the reason is there’s been too much money and time spent on TV. There’s not any man-to-man. It’s not personal anymore. We’re all too busy to know who the hell’s living next door to us, let alone get them to vote for someone.”
It used to be, Thomas says, politicos would send Christmas cards to the parishioners of various churches. Certainly, the diminishing influence of church pastors hasn’t gone unnoticed among nostalgic political players either. Ira North, the late pastor of the monstrously huge Madison Church of Christ, for example, hasn’t been replaced. He never “endorsed from the pulpit,” his daughter-in-law Jo Ann North recalls, but he was a must-visit for anyone interested in breaking into Nashville politics. While his legacy is still very strong“I still can’t buy a bottle of wine in Madison because of him,” one admirer saysthere is no one in Nashville’s religious circles these days who has the kind of influence North did.
Black churches also no longer demonstrate the same force they used to, “maybe because they don’t feel they have the issues to push that they once did,” Burnett says. He notes the waning influence of the local chapter of the NAACP, which is currently racked by infighting.
As former Sheriff Thomas suggests, it could be that the depersonalization of Nashville politics, complete with the insistence on term limits for Metro Council members, is the prevailing theme of the past decade. That ties directly into Rob Briley’s argument that Bredesen’s ascendancy is the most important political development of the last 10 yearsin short, Phil Bredesen signifies a new age of professionalism for the city.
Fletcher rounds out the depersonalization theory by suggesting Nashvillians have simply moved away from barbecue politics as they’ve shifted their attention from the local to the national. He adds that they are more detached from their city than they once were. “[Voters are] much more likely to know who was on Larry King last night than they are to know what was in the daily newspaper this morning,” he concludes.
Still, some things never changewhich means there will probably always be a place for good-ol’-boys in local government. Take Fate Thomas, for example. While most observers argue that he doesn’t have the “juice” to deliver the votes he once did, being an ex-con apparently hasn’t disqualified him from political exaltation. Former Sheriff Hank Hillin, who’s admittedly something of a contrarian, accurately points out that some of Nashville’s biggest guns have been holding fundraisers to help pay Thomas’ debts. “One of the leaders of this effort is Richard Fulton,” he says.
It makes one wonder if the past decade of political professionalism is here to stay. Or if later in 1999, Nashville could start to become much like it was in earlier days.
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