With At-Large Councilwoman Megan Barry aiming to be Nashville's first woman mayor, it's not surprising that Betty Nixon's name would come up. Nixon ran for mayor in 1991 after 12 years on the Metro Council; she's the previous woman to seek the office. But she didn't appreciate the way she became part of the 2015 mayoral conversation.
After Bruce Dobie cited her failed run in a column for The Tennessean that revealed the anxieties of the business types who work out the city's politics over single-malt scotches at Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse, while casting doubts about Barry's prospects, Nixon sent a letter to media outlets in which she said she was "mystified that 'would be' pundits are now trying to compare the politics of 20 years ago with the politics of the 2015 mayor's race." The self-described "70-something-year-old woman" went on to say that "the old-timers need to get with the new Nashville."
So the Scene got on the phone with Nixon, sharp as ever, to find out more about what she thinks the old-timers just don't seem to understand. Naturally, we started with the important stuff.
Have you eaten, or do you eat, at Jimmy Kelly's?
[Laughs] I've eaten at Jimmy Kelly's, and I know Mike who owns it. But I've not had political conversations there.
You mentioned in your letter how much Nashville has changed in the 20 years since you ran for mayor. How do you think the city has changed politically since then, particularly as it relates to women in politics?
Well, it is very different. Obviously, there are more women doing everything in Nashville, because they've been doing it longer and doing it better, and the pipelines have filled up, so they're running banks and businesses. We have a speaker of the House [Beth Harwell], who is from Nashville.
But I think particularly the two women who are most mentioned [Megan Barry, Diane Neighbors] have extremely interesting credentials. They have won countywide races. Nobody else who's been mentioned has won a countywide race. These women have run and won more than once. And they have strong policy credentials. They've been a part of leading the city toward those things I mentioned in my column. They both have corporate experience. I just think this is a really interesting time, with unusually outstanding women candidates.
It seems awful easy to say, "Well, Megan Barry is running for mayor, here's the last woman who ran for mayor, so they must be similar." One thing that stands out, which you mentioned, is she has won two county-wide elections, which is different from when you ran for mayor coming from [a district seat] on the Metro Council.
There are 35 [district] council seats, and let's say, in the state Senate, there are 33 senatorial seats. It would be like, scaling up from a Senate race to a statewide race. It's a major jump, and it's a jump these women have already made.
When you ran for mayor — like you said, it was 20 years ago; it was a different time politically and culturally. Did you feel being a woman was a larger factor when you were running campaigns back then? Did that factor into how people saw you or how people reacted to you politically?
It's a little hard for me to answer that. I had been influential and successful as a council member, but it's not a big deal anymore. It was sort of, I was "the woman candidate" as opposed to the candidate. Well, at any rate, it was more of a big deal [then] is what I would say.
You say in your piece, "Imagine a puzzled 20-something-year-old Nashvillian reading the opinions of these pundits, scratching her head. For the life of her she cannot figure out what the political ambitions of a 70-something-year-old woman she never heard of, who ran for mayor 20 years ago, has to do with the 2015 mayor's race. The answer is clear — not a darn thing." Beyond the fact that I have heard of you, I am a 20-something, so I'm something like that hypothetical person. Explain to me why your experience doesn't have any bearing on a woman running today.
Well, I think because Nashville is a different place. There are so many voters who haven't even been here 20-something years, or weren't born in some cases. I mean, I have five children, and they live in London, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver. And every now and then they'll say to me, "Mom, we know somebody who's moving to Nashville." So, I'll say, well, you know, Nashville's really changed a lot since you left home.
It's a city now that is attracting people to it in ways that I don't think were as true 20-something years ago. We were more talking internally about where we were going to go. So now we're more of a city that people don't just come here for a job, they choose to come to Nashville as a city, and then maybe look for work or a life or whatever.
I just think we've made a huge leap as a city, and so we're attracting young people who are more urban. We're attracting young people who are more entrepreneurial. I grew up in Nashville — I actually grew up in Belle Meade — and the whole idea of Nashville for everybody, the defeat of the English-Only amendment, the support for things like the Music City Center, the whole vision of the city as a interconnected, diverse, successful place is very exciting. So I think people will be looking for mayors who can collaborate and consolidate all those gains, if you will. And I think that ability to collaborate, consolidate, keep everybody talking and working together, is a quality that is often attributed to females, and certainly one that both of these candidates have demonstrated.
Do you miss all this politics, or are you happy to be removed from it?
Well, I had my run, so to speak, and it was fabulous.
Because my deal was, having grown up in this city and seen it be very top-down, and then having left the city for a while and lived on Capitol Hill in D.C., where I saw and lived a completely different vision. So when I came back, the city plan didn't save any of these neighborhoods. As a matter of a fact, it called for the redevelopment ... this may be too complicated, but in the city plan that was in existence then, you had the urban core and it was illegal to live, to have a residence downtown. And the plan called for it to be surrounded by apartment complexes and office buildings. And when I came back to Nashville and we bought this old house near Vanderbilt, I said, "Well, this doesn't make any sense to me." So we started working on saving West End/Belmont/Hillsboro. There had been some work done before that, but there was only one neighborhood organization. There was really not much grass-roots activism. So my career was about saving the historic and urban neighborhoods around the city, and you know, we did it. So that's pretty exciting.
So I look back on it with a lot of fondness. And I get interested in issues. I've been an advocate for mass transit, but I'm not a political player at this point in my life. And don't need to be. But I love to see good people run for office.
Thanks for those comments, former mayor Boner. ;)
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