Last week, during a march downtown commemorating the 50th anniversary of a major civil rights protest, a speaker decried construction of the $633 million Music City Center at a time when the city’s social services are being cut due to tight budgets — a common, if oversimplified, argument these days.
But it wasn’t Emily Evans.
A few days before, outlets like Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal posted stories on their websites announcing the sale of the convention center bonds, which turned out to be in high demand on Wall Street. There was Evans, the Metro councilwoman whose vociferous and aggressive opposition to the financing plan made her a hero to some and a pariah to others. She was quoted in each story, belting a new version of her old line. This time, she called it a “riverboat gamble.”
Despite rumblings in some political circles, Evans said she didn’t call those outlets and assert herself. They called her, she said, at home. One after the other.
Conspiracy theories about Evans’ post-vote activities in the convention center’s financing are surprisingly abundant, as is a lingering class warfare-style public sentiment about the elite getting fancy soaps while the great unwashed continue without a shower. There are rumblings suggesting Evans tipped off Fitch, the ratings agency that recently downgraded a portion of the bonds Metro sold to underwrite convention center construction, potentially costing the city in interest over the long term. A person in the finance industry denied that, saying the idea that a city council member could pull such a trick is, well, laughable.
Evans has been largely silent since Jan. 19, when the council voted the other way on her signature issue. She didn’t even give a floor speech that night, seeing the writing on the wall. Her blog, once quite active, shows but a single post since that vote. Other than the occasional national story about bond issues — she is an expert among her peers, with more than two decades of experience in the finance industry — Evans’ name isn’t showing up so much in the news.
But if you believe a certain cadre of well-connected Nashvillians, Evans is still the same obsessive, selfish, intellectually dishonest crusader — it’s just that she’s working more surreptitiously now to scuttle the biggest capital project in the city’s history.
Life, love and Wall Street
Evans looks more like a mom than a crusader. The married mother of three children — two of whom are teenagers — carries herself with a confidence borne of the careful combination of refined intelligence and a hint of arrogance.
She grew up just outside Washington, D.C., and attended Mount Holyoke College, a women’s school in western Massachusetts. It’s part of the Seven Sisters, a group of prestigious liberal arts schools on the East Coast that have been called the female equivalent of the Ivy League.
Evans spent the next two years working for a boutique investment firm in New York City, Glickenhaus & Co., where she traded municipal bonds. There she ascended from trading assistant to assistant trader, a considerable move in Wall Street terms. Then she met her husband, a fourth-generation Nashvillian, and wound up here.
Until 2000, Evans worked for the investment firm J.C. Bradford & Co. When Paine Webber bought the firm that year, she moved to an Internet startup called ValuBond. But the job required too much travel, and her youngest was 1 at the time, so she bailed after a year to become a stay-at-home mom.
Within a few years, though, Evans had become a bona fide neighborhood activist (she is past president of the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance). Her most high-profile cause was a change in state law making it easier to recall elected officials. It was on the way to that signing ceremony in 2007 that Metro Councilman Mike Jameson asked her to run for council.
“When you look at people who are competent and interested in this stuff and have the wherewithal, you encourage them to run, and I did that with her,” Jameson said.
Evans demurred at first. “I changed my mind because I have a certain background and certain expertise that I thought might be helpful,” she said.
While standard wisdom should dictate that such a background could do nothing but good on a 40-member legislative body mostly bereft of it, some say she uses it to put people in their place. If that sounds a little sophomoric, it’s probably because, well, it is.
It’s either adoration or disgust
This is neither a sympathy piece nor a hit piece. During interviews for this story, The City Paper was accused of both — once before a single question had been asked. Most of the sources — about 15 in total — requested at some point during interviews to talk on background or off the record.
One former council member said Evans has a “scorched earth” mentality. A local political consultant called her methods of argument “destructive” and overly personal. Several other Nashville politicos said Evans has a smartest-kid-in-the-classroom complex that overshadows any negotiating ability.
Jameson, on the other hand, got so fired up in her defense that The City Paper, being a family publication, couldn’t print the transcript. And Jason Holleman, another councilman who stood with Evans on the convention center deal, said there is a coordinated “effort to vilify her.”
Everyone interviewed, it should be noted, made reference to Evans’ impressive intellect.
That is the basic nature of Emily Evans the Elected Official: She inspires a severe reaction, even three months after she lost the biggest legislative fight of her life.
“Emily had this incredible ability to understand what were complex issues, and not just the dollars and cents of it but the ripple effect of these decisions that were going to be made, and take that information and distill it so the rest of us could understand it, and the public could understand it,” said Kevin Sharp, director of the citizen group Nashville’s Priorities, which lobbied against the convention center. “Her voice in this thing was the most clear and concise voice that was being heard.”
Richard Riebeling, the city’s finance director and no stranger to battling with Evans, called her post-vote comments a “nuisance,” adding that while some bond investors have asked him about any continued threat posed by the opposition, there has been no palpable effect.
“Frankly, I have to admit I was a little disappointed to read in Bloomberg that she referred to the deal as a ‘riverboat gamble,’ ” he said. “I don’t think it ended up hurting the project; I think the bonds were sold very successfully. I’m not sure I would’ve done that were I opposed to the project. If I lose the battle, I want to make sure the city’s protected, and we go forward on the best terms possible.”
Joe Hall, of the public relations and lobbying firm Hall Strategies, often lobbies Metro government. He said while he disagreed with Evans’ position on the convention center, he thinks she’s been overexposed by local media because of her knowledge and expertise on financial issues.
“Emily is in the challenging position as a council member of having some finance acumen, and is the place every reporter — your paper, The Tennessean, any other reporter covering economic development — they all run to Emily,” Hall said. “That is a no-win situation [for her]. I shared that with her early on. You could just see it occurring.”
Perhaps that’s finally sinking in.
Evans takes on nearly every major civic issue on her blog, where she offers a depth of analysis rarely seen from a city council member. The convention center is the topic to which she brought the most vigor, with 16 related posts since 2007 (there are 79 total, many of which relay information about basic constituent services such as sidewalks and sewer lines).
As of this writing, Evans had last updated her blog on Jan. 24, less than a week after the council voted to pass the convention center financing plan.
And while it’s still not difficult to find her boiling point on the convention center, she’s more sanguine than most — on either side of her orbit — would have you believe.
“You look at the data and the information before you, and you make your best judgment,” she said. “You listen to your constituents, what they want. You listen to the experts, what they tell you. And you make the best call you can. I think I made the right call for me personally, and also for the people I represent.
“But do I have to now say I think it’s a great idea? Is that the suggestion? This was a policy debate, not an election. … I still disagree with the policy, but I hope it’s successful.”