Metro Council progressives ponder caucusing

Monday, July 21, 2008 at 3:29am
Councilman Ronnie Steine says he hopes he’s considered ‘progressive’ but doesn’t think individual caucuses would help Council. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

In a year filled with hundred-million dollar projects, negotiations with professional sports teams and a controversial school rezoning, arguably no issue has splintered the current Metro Council like the issue of Light Emitting Diode (LED) signs.

At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard, the bill’s sponsor, was nearly blogged to death by Nashville’s progressive set, which bandied words like “Las Vegas-style signs” and “visual clutter” to attack a bill designed to allow LED signs at places of worship and schools in residential areas.

Two special task forces were assembled, one by Tygard, which was disbanded shortly thereafter, and another by Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors. A series of angry e-mails were exchanged between Tygard and Councilwoman Anna Page and eventually the bill was deferred indefinitely with the promise that Metro’s sign ordinance will be completely overhauled.

Various Council members described in some detail the hundreds of e-mails they received from constituents who categorically did not want LED signs disrupting their neighborhoods.

Privately, some Council members admit the entire LED sign controversy left them wondering why progressive elements of the Metro Council do not get as worked up about larger issues facing the city — affordable housing, healthcare or even school rezoning.

The question seems fair to at-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, and others, who believed Nashville was getting a progressive legislative body voted in last fall. Yet, so far anyway, Council’s most noteworthy accomplishments have been approving the predevelopment phase of the $635 million-plus convention center, upping the Sommet Center subsidy for the Nashville Predators and passing a budget that took funds away from almost every Metro department.

Those are hardly badges of honor for Council’s progressive faction. Throw in the lack of public comment on the school board’s controversial rezoning plan from progressive Council members like Megan Barry, Ronnie Steine, Mike Jameson and others, and it’s safe to say the progressive agenda in Metro Council is off to a slow start.

“The Predators deal took a lot of the air out of the room. The budget took a lot of air out of the room,” Maynard said of the time it took to complete those processes. “Now we have got to get back focused and we have to have an agenda. We need a disciplined agenda. We need to take a more aggressive approach.”

To that end, the idea has been circulating among some Council members of organizing a Progressive Caucus to concentrate on what the agenda should be for the left wing of Nashville’s legislative body.

Some members, like Maynard, believe organizing might help streamline an agenda. But others, like Steine, believe efforts to organize could prove divisive. In Nashville, those running for mayor or Council don’t select a party affiliation.

“I’m open to most suggestions but individual caucuses with those kinds of labels don’t serve anyone well,” Steine said. “With 40 members, working as a unit has been historically proven effective. I hope they consider me a progressive, but I have little interest in individual caucuses. I don’t know if it’s served state Legislature or Congress well, so it’s not likely to serve us well either.”

This isn’t the first time the idea of forming a new caucus has been discussed in recent years. Already the black members of Metro Council have a caucus and the notion of a women’s caucus has been discussed as well.

At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry said she’d heard the idea of a Progressive Caucus, but generally echoed Steine’s sentiment that it may not ultimately prove beneficial.

“That discussion is out there. There’s definitely been conversation there in the last couple weeks,” Barry said. “The are some up- and down-sides. The up is you could have on the table a plan that a lot on Council would agree to. The down is you would immediately brand that plan as progressive and you may have a group who would automatically disagree with it.”

Oftentimes on local issues, the word progressive becomes synonymous with pro-neighborhood. To that end, some of the voices calling for Nashville progressives to organize have been those outside of Council with pro-neighborhood sympathies.

Jameson, who represents East Nashville, said it’s understandable why land use and zoning issues, like LED signs or the gargantuan McMansion duplexes popping up around town, are so important to progressive Council members. Jameson said 85 percent of a Council member’s work is related to land use and zoning and not the social issues that often are most important to progressives.

“Keep in mind that the Council spends the majority of its time on land use issues. So considering that should be emphasized by its [so-called] progressive members involves a fairly narrow focus,” Jameson said. “For me, progressive land use policies stress three things — preserving the environment, providing diversified affordable housing and including neighborhood interests in development decisions.”

Jameson’s assertion that Council’s time is mostly consumed with zoning and land use issues was one reason other progressive Council members used as an explanation for why social issues don’t get attention.

“The fundamental progressive values are education and public safety and those issues aren’t ones really in control of Metro Council,” District 35 Councilman Bo Mitchell said.

So while Council balks at the notion of formally organizing, Jameson and others have laid down a road map of agenda items they say the progressive faction should focus its time on over the next three-plus years.

The notion of increasing affordable housing options in Nashville was one of the most popular issues among Metro Council’s progressive members.

“We’re still in the drafting stage,” Maynard said of a bill addressing the need for more affordable housing in Nashville. “We’re working with the administration and I believe we’re going to continue to work to come up with a concrete affordable housing policy. We are 10 to 15 years behind other cities similar in size to us on affordable housing policy.”

Environmental issues were also listed as a top priority of several of the progressive Council members. Although there has been no tangible environmental legislation yet, Maynard and Jameson both said there would be in the coming months.

As for the social issues that are most often attached to a progressive agenda, members said it takes the exact right piece of legislation to accomplish the needed goal.

“Issues like abortion and prayer in school and gay marriage, those are for the state Legislature or Congress to address,” Steine said. “Frankly I think one of the issues with the previous Councils was they spent too much time on memorializing resolutions that didn’t accomplish anything and it divided the Council.

“For me it’s a constant struggle, because [social issues] obviously mean something,” Steine said. “I think progress is in the eye of the beholder and you have to address it almost issue by issue. It’s more in terms of who wants to move the city forward and who likes the status quo.”

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

Haven't heard word one from the so-called "progressives" on Metro Council about re-zoning, cost of living raises for Metro employees, or a living wage.You don't get to call yourself a "progressive" if you're not going to fight for working-class people and their interests. It's time for Steine, Barry, Jameson, and the other latte liberals to come down from their ivory tower and put their money where their mouths are by standing up for the working class.Ronnie Steine, in particular, has been a huge disappointment and is often the person who tries to kneecap true progressive legislation. Like Jim Cooper, Steine fancies himself more informed and practical than the rest of us and seems to think he's doing liberals a favor by "standing up" to them. Note to Ronnie... if you don't have something constructive to say about moving Nashville forward in a progressive direction, then do all of us a favor and just sit there with your mouth shut. Liberals got you onto the Council and they can take you out. Same thing with Karl Dean.