When Mayor Karl Dean proposes an economic incentives package, it passes. If you’re a reporter, Josh Stites is the Metro Council member you call when it does.
In less than two years in office he has developed an outsized profile for a first-term district councilman, bolstered by his consistent opposition to Dean’s economic development method of choice. When it comes to corporate tax breaks the administration frequently uses to keep companies in Nashville — or lure them here — Stites has been a “No” man on a council that is often maligned as a rubber stamp for the mayor’s plans.
That is, largely, his raison d’etre.
Stites doesn’t just stand out because he has, on occasion, been the lone red name on the board after a council vote (as was the case when he cast the only vote against a $66 million incentives deal for HCA in December that was one of the largest Metro has ever offered). At 31, he is one of the council’s youngest members, and as a conservative, he is an ideological minority on a blue-city council.
An admitted political junkie, Stites said he never planned to get into the game himself until the year of the 2011 county elections. Over the course of knocking on 4,000 doors throughout his airport-area District 13, he said he was inspired by “hard-working people that really aren’t asking for anything” other than, “Just don’t make it harder on me than it already is.” It was then, he said, that he began to see a need for a voice that said “No.”
He understands there is a sort of perverse incentive that can come with that.
“I think in any political environment, politicians are kind of rewarded for being abrasive,” he told The City Paper in a recent interview. “If I disagree with the administration, you guys will call me more. So there’s the voice of dissent, which is, people know that whatever this guy says I’m going to say no to. And then there’s the voice of reason — if they do good, say they’re doing good; if they’re going the wrong way, say that.”
Stites said he’s going for the latter.
“When I’ve opposed the mayor, I’ve been consistent,” he said. “I’ve opposed him on the same thing every time. I think the mayor is a great guy. I think he’s done, overall, a great job for our city. I’m not one who just sticks my finger in his eye every chance I get, and I have tried to say, every chance I get, that I think he generally has done a good job.”
Still, Stites acknowledged that there’s a cost, measured in political capital. After the HCA incentives deal sailed through the council in December, he told reporters of his intention to file legislation that would broaden access to economic incentives. If Metro was going to dish them out, he said, they should be available to smaller businesses too.
Lo and behold, At-Large Councilmen Jerry Maynard and Charlie Tygard — who had voiced support for Stites’ idea previously — emerged with a plan for a small-business incentives program that was backed by the Dean administration. Last week, it passed the council unanimously.
“Anything that I brought was probably DOA,” Stites said the day before the council’s final vote on the program. “But I care nothing about the credit, so I’m happy that Councilman Maynard and others brought it.”
Having joined the council in 2011, Stites missed the contentious debates over financing for the Music City Center and the fate of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds that made main characters of the mayor’s opponents in each case. The recently opened MCC, in particular, has granted sustained name recognition to council members who opposed it, such as Jason Holleman and Emily Evans.
In general, the Dean administration’s opponents have been perceived in one of two ways. To those who share their misgivings, they are principled truth-tellers. Many times though, in the more cynical, but not necessarily clouded, eyes of the political chattering classes, such outspoken opposition is seen as a tactic in the service of political ambition. Politics is not so different from hip-hop, in that way. If you want to get noticed, you take a swing at whoever’s on top.
“It couldn’t possibly be that they’re representing the people that elected them, right?” said Evans with knowing sarcasm.
Evans’ frequent public run-ins with the Dean administration, particularly on the MCC, have similarly raised her profile in recent years, and drawn skepticism about her motives. Fiscal issues have created an unlikely alliance, at times, between Evans and the socially conservative Stites (though as Evans noted, the social issues over which they might disagree rarely if ever come up at the council). What good representatives try to do, she said, is develop a governing philosophy that is built on the things they heard going door to door in the summer heat. That’s what she thinks Stites has done.
“I think Josh has very accurately assessed his community,” she said. “And they are physically located very far from a lot of the projects that are the benefit of these incentives. They know that if they even see that project in the next few months, that’ll be a fairly big surprise, and if they benefit from them, that’ll be nothing short of a miracle. And he knows that, so he’s representing his constituents.”
And none of his constituents will be riding The Amp, the mayor’s bus rapid transit project connecting East Nashville with West. That figures to be the next civic project to divide the council, and Stites is lining up against it.
“I support a strong public transportation system in Nashville, and I will support the mayor in determining the best alternatives for Nashville. But I won’t support continuing money we don’t have after a pipe dream,” Stites said. “Congressman Cooper has delivered the hard truth that the federal government isn’t going to play ball with us anytime soon. And that makes a serious transportation project unlikely.”
“Furthermore, in my view, The Amp would make West End a nightmare for anyone in a car. I would like us to create a public transportation system that doesn’t cannibalize a major thoroughfare in our city.”
At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine, one of the council’s senior members, has consistently supported the incentives deals Stites has voted against. In response to Stites’ argument on the floor against the HCA deal, Steine rose to differ with him, but not before saying that he admired his “philosophy and consistency.”
Speaking last week to The City Paper, Steine said he thinks council members give Stites “credence for the sincerity of his positions” and called Stites’ opposition on economic development issues consistent and generally well thought-out. He also said Stites hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for that small-business initiative.
“Councilman Maynard and Councilman Tygard carried this legislation to create the small-business economic incentives, but my recollection is all of that discussion began with Josh Stites,” he said. “It came out of his comments on the floor, which I think started other folks on the council thinking about it.”
Steine acknowledges that in his time around the council he’s seen members who seem to think the greatest victory is to have railed against the majority on the floor, but he said he doesn’t think Stites is one of them.
As for cashing in his increased visibility for higher political office down the line, Stites said — and repeated — that he doesn’t have any such plans. For what it’s worth, he estimated that his state House district is about 65 percent Democratic, with his state Senate district approaching 75 percent Democratic. Unless he wanted to launch a primary challenge to Lamar Alexander, he joked, what option would he have?
“If there’s something I could do where I knew I could really make a difference ...” he said, before stopping himself to acknowledge that every politician answers the question that way. As for running for another term on the council in 2015, he said he thinks he will.
His seemingly sincere lack of an urgency to climb the political ladder may be an outgrowth of a conservatism that sees service in local government as an end in itself, but also his upbringing. A Cookeville native, he said the ideal life would take place on 1,000 acres out in the country. Growing up, he said he acquired an aversion to professional politics.
“You’ve got the political class,” he said. “My dad always referred to them as the ‘green fly crowd.’ Growing up on the farm raising cattle, we understood what that meant. Because you always found green flies around ... you know.”
Stites acknowledged that while that attitude may shield him from some political ills, it may also be a weakness. Other council members said he doesn’t interact much, and could be a larger player if he engaged his colleagues more.
Still, Stites refers back to what he heard while walking around District 13 knocking on doors. That government is needed in a number of areas, but that the list is shorter than the government thinks. And that since council members do have more than one button at their desks — “No” as well as “Yes” — they might try the other one sometimes.
“If we’re never going to say no to the what the administration says — whoever is sitting in that chair — then there’s no point in having the Metro Council.”