Driving toward downtown on a late June day, Bill Purcell seems anxious to leave aside discussion of the tattooed infinity symbol on his left wristthe result of college-era spontaneityand focus on the topic occupying him most these days: the management of Metro government.
“Let’s turn around and go back to the fire hall there on 21st,” he directs a campaign staffer who’s driving. Once inside, the conservatively dressed Purcell points to a wall on the right side of the fire hall entryway. Corroded and falling apart, the wall is badly in need of repair.
“How long has it been that way?” Purcell asks the captain on duty. It is, of course, a rhetorical question. He knows the wall has been a problem for months. Not only that, he knows that fire halls in other parts of the city are in even greater need of structural improvements. He cites as an example the buckets catching rainwater in the sleeping area of a Donelson fire hall. Such problems, he insists, are unacceptable in a Metro-operated building. What’s more, Purcell guesses later, Mayor Phil Bredesen “doesn’t know there are buckets all over the sleeping area in Donelson.”
Purcell then guides the captain into a discussion about the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “two in-two out” rule. The rule stipulates that for every two firefighters inside a burning building, two must be waiting outside for rescue. But at any given moment in Metro, the captain confirms with only minimal hesitation, fire halls have only three firefighters on duty. So when a call comes, a team of three responders is supposed to wait for backup from another fire hall before even so much as turning on a water hose.
“But do you?” asks the dimple-chinned Purcell, again knowing the answer.
“Not most of the time,” the captain says. Not waiting for backup puts firefighters in further dangerand Metro in a position of liabilitybut his first obligation is to help Nashvillians in need.
“These are management issues,” Purcell declares as he prepares his exit, his head shaking and his hands outstretched.
If Mayor Phil Bredesen’s tenure as Metro’s chief executive has been marked by big-picture projects and large capital improvements, then Purcell’s implicit suggestion is that he’s the man to follow up with some thoughtful micro-management. Such oversight, he might add, is not accomplished simply by leaving Post-It notes on the desks of department heads, or by offering knee-jerk solutions to complex problems. Instead, Purcell wants it known that he seeks meaningful solutions to fundamental problems facing the city.
Purcell’s critics, meanwhile, argue that he is not the one to address the city’s problems, because they contend he doesn’t really know the city. Certainly, everyone’s got a rap, but that’s the wrong one on Purcell.
The former state legislator was, to be sure, more interested in the workings of state government while he served on Capitol Hill representing East Nashville for a decade. “He wasn’t an enthusiastic member of the Davidson County delegation,” recalls one Hill observer. “He was rather more of a statewide figure. When it came to Metro legislation, Ben West and some of them were a lot more focused on Metro’s agenda than Bill was.”
Another frequent critic, local public relations counselor and political strategist Dave Cooley, goes so far as to say Purcell has been virtually AWOL on issues specific to Nashville. Purcell’s chief opponents, former Mayor Dick Fultonwhom Cooley supportsand Vice Mayor Jay West, Cooley says, have both been much more outspoken than Purcell. “Fulton and West have both been out front and taken difficult positions on every major issue that our city has faced over the last decade or more,” says Cooley, who is also Bredesen’s former chief of staff. “On those same issuesincluding the Meharry-General hospital merger, the downtown library, Bredesen’s three schools packages, and the arena and stadiumPurcell has been noticeably silent or absent.”
But since he announced his plans to run for mayor two years ago, it’s clear that Purcell has made a serious effort to familiarize himself with the city. As he puts it, “If there’s something I want to do and am going to do, then I really do whatever I need to learn about it and know about it.”
And he certainly knows something about the problems, big and small, currently facing Nashville: He vents that fourth-grade schoolbooks in Davidson County incorrectly teach students that county governments in Tennessee are organized under a justice of the peace system. (He discovered this a year ago and made a complaint, but nothing has been changed.) He doesn’t understand why it takes a year for Davidson County librarians to get the books they order. And, he says, Metro does a notoriously poor job of maintaining its own property. “I know the Stahlman Building,” Purcell says, “and I can tell you Elevator One still has a hole in the ceiling just as it did when I was a public defender” in the early 1980s.
Despite his attention to detailsomething Bredesen has never been accused ofPurcell is, in many ways, very much like the outgoing mayor. Both are well-educated, Northern-born Democrats who can think and talk circles around most anyone in the room. Of all the candidates, it can probably be said without argument, Purcell is the most Bredesonian, right down to his occasional air of superiority.
But despite Purcell’s sometimes condescending nature, he has a reputation for the kind of consensus-building that critics say the heavy-handed Bredesen has lacked in his two terms of cityscape additions. When Purcell talks about leadership, he speaks in terms that should appeal to all citizens, regardless of their influence or economic status. He says, for instance, that he wants to have community-wide conversations about pressing Metro issues. In short, he wants the people around him to feel like they’re part of the solution. Such a formula is distinctly contrary to Bredesen’s modus operandi, which seems to rely heavily on the notion that he simply knows what’s best for the city.
Take, for example, Purcell’s position on the city’s current move to bring Dell Computer Corp. to town. He supports the deal, but he says, “It’s another one of those things that’s kind of dividing people, and the main thing is that it hasn’t been explained.” The recent water department issueprivatization versus public managementis another example. “The truth about it is that nobody can really explain either [side] to you, and the reason they can’t is because it hasn’t been explained to them.”
There’s “a difference, perhaps, between me and the mayor,” Purcell says. Bredesen may leave everyone with the feeling that “when he gets to the bottom line, it’s an honest bottom line,” but he doesn’t go far enough. “The thing we need to do now...is take the time to communicate with the larger city and help them understand why. Give them the Dell numbers, and show them how it adds up and tell why you think it’s right.”
Purcell knows he’s not running against Bredesen. But, without saying it in so many words, he gives the distinct impression that he knows he’s running, in part, to reach out to the pool of citizens who feel disaffected by the trends of the Bredesen years and to address issues Bredesen has been less interested inall that without rejecting the Bredesen tenure.
William Paxon Purcell III was born Oct. 25, 1953, in Wallingford, Penn. His mother was a registered Democrat and a Temple University instructor who left college teaching to have Bill, her first of two children. Purcell’s father, a registered Republican, was a food broker who ran the family business. He’d been a prisoner of war during World War II and was, predictably, interested in the politics of the day.
It didn’t take long for Purcell himself to become interested in politics and the workings of government. “I guess I first began to think about the political world in the Eisenhower years,” he recalls. “[As with] a lot of kids, he was my first president and, therefore, my first presidential hero.”
There were early clues about what would later interest Purcellspecifically, education and law. He was an eager student, growing close to his fifth-grade teacher, Marion Irvin. Bill’s mother recalls that Irvin had a reputation for being such a demanding teacher that she approached the school principal to keep her son from being placed in Irvin’s class. But the principal did nothing, and ultimately, Mary Purcell was glad. “She challenged Bill every step of the way,” Mary Purcell recalls.
Irvin can be credited with helping to stoke the young Purcell’s interest in government. One day, his mother recalls, Bill came home and announced that he was going to write a paper about government. His argument was a heady one for a fifth-grader: He planned to argue why Pennsylvania’s state constitution needed revision.
By high school, Purcell’s mother recalls, Bill was developing interests in other government issues. He wrote his senior paper on the issue of juvenile justiceshe remembers it well, because she typed it. To this day, the topic continues to interest him greatly.
To be certain, Purcell was more than just a public policy prodigy. An Eagle Scout, he lettered in soccer his senior year, and he played the first trombone in the high school jazz band.
After high school, Purcell moved to Clinton, N.Y., where he attended Hamilton College. A government major, he was elected vice president of the student senate. In his senior year, he wrote a biweekly column for the Hamilton student newspaper, The Spectator.
Reading his old college diatribes, it’s clear that Purcell’s dry wit and sense of irony aren’t recently developed traits. And the tone of righteous indignation makes it clear that he would go on to lead the life of an activist. One column, for example, railed against the college administration for spending vast resources on a new athletic field house while ignoring fundamental improvements in student housing.
“Unfortunately, no one is interested in having their name glued to the new radiators in Carnegie Dormitory...,” Purcell wrote in one column from February 1976. “People are not much interested in having a year of Jewish Studies presented in remembrance of family dead. Library books are not a very sexy vehicle for commemorating your life.”
Interestingly enough, these words bear a striking resemblance to the kind of disenfranchisement many Nashville votersperhaps Purcell includedfeel after an era of huge capital spending at the expense of other, more fundamental Metro needs.
As his days at Hamilton came to a close, Purcell decided he wanted to go South. His mother’s brother, Joe Hamilton, taught physics at Vanderbilt, and as the graduating senior began applying to law schools, the Vanderbilt connection at least made the school somewhat familiar.
And so Vanderbilt Law School became Purcell’s next stop. It was there, he says, “where I really began to work on the issues of kids.” His first year he began volunteering at the state-run Spencer Youth Center for troubled and delinquent children. Working there, he says, was a “constant reminder” of why he’d come to law school in the first place“to help people.”
Vanderbilt Law School professor Don Hall remembers Purcell as a very well-spoken and eager participant. “His comments were usually very thoughtful, very perceptive,” Hall says.
When Purcell graduated from Vanderbilt in 1979, he pursued a legal services career in West Tennessee, representing clients with few financial resources. With a Vanderbilt Law School degree, it’s fair to say Purcell could have opted instead for a more traditional and lucrative track in a law firm. But he didn’t. “The last large area in the United States without legal services was West Tennessee,” he says. “They had legal services in Guam, in Puerto Rico...but none between Shelby County and the Tennessee River.”
While in the West Tennessee town of Jackson, he met Debbie Miller, a Shelby County native whom he later married. When she left West Tennessee and moved to Nashville for a job, Purcell followed shortly thereafter.
“One day in 1981, [then-Davidson County public defender Walter Kurtz] appeared in my Jackson office unannounced,” Purcell recalls. Kurtz recruited the young lawyer back to Nashville to take a job as an assistant public defender. It was an opportunity for Purcell to continue his work representing more needy, less affluent clients. But it was also a chance for him to begin figuring out Nashville politics.
“You learned in that setting the political nature of an awful lot that was occurring in the county at that time, the interconnectedness of the political machine,” he says.
As a young public defender, Purcell began to make an impression. Johnny Hunter, who had started out at 18 years old working for then-Sheriff Fate Thomas, met Purcell when he came to the jail to meet with clients. “We got to be good friends,” says Hunter, now a sergeant in the state Highway Patrol. “A lot of people as they progress in life and better themselves, they forget about where they came from. I don’t care if he’s in a crowd of millionaires, he’ll come over and shake my hand, even though it’s just simple old me.”
It was after several years in the public defender’s office that Purcell made his first move into politics. By 1986, he had gone into private practice and was planning his wedding when members of his neighborhood association said he should run for the Legislature.
Bill Covington, the young up-and-coming Nashville politico, was leaving his seat to become the Davidson County clerk. And Covington had a hand-picked replacement, Carol Solomon (now a Circuit Court judge), whom most political operatives in Nashville predicted would win.
“The first thing I found was the machine,” Purcell says. “They were very much together, very much alive, and they were all thereJay West, Ben West, the unions were all with them, and they were just all together.
“I said to them that I wanted to go to the Legislature, and they said, ‘You can’t do that. We’ve already decided, and you’re not the one.’ ” It was a tough election, Purcell says, “but very good training ultimately both for serving in the Legislature and for running for mayor because you saw it all. You’d put your signs up, and somebody came along and took them down. There was direct mail with no return address making up any kind of anything.”
Purcell won by 326 votes in the August Democratic primary and faced only token opposition in the November general election. He went up to the Hill as a freshman legislator at a time of significant turmoil in state government. Two years before, former House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett had been reelected to his House seat from federal prison in Alabama. Meanwhile, in 1989, three years after Purcell was elected, the chairman of the State and Local Government Committee, Ted Ray Miller, committed suicide under the cloud of an FBI investigation. Secretary of State Gentry Crowell also committed suicide that year.
“In 1990, I concluded I was going to be in a position to lead in this chamber or I wasn’t going to be there,” Purcell says. “It was just that straightforward for me. It wasn’t worth it if we couldn’t do better.” Running for majority leader against a popular committee chairman, Frank Buck, the smooth-talking Nashville legislator was elected by two votes, the first urban lawmaker ever to hold the position.
Purcell’s election to majority leader spoke well for his abilities, particularly given that he didn’t really have much in common with many of his House colleagues, who came from rural parts of the state. There were more people in the House with hobbies like duck and rabbit hunting than there were people like Purcell, an Al Gore-ish intellectual who cites reading as his favorite recreation.
As former Gov. Ned McWherter notes now, Purcell “wouldn’t win the blue ribbon prize in Dresden for being a redneck,” but he had “tremendous leadership ability and effectively carried legislation for my administration.” Or as longtime Capitol Hill reporter Jeff Woods puts it, the other legislators “considered him useful because, you know, many of them can’t even string together a sentence.”
In short order, Purcell became McWherter’s chief legislative operative, carrying legislation for the governor. But he didn’t just carry the governor’s water. McWherter remembers, for example, the sweeping Education Improvement Act, about which Purcell had distinct opinions. Purcell’s involvement led to some amendments that McWherter says improved the administration bill. (Because the bill equalized funding to some of the more rural parts of the state, leaving urban areas such as Davidson County not as well off, Purcell’s opponents may make his involvement in passage of the bill a campaign issue.)
Purcell was able to help enact other sweeping bipartisan reformsnot just the Education Improvement Act, but also much-needed ethics legislation and workers compensation reform. Most of the legislation he actively worked on shared a common theme of dealing with children and families. In addition, he chaired a special joint Committee on Children and Youth.
During his time in the Legislature, Purcell was known as a squeaky-clean lawmaker, one unbeholden to lobbying interests. “With a lot of the relationships up there between legislators and lobbyists, you’re sort of friends, and it’s sort of easygoing and jousting back and forth,” says lobbyist Nelson Biddle. “With Purcell, it was pretty much straightforward.”
Lobbyists joke about having particular lawmakers who will carry their bills. “We call them our mules,” Biddle says. “I don’t know that Purcell was a mule for anybody.”
Purcell was universally considered among the smartest and most articulate of the legislative members. But sometimes his well-spoken barbs gave him an air of supremacy. When three Republican lawmakers tried one year to present an alternative budget to McWherter’s, Purcell ripped into them. “He single-handedly debated all of them and cut them to ribbons,” one Hill watcher remembers. “By the time it was all over, he made them just look crazy.”
Purcell didn’t limit his biting commentary to the other party, either. “He could just eviscerate somebody on the floor, no matter what party they were,” one lobbyist says.
But, some former colleagues argue, some of the carping about Purcell comes from legislators he’d smoked one way or another in such debates. “There were people jealous of Bill up there,” says state Rep. Mike Williams, a Democrat from Franklin. “He literally was just one of the best who’s ever been at it.”
Perhaps more than at any other time, Purcell took some heat in 1992 for his role in legislative reapportionment that placed 12 Republican incumbents into six legislative districts. “He got a lot of criticism because he was really tough on Republicans,” Biddle says. But then, Purcell’s job as Democratic majority leader sometimes called for partisanship, Biddle says.
“There’s a certain amount of work you have to do with organized labor, with teachers, with trial lawyers who are core financial contributors to your party,” another lobbyist notes. “Bill was very active in trying to do that.” (In this election, Purcell has received endorsements from the Metro teachers’ union and the Fraternal Order of Police.)
The Sundquist administration also found Purcell to be a bit of a pill to work with at times, but again, as the Democratic leader in the House, some of it was probably defensible. “Everything we did, he just distrusted or opposed,” one former Sundquist staffer says. “He loves issues dealing with people, but he doesn’t like people.”
Still, given the liberal-leaning alliances the House majority leader has to maintain, Purcell showed what some characterize as a surprising willingness to work with business. “We worked well with Bill on issues such as workers compensation reform and education reform, and these were issues that, during the time he was majority leader, were important to business,” says Dave Goetz, executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Business.
Eventually, Purcell began to feel as though he’d tapped out the possibilities of his job as a legislator. By the time 1994 came around, he says, “I pretty much had done everything I had set out to do.” In 1996, he announced he was leaving the Legislature, and he took a job as director of the Child and Family Policy Center at the Vanderbilt Institute of Public Policy Studies (VIPPS). (The center may be best known for its sponsorship of the annual family reunion conference, which has brought Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, to Nashville over the past several years. Purcell, in fact, is closely associated with Gore, having served as the Tennessee state director of the Clinton/Gore re-election effort in 1996.)
That final year in the Legislature put even more distance between Purcell and Bredesen than had already existed. The mayor had included Gov. Don Sundquist in discussions with the NFL’s Houston Oilers, which ultimately led to some state funding to bring the deal to Nashville. The stadium, it was concluded, would go on the east side of the Cumberland River. That happened to fall within Bill Purcell’s district.
The Sundquist administration remembers the rest of the story one way, Purcell another. Sundquist staffers recall that Purcell refused to sign on as a sponsor to the bill. Purcell says he was never asked. “The governor asked for support, but it wasn’t in the sense of signing on,” Purcell political director Patrick Willard recalls.
Ultimately, Purcell voted for the state’s funding portion, but it was then-House Minority Leader H.E. Biddle who signed on as the bill’s prime sponsor. Twenty-one other legislators signed onto the bill, but Purcell wasn’t one of them.
In the wake of this dissension, Bredesen staffers poor-mouthed Purcell, and it was believed that the mayor himself was loath to have anything to do with him. In the days since, Purcell has both praised and criticized the outgoing mayor. (The two recently had a pleasant exchange about their mutual disappointment in the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission.)
Meanwhile, Bredesen has decided thus far to take a detached approach to the upcoming mayor’s race.
It was late in ’96 or early ’97 when Purcell began to consider a 1998 run for governor against Sundquist. The Democratic Party was having a hard time scraping up a candidate, and the usual suspects, such as Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, ultimately decided it wasn’t their year. Purcell was on his way to becoming a consensus candidate for governor against Sundquist, until that odd summer day in 1997 when he announceda full two years outthat he wanted to be the mayor of Nashville. Given the congressional move to shift power from the federal government to the states and their municipalities, Purcell reasoned that the job of mayor would be the best way to be involved in his community.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was left without a gubernatorial candidate who could take on a popular, low-key Republican incumbent. John Jay Hooker got the nomination.
If Purcell was considered the decided underdog in his first race for the Legislature 13 years ago, so too has he been this election year’s dark horse. He is, in fact, building a reputation as a man with a stealth campaign style, a candidate who, sometimes surprisingly, emerges with the victory.
If there’s any question that Purcell has the most ground to cover, consider that each of his chief opponents has been elected to a countywide position in the past. Still, Purcell has had a good couple of weeks. After The Tennessean ran the results of a Mason-Dixon poll on the mayor’s raceshowing Purcell virtually neck-and-neck with Vice Mayor Jay West for second place, and both of them within striking distance of former Mayor Dick Fultonthe money has been coming in at a refreshing rate, according to campaign workers.
As the Aug. 5 election day approaches, the goal for the Purcell team is to make it to the predicted Sept. 1 runoff. (To avoid a runoff, the winning candidate would have to get a majority of votes.) If he achieves his goal, the dissimilarity between himself and Fulton can’t help but get the attention of the voting public. “Fulton’s people would rather have West than Purcell,” one elected Metro official says. “They’re scared to death of Purcell. There’s just too much contrast.”
Some Purcell supporters say that if Purcell does make a runoff with Fulton, Purcell will have to be aggressive to win. “I think he has to go after Fulton,” says supporter Will Cheek, the former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “He has to take the bullet to Fulton.”
While Purcell has yet to issue any bombshell plans, he’s shared a few of his ideasan initiative to identify gangs in schools, the creation of a neighborhood division within the mayor’s office, the elimination of the controversial Metro Traffic and Parking Commission, and the reduction of Metro school class sizes to make them consistent with state mandates. But it seems that the idea he’s peddling hardest is the notion of himself as a consensus builder.
Leadership, Purcell says, is about more than legislative experience, which all three front-running candidates have. “If you want to build public will around infrastructure and improving things, you’ve got to talk about it, you’ve got to explain it to them; they’ve got to see that it affects their lives.”
The upcoming mayoral election is the most wide-open in more than a decade. And it is, after all, a tough one to be in, because no matter how well-off Nashvillians may be these daysor perhaps because they are well-offthey simply seem tired and reluctant to care about many of the issues.
But with the election just five weeks away, observers argue Purcell has given the best reason of all for why he wants to be mayor. “The state of Tennessee has done a lot of very good things, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of those reforms,” he said in 1997, shortly after he announced his candidacy. “But what’s become increasingly clear to me over the last year is that the place where those reforms are actually being enacted is at the local level.”
It could be that Purcell’s loftiness, his eloquence, his occasional aloofness, aren’t attractive to voters. Still, there’s little question that he, more than fellow front-runners Fulton and West, is the intellectualthe man who could be imagined reading a copy of Governing magazine in the quiet hours after Sunday church services. He’s the guy who can recite the five books he’s read most recently and remember who the authors are. (He’s just begun Melvin G. Holli’s The American Mayor: The Best and Worst of Big-City Leaders.) He’s the guy who can take a complex issue of governance and figure out a way to fix it.
Purcell’s status as a new breed of intellectual, though, doesn’t mean he’s unapproachable or elitist. He practiced as a legal services attorney, after all; he sends his fifth-grade daughter, Jesse, to a public school, Meigs Magnet; and he’s a loyal patron of such down-home food joints as Prince’s Hot Chicken.
Despite his solid background in government and his well-educated roots, Purcell is a bit of a well-informed rebel stuffed inside a blue blazer and black shoes. That is to say, he may be the best kind of rebela politician who takes the interests of his constituents to heart. And if he comes off as just a little too lofty, well, don’t forget that tattoo on his wrist.
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