The Sundquist Model 

Purcell is either risking failure—or he doesn’t have much up his sleeve

Purcell is either risking failure—or he doesn’t have much up his sleeve

Half the art of politics is understanding the flow of time and seizing the moment for maximum opportunity. But outside the art of it, there is also the purpose of it. Being good at the art is irrelevant without the purpose.

Mayor Bill Purcell is moving toward the critical moment of his administration’s first term, but so far he is showing no hints regarding what he thinks about matters of purpose. Purcell will be offering up his second budget at the end of the month, along with what is generally expected to be a tax-increase proposal.

The second year of a mayor’s term is his primary opportunity to launch the big initiatives that will define his administration, and those initiatives usually come as part of the budget process. Purcell has signaled that he has something up his sleeve by departing from tradition to deliver his annual State of Metro speech on the eve of his budget presentation instead of in April. But beyond that, he has not really tipped his hand.

The mayor rode into office pledging to focus on the smaller neighborhood, quality-of-life issues that seemed to get less attention in the big-deal approach to government that marked Phil Bredesen’s eight years as mayor.

To date, however, translating that ethos into practical policy has been somewhat elusive. Purcell has had some symbolic successes and media triumphs, but he has yet to offer a cohesive new way of running government that results in significant quality-of-life enhancements. At the same time, some of the activist groups that felt they would get more of an ear under his administration are starting to discover the natural tension that emerges when dealing with officials who must balance demands in an environment of constrained resources.

To Purcell’s credit, he has spent much of his initial months as mayor clearing up some of the lingering personnel and administrative issues that have dragged on through local government. He clearly is having more trouble than he expected with his plan to replace the trash-burning Thermal plant with a natural-gas-fired heating and cooling system. But those things are all sideshows, and the moment of truth approaches.

A new pay plan for Metro employees is definitely in the works. City workers went without a raise last year, and Purcell has a strong labor record that he would like to maintain. He also has talked considerably about education, but a recent program audit made the case that schools had adequate funding. To further keep things quiet, the mayor’s office clubbed the school board into dropping its annual practice of putting out a multimillion-dollar whine list of “critical unmet needs” that it normally releases to remind the powers that be—the mayor and the Metro Council—that the school system needs ever more funding.

But Purcell’s close-to-the-vest approach has its perils, as selling big changes or big challenges usually takes some groundwork. In that regard, it’s useful to consider the different experiences of Bredesen and Gov. Don Sundquist.

In 1993, when he wanted to sell his proposal for a downtown arena, Bredesen started pushing the idea to the Council in February. The romancing continued with group trips to other cities and local presentations. Bredesen didn’t start talking about the price tag until after he’d given the idea some time to take root. When the Council ultimately acted on the arena proposal and overall tax increase, the matter slid through with relative ease.

By contrast, Sundquist sought to make a dramatic splash at the start of the legislative session. Aides had been promising for weeks that his State of the State speech would violently remove the socks from the audience, but they otherwise gave no hints. When he ultimately unveiled his tax-reform plan, jaws dropped. While he may have scored big in the drama department, it has been less than effective—in part because it represented a departure from everything he’d been saying for most of his political career. Several years later, the outcome on tax reform is still hanging in the balance.

Sundquist’s problems may have stemmed from immediately turning the matter over to the Legislature, wherein he swiftly lost control of the debate. Instead of being a public education process, it instantly turned into one of political survival. To be sure, Sundquist faced a tougher challenge than did Bredesen, who was offering people something to get excited about instead of just a different method of inflicting fiscal pain.

Indeed, Bredesen had a tougher time selling the new main library and comprehensive education package in 1997, despite having done similar extended groundwork. But he certainly had more success in the long run.

Purcell is functioning on the same silent plane that has served Sundquist so poorly. If he has something to unveil, he should do it slowly and steadily with a long-term plan for building support.

Of course, there is another explanation. Purcell may really not have anything more up his sleeve beyond a public employees’ pay plan. In that case, there is a whole different set of issues to wonder about—like when the mayor is going to pull the trigger and start trying to build a record of positive achievements beyond his current round of administrative ones.

One of the things that wasn’t especially visible in Bredesen’s two major tax-increase initiatives was the fact that the lion’s share of the money went to pay raises for public workers. The less expensive, but more showy, aspects of the packages generated all the controversy. They always had accompanying downsides, but they also built a policy legacy.

The question at this point is whether Purcell is aiming to make his reputation on raising worker pay.

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