Until recently, the current Metro Council had one saving grace: It was divided against itself. Shortly after last summer's elections, several quirky factions emerged, and while each played around with their pet causes, none was effective enough to push or foil legislation. But now, with Mayor Bill Purcell set to present his already bare-bones budget to the 40-member council, an odd political alliance might be taking hold between the city's inner-city members and their more conservative peers on the rural fringes of the county. Joining forces on issues ranging from denying gay rights to conservation zoning, this kind of Shiite/Sunni alliance could wreak havoc on the mayor's agenda and render the council's progressives irrelevant.
It was at the Donelson Senior Center, of all places, where this union first manifested itself in public. There, on a hot, muggy evening last Wednesday, council member Harold White held a neighborhood meeting about an unpopular pair of zoning changes he proposed along Central Pike in Southeast Davidson County. White is the devout social conservative who mobilized the council's revolt against former council member Eileen Beehan's nomination to the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission, a petty measure of revenge for her support of last year's gay rights legislation. A retired Medicare investigator, White is also an outspoken foe of the Metro Planning Commission, whose members regularly reject his zoning amendments as if they were weight loss tips from Albert Haynesworth.
As White heard from his unhappy constituents last Wednesday, he was flanked by many of his white peers who represent rural and/or socially conservative districts. They included White's close friend J.B. Loring, Jim Gotto, Rip Ryman and Jim Forkum. They came to the Donelson Senior Center in a show of support for their beleaguered colleague, who has endured districtwide criticism over his latest rezoning initiative that would encourage more development. Many of the residents found the appearance of White's colleagues at a humdrum neighborhood meeting odd. Even more unusual was the sight of a few inner-city black council members who took time to hear about a zoning dispute in a white, suburban neighborhood 30 minutes from their districts.
"I never had a controversial issue in my district before, and I wanted to see how it was resolved," says black council member Jamie Isabel, who represents the MetroCenter/Trinity Lane area, when asked why he came to the meeting.
Not all of the dozen or so members who attended the meeting are part of the council's socially conservative contingent. But none of the council members who make up the body's progressive wingincluding Jim Shulman and Diane Neighbors, for examplewere in attendance. Apparently, they weren't invited. If the rural whites are successfully courting the inner-city blacks, all kinds of legislationfrom a repeated stab at a gay rights measure to growth and development matterswill be affected.
Actually, that's already happening. Less than a year into the new term, inner-city blacks and suburban whites have banded together on some of the body's highest profile issues to date. In L'Affair Eileen, the usual gaggle of right wing/churchy types representing conservative districts opposed her nomination, including at-large member Buck Dozier (Madison) and district members Jim Forkum (Madison), Carl Burch (Murfreesboro Road/Southeast Nashville) and Jim Gotto (Hermitage). Lining up in Beehan's corner were the typical assortment of touchy-feely progressives who represent parts of town where Howard Dean bumper stickers were once prolific. They included the East Nashville contingent of at-large members David Briley, Diane Neighbors and district members Mike Jameson and Erik Cole along with Jim Shulman (Green Hills) and Ginger Hausser (Belmont/Hillsboro Village). The black members, meanwhile, mainly sided with the social conservatives. Of the 15 council members who voted for Beehan, only two, Ronnie Greer (Melrose/Waverly) and Sam Coleman (Antioch) were black. All the other inner-city members sat in silence as the council humiliated one of its former members for her vote on an issue that had absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.
None of the council members the Scene spoke with says that there is an outright alliance between the conservative whites and the inner-city blacks. But they have voted more or less together a number of times and share similar conservative opinions on gay rights and growth and development issues, including similarly cynical views of the Metro Planning Commission and the idea of conservation zoning. In nearly all zoning disputes, inner-city black council members adopt the same pro-development stance as their conservative white peers from the suburbs. In fact, this week, downtown-area council member Ludye Wallace filed legislation that would decrease public input to the Metro Planning Commission, a measure sure to resonate with conservative white members like Buck Dozier, an avid critic of the regulatory body. Meanwhile, both black council member Ronnie Greer and his white colleague Charlie Tygard have been outspoken detractors of historic zoning.
The council's progressives don't like to talk of any pact between these two unlikely bedfellows. But like a guy who can't help but notice how often his girlfriend talks about her new colleague at work, the progressives sense that inner-city blacks are interested in seeing other people. "Yeah, there's an alliance between the two," one council member laments. "It's an unfortunate set of circumstances."
"I don't know if there is an alliance, but I've seen different issues they've come together on," at-large member Diane Neighbors says.
"It's unclear whether any allegiances have built up," Jim Shulman echoes. "There are a couple of issues that, when you look at the board, you wonder why people are voting the way they are."
Meanwhile, the two groups themselves dismiss any talk that they are doing the legislative equivalent of dating. But they don't seem to mind the speculation. "I'm not aware of anything," says Charlie Tygard. "But it's sort of been interesting to me to see how the votes have come out."
But it's not just the votes. On the council floor recently, Harold White lavished Ludye Wallace with a complimentary speech, prompting one quizzical colleague to remark to the Scene, "Why is White always sucking up to him?" In return, Wallace joined White at the Donelson Senior Center.
Driving the bond between the inner-city and conservative members is that this council's black members are far more conservative than their predecessors. Past black members such as Melvin Black and Don Majors supported conservation zoning, fought for living wage legislation and were more or less socially liberal. They supported Purcell when he was an also-ran candidate for mayor and counted among their friends past progressive stalwarts like Chris Ferrell and Leo Waters. They were leaders in the council, respected by all sides, and never would have taken part in a vapid plot to embarrass a former colleague (Beehan).
Now, if council dynamics were plate tectonics, there would be 10.0 earthquake raging through the old Ben West Library, which is temporarily serving as City Hall. Other than maybe Brenda Gilmore, there's not a single African American on the council who fights the liberal fight. Today, the highest-profile black council member is Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, who last year was the body's most openly anti-gay member, at one point comparing the gay rights movement to a Marxist plot.
Meanwhile, adding to the perfect storm dynamic, the new white council members from socially conservative areas are even more conservative than the ones they replaced. Harold White, arguably the leading cleric of the council's right-wing delegation, took the place of Bruce Stanley, who emphasized constituent service over high-profile legislation and kept his stances on the culture wars to himself. Then there's the budding Al-Sadr of the council, Jim Gotto, who flew into a near rage during last summer's election when he received the endorsement of Out & About, a gay newspaper. Council observers have spotted him driving a pickup truck with not one, not two, but three anti-abortion bumper stickers and a pro-NRA emblem to boot. Gotto replaced Phil Ponder. You remember Ponderhe was the easy-going, folksy artist and one of the more popular council members, who voted for last year's gay rights measures.
This Tuesday, in what promises to be another show of solidarity among the inner-city blacks and rural whites, member Pam Murray is introducing an ordinance that will exempt her Gallatin Road-area neighborhood from the urban zoning overlay (UZO). Arguably the most progressive legislation last term's Metro Council ever passed, the UZO was meant to promote old-fashioned development in the city's older neighborhoods. It treated sprawling suburban-style parking lots along urban corridors as an anathema and tried to encourage storefronts and homes to build closer to the street. Earlier this year, however, Wal-Mart retracted plans to build a neighborhood grocery store along a blighted stretch of Gallatin Road in Murray's district, and the council member and her constituents blamed the corporation's about-face on the UZO.
Now, to the quiet horror (seriously) of some council progressives, the Metro Planning Commission is revisiting parts of the UZO that might allow Wal-Mart to relocate to Gallatin Road anyway. The mayor's office, which supports the UZO, thought that amending it would satisfy Murray, but apparently the issue is more of a hot button than they thought. Murray hasn't pulled her bill, and her inner-city colleagues say she shouldn't. (Like Gotto and White, Murray did not return Scene calls for comment.)
"We need to take the UZO out of the inner-city," says Jamie Isabel. "We need to build up inner-city areas."
Isabel says that developers choose the suburbs over the inner-city because there are fewer stipulations for them to follow there. But Rick Bernhardt, executive director of the Metro Planning Commission, notes that the exact opposite is true. Suburban areas require more setback, height and use requirements, he says.
Since the Metro Council overwhelmingly passed the UZO in December 2000, the planning commission has rejected only nine variances from developers. Still, Bernhardt believes that the UZO is used as a scapegoat to explain away problems that have languished for decades. "You have locations that have been development-deprived for 50 years. While the UZO is the current zoning in those areas, people are using that to say, 'Well, we don't have development,' " he says. "You didn't have development in Pam Murray's district before the UZO."
The UZO doesn't really affect the suburban areas, so Murray's ordinance will be the first real test of the budding bond between the two factions. Still, given the strong pro-development bias of many of the right-leaning council members, it's a safe bet many of them will flock to Murray's side of the board. No matter what happens on that front, however, Murray's ordinance will continue to tatter the fraying relationship between the progressives and the blacks. East Nashville Council member Mike Jameson couched his reluctant support for the Wal-Mart proposal, which literally overshadows his district on the opposite side of Gallatin Road, on the condition that the retail behemoth follow the guidelines of the UZO. That for some reason angered Isabel, even though the proposed Wal-Mart will have far more impact on Jameson's district than his.
"Quite frankly, I don't think he knows where his district is," Isabel says. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be worrying about it."
Other looming issuesfrom the mayor's budget, which has the school board dipping into its reserve fund to cover expenses, to the Sounds proposalwill test the emerging relationship between these factions. But the two already have a solid base of issues they agree on. Whether that's enough of a foundation for a lasting relationship, Purcell and his progressive supporters on the council will soon find out.
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