What compels Nashvillians to run for Metro Council, the city’s 40-member legislative body that’s among the largest in the country, can be mystifying to those who aren’t devotees of local government minutiae.
It’s surely not the money. Council members bring in $15,000 a year for a job that often draws them away from their careers and families. A council seat has never been an effective springboard to the city’s top job. Ask David Briley, Buck Dozier and Howard Gentry how their jumps from council chambers to the mayor’s office worked out four years ago.
Then there’s the job itself, which at least for district council members consists primarily of zoning issues — many that divide neighborhoods and rile constituents, leaving the members to sort it out.
Nonetheless, every four years hundreds file qualifying papers with the Davidson County Election Commission, including several candidates who either held seats in the past or ran unsuccessfully in previous elections. This year is no different, with the council looking at some churn after the Aug. 4 Election Day and the subsequent September runoff, a byproduct of the mid-1990s introduction of term limits.
In all, 13 council members are term-limited and can’t run again, and another two — Jamie Hollin and Kristine LaLonde — have opted not to seek re-election. Only five incumbents are running unopposed: Phil Claiborne, Emily Evans, Walter Hunt, Edith Langster and Carter Todd. Two outside candidates, former school board member Steve Glover and ex-police detective Bill Pridemore, are also running unopposed. In all, there are 33 challenged seats, including five at-larges.
Signaling the ongoing campaign season, mailers are arriving at residences. Regular voters have opened their front doors to find candidates handing out their palm cards. Some have even picked up their phones to discover surveys on which at-large candidates they prefer.
The current council rubber-stamped most of Mayor Karl Dean’s initiatives, handing the soon-to-be two-term mayor his greatest victory by approving financing for the $585 million convention center. The one major exception was the stiff-arm the council gave Dean’s administration on his plans to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a rare blow for a Nashville mayor on a signature project. The backlash led to a referendum on whether to keep the status quo at the 117-acre site, an addition to the ballot that could shake up several races and perhaps bring more voters to the polls. Still, low turnout is expected.
The next council figures to play a role in some significant debates. Dean’s decision to hold off raising property taxes — and instead restructure the city’s debt in a short-term fix to a long-term problem — has left some wondering how long the city can stave off a tax hike. Dean’s administration has commissioned a study on the feasibility of a new Nashville Sounds baseball stadium, positioning it as a possible second-term issue.
Several entities including the Nashville Symphony have approached the mayor’s office about a new amphitheater at the 11-acre former thermal plant site, and Dean has signaled interest. The mayor has also said investing in mass transit is on his radar, and that would require a dedicated funding source. True upgrades in public transportation would cost millions.
For many Davidson County residents, the most fascinating race will likely be the one where they live. But for those who enjoy politics at the most local level, here are some races to watch with early voting less than a month away.
Incumbent: Bo Mitchell
Challenger: Tonya Jones, former Metro Planning commissioner
To understand this race, first consider that there’s some bad blood between incumbent Bo Mitchell and Charlie Tygard, the at-large councilman and Bellevue resident.
Flash back to the expedited redistricting of council lines a few months ago, and there was Metro Planning Department commissioner Tonya Jones — not a candidate at the time — making a last-minute proposal to change the lines of Bellevue’s two districts. The proposal would have allowed Tygard to run uncontested for a district seat. Mitchell points out it would have also enabled Jones to run unopposed. Ultimately, it didn’t pass.
“Either she was drawing it for him or herself,” Mitchell said. “That’s a question you’ve got to ask her.”
Jones, who has also served on the parks board, said she’s “not surprised” by Mitchell’s accusation, but she insists there was no political motivation. She said it had to do with urban services and general services district issues.
Either way, with Jones’ reappointment on the horizon, rumors began to fly that Mitchell was working behind the scenes to ensure she wasn’t nominated for another commission term. In the end, Mayor Karl Dean did nominate Jones, but she unexpectedly decided for a council run instead, just days before the qualifying deadline.
“Enough was enough,” Jones said of her decision to get in, a reference to being disgruntled with some neighborhood issues. “I’m a complainer, and you just don’t have the right to complain if you don’t get in there and mix it up.”
Tygard is perhaps Jones’ biggest backer in this contest. The two have discussed her candidacy, and Tygard has contributed to her campaign. Jones downplays the involvement of Tygard, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that her opponent is also Tygard’s chief rival on the council. Mitchell and Tygard haven’t gotten along since the former arrived four years ago.
Moreover, Mitchell is an outspoken Democrat and one of the only members to regularly advocate for labor unions. Jones is an unabashed conservative. Tygard, though he doesn’t wear the Republican R on his sleeve, tends to lean conservative. It will be worth watching whether the local Democratic and Republican parties get involved.
Challengers: Scott Davis, Priscilla Eaton, Pam Murray
Sitting inside a courtroom last week were Pam Murray and Priscilla Eaton, two East Nashville women squared off in an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by Murray. They’re also among the candidates running to represent the council’s District 5.
The third person in the race is Scott Davis, part-time owner of Nashville Pride, a newspaper devoted to African-American issues.
The dynamics are bizarre: Murray is the former councilwoman of the area west of Gallatin Pike and south of Trinity Lane. She was ousted in November 2009, in Metro’s first successful recall election. Her slim two-vote loss put Jamie Hollin in the seat. He’s opted against re-election.
Months after her defeat, Murray filed suit against Hollin and several of her former constituents, accusing the group “We The People of District 5” of character defamation during the run-up to the recall election via various campaign literature. Among Murray’s objections is the infamous allegation that she had been living in Detroit while holding office in Nashville.
Four defendants remain in the suit, including Hollin and Eaton. A judge last week said Eaton — who supported Hollin in the recall — showed no evidence of malice toward Murray two years ago but perhaps just ill will, which isn’t grounds for a defamation case. Nonetheless, the judge has granted Murray’s attorney until July 1 to submit enough evidence to warrant the jury trial, which Murray is seeking.
Hollin told The City Paper he’s not endorsing a candidate in the race, though Eaton figures to attract some voters who signed petitions to recall Murray and later voted for Hollin.
Murray said there’s nothing strange about campaigning against someone she’s also suing.
“That’s my neighbor,” Murray said. “She’s running, and I’m just staying focused on the race. I’m not focusing on nothing else other than the race. That’s what I do.”
Eaton, a 30-year resident in the area and former president of the Maxwell Area Neighborhood Association, said she’s running to move her district forward.
Asked for her thoughts on Murray trying to reclaim a seat from which voters booted her, Eaton declined to comment because of the suit.
Davis, who cites various endorsements to underscore the status of his campaign, called Murray and Eaton “both very nice women” whom he “respects tremendously.”
“The only thing is, as a district we need to move past the lawsuit,” Davis said. “We need to move past those issues of the past right now.”
Incumbent: Jason Holleman
Challenger: Sarah Lodge Tally
Metro Councilman Jason Holleman had gone months thinking he would run unopposed to reclaim his West Nashville seat, which includes his home turf of Sylvan Park.
Then 29-year-old attorney Sarah Lodge Tally jumped into the race, days before the qualifying deadline. She set up a match that has Nashville’s political insiders buzzing.
Holleman must not only overcome Tally. He has to also stave off a gaggle of some Mayor Karl Dean’s most well-connected supporters — who are backing Tally — and their money. (Tally claims to have raised $36,000 in less than a month. Holleman has a sizable campaign war chest himself, leading some to believe more money will be raised in this contest than any other district council race ever.)
There’s also the Jeff Yarbro element. In the heated Democratic primary for the state Senate’s District 21, Holleman was an outspoken supporter of Sen. Douglas Henry, irritating some progressives who backed Yarbro, the candidate who carried Holleman’s district by a 57-43 percent margin. Henry narrowly prevailed in the election. Today, Yarbro and some of his crew are supporting Tally.
“I treat this race as though there are two names on the ballot,” said Holleman, who works as the city attorney of Mt. Juliet.
Tally’s campaign treasurer is Dave Goetz, former state commissioner of finance and administration and husband of Katy Varney, partner at the powerful McNeely, Pigott & Fox public relations firm and a Yarbro supporter. Among those who signed Tally’s qualifying petition were Keith Simmons, a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims; Irwin Kuhn, who worked on Dean’s 2007 transition team; Matt Kisber, former state commissioner of economic development; and Tom Hayden, Dean’s re-election campaign spokesman. Hayden insists the Dean campaign is not involved in the Holleman-Tally race. He said he signed Tally’s papers because they are longtime friends.
Tally, the daughter of prominent lobbyist Dick Lodge and Democratic fundraiser Gina Lodge, said a lot of the aforementioned names are “just my family friends.”
“Yes, they certainly are power players, so to speak, and have been connected,” Tally said. “But for me it’s much more of a personal connection … It certainly doesn’t hurt to have them on board.”
Holleman has drawn the mayor’s ire for opposing some of the mayor’s initiatives. He voted against financing a new $585 million convention center and Dean’s plans for redeveloping the fairgrounds. Holleman has also found himself in the middle of some contentious neighborhood issues, particularly on historic overlays and when he fought a deal for the Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ to sell its building to make way for a new Rite-Aid.
As a candidate who threw her hat in the ring late in the game, Tally must play catch-up in a district that already knows Holleman well. Tally said she’s not found that to be a problem, but Holleman seems surprised she didn’t enlist months ago.
“I would have expected someone who was going to run to start earlier,” Holleman said. “But at this point, I’m completely focused on getting my message out.”
Incumbent: Karen Bennett
Challengers: Nina Ground, Nancy VanReece
Council races don’t usually attract the lieutenant governor, but Republican and Tea Party favorite Ron Ramsey dropped in for a recent fundraiser organized for Councilwoman Karen Bennett. And the list of inviting supporters reads like a GOP breakfast club.
They included: state Sen. Jack Johnson, Rep. Jim Gotto, most right-leaning council members, Davidson County GOP chair Kathleen Starnes, ex-state GOP chair Robin Smith, former Republican congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik, conservative Oak Hill Mayor Austen McMullen, and businessmen Lee Beaman and William Morgan, both of whom actively opposed Metro’s recently adopted nondiscrimination ordinance, which was recently nullified through a new state law.
Acknowledging the council tilts left, conservatives seem to be putting their weight behind right-leaning incumbents to at least hold their ground. In a statement, Ramsey called Bennett’s public service “second to none.” (Some other notable conservatives are hosting an upcoming fundraiser for Councilman Robert Duvall.)
Bennett is downplaying the GOP tint of her recent fundraising effort.
“I think there was a mix of folks,” Bennett said. “Everybody seems to keep pointing out the Republicans that were part of the event. I had a group come up to me and said they wanted to put on a fundraiser for me.”
Nancy VanReece seems to be Bennett’s toughest challenger. She was among the earliest candidates to hit the campaign trail. VanReece has the support of many progressives.
Bennett and VanReece weren’t originally opponents, but with the council’s newly drawn lines, the district shed several neighborhoods Bennett once represented.
“She didn’t ask for this race any more than I did,” VanReece said when asked about Bennett’s Republican support. “She was maybe a little bit behind in fundraising, and she wanted to appeal to her base. That happens to be her base. If nothing else, it’s helped clarify for folks the differences between the two of us.”
If elected, VanReece would become the first openly gay woman to hold an elected office in Davidson County.
“It’s about the story of the northeast corridor,” VanReece said of her candidacy, “not about me being the first at something.”
Both candidates effortlessly reel off the issues they say their constituents are concerned about. They say party politics isn’t something voters care much about.
But given VanReece’s pursuit at history, it’s hard to ignore that Bennett voted against a nondiscrimination bill requiring Metro contractors to extend employment protections to gay, lesbian and transgender workers. Bennett said her decision simply reflected the will of her constituents.
The City Paper could not reach Nina Ground, the third candidate in the race. Based on Ground’s campaign website, it appears one of her most passionate issues is protecting the Tennessee State Fairgrounds from future development.
“[Mayor Karl] Dean does not even have the moral authority to even sell the fairgrounds if he wanted to!” Ground’s website reads.
Hillsboro Village, 12South, Belmont
and Vanderbilt universities
Challengers: Burkley Allen, David Glasgow
The Metro Council’s District 18 has long been among Nashville’s most politically active and progressive areas. It’ll be worth watching to see how the chips fall now that voters have two notable candidates to choose from instead of just one.
David Glasgow, who finished third in the special election that went to Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde two years ago, was the district’s lone candidate prior to redistricting. LaLonde has decided not to run again.
But new political boundaries that came this spring swept longtime Hillsboro-West End resident Burkley Allen away from Councilman Sean McGuire’s Green Hills-area district and into LaLonde’s. No longer forced to run against an incumbent, Allen jumped into the race, creating an intriguing match-up.
In the time before Allen’s entry, Glasgow built an impressive list of notable backers, many of whom live near the Belmont side of the district, where Glasgow resides. One of those supporters is LaLonde.
But now that Allen has had time to organize a campaign of her own, she too has built a nice list of followers, viewable on her campaign website. Not surprisingly, Allen is drawing pretty well in the West End/Elmington Park area where she lives.
Allen, an engineer and former Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association president, said she can overcome her late candidacy.
“Some have said they will be neutral now that they know there will be two people in the race, just because of the positions they had been in,” Allen said of Glasgow’s earlier commitments of support.
But Glasgow, who works for the state office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, believes he can retain most of his supporters while building his base. “Even since Burkley has gotten in, the pace of new people coming on board has actually picked up,” Glasgow said.
District 18 has a history of producing some high-profile council members over the years, including Betty Nixon and Stewart Clifton, folks known as some of Nashville’s neighborhood-activist pioneers. In that tradition, Allen cites development concerns and relations with nearby Vanderbilt as some of her top priorities, while Glasgow talks about traffic, parking and zoning issues.
If elected, Glasgow would become the first openly gay candidate to win a contested Davidson County elected office. Keith Durbin, who briefly held the District 18 seat before becoming Metro’s director of information technology, was the first openly gay elected official in Nashville, but he ran unopposed.
Incumbents: Megan Barry, Tim Garrett, Jerry Maynard, Ronnie Steine, Charlie Tygard
At-large council members seeking another term in their countywide seats have never lost in the 48-year history of Metro government, and this election presents five incumbents: Megan Barry, Tim Garrett, Jerry Maynard, Ronnie Steine and Charlie Tygard.
But with low turnout expected, the referendum on the fairgrounds — recently added to the ballot after supporters gathered more than 11,000 petitions — could attract voters who would normally sit it out. If so, Barry, Maynard and Steine could be the biggest losers, as all three voted consistently with Dean on his administration’s fairgrounds plans. Garrett and Tygard were on the opposite ends of those votes.
If the fairgrounds issue is a factor in turnout, Joelton resident Ken Jakes could score. He’s been advocating for the preservation of the fairgrounds since day one.
But Jakes lacks the countywide name recognition of Councilman Eric Crafton, who is also running for at-large and consistently opposed Dean’s fairgrounds plans. Crafton recently struck out in his campaign for Juvenile Court Clerk. But Crafton is also a lightning rod to many for his past advocacy for the English-Only referendum, among similarly unpopular positions.
Observers say the most vulnerable incumbent is Maynard, who finished fifth in 2007.
In all, Davidson County voters must choose from 18 candidates to fill five at-large seats. Other candidates who could make the race interesting are district Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, who like Crafton lost in last year’s clerk’s race, as well as Councilman Sam Coleman, who lost as a Democrat for the state House seat now held by Jim Gotto.
Another candidate who could stir things is Renard Francois, a former attorney at the law firm Bass, Berry & Sims, who seems capable of raising enough money to put up a fight. Francois has also been making the rounds with Nashville’s social media diehards, holding a recent meet-up. Still, Francois has an uphill battle to get his name out.
Other races to watch:
East Nashville (Lockeland
Springs and Edgefield)
Whoever wins the council’s District 6 race has some big shoes to fill in succeeding Mike Jameson, a favorite among progressives and neighborhood activists. Jameson recently told The City Paper he doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate. Several have lined up, and it’s going to be a good fight. The list includes Hans Schmidt, a Baker Donelson attorney and president of the Lockeland Springs Neighborhood Association, as well as Peter Westerholm, who works for the state’s budget and strategic planning office. Westerholm lost four years ago as an at-large candidate. Making a splash on the visibility end of campaigning is attorney Dave Rich, whose big green signs are all over the district. Rounding out the list is Bob Borzak, a 25-year resident who’s been active in the neighborhood for years.
Downtown, North Nashville,
Germantown and Salemtown
Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore comes from a popular family in Nashville — she’s the daughter of state Rep. Brenda Gilmore — and the younger Gilmore has made her name. But redistricting has shifted the boundaries: Her district now includes all of downtown, and fewer parts of North Nashville and the Edgehill neighborhood, two of her strongholds. That sets up Curt Wallen, vice president of an artist management firm, to put the seat in play. Wallen has pumped a reasonable amount of money into his race. Could the council have its first downtown resident?
West Nashville/The Nations
Mary Carolyn Roberts, a small-business owner, has been working the council’s District 20 hard, putting some serious pressure on incumbent Buddy Baker to hold his seat. The West Nashville district includes The Nations neighborhood north of Charlotte Pike. Baker, a veteran of the Nashville Fire Department, has his share of loyalists as well, setting up a race that could be close. J. Gower Mills is also running for the district seat.
Tanaka Vercher, a Navy veteran, has impressed many on the campaign trail, giving hope to progressives of upsetting one of the council’s top conservatives, Duane Dominy. Fresh off his election loss last year to Democrat state Rep. Sherry Jones, Dominy has found himself campaigning on some new ground in post-redistricting Antioch. Still, Dominy, perhaps the council’s most outspoken fairgrounds supporter, won’t go down easily. Liberals may not like his politics, but they know Dominy is a tough campaigner. Travis Danker is the third candidate.
Sheri Weiner, one of two candidates vying for departing Councilman Eric Crafton’s seat, has run into an unexpected challenge that’s received national attention: letting people know she’s not related to U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose bizarre pseudo-sexual behavior online led him to resign last week. Because the two share the last name, Sheri Weiner said yard signs have been stolen or damaged, and she’s had to do some clarifying. Even before this absurd obstacle, the District 22 race was poised to be a good contest. Weiner, active in Bellevue for 30 years, leans right and has Crafton’s blessing. Her opponent is Seanna Brandmeir, who has been active in the Tennessee Democratic Party. Brandmeir said she doesn’t believe voters care about partisan labels.