Councilwoman Pam Murray’s “caravan,” as opponents call it, always seems to stop outside the condo development at the corner of McFerrin and West Eastland avenues.
“Murray, Murray, Murray!” chanted a carload of supporters on a recent Sunday, honking horns as they shouted.
The target is unmistakably the residence of Murray’s District 5 special election rival Jamie Hollin, a 35-year-old attorney and the first-ever recall candidate to challenge a sitting Metro Council member.
The development itself — urban, trendy and new — is representative of a growing, changing neighborhood, one that’s caught in a sordid contest between predominantly white newcomers led by Hollin and longtime African-American residents who back Murray, the controversial sixth-year Council representative.
“This has definitely divided our community,” said Gerline Yokley, a 40-year area resident and a Murray supporter.
“We have a lot of new people moving in to the community, and they’re moving in with new ideas, and that may be one of the problems that is causing the divide,” she said.
Thursday’s election comes after Hollin amassed more than 1,200 signatures to recall the local lawmaker he characterized as unresponsive and absentee. Murray, by her own admission, works part-time for a clinic in Detroit. During the last few weeks, jawing between the candidates has escalated, each side charging the other of intimidating their respective supporters.
“I just think it’s funny,” Hollin said of the incessant horn honking. “You’re talking about a sitting Council member, an incumbent, and these are the tactics she employs?”
“He continues to tell mistruths,” Murray fires back. “He’s manipulating and he’s lying. Hollin should focus on his election. He wanted this thing; he brought it on.”
‘The other side of Gallatin Road’
Outsiders once referred to East Nashville’s District 5, which includes the neighborhoods of Cleveland Park, McFerrin Park and Maxwell Heights, as “the other side of Gallatin Road.” But as the popular Five Points area attracts more young professionals to East Nashville, homeowners have rapidly moved into new turf where houses remain relatively affordable.
Developers and homebuyers have seized on the area’s renaissance and have purchased old houses to refurbish. While the district is still home to considerable blight, median property values there rose nearly 18 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to data from the Metro Property Assessor’s Office.
According to Davidson County Election Commission figures, registered voters who have chosen to self-identify as ‘black’ account for more than two-thirds of the electorate there; the remaining mostly white.
Hollin, who is white, moved to the neighborhood nearly two years ago. Murray owns a home on Stockell Street and said she has lived in the district since 1983.
Sam McCullough, a black resident who ran unsuccessfully against her in 2007, said “the divide is not as much race as it is old versus new.”
But not everyone agrees it’s simply the old-versus-new narrative at play.
Larry Eaton, president of the Homes at Maxwell Heights Neighborhood Association and who is white, has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years and supports Hollin. He said the influx of newcomers has improved the area, making it a friendlier place to live, work and recreate.
Eaton and his African-American wife Priscilla, who is Hollin’s campaign treasurer, suggest that race is unfortunately a consideration to some District 5 voters.
“I’ve heard comments from other blacks in regards to the fact that, ‘We as blacks shouldn’t let the white man come in,’ ” Priscilla Eaton said. “We have neighbors who resent other neighbors because of signs that are out. It’s disheartening that we’re in the 21st century and we’re acting like we’re in the middle of the 20th century. We are regressing.”
Underscoring the cultural and racial demarcation in the district was an Aug. 28 story about the political contest in Nashville Pride newspaper. “Carpet (bagger) bugs invade Metro District 5,” the headline read. “There has been an infestation of Carpet (bagger) bugs (CBB) in the 5th Council District,” the story began.
“This infestation was spotted by Councilor Pam Murray who mentioned that these bugs may be ‘coming from the rotting remains of opponents she defeated in the last two Council elections,’ ” it continued.
When asked whether race has become a factor, Murray conceded that it has — but not because of her, she claimed. “For [Hollin], it has, but not for me,” she said. “He uses his title as ‘attorney’ to go and intimidate people with it.”
Low turnout, high drama
During the election’s early voting, which ended Saturday, an average of only 20 people a day participated. In all, Election Administrator Ray Barrett said he expects fewer than 1,000 to vote — strangely, less than the number of signatures Hollin had to secure to get on the ballot. But though turnout is likely to be light, the bad blood between the candidates is off the charts.
A month ago, Murray filed a police report against Hollin for allegedly following her 21-year-old son with a video camera, which the officer concluded to be unfounded. Before that encounter, she claimed, Hollin was outside her house looking through her garbage.
“What he does is he tries to intimidate people,” Murray said. “He follows people around with video cameras and constantly takes pictures of us. They’re not going to find any of my paperwork in my trash can because I don’t even use the public trash cans much.”
Hollin said he uses a camera to document the campaign, and that he was campaigning door-to-door when Murray’s son blocked his access onto a street and started to rev up his engine.
“That’s when I turned my video camera on and started filming,” he said. “As soon as I did that, that vehicle was gone.”
In more recent weeks, Murray, a Nashville native whose part-time, out-of-state job is at a methadone clinic, has accused Hollin of being on drugs because of what she characterized as “bizarre, erratic and impulsive” behavior.
“The best thing he can do for our neighborhood is submit to a urine drug test and a hair sample,” she said. “I will pay.”
Hollin, a Memphis native with a pronounced Southern drawl, called the drug accusation “ridiculous,” but granted that some of his campaign workers have criminal records. He said he associates with them because of his belief in “rehabilitation.”
“If I’m saying that’s what I want to see happen, I better be doing it,” he said of his desire to help ex-felons become productive members of society. “And I’m doing it.”
Origin of the skirmish
The Hollin-Murray feud originated with a heated rezoning battle earlier this year involving someone who wanted to subdivide into four separate units a building on Cleveland Street zoned for single residential.
Some residents maintained the property owner had long failed to abide by Metro Codes requirements; that the building was essentially a slum. Neighbors handed Murray 155 signatures in opposition to the rezoning change, but she still backed the developer before finally withdrawing the bill after 11 community meetings.
“It shouldn’t have taken the neighbors that long to get the response that they wanted,” Hollin said.
As the rezoning battle played out, reports surfaced that Murray, who describes herself as a social worker and sociologist, spent considerable time living in Detroit.
“If you want to work in Detroit, that’s fine,” Hollin said. “If she was doing that job and her [Council] job at the same time, it would have been less of a concern. It became a major concern when the fundamentals of the job weren’t happening.”
But Murray categorically denied ineffectiveness. “There’s no way that I have abandoned my duties,” she said. “Why is the city allowing this to happen? That’s the question.”
Soon, momentum for the recall movement began. Hollin said he approached seven or eight potential candidates before deciding he should be the one to take on the embattled lawmaker.
“My career was doing just fine,” he said. “I never envisioned myself holding public office.”
Murray, who questioned whether some of the signatures were forged, said the recall was “planned by my opponent since January. The rezoning is just a front; it’s a ploy they’re using.
“This is the third time they’re running against me,” she said. “They’re still upset because we beat them out of the first race [in 2003].”
‘Not what it’s about’
Hollin’s supporters say their efforts to unseat Murray followed her refusal to respond to some 7,000 emails, answer phone calls and support constituents.
Amy Bryson, a District 5 resident against whom Murray filed a harassment complaint, said she’s excited about being part of a district that’s exercising its civic rights.
“Any time, I think, you have an election at any period of time, you’re going to have some kind of a division. That’s what the democratic process is all about,” Bryson said.
“What concerns me is people are trying to play this is as the haves and have-nots, that this is a black-white issue, that this is a poor-rich issue,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about.”
Meanwhile, friends of Murray see the special election as an unfair attack on an elected official who led efforts to clean up Dickerson Pike and the surrounding area, spearheaded crime reduction and supported economic development.
“This community has come a long way with the Council people who have been here,” Cleve Yokley said. “Murray has worked with other Council persons to get things done for the city.”
Both candidates, confident in victory, claim to have built strong coalitions of supporters comprised of voters who are young, old, black and white.
“From people outside looking in, there appears to be a racial division, but ride around with me and you’ll find out what it’s about,” Hollin said.
Murray said the recent growth in the neighborhood is good, adding that one of her goals since she took office has been to increase diversity. But the special election, she insisted, is just more of the same from unrelenting opposition.
“We’ll win,” Murray vowed. “But I believe this has been terrible for our community.”