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VOL. 40 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 29, 2016

Red state, blue mayors

Democratic leaders of our 4 largest cities push progressive agendas in GOP stronghold

By Sam Stockard

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Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, a Democrat in Tennessee’s sea of red, finds herself adapting to the control Republicans hold over the state Legislature.

Even though she supported Davidson County-backed initiatives on construction jobs and affordable housing, Barry wound up offering alternatives after suburban Republicans put up road blocks in the General Assembly.

The first-term mayor, who points out one of her tasks is to make sure Nashvillians have a strong job market, is learning to deal with the political realities of a Republican supermajority in the state Legislature.

“We are a region,” Barry says, “so making sure that everybody in the region has the opportunity to participate in our prosperity is good for Nashville.”

The mayors – all Democrats – of Tennessee’s four largest cities find themselves better off ignoring party politics and focusing instead on urban issues and the fact that those cities hold economic clout across the state.

Their constituencies generated a combined 31.1 percent of the state’s sales tax revenues in fiscal 2016, state Department of Revenue statistics show, but that buys them little clout on a Capitol Hill dominated by Republican legislators.

“In talking with our legislators, we strongly advocate for issues important to residents of Knoxville and the state’s other major cities,” Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero says.

“These shouldn’t be partisan issues. It’s a matter of understanding and promoting the interests of Tennessee’s urban areas, which are the economic engines of the state.”

That didn’t stop her from taking a shot at Tennessee legislators this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

“No offense to rural areas,” she said while speaking at a gathering of Tennessee delegates, “but the truth is cities are economic engines in our state and across our country.

“We have a General Assembly right now that does not work for cities; that does everything they can do to take away the power of cities,” she added.

Big cities have seen “misguided attempts” in recent years to limit the authority of local government and damage economic development efforts, Rogero says.

But whether dealing with blight and redevelopment, planning and land use or meeting needs of a “diverse populations,” Knoxville’s mayor says city government will continue being a “vocal” protector and promoter of its constituents.

Clockwise from top left: Mayor Megan Barry of Nashville, Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis and Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga

-- Barry, Metropolitan Government Of Nashville And Davidson County; Berke, Ap Photo/Mark Gilliland

“Our state is strong when our cities are strong,” Rogero says.

In the 2016 session, Barry battled Republican-sponsored legislation considered unfriendly to the LGBT community and the potential for driving conventions and conferences away from Nashville, thus hurting the revenue streams of Nashville and, ultimately, the state.

She wrote a letter in the midst of the session detailing the potential negative economic impact of bills restricting transgender use of school restrooms and allowing therapists to opt out of counseling people if they disagreed with their lifestyle.

Asked if she sees backlash from her support of the LGBT community and immigrants, Barry says, “I think we continue to see Nashville’s strong, diverse economy, and that is the message that we send.

“When you’re progressive and pro-business, it’s good for business. And Nashville has always been a warm and welcoming place, and we continue to do that.”

Barry, leader of a metropolitan government, didn’t need to get involved in a 2016 debate over de-annexation legislation designed to give people in a handful of cities a method for removing themselves from municipal limits.

But Rogero, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a former Democratic state senator, all testified before legislators in opposition to the bill, which eventually was put on hold – at least for the 2016 session – in large part because it was considered complicated and unwieldy.

The bill’s sponsors say the measure is needed because residents in some annexed areas across Tennessee were brought into municipal limits – over their objections and without a voice – and never received the services they were promised.

Knoxville officials say de-annexation is a bad idea because the city hasn’t pursued involuntary annexations in more than a decade and allowing residents to remove themselves from municipal limits would negate efforts involved in setting up Urban Growth Boundary maps and providing predictability of government services for city and non-city residents.

The bottom line of Knoxville’s city budget also will feel the pain of Republican legislation that passed this year to phase out the Hall tax on investments, officials say.

Knoxville takes in about $4 million annually from Hall tax revenue, the equivalent of 10 cents on its property tax rate, and city officials contend a small tax cut for the state’s wealthiest residents will shift a greater burden for funding public services onto middle and lower income residents.

Municipal mayors also came out on the short end of legislation allowing guns in parks during the 109th General Assembly, a measure often considered a rural vs. urban fight.

But their efforts on the de-annexation were successful, albeit hard-fought, with Strickland joining relatively late after being sworn in Jan. 1.

Alan Crone, special counsel to the Memphis mayor, says Strickland has gotten “good reception” on Capitol Hill.

Strickland doesn’t hide the fact he’s a Democrat, but he doesn’t lead with it, either, especially when working on legislative matters, Crone says, noting the mayor’s office tries to find areas where everyone can agree and then work toward a solution.

The Memphis mayor “butted heads” over the de-annexation bill last session with some lawmakers, Crone says, including those in the Shelby County delegation.

But the mayor’s office also pushed some anti-blight legislation by telling lawmakers that cities need recourse against those who allow their property to become dilapidated or abandoned and don’t pay their taxes.

An old battle

Crone concedes a divide between urban and rural areas across the state goes back to Tennessee’s founding and was prevalent when he and Strickland interned in the General Assembly in the 1980s, even with Democrats controlling the Legislature.

“I think, if you let it, partisan politics can get in the middle of that,” Crone explains.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says the give-and-take between big-city mayors and legislators is not only a Democrat-Republican battle but an urban vs. suburban-rural conflict in which the Legislature is controlled by “very conservative” Republicans from rural and suburban areas.

“There’s just a divide over how you deal with a lot of issues,” Syler says.

In some instances, Syler contends, big-city mayors have few options but to find local solutions, knowing they can’t get what they want from the Legislature. He doesn’t see much relief, either, until the composition of the General Assembly changes.

Nashville political analyst Pat Nolan points out Davidson County initiatives such as the Amp bus lane and an anti-discrimination bill sponsored by Barry when she was a Metro Council member were squelched by Republicans in the Legislature.

Republicans lawmakers continued delivering the message when Barry took office.

“At Mayor Barry,” Nolan says, “they kind of fired a shot across her bow before she ever really did anything on affordable housing,” pre-empting any effort to require Nashville developments to have a certain percentage of affordable housing.

State Rep. Glen Casada, a Thompson Station Republican, and state Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican, took aim separately at affordable housing and job initiatives sought by Metro Nashville voters, saying they could hurt the region’s businesses.

Ultimately, Barry presented plans to focus first on job training and, most recently, to give incentives for affordable housing rather than mandate it.

After years in the minority, Nolan says, some in GOP said “it was time to show Davidson County who the new sheriff in town is, that we control state government and, therefore, because we control state government we have a lot of control over what Metro can and can’t do.”

Nolan points out the task for big-city mayors won’t get any easier after this November’s elections when Republicans could pick up a couple of seats in the House. One thing they’ll need to do is build a relationship with the next lieutenant governor, possibly Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, he says.

House Speaker Beth Harwell is the only Republican in the Davidson County House delegation, but that hasn’t made her any more supportive, Nolan says.

Yet, he views Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is stepping down in early 2017, as more in control of Capitol Hill matters, though often behind the scenes.

Memphis’ Strickland, who took office less than two months before he began fighting de-annexation legislation, emphasized building relationships with key lawmakers.

“That’s the way you break down those partisan divides,” Crone adds. “If you can get to know each other on a personal basis, and Jim can sell his vision on where he wants Memphis to be, then I think that helps to alleviate some of those problems.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that Ramsey opposed the de-annexation bill because it initially included Kingsport in his Upper East Tennessee district.

Ramsey, even though he forged the Republican supermajority in both chambers, says he feels the big-city mayors are being heard in Nashville, even if they have ideological differences.

From a “great relationship” with Strickland developed through mutual friends to reaching out to Nashville’s Barry and meeting with her several times during the 2016 session, Ramsey contends he gave them an ear.

“We don’t necessarily agree philosophically, but we’ve become what I’d like to think’s good friends,” he says.

Ramsey says big-city mayors are also smart enough to understand Democrats are outnumbered on Capitol Hill, 28-5 in the Senate and 63-26 in the House. Yet he says he encouraged Democrats such as state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville to speak in floor debates.

“I would watch him start to stand up to debate on something and halfway through I’d see him sit back down,” he says. “I’d make eye contact with him. Make your point. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Likewise, Memphis’ Strickland took advantage of a good relationship with Ramsey.

“We found in the last session it certainly didn’t hurt for the lieutenant governor to be receptive to your thoughts,” Crone says.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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