Hypocrisy prevailed at the Tennessee General Assembly today. Political power can be a dangerous drug, when used irresponsibly, and the purported party of local control is getting high on controlling Nashville.
As a woman, a proud member of the 40-member Metro Council, and a candidate to lead that body as the next vice mayor, I was profoundly saddened this week as I watched the state legislature engage in a “debate” where the facts did not matter and the “fix” was already in.
It feels especially gross that, with complete disregard for representative democracy, a few affluent and influential men put their personal opinions and particular business interests above the best interests of their own city and the majority opinion of its people. Their selfishly detached influence game means Nashvillians will have less representation and less access to local policy makers. In the absence of productive-policy-based relationships over recent years and the abdication of duty in recent months to organize and speak up with a united voice about this petty and paternalistic power grab, it will be more difficult for women, minorities and other marginalized populations to achieve elected office, to make their voices heard, and for others to simply see themselves represented.
Why Did This Happen?
False Narrative #1: Your city council declining to host the Republican National Convention–a decision that the majority of our constituents supported–triggered this debacle. The head of the Convention & Visitors Bureau Butch Spyridon himself said, regarding hosting political conventions, “it isn’t really worth it for cities like ours because we have more than ample national and international media coverage….my professional opinion has been the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost.” In a post-January 6 era, after a tornado, derecho, pandemic, courthouse riot, bombing, and three mayors in a time we’d normally have one, Nashville is TIRED of the type of chaos and extended closures and heightened security that a national political convention would have brought. Just because certain bullies want a big party on a national stage to fulfill the aspirations of their leaders, doesn’t mean Nashvillians should have to bear the burden.
False narrative #2: Nashville is a “big, bad, blue, over-regulatory, mismanaged city” that needs the steady paternal hand and deregulation of the GOP. The GOP says this about almost every major city because it undermines your confidence in government and is used to justify their preemption of popular, local legislative controls. Every city, Nashville included, can and should endeavor to do its work better. Oversight, accountability, and fiscal discipline are vital. We were the first city/county consolidated government in the USA. Combining county governance with a city council understandably created a large legislative body. Nashville is 526 square miles with a population of 700,000, and district council members have 20,000 constituents to which we are highly responsive. Unlike many cities in the 1960s, we did not lose our tax base to white flight. Nashville remains the economic engine of this state, and the Metro Council mirrors our population.
While the libertarian political advocacy group founded and funded by the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, praised the passage of the bill cutting your city council in half and disenfranchising you, Republican State Senator Frank Nicely had a different view and showed his colleagues’ cards as he expressed his opposition before not voting, “we’re not punishing this mayor at all. We’re rewarding the mayor. Every mayor in the nation, in the world, would rather deal with a smaller body. Fewer people to talk to. We’re rewarding the lobbyists.” Spot on, Senator, except for that gross “punishing” the mayor part.
Have I thought over the years that the Council might be more effective, if it were a slightly smaller, say 30 members, and full-time? I have. Would it be worthwhile in coming years to have a better-organized community conversation and a referendum vote on such a proposal, as our Charter requires? I think so. This should have been your decision, Nashville, not the Tennessee General Assembly’s. The party of local control has willfully undermined the State’s economic engine, yet again, in a brazen authoritarian action that continues with legislation directed at our Airport Authority, Sports Authority, and Convention Center Authority.
Nashvillians voted against reducing the size of the Metro Council just seven years ago, in the summer of 2015. I was knocking doors and listening closely then, and NASHVILLIANS clearly SAID NO to a smaller city council, expressing their appreciation for Council’s accessibility. What I hear from my constituents when they call me: “I’m so surprised someone answered the phone and that it’s actually you!” “I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to me.” “Thank you for discussing this matter with me in such detail; I understand it much better now.” And council members understand Metro government at a granular level. The challenge, often well met, is in translating that understanding into policy improvements. This policy focus can often be lost when trying to keep up with constituent services work for 20,000 people. Council members having around 40,000 constituents does not magically create “efficient and effective” government.
I have spent time, over the last few years, thinking about how to optimize the work of our 40-member body for the good of the city and the people we serve, and it is very disappointing that for lack of vice mayoral leadership, we are unlikely to realize that vision, which I know many of my colleagues shared. We could have kept, and perhaps still can keep, our uniquely representative structure and meaningfully improve it, but realizing that almost no one in leadership was genuinely fighting for Nashville on this issue, aside from the much appreciated advocacy of our Davidson County Delegation in the General Assembly and the Metro Council’s Minority Caucus, I’ve made time in the last two weeks to think about how to organize and support the work of a 20-member body. Whatever happens, whatever our size, as your next vice mayor, I am ready to lead the Metro Council, to help bridge divides, and speak up for Nashville and all Nashvillians.