Metropolitik: Bad News, Barry

Mayor Megan Barry attends a Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce meeting to discuss transitPhoto: Michael W. Bunch, Metro Photographer

If Mayor Megan Barry ends up being a one-term mayor — a rarity in Nashville since the birth of our unified Metro government in 1963 — you’ll be able to draw a straight line between last week’s Metro Council meeting and the end of a once-promising political career.

Barry’s affair with Sgt. Rob Forrest, the head of her security detail, has dominated local headlines for weeks. For all the sturm und drang in the media, there’s remarkably little actually there: Barry’s trips with Forrest will likely show some overtime that someone besides the city ought to pay. Beyond that, there’s a lot of bad judgment and precious little that looks illegal. Stupid, yes, but if we begin impeaching for stupid, there are much bigger fish to fry in this country.

The problems that Barry faces are largely political and almost completely of her own making.

Take General Hospital, for example. Metro Council voted 36-0 to approve a $17.1 million subsidy to keep it operational as an inpatient facility. Last year, Barry had proposed changing the model of the facility entirely to orient it more toward community health and, in the process, shift the Meharry Medical School partnership for training of third- and fourth-year students to HCA’s Southern Hills Hospital. This was met with severe criticism from the council’s minority caucus, as General Hospital serves a heavily African-American community in North Nashville. Why the turmoil? Because the mayor’s office had not done the consensus-building work necessary to make such a shift in resources palatable.

The vote was a direct shot at Barry, exposing real fault lines between her and the city’s black community, and the timing could not be worse. African-American voters showed real political power four years ago, vaulting a number of black judicial candidates to wins in the May 2014 Democratic primaries. In a low-turnout election, as the one coming up on May 1 is expected to be, Barry was likely counting on African-American turnout to support her on the transit referendum. It’s absolutely vital. And it’s no accident that the anti-transit crowd has tried to exploit this opening, with “No Hospital, No Transit” signs popping up in North Nashville.

But the bigger knife came via the people holding Barry’s previous post, at-large council members.

In voting to put the transit referendum on the ballot, the five at-large council members banded together to amend the ballot language to include not only the initial capital cost of the bus-and-rail project — $5.4 billion — but also the ongoing operating costs. If you combine the two figures, as transit foes have been doing for months, the cost becomes $8.9 billion. Now, we can argue whether or not it’s right to put that figure on the ballot — advocates like Councilmember Bob Mendes say they were being transparent, while opponents like Councilmember Jeremy Elrod say other projects are never computed in these terms — but one fact is clear: Having the bigger number on the ballot diminishes its chances of passing. Anti-transit polling shows that a narrow majority of Davidson County residents support the transit plan at the $5.4 billion figure, but that majority slips away with the higher number. The vote was 21-16 to amend, with the five at-larges making the difference.

Talk with the anti-transit organizers and they’ll tell you their biggest fear was Barry’s enormous personal popularity. According to one strategist, 10 days before the election, the transit supporters’ plan would likely be to carpet-bomb the airwaves with ads asking the public to trust her on transit and vote yes on the referendum — and the plan would pass. But in the wake of Barry’s infidelity admission and the attendant investigations by the TBI and Metro Council, her supporters can no longer bank on her popularity. And because of the amendment last week, the anti-transit forces are probably favorites.

To be sure, Barry’s current vulnerability has cost her support in the council. Before the scandal, both of those votes could have taken a different path. Now the mayor is all-in on a transit proposal that faces longer odds. And if it fails, all of the political capital Barry spent organizing a giant coalition of businesses, nonprofits and universities — there is already grumbling among some of the deep-pocketed partners — will be gone just as candidates who might oppose her need to start organizing for a 2019 run.

Last time there was a citywide transit proposal, car dealer and Nashville supervillain Lee Beaman called in a favor and had The Amp killed by the General Assembly. This time, the council did the job for him, whether they realized it or not, and they might have sunk the mayor in the process.

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!