At this point in 1999, polling showed that Fulton—himself a former congressman who had also served three terms as mayor—was the clear front-runner in a contest whose two other major candidates were erstwhile state lawmaker Bill Purcell and then-Vice Mayor Jay West. By the time modern voters got a chance to get to know Fulton—who, to his credit, took some courageous positions in his day—they knew they didn’t want a political has-been looking for one more shot at political glory. Instead, they chose Purcell, who was a little-known figure when he quit his post as state House majority leader and, to everyone’s astonishment, jumped into the mayor’s race a full two years out. At the time, most everyone thought he was nuts.
Countless small house meetings and a series of groundbreaking political TV ads later (remember the desk in the yard?), Purcell took the election. Actually, Fulton just barely made the runoff with Purcell, but he conceded almost immediately anyway. Admitting that his opponent was the clear choice of the electorate was the act of a humbled man whose final political disappointment was a sad career ender.
The point is, Bob Clement is this year’s version of Dick Fulton—a man who has little vision for a city that has changed dramatically over the last decade or two, someone who’s already had a full political career (less distinguished than Fulton’s was, it would be fair to say) and the kind of not-so-fresh candidate we predict will hide behind meaningless press releases and innocuous appearances, instead handling questions in writing rather than face tough queries live, the way he responded to inquiries from The Nashville Business Journal at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, this year’s Bill Purcell—at least inasmuch as he’s the guy Clement should be most terrified of—is at-large Metro Council member Buck Dozier, the solid sleeper candidate who’s neither fresh nor fetid, neither young nor old, neither East nor West Nashville and whose fundraising and newfound kinder, gentler message have already proven formidable. Financial disclosure figures filed over the summer showed he was a close second to Clement, who owes much of his donor support to the depressing-but-true fact that many players aren’t so much hoping he wins but are instead simply expecting him to. In the end, they want to have backed the winner.
Accessible, smart and self-assured, Dozier ultimately may not be the candidate of choice for this newspaper, but that doesn’t mean we won’t acknowledge he’s the guy it’d be a mistake to underestimate. Sure, when asked about his anti-gay sentiments in advance of the last election, he told the Scene that he plays racquetball with gays and would be happy to sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to them about their private lives “in the bedroom.” (We’re guessing he didn’t have any takers.) But face it: he was the top vote getter in the 2003 Metro Council race, in which he won countywide. While he took one of the five at-large seats outright, garnering more votes than anybody, the likes of David Briley (also running for mayor) and Adam Dread were forced into a runoff with other candidates.
Consider that alongside the benign Bob Clement’s lackluster Davidson County showing in the 2002 U.S. Senate race against Lamar Alexander. In an overwhelmingly Democratic county, Clement garnered 92,994 votes to Alexander’s 70,974. Contrast that 22,000-vote spread to Harold Ford Jr.’s Davidson County mop up in November against Republican Bob Corker—106,847 votes to 67,136, a nearly 40,000-vote margin.
Then there’s the fact that Clement is a well-known quantity, someone for whom there is very little political upside as the months wear on. Instead, he’s faced with minimizing any erosion to his image—which is one reason it’s a safe bet his handlers will guard him like he’s a stray cat on Bill Frist’s lawn.
If indeed this analysis proves prescient, we’d also expect either Briley or former Metro Law director Karl Dean to face Dozier in a runoff, at which point the voters couldn’t have a starker contrast in candidates.