While opponents of the initiative to make English the official language of Metro government bide their time, Councilman Eric Crafton’s group has collected half of the necessary signatures to put the measure on the ballot this fall.
Groups like the state and local chapters of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in addition to education and immigrants-rights advocacy groups say they are waiting to see if the English Only initiative officially gets on the ballot before they begin a campaign to combat the movement.
In order to find its way onto the November ballot, Crafton’s initiative needs 10,103 signatures. After one postcard mailing to registered Davidson County voters, Crafton said his group has about 5,000 signatures.
Three more postcard mailings are due to go out before the mid-August deadline set by the Election Commission. The next mailing will be Thursday, Crafton said.
“I’m very happy at the tremendous level of support,” Crafton said. “I’ve gotten a lot of donations and a lot of very nice letters. I’m very, very appreciative of all the support we’re getting. This is a citizen-wide effort.”
The Waiting Game
While Crafton’s movement, which has been derided by everyone from Mayor Karl Dean to local media outlets, gains momentum, its most ardent opponents continue playing the waiting game.
Mark Walwyn, a Nashville attorney and chairman of the board for the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said it is too soon for his group to start combating the ballot initiative. Walwyn indicated the chamber would do so if the initiative becomes a ballot referendum for the November election.
“We don’t feel it’s necessary for us to try to prevent people from signing it or for us to mobilize our individual members at this point,” Walwyn said. “I think the issue is pretty clear to those who have been following this. I really believe it will fail as it has in the past.
“At the right time, we’ll make the right steps and do the right things.”
Stephen Fotopulos, the newly named executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, anticipates a “broad and outspoken coalition” against the initiative, should the issue find its way onto the ballot.
Fotopulos pointed to the groups who spoke out against the measure when it was before Metro Council a year ago — the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, not to mention then-Mayor Bill Purcell who eventually vetoed legislation.
“There are sort of informal conversations of what we’ll do if it is on the ballot,” Fotopulos said. “I think you’ll see leaders all over the city that understand what a negative reflection this will be for the city. Pretty much everyone but Eric Crafton thinks this is a bad idea.
“When you codify intolerance, that has an impact on people. It says to the immigrant community, ‘You are unwelcome here.’ It is embarrassing for a city that’s quickly becoming the International City in the South.”
While the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and TIRRC wait for the measure to be officially on the ballot, other groups are holding back efforts to challenge the initiative because they don’t feel the proposed charter amendment will have a tangible impact.
Cesar Muedas with the Committee of Latino Parents (COPLA) said his group has been told by Metro Nashville Public Schools the net impact of the initiative would be minimal.
As recently as two months ago, Muedas said COPLA was assured by LaWanna Shelton, executive director of the English Language Learners program for public schools, the English Only measure would literally change nothing.
“We have too many things going on right now to worry about politicking like that,” Muedas said.
MNPS spokesman Woody McMillin pointed out federal law requires schools to communicate with parents in their native language, meaning nothing about the proposed charter amendment would change the way schools do business.
“Federal law always trumps local law,” McMillin said.
They Want to Learn
Monica O’Malley teaches English as a Second Languge (ESL) classes for Catholic Charities at Woodbine. O’Malley said Crafton’s initiative is unnecessary because immigrants and refugees who come to Nashville want to learn English anyway.
O’Malley said many of the adults in her class work more than one job and still fit in time to take English classes.
“They are tireless, they are earnest, they are hard-working,” O’Malley said. “They have jobs, more than one most times. They work the shift until three or four in the morning, get a couple of hours of sleep and drag themselves in. They want to learn, there is no doubt about it.”
O’Malley said the measure goes against the American values that drew many of her students to Nashville in particular.
“Basically it’s needless and it’s senseless,” O’Malley said. “And I think the spirit of it borders on hostile. It’s a waste.
“They should think about the Statue of Liberty and what it says, ‘Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Only English-speaking need apply.’”
Yasmeen Teya is a Sudanese refugee, who moved to Nashville a year ago.
“If I go to store, if someone talk to me, I cry because I don’t speak English,” Teya said. “Everything I do is hard for me. Now I feel OK, because some people help me. I read English, I come to class to learn English. If I’m going to move up, if I’m going to go to school, I need to know English.”
Some, like Councilwoman Emily Evans, have criticized Crafton’s ballot initiative as being a move to bring conservative voters to the polls in November.
Crafton insists this is not the case, pointing out that his first choice was to have the English Only bill pass through Council last year. The bill passed Council and was eventually vetoed by Purcell.
“I’m glad that they give me that much credit for being that much of a political architect,” Crafton said. “I tried to do this via passing a bill and it got vetoed. I didn’t want to have to do all this, but it is something I feel strongly in.
“If it does bring out conservatives, then great. Conservative Democrats or conservative Republicans.”
Bill Hobbs, spokesman for the Tennessee Republican Party, said November’s presidential election already figured to draw people to the polls in large numbers.
“We’ve got nothing to do with [the ballot initiative],” Hobbs said. “I think we’re going to have high turnout this fall regardless. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if there’s something on the ballot that brings people to the polls. I thought we all wanted high participation?
“I thought everyone’s goal was to have people participate in their government and elections?”
Crafton has continued his claim the measure will pass with a decisive majority in the fall. Additionally, Crafton shrugged off the notion advanced by Dean and others that making English the official language of Metro government could leave the city open to expensive lawsuits.
“The state of Tennessee passed English [as the official language of the state with a statute in 1984] and there were no lawsuits,” Crafton said. “And if there are, I’ve got a law firm from Washington, D.C. that will be more than happy to defend any lawsuit free of charge.”
Crafton said he wouldn’t divulge the name of the firm until the necessary time.
In the meantime, opponents of the ballot initiative remain hopeful the measure will fail in the fall despite a recent history of such referendums passing easily. The state of Arizona for instance passed a referendum making English its official language with a 74-26 margin in 2006.
Arizona is a state whose population is one-third Hispanic in addition to having 25 percent of its citizens who don’t speak English at home, according to the 2006 U.S. census. Tennessee, on the other hand, had populations of about five percent in both those categories.
“I know this is considered controversial by some, but in the end I have to do what I think is right,” Crafton said. “I don’t mean it in a mean-spirited way. I think it’s going really well and I’m gratified with all the support we’ve gotten.”
City Paper education reporter Amy Griffith contributed to this story