In a little less than 1,000 days, Nashville will elect a new mayor.
The race is not on. There are no mayoral candidates. But absurd as it may sound, there are candidates vying for mayoral candidacy.
Blame term limits and newspapers for premature speculation about political contests that are still years away from commencing in earnest. The former determines the end of one political storyline, thereby accentuating the beginning of another, and encouraging curiosity about its plot. The latter entity chases the insider buzz caused by the former, and tries to pin down all the speculatory targets. (Full disclosure: The article you’re reading is an example of just that.)
Add to that the fact that Nashville’s most recent mayoral race was no race at all, ending with last year’s auto re-election of Mayor Karl Dean, who faced no real opposition and won with nearly 80 percent of the vote. When the second Tuesday of August 2015 arrives, it will have been eight years since securing election to the mayor’s office required anything that could truly be called a campaign. The coming end of Dean’s tenure in the Metro Courthouse, distant as it may be, brings to mind the coming race to replace him.
But horse races require horses. And so the aptly named chattering classes have been caucusing, as it were.
Multiple individuals confirmed to The City Paper that they were, as rumored, interested in a possible mayoral candidacy. Others were noncommittal. But one could argue that it hardly matters: Local political figures faced with questions about their future ambitions find themselves in the same predicament many of the nation’s college football coaches will soon be navigating. A denial will be seen by most observers as a maybe, at least. Anything else is likely to be attached to a note carefully delineating what the individual “did not rule out.”
It is the same predicament that led Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to famously squelch speculation about his potential 1884 presidential candidacy by declaring that he would “not accept if nominated and [would] not serve if elected.”
If few are inclined to take public figures at their word in such cases, it’s because each season or cycle reveals many among them going back on what they said. Not only that, there is often personal gain to be had by allowing such speculation. Few head football coaches, for instance, will attempt to remove their name from the media’s short list of potential hires at the University of Tennessee. Likewise, few local politicians end a call after being told they’re rumored to be a candidate for the city’s top job.
So here we are. And some of the city’s most interested parties are already beginning the process of sorting out who will succeed Dean in office.
“I’m out there encouraging business people to be thinking about the kind of leadership and mayoral candidates that they’d like to see the next time around,” said Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. (Schulz is occasionally mentioned as a possible candidate himself, but he dismissed the possibility out of hand. “I am not running for mayor,” he said. “I am running the chamber.”)
Among the foremost figures in the race for the race is Metro At-Large Councilwoman Megan Barry. Now serving her second term on the council, Barry is a politician whose name consistently tops the list of rumored candidates for higher office. But she’s not going there yet.
“It’s too early for people, I think, to be actually deciding, but I am talking to people about the issues that face Nashville because I think there are a lot of issues that we need to be addressing,” she told The City Paper. “How we expand our tax base, and how we maintain a livable city, and transportation, and tax incentives. All of these things together are conversations that I’m having with people, but I think it’s way too early for anybody to come out and actually declare.”
After repeating once more that “it’s too early” for such a discussion, she downplayed the possibility of becoming the city’s first female mayor, saying that whoever is the next mayor “should be elected because they’re the best candidate.”
Mayoral speculation has also followed Councilman At-Large Jerry Maynard, and has only increased with this fall’s release of a book he wrote titled “How To Lead When No One Follows.” Maynard is a pastor and former lawyer, a member of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s executive committee, and the leader of the council’s Minority Caucus.
“Yes, I’m seriously considering running for mayor if that opportunity opens up, because as an elected official, every day I’m looking to move Nashville forward,” he told The City Paper during a recent phone interview. “Every day I’m thinking about ways to make the city a better place for all Nashvillians, regardless of where they live in Nashville and regardless of where they come from. So every day I’m always looking at, how can we make our city even greater? And I believe that the mayor’s office is a great position to bring creative minds, and create a creative economy, and a way to further harness and channel energies and resources to enhance all of our citizens.”
His ultimate decision, he said, will come down to whether he can be more effective in the private sector or in the public sector as mayor.
Yet another at-large council member, Ronnie Steine, is among the perennial would-be candidates whose hat is provisionally thrown into the ring each cycle as a matter of course. Steine has been expressing interest in a run at the mayor’s office as far back as the late ’90s. With another chance approaching, he confirmed his interest remains.
“Anyone who loves our city, and anyone who loves public service should be interested in the job that gives you the ultimate opportunity to do the most good for our city,” he said. “It’s certainly something that I will seriously consider.”
Outside the council, there are others giving the idea some thought, including former school board chairman David Fox.
“I have thought about running for mayor, and various people have approached me in the last, maybe, six months about it,” said Fox, who is also a former Tennessean reporter and co-founder of NashvillePost.com. “But I don’t expect to make a decision about it in the immediate future. I definitely don’t want to run a three-year campaign. I don’t think that would be a real productive way to spend three years. But I do expect that I will give it serious consideration down the road.”
Fox currently works for the investment firm Titan Advisors and said he’d have to consider the possible effect on his family and career.
“It’d be a very interesting and rewarding and challenging assignment, but I just need to kind of think through,” he said. “It’d be a pretty significant career change, and I just need to kind of think through how that affects the long-term career and my family. But my family has lived in Nashville for 140 years, and it’s been a great community to us and for us. So if there’s a way I could be meaningfully helpful, then I’d sure like to do so.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner told TNReport last year that “if the opportunity is there” he was “thinking about running for mayor” in 2015. He was re-elected to his state House seat earlier this month, after running unopposed, and will enter next year’s legislative sessions as one of the leaders of an even smaller Democratic minority.
As for his current thoughts on the matter, Turner could not be reached for comment by press time.
Whether fueled by Democratic nostalgia, or the self-interested curiosity of aspiring candidates, former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell has even been the subject of some speculation. Reached by The City Paper, though, Purcell, who served two terms as mayor from 1999 to 2007, did not express any interest in returning to the post and discouraged the discussion in general.
“Right now what we all need to do is stay focused on helping our mayor be the best mayor he can be, and the city be as successful as possible,” he wrote in an email. “Attention to the next mayor’s race distracts from those two goals. This was what I thought when I was mayor and what I still believe.”
And then there are the many as-yet-unknown candidates who will probably surface to render the current discussion mostly obsolete. That is the precedent set by Purcell, who wasn’t considered a possible mayoral candidate this far before his initial run, and by Dean, then the Metro law director, who announced his candidacy in December 2006 and largely self-funded his way to victory eight months later.
In the end, much of the initial speculation will likely be proven not so much false as temporarily true. Candidates with potential now may be far from it in one year’s time. What the careful responses of some on the supposed list prove is that though it may be too early to answer, it’s not too soon to ask.