Just when it appeared the Metro Council had wrapped up its most recent meeting, Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors halted the exodus, announcing there was a last-minute bill that didn’t make it onto the agenda.
Councilman Jim Gotto had requested to suspend rules to vote on a memorializing resolution — one he hadn’t filed by deadline — that called for the council to support a state bill known as the “Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act,” essentially an attempt by Republicans to nullify new federal health care reform measures.
“We owe it to the individuals we represent to weigh in on this issue,” Gotto told his council colleagues.
A segment of the council let out a collective groan. A few laughed as Neighbors tallied the overwhelming objection. The rule suspension had no chance of passing in a body that identifies more as Democratic, even though council members carry no official party label.
As one of the council’s few outspoken conservatives, it’s certainly no surprise Gotto would support legislation some council critics later privately coined the “tea party bill.” In fact, the Hermitage area councilman has now introduced the resolution so it can be officially considered this week.
Still, some couldn’t help but notice Gotto happens to be running as a Republican for the state House’s District 60 seat, currently held by conservative-leaning Democratic state Rep. Ben West Jr., who’s opted not to seek another term. To some observers, Gotto’s resolution smelled like typical politics from an upwardly mobile candidate.
“Everything we do is politically motivated,” Gotto told The City Paper, responding to the charge. “Give me a break. Those same council members have had bills and resolutions down there that are politically motivated. It has nothing to do with the votes, it has to do with what’s best for the people in this city and this state, and quite frankly of this country.”
Gotto, of course, isn’t the only council member seeking higher office these days. Six of the council’s 40 representatives — or 15 percent — are hoping to turn the name recognition and face time they’ve garnered into political gains. All are engaged in partisan races.
It began with term limits
The use of the council as a political springboard is certainly not a new phenomenon. It’s become more common since the advent of term limits in the mid-1990s, the result of a public vote brought on by followers of then-presidential nominee Ross Perot’s reform movement. Facing expiration in their current offices, council members today often look for their next seat.
“It seems there are more council members running than is the norm,” said Ronnie Steine, the council’s Budget and Finance Committee chair, whose history in the body dates to 1991. “The confluence of both the county offices opening up and the state legislative opportunities, all at one time, have given us a larger percentage than one usually finds.”
Council members running for countywide local seats — with primaries set for May 4 — are Michael Craddock, who’s eyeing the Criminal Court Clerk’s office held by David Torrence; along with Vivian Wilhoite and Eric Crafton, both of whom are vying to unseat embattled Juvenile Court Clerk Vic Lineweaver.
Others have their eyes set on the state legislature. Councilman Sam Coleman is hoping to land the Democratic nomination for the same seat targeted by Gotto. Councilman Duane Dominy, meanwhile, is running as a Republican, looking to dethrone Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones, who represents House District 59. Primaries for those seats will take place in August.
“I think there is increasing amounts of partisanship that the council has historically avoided,” said Steine, when asked about the effect of the multitude of candidates. “It takes the form of memorializing resolutions and positioning on issues where people are trying to get appropriate positioning for their races.”
Councilman Walter Hunt said the political season naturally results in council members/candidates seeking “TV time.” Asked about possible grandstanding on certain issues, Hunt said, “I’m not going to say anyone by individual, but I do think a lot of that goes on.
“It’s hard to separate,” Hunt said of campaigning versus representing. “It becomes an issue when you are in a council position and you may go to an activity out of concern as a councilperson, but you’re really going there to campaign.”
Without a doubt, council members seeking other offices have found the spotlight of late. In the fall, Coleman — who hadn’t officially announced his campaign but had hinted at a run — started a campaign to exclude nine rural parks from Metro’s decision to opt out of a state law allowing guns in parks. Coleman’s bill was later deferred indefinitely.
More recently, Craddock, the fiscal conservative running for Criminal Court Clerk, took on — and continues to criticize — the school board’s decision to outsource custodians and reduce hours for bus drivers to save money. Accompanying Craddock at public hearings on the schools budget has been Crafton, the oft-controversial councilman and Juvenile Court Clerk candidate never known to shy away from a contentious issue. (Crafton, a Republican, seems an unlikely ally of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Metro school custodians. He calls himself a “voice for those who have no voice.”)
Known to use his council platform perhaps more than any member, Crafton has spearheaded the drive to preserve the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, which has also been a staple issue for legislative candidate Dominy, whose campaign website features a petition to keep the fairgrounds intact.
“Publicity becomes more important,” At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard said of the candidacies of council members. “Being out in front of issues to create that publicity becomes more important. Taking stances that appeal to certain constituencies becomes more important. I think all of those things do come into play when you’re running for another office.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s good for the council and good for the perception of the council,” Tygard added. “It creates the perception that everyone up there has something else on their mind and is positioning themselves for their next office. Ideally, my preference would be to resign the seat to run for a different office.”
‘Part of the beast’
Campaigning from a council seat, viewed by some as an “entry-level political position,” has produced mixed results. At the mayoral level, a council post has never proven advantageous, with former at-large members Buck Dozier and David Briley the latest to unsuccessfully make the move, finishing fourth- and fifth-place, respectively, in the 2007 contest won by Mayor Karl Dean.
But the position has produced its share of judges and state legislators. Former council members who serve on the bench in Davidson County include General Sessions Judges Leon Ruben, John Aaron Holt and William Higgins, and Circuit Court Judges Randy Kennedy and Amanda McClendon. Meanwhile, state Sen. Thelma Harper and state Reps. Jones, Gary Odom, Brenda Gilmore and Janis Sontany are just some of the legislators who once served in the council.
“I’ve always tried to approach my house seat in the same manner that I approached my council seat,” Sontany said, “which is being out in the community, meeting with homeowner associations, the neighborhood groups and working to make sure I know what’s going on in the community.”
There are also plenty of examples of council members who ran for legislative or countywide seats and lost.
This year’s crop, not surprisingly, say they can represent their constituents and campaign at the same time. Most seem to shrug off the notion of grandstanding for political gains.
“Nope,” Wilhoite said. “Never been guilty of it. I’ve never been guilty of grandstanding. I’ve always been consistent on council.”
Wilhoite acknowledged running for another office while in the council “promotes grandstanding” — but from others, of course. “I see council members who have never been on board on certain issues, and they’re out front right now.”
“I can only speak for me, but [running for office] doesn’t change the way I operate at all,” Crafton said. “I think anybody can say that I’ve been one of the most active council members since I’ve been elected.”
Craddock, who in recent weeks has unleashed a barrage of attacks on his opponent Torrence, said he doesn’t know if there’s any more grandstanding on the council floor than usual.
“From my perspective, I’m probably quieter right now than I typically am,” Craddock said, adding there’s just a lack of hot-button issues at present.
“I would imagine it’s human nature for some to take advantage of the bully pulpit that they have, and that’s OK,” he said. “That’s just part of the beast.”