Holding out for a hero

Nashville is barely clinging to autonomy; city leaders are doing too little to save it and mayoral candidates pull punches

March 15, 2023 6:02 am
Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Republican supermajority legislature is slashing and burning its way through the annual session with a host of bills that will strip Nashville of self-governance. 

Already signed into law is a measure to cut the Metro Council in half, from 40-20. You’d think many Nashville officials would be screaming to the high heavens about not only this law, but measures by which the state would also take over the city’s airport, sports and convention center authorities. 

And yet, we hear little but crickets.

There are eight candidates vying to be mayor of whatever Nashville will look like after the legislature gets through remaking the reliably blue capital of Tennessee, but most seem caught flat-footed, despite monthslong discussion of the slate of bills. 

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, also a mayoral candidate, has been an outspoken opponent of the anti-Nashville bills on the Senate floor, proposing measures to garner compromise and stave off council cuts. He posted running commentary on social media channels shortly after Senate debate ended and the bill was signed into law last week.

Of the other candidates, only Freddie O’Connell had a statement prepared and ready to roll out on Thursday immediately after the vote, firing it off to local media and posting it on Twitter. Referring to the law as part of a “Punish Metro” package, O’Connell, a current member of the Metro Council, wrote, “This isn’t ‘We the People.’ This is ‘Because We Can,’” before going on to say rushed redistricting will “produce incredible chaos.”

Few Nashville leaders are exhibiting any spine and this weak sauce isn’t going to cut it. Nashville is in a political fight for its collective life to maintain some  semblance of autonomy, and three mayoral candidates speaking out can’t manage the task alone. 

Alice Rolli, perhaps the most conservative candidate in the race, was next out with a statement that didn’t exactly address the thinning of the Metro Council but alluded to the alleged cause of the legislative retribution: the failure of the council to approve a contract to host the 2024 Republican National Convention. 

“Not too long ago we hosted the NRA convention without city hall creating all these problems for everyday Nashvilians,” Rolli wrote — not a full-throated defense of the city she proposes to lead. 

Sharon Hurt, another member of the Metro Council, called the new law an “explicit abuse of power” and was the only mayoral candidate to point out the decision “will inevitably harm marginalized individuals, working-class communities, and communities of color the most by concentrating influence on those with the most financial and political capital.”

I waited to hear from other candidates. One, Matt Wiltshire, issued a one-sentence statement late Thursday that blamed city officials for not working better with state lawmakers and ended by saying: “I’ll do better.”

Missing in action were Jim Gingrich, the former chief operating officer of AllianceBernstein, former Metro Public Schools Board member Fran Bush, and Natisha Brooks.

This weak sauce isn’t going to cut it. Nashville is in a political fight for its collective life to maintain any semblance of autonomy, and three mayoral candidates speaking out can’t manage the task alone. 

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, a candidate for mayor, photographed in the Senate Chambers by John Partipilo.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, a candidate for mayor, photographed in the Senate Chambers by John Partipilo.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce clearly won’t speak up. As The Lookout’s Adam Friedman reported last week, Chamber CEO Ralph Shultz, wouldn’t say squat and may be helping the state. 

A group of 35 city business and community leaders sent a letter to legislative leaders asking for a “reboot” in the city-state relationship, but that was obviously for naught, and a letter isn’t enough either. 

Who the hell is going to take some action? For decades, Nashville had a cadre of savvy business leaders with last names like Mathews, Dickens and Samuels who were able to make projects like the Music City Center happen and rein in political stupidity. But several of them have retired and the void hasn’t been filled.

Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt Medical Center are among the area’s largest employers. So is HCA Healthcare, which was founded in Nashville. Neither company has said anything publicly about this year’s woeful legislative session, which, in addition to the anti-Nashville measures, includes thus far a failure to pass any exceptions to Tennessee’s draconian abortion ban. Seems like Vanderbilt, which trains and employs top-notch physicians, might care about how state control over the practice of some physicians could be a hindrance to those considering moving here. 

As Hurt said in her Thursday statement, there’s an element of race to these state takeover measures, and oh: They aren’t limited to Nashville. 

A bill put on hold Tuesday could have eliminated runoff elections across the state, affecting not only Nashville but also Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville — all cities dominated by Democrats and most with an urban majority Black core.

The Missouri Legislature is making moves on St. Louis akin to what we see in Tennessee, filing bills to place the St. Louis Police Department under state control and stripping the district attorney from the authority to prosecute violent crimes. About 100 of Missouri’s Black leaders gathered at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City to decry the measures

Here? Tennessee is doing good to get a dozen people of any political persuasion, race or ethnicity to gather for pushback.

State Republicans have long had a beef with Nashville, which provided a whopping $12.8 billion in tax revenue in 2022. The GOP divided Nashville’s 5th District into three gerrymandered parts months before a bill to host the RNC came before the Metro Council. 

Lawmakers are doing this because they can — and apparently without much of a fuss. Too many Nashville leaders are playing their tiniest fiddles while Rome on the Cumberland burns to the ground. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.