History-making Council member leaves office

Monday, December 15, 2008 at 1:02am
Keith Durbin said being openly gay was never made an issue during the Council campaign. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

In the same year high profile issues like English Only, the 287(g) program and school rezoning threatened Nashville’s would-be status as a socially progressive city to many, the first openly gay elected official in Tennessee history quietly swept into and out of office.

Keith Durbin ran for the District 18 Metro Council seat because of his passion for neighborhood issues and conservation. He served for five years as president of the Belmont/Hillsboro Neighborhood Association and was elected to office in 2007 to uphold the district’s long-standing devotion to neighborhood issues on Council.

Durbin’s sexuality was a mere footnote in the obligatory “About Keith” section of his campaign web site, where he mentioned his 12-year relationship with partner Gary Bynum. Running unopposed, being openly gay was never made an issue during the Council campaign.

Nor was it an issue during Durbin’s 15 months on Council, which will come to an end on Jan. 5. That’s when Durbin will officially resign his Council seat and take a position in Mayor Karl Dean’s administration as Metro’s new head of Information Technology.

To Durbin’s peers and the potential candidates lining up to fill his seat, he leaves office extremely well regarded, taking with him a unique perspective that fellow Council members say will be sorely missed.

“I think what Keith did – his candidacy and the district’s response – is a testament to how far we’ve come in Tennessee and Nashville,” said David Glasgow, a potential candidate in the race to fill out Durbin’s term. “This district is a leader in voting for the person who can do the best job and not looking at some kind of checklist of loyalties.

“The best thing about what Keith has done, there are people like Harvey Milk (the first openly gay elected official in the country’s history) who run and make a name for themselves. Keith made progress without making a scene. I think it’s demonstrated that it’s a non-issue.”

Durbin served as neighborhood advocate first and foremost

Durbin makes no bones about the fact he ran as a neighborhood advocate striving to provide limitless access to his constituents. On that front, he succeeded. All four of the potential replacement candidates lauded Durbin’s accessibility to the District 18 constituents and the highly engaged neighborhood groups rooted there.

Durbin also invested himself in neighborhood issues outside of his district, lending his knowledge of conservation issues and neighborhood association contacts to his fellow Council members. During a small meeting last month led by District 24 Councilman Jason Holleman on the proposed Whitland Avenue conservation overlay, Durbin sat quietly observing the proceedings and offered his advice to Holleman afterwards.

He also invested himself in issues like the proposed new downtown called May Town Center to be located in rural Bell’s Bend.

In the aftermath of the Christmas Eve break-in at the Election Commission and the ensuing issues raised in the investigation, Durbin was a leading voice in Council on improving Metro’s shoddy IT security policy. Durbin has spent his professional career in the IT field, mostly recently at healthcare giant HCA.

While neighborhoods, conservation and IT issues allowed Durbin to lend his perspective and expertise, he never attempted to bring back the issue of a nondiscrimination protection policy for Metro’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers. The issue was in front of Council in 2003 and after much contentious back-and-forth ultimately never advanced. Durbin, who said he was supportive of a nondiscrimination policy, took more of a backseat to at-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, who said she would bring the issue forward soon.

Durbin, who received campaign funds from GLBT advocacy group the Victory Project, called extending the nondiscrimination policy “positive and necessary.” But he added that it was more appropriate for an at-large member like Barry to take the lead on social issues in front of Council.

“I ran for a district seat and not an at-large seat and, to me, the focus has to be the district,” Durbin said. “That always was from minute one why I took the role. It was not about making some political stance. It’s all about the district.”

On earning the tag of the first openly gay publicly elected legislator in the history of the Tennessee, Durbin sheepishly said it was a nice honor.

“I think it’s certainly a positive thing,” Durbin said. “I think it really points, and I hope it points, that we’ve reached a time when qualifications are what matters. If I’m qualified for a job, then I have the same potential to fill that job as another minority or a female or a straight white man. I think it is gratifying, but I think it’s something that’s been a long time coming.”

When he entered office just over a year ago, Durbin was unsure how he would be received by a handful of the more conservative Council members. In his letter to Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and Council informing them of his resignation, Durbin spoke highly of his working relationship with the entire legislative body he is leaving behind.

“I think there are a lot of very intelligent and very important people,” Durbin said. “I respect their opinions and the perspective they’re coming from in supporting their constituents. I think we have a great set of at-large members who do an excellent job supporting the city as well.”

Chris Sanders, the president of the Tennessee Equality Project, a politically active GLBT advocacy group, said Durbin broke barriers by getting elected.

“I think what it says is the Tennessee political community is beginning to move beyond that issue in some ways,” Sanders said. “Now anybody can serve is who is qualified and ran on a good campaign.”

CIO post critical to Metro

When Dean tabbed him to be Metro’s new Chief Information Officer and run the IT department, Durbin became the first openly gay department head in the city’s history, according to Sanders.

The CIO post is an important one in light of last year’s election commission break-in, when it was obvious Metro needed to improve its IT security processes. Durbin promised reform on that front and hinted that a new security officer was a possibility.

Although his new post pays $130,000 and represents a raise for Durbin, he said it was a difficult choice to accept the job offer and leave Council. Now that his decision has been made, Durbin said he was excited by the new opportunity.

“[IT security] is going to be one of my top priorities in the first couple of months,” Durbin said.

Openly gay candidate considers run at Durbin’s seat

With Durbin vacating one of the most civically engaged districts, an intriguing field of potential candidates has formed a queue to replace him. Along with attorneys John Ray Clemmons and Ross Pepper and Belmont professor Kristine LaLonde, Glasgow rounds out the field.

The fact four talented candidates have already thrown their hats into the ring – and others like restaurant owner Randy Rayburn and attorney Allen Woods considered running– yet none of them challenged Durbin a year ago, suggests how well regarded he is in the district.

The parallels between Durbin and one of the candidates are hard to ignore. Like Durbin, Glasgow, the public information officer for the state Rural Development agency, is openly gay. Like Durbin, Glasgow said he would make accessibility to his constituents the centerpiece of his potential campaign.

Durbin has been contacted by all four potential candidates, but added he would not endorse any of them in the upcoming special election to take place in March. Showing consistency on the issue that matters to him most, Durbin said he was looking for the candidate who would put his beloved District 18 first above all else.

“If they contact me to discuss [the seat].. I want to make sure they understand that what I’m looking for is someone who is neighborhood-oriented,” Durbin said. “Someone who understands the issues in our district and is looking at this seat to be a benefit to the district and not a political stepping stone.”

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By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 7:00

His sexuality should have nothing to do with whether he did a good job or not. It contributed nothing to the story. We are not as backward as many would like to think.Good luck to him and may he do a good job for us.

By: morpheus120 on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I've met Keith and he's one of the most honest, friendly, and accessible people you can find - gay or straight.Losing his voice on the Council is a loss for the whole city. Whoever replaces him has some big shoes to fill.

By: sidneyames on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I am wondering why we talk about anyone's sexuality? I can't recall any job interview I've ever been on having a question about my sexuality. Who cares? Quite frankly, I'm with idgaf for the first time. Is he or she doing a good job? And if so, that's what counts.

By: RTungsten on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Maybe if the rest of the council was gay, they would do a better job? I don't get the point of this article. If it was to say that Keith did a good job, they could have left out the gay part. Just sayin'.

By: WickedTribe on 12/31/69 at 7:00

The article begins as though its point is that even here in the South we're willing to elect a gay now.However, it almost immediately points out that he was running unopposed, so even if his entire district was homophobic he'd still have won by default.This ain't no Harvey Milk.

By: TharonChandler on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Though I am Not 'Gay' I have been 'slandered' of it (openly gay bashed, without legal restitution) and belittled in several attempts in Public Elections. From the small town cronyism of the local news-papers and radio and election administrators in central Tennessee, to the assault on my recent campaign by the Missouri Secretary of State; the concept or possibility of a candidate 'being gay' is certainly a factor and I blame Governor Phil Bredesen most for not standing up for the employment rights of someone so devestatedly persecutued as myself. He was obviously wantin a 'peice' of the action for himself. Signed, 1994 college graduate and now unemployed homeless Veteran bum; W T Chandler

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 7:00

"We are not as backward as many would like to think."Incorrect

By: cowpee on 12/31/69 at 7:00

gdiafante, you are correct. We have a long way to go, and yes, sexuality is an important point in this article. Proposition 8 and the Vote Yes campaign prove that across the nation, sexuality is clearly an issue and a barrier to success and equality. However, Durbin is an example of why it shouldn't be an issue. He is gay, and he did a good job.

By: sidneyames on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I am hetrosexual and I would do a good job. Plus I'm a woman. Plus I'm a senior citizen. Can I run for office and count on all your votes? Let's stop talking about gender, sexual preference and start talking about platform. Can we, huh? Please. I didn't even know the guy was gay until today and it was "information overload". The world does not revolve around someone's bedroom preference. Can we stop forcing the issue and just let City Council be City Council and not a social platform?

By: WickedTribe on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I'd strongly recommend everybody see the movie "Milk" if you get a chance. It's playing at Green Hills now, but since it's limited release I don't know how long it'll be there. Even if you're not interested in the gay history, Sean Penn's performance alone makes it worth seeing.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 7:00

"Can I run for office and count on all your votes?"No, you're too senile.

By: OPENmindedONE on 12/31/69 at 7:00

As a homosexual and a voter, I would like the opportunity to vote for someone who is representative of ME. I would suspect that everyone looks to have elected officials who do the same. THAT is why his orientation matters.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Sid, I'm sure some of us create mental images of our fellow posters (you perhaps picture me driving a Prius with an "M-the Moron" sticker?) and I always pictured you as a somewhat patrician older woman. Shorter hair, reading 'Southern Living'...I was somewhat close anyway. LOL! Good post by the way.I don't consider the fact that Keith is gay an issue either. I don't think it would have affected my vote if I lived in his district. His neighborhood advocacy certainly would have and it sounds like he more than lived up to expectations as a councilman.

By: sidneyames on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Wicked, we already "lived" the Milk story. Why pay money to see it when we all had the shock and horror of it in real time. And gdiafanate, I think I am the only one who has mentioned remembering living this in real time. It was a tragedy. I do think it brought to light the lack of security in public offices and the need to protect our public officials regardless of whether we agree with them or not. And gdiafante, I don't need your vote. I have enough support without it. So if I chose to run, I'll remember what you said. My father was an elephant and mother was a bulldog, so I've got the best of both worlds on my side. And most people who go to see it will be going to see Penn and not have a CLUE about Milk and the entire process we went through with the trial, etc.

By: WickedTribe on 12/31/69 at 7:00

My bad sidney, I didn't know before that you are a senior citizen. ;) I was busy being born when the Milk story was happening. Pretty much the entire movie was news to me aside from the "Twinkie Defense

By: slzy on 12/31/69 at 7:00

how is trying to prevent an army of illegal aliens overrunning the state relate to socially progressive?