The pro-property tax increase group that called itself a “grassroots coalition” supporting key investments for Nashville’s future received $26,000 from Mayor Karl Dean’s campaign coffers, his mid-year financial disclosure reveals.
Moving Nashville Forward — which rallied support for the mayor’s 53-cent property tax hike in advance of the council’s final approval on June 19 — collected donations from others as well, former Metro Councilman Erik Cole, who led the organization’s efforts, told The City Paper. But the mayor’s contribution was the largest.
“It was the majority of it,” Cole said of Moving Nashville Forward’s financing. “There’s no doubt it was substantial.”
For some, the mayor’s campaign committee contribution has raised questions whether the group was more an offshoot of the mayor’s political apparatus than an organic, citizen-led organization.
“It was an extension of the mayor’s office,” Metro Councilman Robert Duvall said of Moving Nashville Forward, an organization that announced its creation two weeks after Dean proposed the city’s first tax increase in seven years. “It was nothing but a front organization to promote the mayor’s tax-and-spend bill.”
Still, others have no issue with the mayor’s investment. “The mayor has a campaign fund that he has the right to spend however he wishes,” At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine said. “Generating public education about an issue seems to me a perfectly appropriate use of that money.”
Moving Nashville Forward did not organize as a political organization and is therefore not required to submit its list of contributors to the Davidson County Election Commission. None of its membership registered as Metro lobbyists either.
Rather, Cole said the group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and would be filing a financial report with the Internal Revenue Service at the appropriate time. He was unable to provide The City Paper with a full list of Moving Nashville Forward donors but said it represents the various stakeholders who publicly supported Dean’s tax increase. (Efforts by The City Paper to locate the group’s nonprofit certification online were unsuccessful.)
Moving Nashville Forward originated on May 14 with a press conference hosted by three of its members, including Cole, who issued an “invitation to any and all who want to join the effort.”
Leading up to the council’s definitive tax hike vote, the group’s activities included encouraging citizens to email council members to vote for the mayor’s property tax increase. The coalition also rallied supporters to pack the council chambers for the budget’s public hearing.
“I think the mayor has the right to spend his campaign contributions however he wants,” said Councilman Josh Stites. “If that includes lobbying for a tax hike, he’s obviously free to do so.”
Duvall, the mayor’s most outspoken tax increase opponent and a Republican candidate for state House, said, “I’ll defend his right to do it even though I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
“It misleads the general public, who think there’s a lot more people out there supporting the organization than there really is,” he said. “Then they find out it’s supported by one man.”
Dean’s financial disclosure lists Moving Nashville Forward’s address as 150 Third Avenue South, Suite 2800, which is the address of the law firm Bass, Berry & Sims. Dean’s treasurer Leigh Walton is an attorney there.
Cole said Bass, Berry & Sims provided pro bono legal work for Moving Nashville Forward.
Cole said his group used money primarily on mail, phone calls and staff time — all aimed to “gin up support.” He said he “couldn’t speculate” how much money Moving Nashville Forward collected in total without the appropriate documentation in front of him.
Despite the mayor’s substantial financial support, Cole said he believes Moving Nashville Forward constituted a genuine “grassroots” effort. “None of it was paid turnout,” he said of the Metro employees, teachers, business leaders and others who showed up at the council chamber to support the tax increase.
“I think the turnout, and the people that were involved and did the day-to-day work of calling the council and working through the events we held, were community folks from all across the city,” Cole said. “That was the goal, to really bring them together on this issue.”
In the end, whether or not Moving Nashville Forward tipped the scale, the mayor enjoyed overwhelming support for the tax increase, collecting 32 out of 40 votes, even while other cities have struggled to increase tax revenue during a struggling economy.
As for Dean’s campaign finance report, along with Moving Nashville Forward expenditure, the mayor also delivered $27,000 to Peter D. Hart Research Associates, the Washington-D.C. based Democratic polling group that surveyed Nashvillians on the looming tax hike last winter.
In all, the mayor spent $64,000 between Jan. 16 and June 30. With no more mayoral elections ahead of him, term-limited Dean reported $50,000 on hand.