For years, Nashville has had a love-hate relationship with state government. Although the two would have their quarrels, the state and city government generally shared some of the same ideology, and political stripes, making the relationship between the two symbiotic.
But over the past decade, the dynamics of that relationship have changed. The formerly Democratic Party-led legislature is now packed with Republicans after a series of elections swept in waves of conservatives, turning the state from light blue to crimson.
With the change in the legislature came an altered set of values that have put the state at odds with its capital. Over the past few years, state lawmakers hailing from Davidson County have watched the newly emboldened Republican legislature take aim at their nationally celebrated city.
Just this year, the legislature has attempted to do away with Nashville’s wage standards for employees on city contract jobs. Tennessee lawmakers are in the middle of approving plans to allow a state panel to plant charter schools in Davidson County without the school board’s permission. And lawmakers considered permitting nearby “satellite cities” to undermine the Metro Davidson form of government.
And that’s in just the past three months.
Some say the conflict is political, the product of Republican majorities trying to dismantle one of the state’s last institutions of Democratic power. Others say it’s the result of a shift in values reflected in a legislature that is more conservative than the city it does business in. Some go further, saying the city has developed so much power and influence that a clearer focus is needed to ensure the success of the state as a whole.
The one thing everybody agrees on? Don’t expect the attention on Nashville to let up.
When Republicans redrew the legislature’s district lines, they had hoped the few Nashville-area Republicans would stay in power. But in the 2012 general election, House Democrats reclaimed all of Davidson County, aside from the West Nashville district of House Speaker Beth Harwell, the chamber’s most powerful Republican.
The GOP still walked away from the election with 70 Republicans versus just 28 Democrats and one independent — claiming a walkout-proof supermajority and ensuring Republicans could govern based on the will of their own party, with the blessing of a GOP executive branch.
What’s left is a state awash in red, leaving Davidson and Shelby counties as the last strongholds for the Democratic Party.
“I think they view it as the last bastion they have to beat down,” said Rep. Mike Turner, an Old Hickory Democrat and the party’s caucus chairman, who characterized the situation as “open season on Nashville.
“Basically all the things they don’t like with America, they see it in Nashville,” he said. “And I think all the things that’s good about America is represented in Nashville. I think they have some issues with it.”
Local lawmakers argue the most serious attack launched by the legislature is on the city’s school system.
Harwell is pushing legislation to allow a state panel to approve charter schools already rejected by the local school board. Money to fund the school would largely come from the local school district’s pockets, although the school district could exercise no control over the school.
The idea — pitched by charter school advocates to give a second chance for review of the privately run, publicly funded schools — had zero traction less than a year ago. But it became the speaker’s signature initiative after the Metro school board repeatedly rejected Great Hearts Academies’ charter school application last summer, ignoring directions from the State Board of Education to approve it.
Mayor Karl Dean and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman both favored the charter school, and the state came down hard on the board by slapping the district with a $3.4 million fine, about one month’s worth of administrative funding from the state.
To ensure that situation doesn’t happen again, Harwell’s plan is to develop a state panel that could review rejected applications and approve ones killed by the local school district. Originally, the plan singled out Nashville and Memphis, but Harwell later included districts with the worst-performing schools, which adds Hamilton, Hardeman and Knox counties.
“The Republicans don’t want it statewide, but they don’t have a problem voting for it if it is in Davidson County, Shelby County,” said Turner, who opposes the plan.
Some school board members assert the move is punishment for rejecting the charter.
Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) questioned the plan’s motivation this month, telling The City Paper he sees no evidence there’s much wrong with the way charter schools are approved now.
“At least I wonder if the main emphasis of this bill is not behind what’s gone on here in Nashville,” said the Government Operations Committee chairman.
But school board member Michael Hayes, who disagreed with the board in rejecting the controversial charter, said he doubts the move amounts to political retribution.
“I don’t think that our commissioner wakes up every day and thinks about, ‘How do we penalize Nashville?’ He has 140-plus school districts to administer,” said Hayes. “My assumption is that he spends little time thinking about how do we deal with Nashville.”
Will Pinkston, a onetime Tennessean reporter, political operative under the Bredesen administration and now a MNPS school board member, said there’s always been tension between the city and the state, such as when Nashville was working to become home to an NFL football team, or in the debate over perceived inequities in the state’s education funding formula.
That friction is on the uptick lately, he said.
“The state and Nashville need each other,” said Pinkston, who has taken a leading role in trying to negotiate a version of Harwell’s charter school authorizing bill the district can live with. “A certain amount of tension is healthy, but when it evolves to the point that you’re penalized legislatively and financially, things have gone too far.”
Historically, values have been a wedge between the two units of government trapped in the same city. Often, those values would boil down to an unavoidable “urban versus rural” dynamic, lawmakers and political observers said.
“You’re going to have certain issues pop up that you’re not going to get in a rural area, because they don’t have what we have,” said Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-Old Hickory) a freshman state lawmaker and six-year member of the Metro Council. “When those issues pop up, good or bad, someone’s going to take sides on it.”
The tendency is to make those contentious issues more uniform, he said, “And if they have the power to do it, they will. That’s unfortunate.”
That’s what happened on the Hill this legislative session when lawmakers sent a bill to the governor that would undo the city’s rules ensuring prevailing wage standards for contractors doing city business. It’s a bill that Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s prepared to sign, although added it’s a tricky issue.
“That’s a very fine line for me,” said Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor who adds that he’s sensitive to preserving local authority. The difference here, he said, is lawmakers have made the case to him that Metro’s current practice has effects beyond Davidson County.
That bill came at the hands of Rep. Glen Casada, a high-ranking House Republican leader from Franklin. The point of the bill was to standardize laws across the state, he said, and Metro Nashville mandating a standard wage in Davidson County could force unaffordable costs on companies doing business across the Tennessee.
“They are expanding their reach in areas they don’t belong,” said Casada about Metro’s government. “So a lot of legislators say, ‘city of Nashville, you can’t tell business that they have to pay a certain wage to do business with you in your town. We want all laws to be the same all across the state.’
“We look at it from a macro sense, the whole state, all 95 counties. The city of Nashville and the city of Memphis are looking at it from their perspective only. But their actions have ripple effects across the state, and so I think you’re seeing a butting of wills on direction.”
It amounts to a turf war, he said, and it seems to be more intense this year.
“The cities are just becoming very influential nationwide,” he said, “and so, Nashville is doing what they think is best. The problem is what they think is best, it flexes and comes up upon what state business is.”
“They’re expanding. They’re reaching areas they don’t belong,” he added.
Casada boiled down the debate during a heated exchange on the House floor: “What we’re debating today is who makes that macroeconomic decision. Is it the state legislature — and I contend yes — or is it the local government, which I contend is the problem.” The measure won on a 67-21 largely party-line vote.
Turner, a longtime vocal opponent of Casada on bills affecting Nashville, countered by saying the Republican has not only “led the charge” but also is “the king of attacking local governments.”
The undercurrent of tension led House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, to join the fray, saying the state has a stake in what its cities do and shouldn’t “let them set up some little people’s republic.”
Capitol Hill lawmakers had a similar debate two years ago when they overturned another Metro ordinance. Weeks after the council agreed to ban city contractors from denying work to gay, lesbian and transgender job applicants, the legislature passed a law to make anti-bias protections uniform statewide, targeting discrimination based on race, sex, creed, color, religion, age and natural origin, but excluding protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. The point of the measure, Casada and advocates said, was to prevent confusing and burdensome new regulations from cropping up across the state.
Jason Holleman, a Metro Council member from Sylvan Park, said he believes in the old saying that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. “And clearly, Nashville wasn’t broken,” he said.
“There are competitive advantages and disadvantages in every community. Every community should have the right to make those decisions based on what’s best for their community and what their constituents want, with the understanding that if they make the wrong decision, it may have a detrimental impact on their ability to attract jobs. And if it does, then you’ll likely see a change of leadership in that community,” he said.
Despite the current dynamic between the state and local government, he doesn’t see the council shifting to a proactive stance when considering new ordinances.
But some argue Metro can be more responsive to issues before they land on the legislature’s plate. As a case in point, a bill was brought to the legislature that would have allowed localities to undermine Metro forms of government by providing their own services.
The bill was aimed squarely at Nashville and its “satellite cities,” including Belle Meade, Berry Hill, Goodlettsville, Forest Hills and Oak Hill. However, the measure would have affected two nearby counties with a county-city government unit.
The idea was pitched in part by Forrest Hills Mayor Bill Coke, who wanted his city to have its own court system — an idea shot down in Davidson County Chancery Court because it violated the 50-year-old Metro Charter. He said he tried urging local council members to take up his city’s cause with no luck.
But within weeks of the introduction of a proposal in the legislature that would allow satellite cities to undercut Metro government agreements, mayor Dean’s office came to the table and worked out a deal.
“I think it brought it to a head. I think Metro realized that there’s legitimacy in what we wanted,” said Coke, who had Rutherford County Republican Rep. Joe Carr carry the bill for him.
The gesture of a lawmaker from outside Davidson County running legislation that would micromanage Nashville irked local Democrats, including Jernigan.
“If I was going to tinker with Lascassas, he would be furious,” said Jernigan on Carr’s hometown. “It’s our business and it’s in our backyard, and that’s what we were elected to do.”
Carr, a possible contender for the 4th Congressional District, argues Jernigan’s criticism amounts to an “ignorant statement made by a freshman who doesn’t know much” about Lascassas, which is unincorporated.
Further, he said, if local officials are unresponsive, someone needs to step in.
“If the delegation of Rutherford County was not listening and responding to the concerns of all the citizens of Rutherford County, and the only option that a constituent group had was to go outside the county to at least get their concerns addressed, I wouldn’t blame them,” he said.
Whether the butting of heads on issues sensitive to local Nashville government is the result of politics or values is hard to determine, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and a co-director of the institution’s regular poll on hot political topics.
But his money is on the difference in values trumping political gamesmanship.
“Many of the state legislators, they want more local control, but only if that local control is pursuing policies that they like,” said Geer.
“The liberals are the same way. The bottom line is politicians have preferences. That’s why they get into the game. It’s not just to win elections, it’s to pursue certain policies,” he said.
Legislation targeting Memphis is no different. As the state’s largest city, it and Nashville pose some of the state’s biggest challenges, such as a struggling education system.
Two years ago, GOP lawmakers approved a bill restructuring the school system in Shelby County, lifting a ban on creating special school districts as a reaction to Memphis officials dissolving such districts.
The issue was so contentious, it ended up in the courts, and the restriction was eventually thrown out because the legislation was too narrowly written to target Memphis.
With few Democrats remaining in the legislature to combat legislation they argue targets their city, legal recourse is one of the few tools left at their disposal, said Rep. Joe Towns (D-Memphis).
“I’ve encouraged our leadership, as well as our party, to look at filing lawsuits because we don’t think some of this stuff is constitutional,” said Towns. “But it’s no mistake that you see that they’re passing stuff that is targeting those two cities. It’s unacceptable.”
While state officials continue to wrestle with the growing gravity of Nashville — which has recently attracted national acclaim for its culture, energy and food scene — so is the public.
Even Usher, the pop R&B star who grew up down I-24 in Chattanooga, confused the stature of Music City.
“Nashville is a state,” he mistakenly informed a country music contestant on The Voice, a prime-time TV show, last month. It took two of his fellow judges to correct him before hooting when the Freudian slip dawned on him.
“It’s a state of mind,” Nashvillian and country singer Blake Shelton offered. “It’s a Nashville state of mind.”