Former mayor Purcell traces city transformation to 1978 election

Friday, July 10, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 28
By Tim Ghianni

Purcell

Former Mayor Bill Purcell lived through the transition from the good old boys who ran Nashville to the “new Nashville,” in which a displaced Yankee became mayor in 1991 and began the type of forward-thinking, executive-style leadership that has propelled Nashville to skyline-shattering status on the national stage.

But Purcell, who followed that first displaced Yankee in 1999, says the change in Nashville from the wink-nudge, scratch-mine, scratch-yours world of the East Nashville courthouse machine actually began in 1978, when Walter Kurtz was elected as Davidson County public defender.

Kurtz – who went on to serve as a judge for more than a quarter-century before retiring this year – represented something different to the people who were beginning to chafe at the way government was run.

“When I think of political transformation of the city, I think of the election of Walter Kurtz as public defender,” says Purcell, who now practices law in Nashville and teaches at Vanderbilt University.

“Nashville was not different from many big cities over the course of the whole century before,” Purcell explains. “We had political organizations. We had folks who were aligned behind their political beliefs but also aligned behind their family and historical ties.

“None of that was unique to Nashville,” he says, adding that even so “there were many good and exceptional political leaders who were a product of that system.”

Nationwide, though, the boss system began to lose its luster as Baby Boomers came of voting (and dying in Vietnam) age and the change continued throughout the decade of the 1970s.

“I think that there is no question that the effectiveness and control began to change in the late 1970s and into the 1980s as the electorate and the business community began to realize that these elections really did make a difference,” Purcell explains.

“Kurtz was elected as a young political leader by a group of very engaged young professionals and community leaders who were ready to see some change, in this case the public defender’s office.”

That was just the beginning, but it marked an important chink in the armor of the “system” that had been running the city from the east bank of the Cumberland for decades.

“Their success (in electing Kurtz) was the first, I think, visible sign of the opportunity that the general public, when motivated and organized, could affect the outcome of elections and indeed potentially control the direction of the city,” Purcell adds.

Other fresh-faced candidates followed in various offices through the 1980s, pretty much ushering in “the end” of the good old boy era.

“I don’t think there’s any question but that by the time we entered the 1990s, there was a much greater agreement in the larger city that there was a need to really focus on these elections. And, in particular, our county officials were critically important to the future of the city,” notes Purcell.

“And I think that’s what made it possible for what I think occurred over the last 24 years,” he says, of the business-styled Metro government that has been fashioned and maintained by Phil Bredesen, Purcell and then by Karl Dean, who, as news reports have shown, already is beginning to lose some of his clout as he prepares to leave office. (Dean did not respond to several attempts to be interviewed for this package of stories.)

Purcell notes that “in that long period of time, the public has been continuously tested and has indicated no desire to go back” to the old ways, which would be disastrous for a city that has emerged as one of America’s jewels rather than one more reminiscent of the kudzu-flavored versions of Southern cities as depicted in movies like “In the Heat of the Night.”

That doesn’t mean that a reversal can’t happen. People just need to be smart about whom they elect, beginning next month with the mayor’s race.

“I will say it takes continued diligence,” Purcell says. “I do believe that there is in the city a greatly shared belief, a true consensus about the importance of these elections.”

He says the fact there are so many viable candidates in the upcoming mayor’s race is a good sign.

“Thirty percent still being undecided doesn’t bother me at all, because they really believe (the mayoral choice) matters to them, to their kids, to their grandkids,” he adds.

Kurtz

“Some (people) are taking their time deciding because of what happened here long ago,” he says. “They know they really can’t afford to make a mistake and that’s one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about Nashville and its future.

“People are determined to get it right.”

He says that while a machine may have mattered a few decades ago to keep things running smoothly, nowadays “the mayor and the leadership of this city really matters.

“Folks have choices now….They have choices about where they are going to live …. The city is strong and our political fabric is as good as it’s ever been, but it can get away from you if you’re not careful. That’s the caution, and that’s why people are being careful. They know it matters,” Purcell explains.

“This is a city with the right form of government. A strong-mayor form (of government) gives the mayor the ability to set the agenda, set the course and bring people together,” says Purcell. “The challenge is if the mayor doesn’t do well, then the system does not function very well.”

During the good old boy era, the city’s business and political leaders acted independently rather than toward a shared vision for Nashville, Purcell points out.

“The business community figured they could advance their agendas without the need for a political system … The politicians by and large didn’t see the need for the business community except for election time.

“It is clearly different now.”

He notes that modern mayors have worked with the business leaders, with the Chamber of Commerce and other leaders to build strong visions for education, public safety, tourism, the business community and neighborhoods.

“We are all in this together,” he describes that attitude. “As long as you hold that course, the best days are still ahead.”

The fact mayors have come from places other than Nashville in the last three administrations didn’t hurt.

Fresh blood needed to come from somewhere, after all.

“When you are dealing with a political machine or operation, it’s very much dealing with the maintenance and sustenance of that machine,” Purcell says.

But Nashville has proven itself to be “a welcoming place, an inclusive place,” and there has been a willingness to choose from a wider field of candidates, including a guy from upstate New York, one from Philly and the most recent one from Massachusetts, Purcell points out.

“It’s not a sign that we have to go outside,” says Purcell. “We are growing in a very natural way the next generation of leaders right here in Nashville. Many of those leaders have been Nashville born and raised.”

And the electorate will be able to choose from that field.

“You absolutely want your government to include people who have committed their lives to public service, and hopefully they’ll not only be successful, but happy in their work and committed to their duties,” he says, including the whole population of Metro employees beneath that umbrella.

“Your progress in public service will be based on the success of what you knew as opposed to whom you knew, whom your father knew, who your mother-in-law is.”

Merit displacing machine is a big change, not just in Nashville.

But here, Purcell says, any remnant of the old machine “is just about totally obscured by that change.”