Over the course of time, meanings of words change. A word, or series of words, that once meant one thing in a benign way somehow takes on another meaning that becomes nefarious.
In politics, the word “conservative” carried a stigma in 1964 when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for president. Now, you can’t get elected in many places unless it’s attached to your name. Conversely, it used to be cool to be a “liberal.” But the only label many liberals will wear in public today is “progressive.”
Somewhere in the vernacular — slouching towards obsolescence — is the phrase “good ol’ boy network,” a term projecting entrenched sexism, patronage and nepotism. For every person who has abused the system, though, there are also quiet servants who shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest.
Into that latter group falls Charlie Cardwell, Metro’s trustee and an aide to every mayor since 1957.
A political “good ol’ boy” is an encompassing term that refers to men and women who got their job through a family connection, or family friend. They are kept in check often not only by their supervisors, but by the person who got them the patronage job in the first place. Loyalty is the key.
In many respects, the county’s “good ol’ boy” network has been dying since 1989, when then-Mayor Bill Boner announced he would not seek re-election. Boner had been wounded by a series of personal gaffes, ranging from a messy divorce to a highly regrettable appearance on the Phil Donahue show, where he was perceived to be buffoonish and self-centered.
In the middle of this city’s collective embarrassment, another member of that network — Cardwell — stepped in and quietly righted the ship, unnoticed by the general public but appreciated by mayors and council members alike since then.
Charlie Cardwell has stood the test of time. While other products of Nashville’s established good ol’ boy network have fallen aside or passed away in the last few years, he has survived and thrived along with the city as it transitioned to a metropolitan government in 1963 and then into a more cosmopolitan city that embraced non-natives like Phil Bredesen, Bill Purcell, and Karl Dean at the helm beginning in the early 1990s.
“Charlie is so unique,” said Metro Finance Director Rich Riebling. “He’s a man who can deal with investment bankers on Wall Street as well as the folks in public works that keep our city clean. Charlie respects both and the work they do. That speaks to who he is.”
Charlie was born to Naomi and Charles Cardwell shortly before World War II. Prior to the war, his father was a tobacco roller, specializing in twist tobacco in Sumner County. His mother was active in Democratic politics and had a keen eye for business.
During the war, the elder Charles — better known as Snooks — was a substitute fireman. When the fireman he replaced came home, Charles was rewarded for his interim service with a job in Nashville’s police department. Shortly thereafter his mother started Cardwell’s Market on Hermitage Avenue in downtown Nashville, which still operates today.
Looking back, those jobs set in motion a course for two generations. Snooks became close to the last mayor of Nashville before consolidation, Ben West, while Naomi forged relationships with an important sector of the community.
Charlie grew up in the back of the market, literally. His family home was behind the store on Hermitage Avenue while the grocery was in the front. Opened in 1949, it served city and state employees and residents of downtown. This was in the days before Kroger or Publix, back when the grocery store was less a supermarket and more a hub of the community.
“We weathered the change of neighborhood, weathered the storms because of fairness and relationships,” Cardwell said. “My parents always gave credit and never took anyone to court. I figure my parents lost over a $100,000 through the years helping people in need."
When Charlie graduated from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to be a medic assisting a psychiatric unit in Japan during the Korean War. After he returned home in 1957, Snooks went to then-Mayor Ben West and asked him to give Charlie a job. He was given two options, a job in the police department earning $265 a month or one in the water department earning $325 a month. Cardwell chose the latter.
Serving in the Water Department, Cardwell affirmed he was good with numbers. In short succession after his appointment, Davidson County became a Metropolitan Government in 1963, Cardwell became an internal auditor for the newly created Metro Finance Department in 1965, attended Lipscomb College and UT-Nashville to get his accounting degree in 1966, and became chief accountant of the Finance Department in 1973.
He eventually became finance director under Mayor Richard Fulton, revenue commissioner for Gov. Ned McWherter and deputy mayor for Mayor Bill Boner.
No one else alive has worked as closely with Nashville’s mayors, and Cardwell has definite opinions on all of them.
“Ben West did not make the job fun,” he said. “He was a straightforward, straight-shooting person. He was very hands-on. I remember back then I had been approved for overtime work getting some books done in the water department. Three weeks in a row on a Saturday I passed him on the stairs at the Metro Courthouse after I had gone to Krystal’s to get some coffee. After the third time he called my dad and said, “I hope your son is enjoying his overtime.” The message was clear. Get your work done during the week. He wasn’t difficult, just no-nonsense. He took being mayor very seriously.”
Beverly Briley — the first mayor of Metropolitan Nashville — had a style that was very different from his predecessor.
“Briley was not a hands-on person,” according to Cardwell. “I had one department head tell me one time that he didn’t hear from him for 10 months. He let the department heads run things how they saw fit. He was more big picture, looking at the overall well-being of the city and the county, making sure that the newly incorporated parts of the city were included.”
Of all the mayors, he was closest to Richard Fulton. Serving as his finance director, Cardwell had an office adjoining Fulton’s and was his right hand.
“Dick was definitely more hands-on,” Cardwell recalls. “In his first term he alienated a lot of people because his style was so different than Briley’s. He had a more professional style, having served in the U.S. Congress. He wanted Nashville to be a showplace. I firmly believe he set the stage for what Nashville is today. Not only did he begin the revitalization of downtown, but he passed a $419 million bond that brought city water and sewage to every section of the county we could. I am proud to have served under him.”
After Fulton left office, Cardwell left too, though not for long. Fulton ran for governor in 1986, losing the Democratic nomination to then-Speaker of the House Ned McWherter.
Even though he had backed another candidate, Cardwell’s effectiveness showed through, and McWherter appointed him as Tennessee’s commissioner of revenue.
For many, that appointment would have been a fitting close to a career. But Nashville soon became embroiled in controversy.
Mayor Bill Boner, who had represented the city in the House of Representatives for a decade prior, had lost his touch. While still married, he became engaged to another woman. Exacerbating matters, he appeared on national television to defend himself but compounded the city’s anger by blowing a rollicking “Rocky Top” on harmonica alongside his new aspiring-entertainer wife, to the chagrin of the city’s power brokers.
Not long after that episode, civic leaders such as Aubrey Harwell, Tom Cone and Toby Wilt approached Cardwell and asked him to move down the street from his state office back to one in the Metro Courthouse, to serve as Boner’s deputy mayor and finance director. By this time Boner had declared that he would not run for a second term, and Cardwell agreed to return to Metro.
“He only served one four-year term,” he said of Boner. “He was a good administrator, but his indiscretions prohibited him from running the city. I will say this: He never asked me to do anything other than the right thing. I admired him for that.”
Once Boner left office, Nashville began its current streak of electing mayors who were born and raised outside the state.
“Bredesen saw fit to appoint his own finance director but asked me to stay on in his office to work on special projects. That was not my expertise, so I decided to retire,” Cardwell said.
“Eighteen months later we saw the untimely passing of [then Metro trustee] Bill Garrett. Through Bredesen’s intermediaries I was approached and asked if I would consider taking the job if the Metro Council approved me. I was very appreciative and accepted. He was very supportive and a very good mayor, probably the only person that could have brought the Tennessee Titans to Nashville.”
Cardwell admired Bredesen’s successor, Bill Purcell.
“He really was a neighborhood mayor, but he also had a special place in his heart for senior citizens,” he said. “He worked hard to make their lives better, through housing and other programs. I would say he worked hard to help them and help our education system.
When Purcell left office in 2007, Nashville saw a number of prominent members of the community vie for the office of mayor. Cardwell backed his longtime friend Bob Clement, who served the city as a U.S. congressman from 1988 until 2003.
But Clement was defeated and Dean was elected. “Although I did not support him, Karl Dean has done and is doing one of the best jobs of any mayor I have ever been associated with. From education, to downtown Nashville, to the neighborhoods, this mayor supports the entire community,” he said.
After so many years of service to the community, The City Paper sought Cardwell’s opinion on some key topics that have affected the city.
On term limits for the Metro Council: “It is one of the worst things that has ever happened. Council members like David Scobey, Ken Miller, Paul Blankenship, Mansfield Douglas and many more knew their communities and knew how to get things done to help their neighbors. I think term limits have actually weakened checks and balances in the city.”
On dealing with Metro’s budget, as trustee Cardwell is the top tax-collection agent in the city: “Metro’s first budget was $59 million. It is now over $1 billion dollars. If we still had a city/county government like most in the state do the budget would be well over $2 billion.”
On the move in the 1990s to allow city employees to live outside Davidson County: “Back then, they came together as a voice. It is one thing that has hurt the political process. They were a voice on issues for their community; it made for a more healthy county. It has lessened their voice on matters affecting their pay, in elections, and in the community.”
Charlie Cardwell and Steve McNair
The last time most people heard Cardwell’s name was on July 4, 2009. That was the day Steve McNair was found dead in his apartment, the victim of a murder-suicide at the hands of girlfriend Sahel Kazemi.
Cardwell lives in a condominium in downtown Nashville with his wife Marie. In addition to their condo, they own other units in the same complex they rent out. In 2009, one of those units was rented to Wayne Neely and McNair.
“I didn’t know Steve before he started renting the place with Wayne, who is a longtime friend,” Cardwell said. “Steve was a great guy. He used to come in the store, and one day I asked him if he would be a guest speaker at a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club. Normally we would have to have contracts signed and agree to pay an appearance fee. Steve wouldn’t take any money. He came, brought three footballs that he autographed and then they were auctioned off for I think $10,000 apiece.
“Well, back to July 4. Marie and I were at the grocery store and Wayne came in at about 11 a.m. He had just gotten done playing golf, said he was going to go home to Donelson and then head back in town for the fireworks. At about 12:30 he came back in to buy a beer and said he was going back to the condo to ‘chill out.’ At about 1, I told Marie that we should go home to get some rest because it was going to be a long night at the store. We basically followed Wayne up the street to the condos. Marie and I went in to our home and I saw Wayne was in his truck in the driveway. Not long after, Wayne calls me and says, ‘Charlie, Steve has been shot.’ I went around and by the time I got out there the police had already begun cordoning off the area. I never went in.
“Marie and some friends cleaned up what the police didn’t take for evidence,” he said, describing the scene. When asked why he didn’t have professionals clean up such a gruesome scene, Cardwell said, “We wanted to do it as quiet as possible out of respect.”