To many, At-large Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry shines as the face of progressive politics in Nashville, an unabashed liberal who spearheaded laws to foster equality for gays and higher wages for government workers.
Then again, she doesn’t play the typical part of her left-leaning council peers — such as Councilmen Jason Holleman and Mike Jameson — who have butted heads with Mayor Karl Dean’s administration and created adversaries in the process. She voted for financing of Nashville’s new convention center. She also supported Dean’s plans to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds, serving as the lead sponsor of a failed bill to demolish the facility’s racetrack.
While others critiqued and bemoaned the mayor’s office’s actions on various issues this past year, Barry often collaborated with the administration.
“Megan is hard to pin down,” said the Rev. Jay Voorhees, a pastor at Old Hickory Methodist Church who runs a blog that analyzes local politics, “because she does come across on particular issues as liberal, or progressive, but she does seem to have become a very loyal, connected member of that circle of folks that seems to be focused around the mayor and the chamber.”
Barry, 47, is vice president of ethics and compliance for a health care company. She’s managed to walk a political tightrope during her first four years in public office, maintaining her stripes within most of Nashville’s liberal class while receiving positive reviews from the business community and the mayor’s office. The high-profile Nashville Business Coalition — which has a heavy Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce presence — endorsed Barry’s candidacy, but didn’t do the same for Holleman and several progressive outsiders. Nor did it assist the council’s Emily Evans. Dean played host for a Barry fundraiser, though money was never one of her hurdles.
Overlap hasn’t gone unnoticed — and it’s sometimes criticized — among neighborhood activists who contribute to the popular online Nashville Neighborhood Listserv, according to Voorhees, a progressive who personally likes Barry.
Nevertheless, she’s built a powerful coalition. The Barry brand of politics — and the fundraising prowess that enabled her to thump others in the campaign money game — catapulted her on election night as the leading vote-getter among the five victorious at-large members, all incumbents seeking a second term. Barry took in 30,205 votes, besting Councilman Ronnie Steine, who came in second with 29,261 votes. Four years ago, when Barry made the leap from a political outsider to councilwoman, she came in third place in the August general election before finishing first in the subsequent runoff. (The runoff didn’t include At-large Councilman Tim Garrett, the lone winner a month earlier.)
“What this shows is, four years ago and continuing, people are really hungry to be united,” Barry told The City Paper. “I’m a business person. I understand business. I also am a strong proponent of neighborhoods. I think people want to see someone who can transcend that divide.”
Barry’s election triumph this cycle — she emerged as one of the night’s biggest winners — sets up a term in which observers will increasingly analyze her every move, as politicos ponder whether she’s setting herself up for a run for mayor in 2015 or perhaps for Congress whenever Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper decides to step down.
She doesn’t rule either office out, and her name is routinely bandied about in such conversations. If a higher office were her next destination, she would become the first council member to successfully make that jump.
“She’s definitely got strong ties within the progressive community,” said veteran political analyst Pat Nolan, senior vice president of DVL Public Relations and Advertising. “I think her ties may be pretty good in the business-chamber area. It will be interesting to watch how she walks that line between those two — in some ways, between neighborhoods and business.”
During a recent interview inside Barry’s beautiful Belmont-Hillsboro area house — built in 1999 and designed to fit in with the historic neighborhood — the picture of an organized and shrewd politician emerges. Unlike some who shrug off future runs, Barry doesn’t shy away when asked about running for mayor or Congress.
“I love serving Nashville now and in the future,” Barry said. “Right now, I’m focused on Metro Council, but I don’t want to shut any doors.
“It’s fashionable for politicians to say, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m not going to do anything else,’ ” she said. “I think that’s a little disingenuous. I’m not going to say I’m not going to do anything else, but I don’t have anything that’s coming down the pipe that I’m committed to.”
In her inaugural 2007 campaign, Barry lacked the political pedigrees of Steine, Garrett and Charlie Tygard, other at-large elects who had all previously held political offices. The fifth member, Jerry Maynard, had made a name as a Tennessee Democratic Party operative. Back then, Barry’s name recognition lagged behind that of her husband, Bruce Barry, a Vanderbilt University professor and liberal commentator who contributes to the Nashville Scene.
For Megan Barry, a sense of organization was clear from day one. Instead of blindly jumping into that race, she and her campaign manager first attended a camp organized by Wellstone Action, a group that helps train progressive leaders, formed eight years ago in honor of the late Minnesota Democrat, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. There, she said she learned how to run a campaign. Shortly after her first election victory, Barry attended a three-week session at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she took courses geared toward state and local elected officials.
“That’s been the one benefit that I’ve always thought of when I’ve been in any new situation: Go learn from people who have done this before,” Barry said.
Raised in suburban Kansas City, Kan., Barry moved to Nashville in 1991 to attend the Vanderbilt Owen School of Business. She said she fell in love with the city, stayed, married and raised a family. Today, she has a 16-year-old son who, after years in public school, attends the University School of Nashville, a private school that prides itself on independent thinking. Employed by Premier Inc., Barry said she negotiates contracts “for anything not-for-profit hospitals buy.”
Barry calls herself “fiscally moderate” but liberal on areas of inclusiveness and education. When asked whether she’s had to compromise her personal views, Barry said she considers things “issue by issue,” and that she’s found the business community to be receptive of some traditionally left-leaning policies. “When you talk about a living wage, you talk about it in the context of building a vibrant, growing Nashville economy,” she said by way of example.
A new living wage for Metro employees, adopted by the council last year, is one of Barry’s hallmark pieces of legislation. The other is Nashville’s original nondiscrimination bill for gay, lesbian and transgender government workers, a precursor to this year’s ordinance that extended to Metro contractors and was later nullified by the state legislature and Gov. Bill Haslam.
“She’s a consensus builder,” said Chris Sanders, chairman of the Tennessee Equality Project’s Nashville committee, who credits Barry with aligning broad-based support for the 2009 nondiscrimination bill. “Her disposition naturally brings people together who you might not think would work together.”
Both of Barry’s key bills were also symbolic measures. The new living wage applied to only 14 workers who had wages below $10.77 per hour. And there hadn’t been many Metro workers who had actually cited discrimination in the government workplace.
“In a community where you’re starting with a baseline, and you have to make incremental steps, that’s how you bring people along,” Barry said. “The reason both of those passed without much controversy was, again, the ability to bring together very different communities.”
Still, others sense some politics. Jameson, a term-limited East Nashville councilman, believes Barry’s “heart is in the right place,” but said he hopes her second term is “guided more by her gut than by any political calculations.”
Barry rejects the notion that she hasn’t adequately vetted some mayoral-driven items, such as convention center financing.
“I think I have a good working relationship with the mayor’s office,” she said. “You always need to have a critical eye. We are two different branches of government. And I do think I’ve had a critical eye.
“This idea that we’ve rubber-stamped stuff, I think misses the idea that we’ve had some really good conversations in the community about controversial issues,” she said.
Occasional criticism notwithstanding, Barry has proven to make allies. While Sanders calls her a consensus builder, stakeholders representing other areas of the political spectrum see her as a listener.
“From a chamber perspective, we find her easy to talk to,” said Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t always agree — her position and our position. But we’ve never been disappointed by her responsiveness or her willingness to talk. I’d say on a lot of issues, we’re pretty much in agreement.”