The Metro Council turned to a familiar face Tuesday to fill the tarnished office of Davidson County Criminal Court clerk, electing by a wide margin former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, who becomes the first African-American ever to occupy one of Metro’s constitutional seats.
Gentry, a candidate for mayor in 2007, replaces former clerk David Torrence, who resigned from the post amid public humiliation after a series of television reports revealed he worked only three days a week. Gentry begins his new job in September.
Addressing reporters following the vote, Gentry said the job had long been on his “bucket list” but he didn’t want to run against an incumbent.
“I just decided that this was my opportunity to move back into a level of public service that I felt very comfortable in,” said Gentry, who most recently held a position with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s unfortunate that occurred,” Gentry said of Torrence’s troubles. “I do plan to come to work. I plan to be there. I plan to be the face of the Criminal Court. That system is well run. You don’t have to go in there and blow it up and make wholesale changes.”
Gentry avoided a runoff by collecting 23 votes. Councilman Michael Craddock, who unsuccessfully ran for the job last year, finished with 10 votes. Steven Murff collected five votes. Gayle Barbee and Frank Friedman finished with one vote apiece.
In short time, Gentry will have to shift into campaign mode. By Metro Charter, he must be elected by Davidson County voters in August 2012 to retain the seat. From there, he would finish out Torrence’s term, which runs through 2014.
“My election starts tomorrow,” Gentry said.
Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr., who formally nominated Gentry as clerk, said Gentry has always been one of his mentors. He said he’s known his family for years.
“I think he’s more than qualified to run an efficient office,” Matthews said. “It’s an office that will regain the public trust that’s been lost.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, some observers had anointed Gentry as the choice of Mayor Karl Dean’s administration. Privately, several council members were bemoaning perceived behind-the-scenes politicking.
“Who doesn’t want the support of the mayor’s office?” said Gentry, adding he never spoke to Dean about the position. “The fact is, that kind of politicking, I wasn’t involved with. I’m a former vice mayor. I know how to count my votes. Give me some credit.”
With his victory, Gentry becomes the first African-American to hold one of Davidson County’s elected constitutional offices, which also includes seats such as public defender, county clerk and sheriff.
“As excited as I want to be about that, it’s also a shame that it’s taken so long,” Gentry said. “I have mixed emotions about that.”
Moving forward, Criminal Court clerk may not be the final office Gentry seeks.
“I plan for it to be, but my political career has never quite worked out by plan,” Gentry said. “To say that it will be the last, I’d like for it to last long enough to be effective. But to say that it will be the last, I think, is more the right thing to say than reality. I don’t know what my political future is going to be.”