Outsiders campaigning for one of the five Metro Council at-large seats in the coming months face an unlikely institutional force that could make pulling off a victory a daunting task this election cycle.
Never in the 48-year history of Metro government has an incumbent at-large member — elected countywide rather than by district — lost a re-election bid (the rule also applies to sitting mayors and vice mayors). This year’s election on Aug. 4 is something of an oddity: For the first time, or at least going back as far as Metro followers can remember, the ballot will feature five incumbents: Megan Barry, Tim Garrett, Jerry Maynard, Ronnie Steine and Charlie Tygard.
“The power of incumbency,” Tygard said. “There is something to be said for that, obviously, with the statistic you just gave.”
That hasn’t stopped a handful of Davidson County citizens — seven as of last week — from picking up qualifying papers to run for the seats. More might choose to do so before the May 19 qualifying deadline. Whether they return the 25 signatures required to get on the ballot and then actually launch a campaign remains to be seen. At least one candidate is unfazed by the odds.
“You know what?” said Joelton resident Ken Jakes, a frequent critic of Metro government who has already qualified to run for at-large. “I’ve been told that several times. I’m fixing to make history. One of them’s giving up a seat because I am going to make history. I don’t mean that boastfully. I have confidence in myself.”
Jakes, who lost his election bid for the council’s District 1 seat four years ago, is among a few notable names that could appear as at-large candidates. Antioch-area Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite has also picked up papers, as has Renard Francois, a well-connected former Bass, Berry & Sims attorney who has dabbled in local politics in a treasurer role. Others look like long shots. There’s Barry Donegan, a self-described “foot soldier in the campaign for liberty,” according to his website, along with Morelia Cuevas, James Maxwell and Jack Wooten. Until these others turn in their petitions, they aren’t official candidates.
“I have a great love for public service and being able to address the issues of the community,” Wilhoite told The City Paper recently. Term-limited from her district seat, Wilhoite has her eye on an at-large seat. “We’ve had some tough issues, but we have a lot of work to do.”
At-large members, who sit in the front row of council chambers, often hold a comfy spot. For the most part, they get to avoid the zoning matters that occupy so much of a district representative’s time. Those who choose to focus on large-scale issues can turn the seat into a high-profile one, though the seat has never proven an effective springboard to the mayor’s office.
“The district members certainly get a whole lot more telephone calls as well as a lot more local types of problems,” said Garrett, who served for years as a district member. “The more local the politics, the more problems that flash in front of you to solve.”
The current crop of at-large council members emerged in 2007 after a crowded field of 26 wannabes competed for five open seats. Ultimately, name recognition and the ability to raise funds, and in some cases air television ads, prevailed.
Few candidates seemed to work harder four years ago than Brady Banks, who has decided to run for the Crieve Hall area district seat this cycle. He did all the right things, showing up at the myriad candidate forums, shaking hands with thousands of Nashvillians and knocking on doors. Nonetheless, he came up short. Looking back, Banks sees the challenge others will face this year.
“The thing is, what you realize very quickly is that you have to know certain people that can help you along in the campaign,” Banks said of an at-large race. “And you also have to have the capacity to organize.
“It wasn’t so tough on the organization end of things,” he said. “It was really tough trying to get to know all the people you need to know across the county. We’ve got 538 square miles.”
The council’s sitting at-large members come from different parts of the city. Barry lives in the Belmont-Hillsboro area; Garrett in Goodlettsville; Maynard, North Nashville; Steine, Green Hills/Belle Meade area; and Tygard, Bellevue.
Though they’re elected citywide, some have taken on issues that are specific to their communities. Maynard, the only African-American at-large member, has advocated for adequate funding to Metro General Hospital and more economic development in North Nashville. He is pushing for a new Nashville Sounds ballpark at the old Sulphur Dell site off Jefferson Street. Tygard, a former district representative, has turned into a champion for more public art in the county’s suburban areas and speaks on behalf of Bellevue with frequency.
True to her neighborhood’s political inclinations, Barry is one of the council’s progressive voices, having sponsored the council’s first of two nondiscrimination bills (she signed on later as a co-sponsor of the second) as well as spearheading a law to update the living wage for government employees.
“Yes, I have a liberal voice, I care for liberal causes,” Barry said. “But not at the expense of everything else. I still really believe that great communities create jobs, create housing and have strong economic development.”
Steine, who turned to an at-large seat to rejuvenate a political career after he resigned from vice mayor in 2002 amid personal controversy, said he’s aware of the track record of success for at-large incumbents. He attributes it to the nature of the race, not the quality of candidates.
“It’s the most unusual election that almost anyone ever experiences because an individual gets to vote for five candidates,” Steine said. “Because one gets to vote for five candidates, it makes for a race that is much more positive than a race in which someone wants one vote.”
Maynard, who used an at-large transition to elected office from the Tennessee Democratic Party, shrugs off the strong history of at-large incumbency with a little campaign-speak. “I’m running my race as if I’m already 100 votes behind,” he said. Of the five at-large members, Maynard received the fewest votes four years ago.
In terms of fundraising, Tygard led the pack in cash on hand in the most recent Dec. 31 disclosure, with nearly $20,000, followed by Barry with more than $8,000. All five have demonstrated an ability to raise money, however, and will be doing so until August and into a September runoff if necessary. Just last week, Barry raised an additional $83,000 at a fundraiser. The next financial disclosure report, due March 31, should give a better indication where candidates stand financially.
On the surface, Francois, who has still not said whether he will definitely run, seems like a candidate who could compete financially. A Montgomery Bell Academy alum and former attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims, Francois is currently a lawyer at Caterpillar Inc. Two years ago, he served as treasurer for Alan Coverstone’s successful school board run.
“I am considering it,” Francois told The City Paper. “Short of that, there’s nothing firm yet.”
During their first terms, none of the five incumbents became vocal opponents of Mayor Karl Dean. In fact, some are considered allies. Still, a few differed on the most recent hot-button issue: the future of the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Barry, Maynard and Steine tended to side with the mayor’s office’s redevelopment intentions, while Tygard and Garrett offered opposing sentiments.
Whether the sturm and drang of the fairgrounds issue over the last several months carries weight into the campaign season remains to be seen. But Darden Copeland, who heads Save My Fairgrounds, said his group’s members intend to play an active role in this year’s Metro elections. If fairgrounds and racing supporters rally behind candidates, that could help someone like Jakes, a vocal opponent of Dean’s plans from the beginning.
“We’re obviously going to support people like Tim Garrett, who’s been supportive of us,” Copeland said. “There have been some council members at-large that have not supported us. I think you’ll see some endorsements from us, incumbents as well as challengers at the at-large level.”