The scene had the feel of a rock star working the rope line after a three-hour concert for adoring fans.
It was the morning of the Tomato Art Fest 5K run in East Nashville, and Mike Jameson was making his way through a crowd of constituents to a chorus of, “Atta boy Mike!” and “Give ‘em hell Councilman!”
Just days before Jameson appeared on a NewsChannel5 investigative report and, with appropriate gall and the expected eloquence, blasted the Metro Development and Housing Agency, which is under the direction of an old family friend, in addition to Nashville’s most powerful public relations firm and, oh yeah, the Mayor Karl Dean administration.
It was appropriate that Jameson received the affirmations just minutes before a race in East Nashville, because in his own words, the second-term District 6 Metro Councilman is sprinting “to the finish line” of his own political career.
Come 2011, Jameson will be finished with politics, he says, content to return to his family and his law practice.
Jameson, whose dream job was to be a judge like his grandfather, who maintains unparalleled popularity in Nashville’s most civically engaged district and who possesses as much political sway as anyone on Council, is reportedly ready to sail off into the East Nashville sunset.
But before he does?
“I’m gonna sprint to the finish line,” Jameson said. “I’m gonna try to make the last two years productive and look back on this period with pride.”
No. 1 antagonist
Jameson’s retirement from politics bears mentioning, because his critics believe his outspoken criticisms of Dean have come across as grandstanding. Jameson claims he’s even had to tell political insiders, to their utter skepticism, that he is not going to run for mayor in two years.
The fact he’s taken on the role of Dean’s No. 1 antagonist comes as a surprise to Jameson himself, since not long after the 2007 inauguration, he was quoted as calling the new administration a “breath of fresh air.”
But then came Planner Gate, where Jameson accused the administration (although not Dean himself) of attempting to fire Metro Planning Department staffer David Kleinfelter. During an intensely awkward Planning Department budget hearing with Council, Jameson interrogated the outmatched Planning Director Rick Bernhardt about why Kleinfelter’s job was suddenly in jeopardy.
The insinuation — never fully proved beyond a shadow of a doubt — was that Kleinfelter had rubbed the wrong developer the wrong way and would be paying for it with his job thanks to Dean’s top aides.
In truth, Jameson wasn’t interested in proving anything when he questioned Bernhardt. He was merely using his bully pulpit to put the story in the news, which worked, and kept Kleinfelter safe until he took a job in the private sector late last year.
If the developer and administration were playing politics to get rid of Kleinfelter, a pro-neighborhood planner with poor bedside manners at times, then Jameson was playing the same game only with the intention of saving the job of his old college roommate.
Jameson claims it was the subterfuge and the fact Kleinfelter seemed to be losing his job for no reason that motivated him to bring the situation public. But those close to the Dean administration say Jameson easily could have handled the situation behind closed doors and without the media’s involvement.
Putting up a river front
Cemented in the Dean doghouse, Jameson mostly stayed quiet until March, when he claims he got wind of the administration’s intentions to alter the long-planned redevelopment of the Nashville riverfront. East Nashville had made it clear that before anything else, it wanted a public park on the river. The first phase of redevelopment, approved during the Mayor Bill Purcell administration and with significant public input, called for an adventure water park on the river.
But according to Jameson, Dean was ready to scrap everything and begin redevelopment by focusing on the downtown side of the river — the side closer to the proposed new convention center, Jameson pointed out.
A public meeting was called in East Nashville and, with media on hand and cameras rolling, Jameson warned the crowd that if the adventure park wasn’t installed in phase one of redevelopment, then it was never going to become a reality. The community reacted, quite angrily, and lo and behold, Dean included the adventure water park in his first capital spending plan.
In between the March public meeting and August, Jameson was sufficiently on the outs with the Dean administration. But that was nothing new or out of the ordinary. Council members have aggravated every mayor in Metro government’s history and they’ve paid the price for it. Metro departments respond a little slower to district concerns, if they respond at all. Questions get answered less frequently.
The Dean administration probably isn’t going to ask Jameson for political help on big issues the way it might ask Council members like Jim Forkum, Ronnie Steine or Erik Cole.
But then came the fiasco surrounding invoices turned in by PR firm McNeely, Pigott & Fox, and there was Jameson leading the rather small chorus of outraged Council members. The invoices totaled $458,000 for a contract, managed by MDHA, originally capped at $75,000.
During Metro Council announcements on Aug. 6, Jameson called for an independent audit and public answers to questions about the invoices. Without ever giving Jameson credit, the administration responded by calling for an independent audit on the same day McNeely, Pigott & Fox resigned from the communications contract for the convention center project.
Dean’s office also moved to switch control of the project from MDHA to a new volunteer citizen board. Jameson, along with partner in crime Councilwoman Emily Evans and consistent irritant Councilman Eric Crafton, battered the administration in the media.
Jameson said Dean was fast-tracking the creation of the Convention Center Authority as a Band-aid to a problem that needed a more nuanced approach. Jameson had questions he wanted answered from the administration as to why the authority needed to be created so quickly.
Instead of e-mailing his questions, Jameson called out Finance Director Rich Riebeling during the Council convention, tourism and public facilities committee meeting on Aug. 18. Jameson used a sparsely used procedural rule to force Council to re-consider the legislation authorizing the creation of the authority. And in between he badgered the Dean administration with Council floor speeches and media comments.
Flair for the dramatic?
In off-the-record conversations, Dean supporters and staffers question Jameson’s motives. They speculate his desire for a higher office, perhaps a run for a circuit court judgeship, and they loathe his flair for the dramatic.
As one Council member, who has sided with both Jameson and the administration on different issues puts it, “Mike’s style doesn’t lend itself to helping the cause along.”
Issues with style aside, Jameson is adamant that his public stances on policy issues are not designed to help himself along politically in the future. Jameson’s take-home pay is 25 percent of what it was before he was elected to Council in 2003 and he maintains a romantic view on the value of term limits.
“I like the idea of serving eight years, giving everything you’ve got, and then stepping aside so some new blood can come in,” Jameson said. “It would be audacious of me, living in this district, to say, ‘I’m the best there is, there’s nobody better than me.’”
And for the East Nashville residents who gave their Councilman high-fives before the Tomato Art Fest run, they can rest assured Jameson isn’t going to turn sheepish his last two years in office.
“I never thought about this office ever until a year before running for it,” Jameson said. “and it’s opened the door to a brand new realm you can actually do some good occasionally, and expand your horizons and better your neighborhood. But it’s amazing how few people ever believe anybody when they say, ‘I’m not going to do it any more.’
“I ain’t running for anything. I just want to do a good job with the time I have.”