Analysis: Mendes increases political profile with push for tax increase

By: - June 18, 2020 6:00 am
Metro Nashville Councilmember At-Large Bob Mendes chairing meeting of Council's budget committee. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network)

Metro Nashville Councilmember At-Large Bob Mendes chairing meeting of Council’s budget committee. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network)

A multi-year crusade to raise taxes is not normally the foundation for a bright political career, but Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes finally accomplished early Wednesday morning what he set out to do three years ago. Now the question is if Mendes’s notable success helps or hurts his ambitious political goals.

There’s no question Mendes’s advocacy for raising taxes increased his profile.

Nashville Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes (Official Metro Council photo)
Nashville Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes (Official Metro Council photo)

A few caveats before examining Mendes’ leadership on the issue of the city budget:

He was hardly the only council member pushing for an increase in the Davidson County property tax rate in recent years. Unlike the previous two budgets, Mendes did not face the obstacle of an onslaught of opposition from the mayor’s office. And, with the council growing even more progressive following last year’s Metro election, one can argue that a rate increase was likely.

But, for three budget cycles Mendes was no doubt the leading spokesman and behind-the-scenes advocate for raising property taxes. He broke re-election rule No. 1-A in 2019 when he actually campaigned on raising taxes in order to address a city budget that was widely viewed as out of control. Mendes was the only at-large candidate to earn enough votes to avoid the runoff election.

In 2018, Mendes proposed a 50 cent increase in property taxes and lost by two votes. Last year, he collaborated with Councilmember Tanaka Vercher, the budget committee chair, on a similar increase and failed by one vote.

So, what did Mendes do after he lost out on a 50 cent increase and a 52.5 cent increase? He proposed a $1.06 increase. That amounts to a 34 percent property tax increase for a city that had raised taxes just once since 2005.

The breathing room between Mendes’s proposal and the budget submitted by Mayor John Cooper wasn’t much. Cooper made life easier for Mendes by proposing a $1 increase, and his administration didn’t lobby against the substitute budget offered by the chairman. But, it’s politically relevant that after two years of defeat on raising taxes, the council voted 32-8 to support Mendes’s substitute budget.

Before exploring what this means for Mendes’s political future, it’s important to recognize some context. Historically, the Metro Council has not dramatically altered the mayor’s proposed budget. During my time covering council, beginning in 2008, the amendments offered by council members amounted to moving commas around, preserving small grants to preferred nonprofits, and pumping an extra $1 million here or there to a favored department.

The budget chair often collaborated with the mayor’s office and finance director, and didn’t pitch substitute budgets as drastically different as the ones backed by Mendes and others the previous two budget cycles.

Mendes is a business law attorney by trade with some expertise in financial matters and his determination to do what he felt was required – raise taxes to cover expenses that rose quickly during Nashville’s boom years – could hardly be viewed as politically expedient.

Whereas Mendes took on criticism last year for not soliciting community input on a tax increase, this year he partnered with Councilmember Kyontze Toombs for a series of budget meetings held throughout the county pre-pandemic.

While it’s true there isn’t much distinction between the Mendes substitute and the original proposal from Cooper, which would have raised taxes by 32 percent versus Mendes’s 34 percent, a couple of differences are worth recognizing. Mendes didn’t support a $2.6 million increase in the police budget at a time when calls for policing reform are louder than ever. When an amendment backed by Cooper’s administration was offered to provide the police department with those funds, Mendes voted to abstain and the amendment passed.

So, what did Mendes do after he lost out on a 50 cent increase and a 52.5 cent increase? He proposed a $1.06 increase. That amounts to a 34 percent property tax increase for a city that had raised taxes just once since 2005.

Mendes curried favor with the city’s unions, which after years of getting dunked on by the business community are clearly gaining political clout, when he proposed pay raises for hourly schools employees.

Probably the worst known secret in the courthouse is Mendes’s goals for higher office. At 53, years old, Mendes has a critical political victory to tout if and when he pursues higher office. 

For many years, insiders downplayed a council member’s chances of making the leap to the mayor’s office. But two of the last three mayors were at-large council members, like Mendes, when they ran for mayor. If Mendes is patient, he would be well positioned to run for an open mayoral seat in 2027. Or, he could decide not to wait and run in 2023, although it’s difficult to envision him challenging Cooper, whose favorability since the tornado and pandemic is extremely high according to a recent Vanderbilt University poll.

Cooper’s 2019 coalition of fiscal conservatives, black voters and moderates was an unusual one for a Metro election. Cooper was well-funded thanks to millions of his own dollars. After entering the election late, Cooper capitalized on the city’s fragile political landscape that was still reeling from Mayor Megan Barry’s shocking resignation in 2018.

Going back decades, the typical coalition for Nashville mayors consisted of social progressives and pro-business Democrats. Mendes, who is articulate and soft-spoken on the floor during council meetings and on the campaign trail, but aggressive and bull-dogged behind the scenes, could conceivably capture that historic voting bloc.

If the pervasive issue for Nashville politics in the coming years shifts, as appears likely, from the budget to the police department, Mendes has a compelling case to make to reformers because he vocally called for Police Chief Steve Anderson’s resignation before it was politically popular. Mendes has been less vocal on his views about policing reform, but he is certainly positioned to be one of the key council members whose support advocates will seek.

On the day after his resounding runoff victory over Mayor David Briley, Cooper’s first meeting as mayor-elect was with Mendes at Three Brothers Coffee on West End Avenue. Many observers felt the meeting demonstrated Cooper knew immediately it would be important to work with Mendes. Just under a year into their terms, the two politicians have gotten along well.

Many local politicians work hard to win a seat on council only to find the job dissatisfying and seemingly small in a Metro government designed to favor the executive branch. Mendes’s victory on property taxes raised his already high profile and proved his political clout among a body where it can be difficult to stand out.

Mendes doesn’t have the ability to self-finance a campaign, which is a disadvantage. But, if he can navigate the issue of policing reform, Mendes will be on the short list of viable candidates to run for mayor or congress in the coming years.

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.