While Mayor Karl Dean may have his hands full with a few NASCAR type racers who want to put him into the wall, the politician Karl Dean should be one happy camper.
He is routinely applauded, figuratively and literally, at events across Nashville for his cool and businesslike handling of our May disaster. His recovery efforts are going smoothly and his shiny new convention center and hotel are finally under construction.
In a nutshell, he has so far weathered a $2 billion flood to much acclaim, has made it more than three years into his first four-year term without a property tax increase and delivered a convention center and hotel to the downtown business types who demanded the same as the price for backing him against better-known – albeit less wealthy – opponents in 2007.
His tenure as Metro’s sixth Mayor while not perfect has been solid and his approval rating are, I understand, in the mid 70s. So it would be difficult to find any real reasons he should have problems when it comes to re-election next year.
Now, if you check out the “reader” comment sections on the Web sites of some of NashvillePost.com’s sister publications or the daily fish wrapper, or read the war drum press releases put out by the “Save our Fairgrounds” folks, you might think that hundreds of Fairgrounds supporters and NASCAR aspirants or hordes of birtheresque convention center opponents are going to rise up to run him out of office. If you think that, you would be, in a word, wrong. In two words, dead wrong.
Breathe deep, count backwards from 10 and repeat after me: “No incumbent Nashville mayor has ever lost a re-election bid. Zero. None. Nada.” Don’t expect His Karlness to start a one-term mayoral trend in 2011. He’s a total lock.
So with the lack of any real drama around the 2011 mayor’s race, it seemed to me that it might be interesting if we turned our eyes and noggins to the second Tuesday in August 2015. On that hot and likely muggy Tuesday, Mayor Karl Dean and Miss Davis will be riding off into the sunset in his little red convertible – likely to the airport for a two-week vacation to the South Pacific – and we will be going to the polls to elect Metro’s seventh mayor.
Below I offer what is admittedly a long-range forecast on 25 names to watch over the next 1,700 days or so. While some of these folks may be surprised – shocked even – to be included on this list, more than a few of them have, I promise you, looked up at Mayor Dean behind some podium and said to themselves, “What does he have that I don’t – other than a really wealthy wife, funny Italian ties and a great chin?”
Is my list exhaustive? No, but it does represent a number of people who have the smarts, ego, personal wealth or fundraising moxie, connections, networks or some combination of these to mount a credible campaign to lead our fair city. Will any of these folks actually be Metro’s seventh mayor? Who knows, but it was better than writing “What I Did During the Flood of 2010” as my required end-of-year article.
1. Former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry
Gentry, a Nashville native and 1974 Tennessee State University grad, served as vice mayor of Metro government from 2002 to 2007 and was the first African-American to do so. He now holds the position of CEO of Nashville Chamber Public Benefit Foundation and hosts a radio show. He ran and finished a disappointing third to Dean and Bob Clement in the 2007 mayoral election, but the consensus is that earlier and harder work would have gotten him over the hump and into a runoff. He is widely presumed to still have a burning desire to be Nashville’s first African-American mayor.
His 2007 campaign was widely considered to maybe the worst in Metro history, a fact that many would be supporters in 2015 would likely consider. That said, he has name recognition and knows exactly what type of campaign not to run in order to win in 2015.
2. Tennessee State Rep. Mike Stewart
The man behind the curtain in what used to be known as the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus – when we had Democrats in the State House – the super-smart Stewart has an almost perfect resume for the city’s top job. He’s an Iraq War vet, former mega firm attorney, policy wonk, noted tax lawyer, married to a doctor for the poor, and has three beautiful kids. Put it this way: If this were Alabama, he would not need to appear in an ad with a horse and gun.
He represents parts of East and West Nashville, until redistricting likely lops off the West, as the State Representative for the 52nd District. This is the same stomping ground of four previous Metro mayors, including his mentor, Bill Purcell. A tireless campaigner and mastermind political tactician Stewart, certainly could make a more than viable candidate for mayor.
Stewart is also close to Dean and was rumored to have been the mayor’s second choice for finance director had Rich Riebeling decided to stay in the private sector. Given the hard right turn the state house took after the 2010 election and the likely coup de grace the Republicans will deliver to the House Dems in 2012, look for Stewart to seriously consider following in Purcell’s footsteps to the Courthouse.
3. Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors
Madam Vice Mayor presides with grace and a calm and businesslike manner over the pre-kindergarten class also known as the Metro Council. A close ally of Dean, she was a popular one-term council member-at-large prior to her run for vice mayor. She waxed her opponent in the 2007 despite having to endure and beat a breast cancer diagnosis in the middle of the campaign.
A longtime East Nashvillian, she has worked for Vanderbilt for many years. Despite her serious East Nashville pedigree, she would likely bring significant West Nashville backing to the Mayor’s race; her supporters’ list reads like a who’s who of the developer/business community.
4. Former School Board Chairman David Fox
Possibly no elected job in Metro, or anywhere for that matter, is more fraught with tedium and pitfalls than being a member of the school board – let alone chairing it.
Between teachers, unions, parents and other government entities ranging from the mayor’s office to the White House meddling in how the job gets done, it is truly thankless. Service on the board usually results in having protestors that seemingly have taken their inspiration from the funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church.
After four years on the board, Fox came out like Shawshank Redemption. Yes, he has his detractors, but during his time on the board Metro dodged federal takeover, expanded charter school availability and dumped a superintendent that now spends his days blogging about movies and cartoons.
He could be a darling candidate for Rockefeller Repub types. He is by marriage a member of the Nelson family – old-old-money Nashville for those keeping score at home – a former business reporter at The Tennessean, a co-founder of NashvillePost.com, and he now works for investment firm Titan Advisors.
5. Council Member-At-Large Megan Barry
Garnering the second-largest vote total during the 2007 council races, Barry is a contradiction surrounded by a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
Married to liberal firebrand Vanderbilt professor Bruce Barry, she is known to be far left of center in her thinking and was expected to be a reliable pro-neighborhood, progressive liberal force on the Council – think living wage, green buildings and dogs sleeping with cats. Her election in 2007 sent shivers down the spine of the business community despite the fact that she had never held elected office.
While certainly progressive and pro-neighborhood in her voting record, she has not been the expected outspoken leader on various liberal causes. She even voted for the mayor’s convention center, one of the progressive votes the mayor and his horde of arm-twisting, name-calling lobbyists were able to round up.
Some point to her desire for higher office as a likely cause of her move to the center. While Congressman Jim Cooper’s seat in Washington is clearly on the mind of the bright and articulate corporate ethics officer, she also might make a real run in 2015 to be Metro’s first female mayor.
6. Businessman/entrepreneur Mike Shmerling
Speaking of people who will be surprised (shocked is perhaps more accurate) to be on this list, serial entrepreneur and chairman and CEO of the XMi group of companies, Mike Shmerling is a fourth-generation Nashvillian.
The former CPA is known to be absolutely scary smart and totally committed to the cause of public education in this city. Described as a “silent force for good” in the city on a host of issues, he is also a favorite of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd. He serves on a dozen different boards but has his biggest impact in ways no one sees or knows anything about. Think Phil Bredesen with a great personality and a slightly smaller checkbook.
Interestingly, while he hangs out in tony West Nashville, his dad was longtime and beloved Woodbine physician Abe Shmerling. He would be an instant favorite – along with District Attorney Torry Johnson – of the business community if he were to throw his hat in the ring.
7. Attorney Jerry Martin
Currently the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, Martin is a Stanford University law school grad and a former partner with George “Citizen” Barrett at Barrett Johnston & Parsley, one of the most well-connected Democratic law firms in town. In 2002, while working at Bass Berry & Sims, Martin took a break from the practice of law to be finance director for U.S. Rep Jim Cooper, developing lasting relationships with many of Cooper’s Nashville donors.
In 2008, he was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and he also served as the director of the Obama campaign in Tennessee. Martin is smart, ambitious and he has a level of political acumen not seen in many individuals his age. Four years as U. S. Attorney should address his name-recognition problem, making Martin a viable 2015 candidate.
8. Sheriff Daron Hall
If there is at this time an odds-on favorite for Mayor in 2015, it would have to be our handsome 45-year-old sheriff.
Son of former council member Durward Hall, his base is the voter-rich Madison/Donelson. Hall literally grew up watching Nashville politics at the grassroots level. He has slowly and carefully put together a list of supporters that reads like a who’s who of opinion leaders in the city.
Despite being unopposed in his 2010 election, he raised more than $150,000. The highly personable sheriff is well liked by pretty much everyone who knows him. While his use of the controversial 287(g) Federal immigration program has earned him the ire of our small but growing Hispanic community, the same decision should serve him well in the older and more conservative areas of the city. As one political insider put it when asked to handicap Hall’s handing of the immigration program, “Old people vote, Hispanics don’t.”
It is of course wildly early to anoint Hall anything other than sheriff and a near-lock to repeat as a Woman’s Political Caucus “Good Guy.” That said, Hall is clearly a force to contend with in 2015.
9. Businessman and political strategist Stuart Brunson
Before he turned 40, Brunson had already managed two successful statewide campaigns, run a statewide coordinated campaign, worked for the likes of Al Gore, Phil Bredesen and arguably the best Democratic fundraiser in state history, the late Johnny Hayes. Oh yeah, and he was the deputy governor that didn’t get a traffic ticket or have a job where he was booted out by Repubs.
Now running his own venture capital firm and a home services venture based in Green Hills, Brunson is sharpening his teeth and getting biz cred to match his political pedigree. He’s an Ole Miss grad with a law degree and divinity school in his rearview mirror. He also has another Karl-like quality that could come in handy down the road in a Mayor race: He “married well above himself,” as they say in his native Fayette County.
10. Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton
Elected to General Sessions Court Division III in 2006 in a close race by any standards, Dalton beat three other contenders for what was a seat given up by retiring Judge William Faimon.
Before wearing the black bathrobe in public, Dalton was an assistant prosecutor for the Davidson District Attorney General, which will sit well with law-and-order types and would be an interesting follow-up to our current mayor, who once served as public defender.
The Nashville native was graduated from Whites Creek High School, got her bachelor’s degree from Lane College and her law degree from the University of Toledo. In other words, her degrees and schools are probably more relatable to regular Nashvillians as opposed to more recent holders of the mayoral sash.
She is smart, articulate and whatever word is PC to use about a female candidate that equates to handsome for a male. Money is of course an issue, but she has all the other qualities necessary to make a run.
11. Lawyer Jeff Yarbro
The baby faced Yarbro, a Harvard graduate, is a native Tennessean hailing from Dyersburg. For a young guy, he already has a plethora of achievements under his belt.
On the IQ front, he graduated from Virginia Law School and got some prize awarded for being the outstanding member of his graduating class. He is currently an associate at mega law firm Bass Berry & Sims. Yarbro worked for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign and remains actively involved in Democratic politics at both the state and local level.
In 2008, Yarbro co-founded “Nashville’s Kitchen Cabinet,” a group of 20- and 30-year-olds who meet once a month to discuss the changes and challenges facing both Nashville and Tennessee as a whole.
Oh yeah, Yarbro took on and almost beat 84-year-old State Sen. Douglas “Duck” Henry in the Democratic Primary in August. He spent upwards of $400,000 to make sure that every man, woman and child above the age of 17 know his name in the voter-rich 18th senatorial district. Not a bad springboard for a mayoral run.
12. Banker Kevin Lavender
The man responsible for the regulation of the banking system in Tennessee during Governor Bredesen’s first term, Lavender is currently a senior VP specializing in the health care industry for Fifth Third Bank.
A co-founder of MediSphere, a specialty surgical hospital company, he has served or is serving on the boards of Belmont University, Ardent Health Services, the Nashville Sports Authority, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Meharry Medical College, among others.
By far the most prominent member of the younger generation of African-American business leaders in the city, he was rumored to have been “urged” to run for mayor in 2007 by some of the city’s leading power brokers. Should Lavender decide to throw his hat in the ring in 2015, he would be a formidable candidate.
13. Businessman Matt Wiltshire
Wiltshire is another one of those names on this list that may be somewhat surprised by being here – maybe.
A graduate of Dartmouth University, where he appropriately gained a bachelor’s in government, Wiltshire is a Tennessee native with an active role in a number of local political activities. He is the director of investment banking at Avondale Partners, specializing in advising on mergers and acquisitions. He serves on the board of Hands On Nashville and the Tennessee Justice Center and is on the Sennet Society of the United Way of the Metropolitan Nashville.
Along with Yarbro, he is the co-founder of the Kitchen Cabinet, an organization filled with young, politically active progressives who are ready and willing to volunteer at a moment’s notice.
As the son of Ashley Wiltshire, the former director of the Legal Aid Society in Middle Tennessee, there is absolutely no doubt that he has his liberal bona fides, yet his experience in investment banking, and his emphasis on raising capital for local business interests in Middle Tennessee could uniquely position him to make a run for mayor in 2015 should he make the right moves over the next several years.
14. Councilman-At-Large Jerry Maynard
A Council member, former lawyer and preacher, Maynard is actively involved in a number of fields. The former Deputy Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, he is the acknowledged day-in-day-out leader of the powerful black caucus on Metro Council. He is widely assumed to want to be mayor, but the question is can he put together the combination of factors necessary to get the job. Maynard is perhaps a long shot for 2015 but stranger things have happened.
15. Lawyer Dewey Branstetter
A Nashville native and Vanderbilt Law School Graduate, Branstetter is the scion of one of Metro’s founding fathers, Cecil Branstetter, and he is the quintessential nice Southern guy.
Branstetter is a household name in legal circles and in his home base of Bellevue. He has had strong political and charitable ties for years, serving on the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education for 11 years, three of which were as chairman. He has been a partner in the firm Branstetter Stranch & Jennings for the last 19 years, a prominent labor and class-action law firm in town that has significant ties to the unions and the Democratic party. More of a compromise candidate than someone who will come out the blocks in a sprint, Branstetter was rumored to have strongly considered a run in 2007.
16. Lawyer/Former Councilman-At-Large David Briley
The fifth-place (out of five) finisher in 2007’s mayoral contest, Briley served as an at-large Council member between 1999 and 2007. A Georgetown law grad, is the grandson of Mayor Beverly Briley and was a wildly popular council member who was a very large disappointment as a mayoral candidate. He just never could seem to get traction in 2007, despite being the alleged first choice of the progressive voter.
Despite his rumored continued interest in Metro’s top job, questions remain whether his supporters are willing to give it another shot after the disappointing effort in 2007.
17. Congressman Jim Cooper
Congressman Jim Cooper could likely be mayor if he decided to run for mayor in 2015. Of course, the same thing was true in 2007. Cooper, who had no desire to be mayor in 2007, may, perhaps come to the same conclusion in 2015.
The son of late Gov. Prentiss Cooper is a nine-term congressman. In addition to his Congressional pedigree, he was a health care investment banker, businessman, attorney and part-time Vanderbilt professor. His independent voting record in Congress has earned him a reputation as the sort of just slightly left-of-center Democrat that Nashville loves.
He’s not exactly a charismatic speaker – a la Phil Bredesen – but is widely viewed as the “smartest guy in Congress” – a trait that would certainly help him deal with the high-IQ bunch known as the Metro Council. Cooper can raise money, has considerable personal wealth and has a ready-made campaign organization in place. That said, while he is in the conversation, he is not likely to be interested in the mayor’s job.
18. Councilman Lonnell Matthews
A lifelong Nashvillian, Matthews is a graduate of Tennessee State University. He currently works as program director for YMCA of Middle Tennessee and was elected as a District 1 Council member in October 2007. Matthews has built on his Council committee experience over the past few years sitting on panels for various areas interests including education and health, hospitals and social services and in 2009, he was president of the Council’s Black Caucus.
Matthews will have the next five years to get ready for his next race and why would he not consider finishing the job Gentry started in 2007. He is young, articulate and by far the best-dressed member of Council. His leadership on the controversial May Town project has shown that Matthews can handle the legislative heavy lifting necessary to be successful and thus be in the spotlight in a positive fashion. The question for his next term is can he develop the perception of executive leadership necessary for a mayor’s race.
19. District Attorney Torry Johnson
A Vanderbilt Law School graduate, Metro’s top prosecutor, Torry Johnson has served Nashville as its district attorney for the past 22 years. Johnson was briefly in the 2007 race (sort of) after forming a high-profile exploratory committee run by some of the best connected legal, political and PR hands in the city. When Johnson decided not to run, his A Team of handlers scattered to the wind with at least two of them ending up in the office of Metro’s other top lawyer at the time – Metro Legal Director Karl Dean. The rest is, as they say, history.
That Dean was elected using his strategy and his people has not likely escaped the keen eye of Johnson, who is widely respected in business and legal circles in the city and has personal wealth to boot. (His family owned Alladin Industries and developed MetroCenter). He would be a serious candidate if he decided that the second time would be charm.
20. Council Member Emily Evans
Emily Evans, who represents Belle Meade on Council, will tell you if you ask that she would be a damn good mayor. Evans, who spent almost 20 years in the municipal finance industry in New York and at J.C. Bradford & Co. in Nashville, has had a hand in most of the serious issues before the city since she joined Council. While some – oh, say every single living soul in the Dean administration – would say that she meddles a good bit, she does have a keen understanding of all things Metro.
She was the prime opponent of the Mayor’s shiny new toy, a/k/a the Music City Center, so her support in the business community – at least in the tourism and downtown good-ole-boy network, would be nonexistent in a mayoral run. In fact, one lobbyist for the CVB has stated publicly that “they” (read the CVB) were “coming after” Evans in her 2011 re-election bid.
While the ability of the pro-convention center forces to defeat her in her re-election bid is pure poppycock – better folks have tried and failed twice – she would face a crowded field and significant difficulty in raising the $1 million or more a 2015 Mayor’s race would likely cost.
21. Lawyer Chase Cole
Cole is rumored to have considered a run in 2007 before Dean decided to throw his hat in the ring. He is the long time chairman of MDHA’s Board, is a Nashville native and lawyer at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis. He is one of the elder statesmen of the securities bar in Nashville and has as a result had a direct hand in making a whole bunch of people a whole bunch of money.
Cole is a large contributor to Democratic causes and candidates and could likely afford to self-finance at least the early parts of a campaign. A handsome single guy who drives a Porsche, Cole might need to consider settling down and would definitely need to buy a Lexus to be a serious contender.
22. Tennessee State Rep. Beth Harwell
Former Chair of the State Republican Party, Harwell has been a state representative since 1988. In a matter of days, she will be elected the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. Harwell sponsored the original bill to create charter schools in Tennessee and won her last election with more than 74 percent of the vote in the 56th District in West Nashville.
Smart and an experienced campaigner, Harwell might be the only member of her party to have a prayer in 60 percent Democratic Davidson County. After five sessions of trying to keep the sane Republicans and the mean Republicans from killing each other, spending hours on end with the Metro Council might feel like a promotion.
23. Belmont President Bob Fisher
Fisher has the style, personality and stump skills to eye the mayor’s office, trading a sometimes unruly board of trust for the band of 40 jealous whores also known as the Metro Council.
Or at least he “had” that, until his stock took a major hit last week when it appears he took a vacation without his ever-present Blackberry only to see his tone-deaf athletic director and board chair open their mouths and pummel the university’s hard-earned reputation. Their actions instantly ruined years of work to make Belmont a real university and not a church masquerading as a school.
His recovery from the totally unnecessary lackofpenisgate and other accusations of bigotry at the school will determine if Fisher could mount a run in 2015. “Doc” Fisher, as he is sometimes referred to, would make a “fine mayor,” according to at least one seriously connected Metro insider. Raising the money he would need would be an issue, especially if he faced a fellow candidate who could self-finance.
24. Davidson County Clerk John Arriola
I am not exactly sure why I have put John Arriola on this list. He is not going to be mayor of Nashville. Maybe perhaps he might have been mayor if he was running in 1975 as opposed to 2015 but he’s not. Nashville’s political climate and its demographics have drastically changed, as evidenced by Bill Purcell and Karl Dean’s ascendance to power.
Arriola’s political career climaxed in the late 1990s when he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. Since then it has been on the decline, similar to Bob Clement’s political fortunes, whom Arriola served as an executive assistant.
Nevertheless, it is conceivable that he might try to gear up for one this race given that he was elected countywide as the Davidson County clerk in 2010. Before that, he was active in Nashville’s health care community, serving as vice president of Nashville Memorial Hospital.
25. State Representative Jim Gotto
A newly minted state representative, Gotto is politically just slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. When he says he is conservative, he means it. The former BellSouth lobbyist is finishing up his second term on Metro Council and has chaired the Council’s powerful planning committee for several years.
While Nashville is still majority Democratic in its voting patterns, no one has ever been elected mayor of the city without the significant help and support of the more centrist and mostly Republican business community. If Gotto could go to Capitol Hill and act like Howard Baker, vote like Howard Baker and talk like Howard Baker – hold on, I must dreaming...
Well, Gotto might run anyway. After all, George Wallace ran for president.
So there you have it: 25 names to ponder, debate and most likely complain about online as we get ready for a busy 2011. Have fun.
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- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS