By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company
May 4, 2018
6 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE TRANSIT DEBACLE
MARGIN OF DEFEAT
64% to 36%.
It was a 28-point voter rejection nobody saw coming in terms of its size.
Well, yes and no.
The margin was more than even would-be mayoral candidates found when they polled the community a few weeks back, which indicated a deficit for the transit plan ranging from high single digits to low double digits.
Even until the final day, pro-transit backers thought their much better funded campaign, including get-out-the-vote efforts, would keep them close in the early vote and they might pull it out in the May 1st day-of balloting.
But one local polling group did get it right.
In a survey I became aware of on Election Day, Harpeth Strategies (Metro Councilman David Rosenberg) predicted, based on a survey of 345 early voters, the transit effort would fail 60%-40% with a plus or minus margin of error of 5.1% Spot on.
Turnout overall was higher than expected at 120,000 with about the same day-of vote as early vote, which is a little unusual. What stayed the same? Whichever side or candidate wins the early vote wins the race. The more than landslide margin of defeat for the transit plan only narrowed a point or so all night.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY
Black voters. It was a key voter group both sides worked hard to win over.
They went clearly to the no transit plan side.
In fact, all 10 Metro Council districts that have or have had African American representatives voted against the proposal.
This defection is yet another sign that the black community feels left out and ignored in many key Metro policy areas ranging from their lack of transit access (particularly light rail), to the future of General Hospital and the creation of a police review board, among other topics.
As city and business leaders, who suffered a stinging rebuke in this referendum, try to pull things back together again to craft a new plan to deal with the city’s traffic woes, getting African American support and buy-in will be key.
THE PROGRESSIVE VOTE
We’ve talked about it several times in this column.
The progressive community which has dominated and controlled Metro politics in recent years was perhaps more badly split than anyone realized until the vote came in Tuesday. If you believe in red/blue colors to show politics (Republican/ Democrats), there was much more red to be seen in Davidson County than ever shows up in our local vote returns (blue meaning yes to the transit plan, red meaning no).
Republicans clearly voted no overwhelmingly against the plan, but lots of Democrats did too. Several progressives particularly disliked the major funding coming from a sales tax increase which they think is regressive and punishes the poor. They also thought the plan did little or nothing to help provide more affordable housing, and that it might create more gentrification and neighborhood displacement instead.
THE RIGHT PLAN BUT NOT FOR NOW
Support for the plan was confined to just 5 of 35 Metro Council districts with those few yes enclaves clustered in the downtown area and along some of the proposed light rail routes (including the first to be built going out Main Street and Gallatin Road and another going out Charlotte Avenue to White Bridge Road).
As for folks in the outlying regions of Davidson County, they saw few improvements coming their way, so why vote yes? All the talk centered for so long about the bright new, shiny object of light rail, but it is way too expensive to extend service all the way to the county line where there also isn’t enough population density to support it (its borderline even in the areas that voted yes). All the increased talk late in the campaign about coordinating traffic lights, new sidewalks, increased bus service, along with cross town bus routes and the environmental improvements from transit, muddied the message, and by then, fell on deaf ears .
This points to an overall problem in selling the plan. It was geared to getting Nashville ready to be a city of 20-25 years from now, with an increased population of a million more folks. Based on current trends it would also be a city with residents not as wedded to their cars, who want to be able to go to and from work or anywhere else without needing a car.
But if that is where the younger population is headed, they didn’t turn out to support this plan (younger people as a group have a habit of being tardy or absent from the polls). Remember as well, a lot of the folks that would have benefited from this plan don’t live here yet. Some are still in elementary school and some are still to be born.
For the older population, it needed a bigger and earlier pay back to get their vote, especially for a new transit system they may not live to see built. We are a city that has no “transit culture or mentality” (i.e. transit is for others not me). It makes this an even harder sell when its already very tough to get voters to raise their own taxes for any reason. It hasn’t happened in Nashville for 38 years (1980), the last time the local sales tax was raised. And that happened because voters got a decrease in the property tax rate to do so.
THE MEGAN BARRY FACTOR
Would the transit plan have passed if former Mayor Megan Barry had not had her issues that led to her resignation and felony guilty plea in early March? Or if those matters were still unknown to the public?
Many folks I talked to prior to the vote thought yes. Her sky- high popularity, winning personality and salesmanship seemed to be carrying the day until the disclosure of her extra marital affair changed everything the end of January. That put the driving force and face of the transit plan in limbo and ultimately on the sidelines, forcing the pro transit campaign to re-tool. While Mayor David Briley did a great job pushing the plan, the pro forces never recovered.
I was among those who thought until Election Day that the plan would have passed if the Barry issues had not happened or surfaced. But given the margin of defeat I am not as sure about that, although once a campaign loses its momentum, even briefly, the air can go out of the balloon fast.
We will never know for sure how much a role the Barry factor was in defeating the transit plan. As a result of her issues, a likely loss of trust in local government was certainly was a factor too. And it will be a part of Metro election lore and speculation for years to come.
One very positive development on Election night, coming from all sides, was an admission that we have a real traffic problem and that we all need to come together and find a consensus on some plan that can work and be funded.
But what that will be is probably anybody’s guess.
What we should realize is that this issue will be a real test of our community and its leadership with the future growth, development and quality of life for Nashville riding in the balance.
Do we break out separately the bus and other (non -light rail) improvements of the plan and do those first? That would likely be cheaper. Again, we are a city with no transit mind set. Would there be much voter appeal to do that…and will doing so fill up our buses and take some traffic off the road if we do?
There was much talk during the campaign about alternatives such as more ride sharing, driver-less cars, automated vehicles, getting the private sector involved in financing, even double decking the inner loop of the interstates downtown. Are any of these feasible ideas? Have they worked or shown promise anywhere, especially in a city of comparable size?
We also need to be informed and realistic about this issue. Mayor Barry said in unveiling the transit plan late last year, that her read of the public’s sentiment is that we needed to “go big and be bold.” But after further review, obviously voters said Tuesday not that big or bold.
Do we want a plan that includes the interstates (where much of our daily congestion exists)? We’d need to get the help of the GOP Super Majority in the General Assembly and from the Trump administration to do that. Is that realistic?
By the end of the campaign, the transit plan was being simultaneously criticized for trying to impose on Nashville the highest sales tax rate of any city in the nation while also not being countywide or regional in its scope, enough even though doing that would have likely skyrocketed its $9 billion cost which detractors said was already way too much?
What do we want for transit and how much are we willing to pay? That is a particularly tough issue since the only other large tax revenue generator in the state besides sales tax would be the property tax which the General Assembly does not allow. And even if it did, can’t you imagine the hue and cry for raising that tax enough to do the job?
It will probably be 3-5 years before we vote again on this matter if we ever do. It may take that long just to sort out these issues to see if there is any consensus that can be found or if all this: “Let’s come together at the same table and come up with a consensus plan on transit” is just an Election night talking point.
By the way, I did note that AllianceBernstein, a global investment management firm is moving its HQ from New York City to Nashville bringing 1,000 high paying jobs. It’s ironic that news leaked out on the day the transit plan went down. I guess our traffic isn’t so bad yet, that we are unattractive to bring in new businesses and jobs. But I still wouldn’t count on Amazon.
MAYOR BRILEY IN THE MIDDLE
The transit defeat is not helpful to current Mayor David Briley. He is running to keep his job until August of next year against 12 other challengers. That vote is less than three weeks away on May 24. The Mayor is the only candidate in the extra-large candidate field who supported the transit plan. Will that hurt his election chances?
The Harpeth Strategies group I mentioned earlier (that was so accurate in its transit vote projection) surveyed that question too. It found that 51% of the 345 early voters it asked support Mayor Briley with 9% for conservative former commentator Carol Swain, talk show host Ralph Bristol 4%, Metro Council Member at Large Erica Gilmore, 3%, jeff carr, 2% and other candidates such as NAACP President Ludye Wallace and State Representative Harold Love, Jr. at 1% each. The poll says 30% remain undecided.
That’s a good enough majority for Mayor Briley to win without a runoff race in June, but his support number is just above what’s needed to avoid that extra contest.
With a compacted three-week campaign time frame, Mayor Briley is not wasting any time. He’s already posted his first TV ad. Given the campaign funds advantage he holds (he’s already raised over $400,000),
it is rather uncertain his opponents will be able to match him and produce ads of their own. Here’s Mayor Briley’s 30-second spot which is about moving forward together and has a definite transit feel. https://youtu.be/XHSY2HoEAIg?t=8
OTHER ISSUES AHEAD
Besides the transit plan defeat, there are other issues bubbling up for the Mayor. That includes a downtown development land swap he proposed last week. The swap would clear the way for building Nashville’s highest (75 story downtown) skyscraper along with a homeless service center on the other property to be swapped that will provide new affordable housing apartments for the homeless. Even just a few days later, the plan is already sparking significant controversy. https://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2018/05/01/giarratana-defends-controversial-deal-for-metro.html
Other controversies seem likely to arise over the Mayor’s first operating budget he unveiled this week. It was strongly hinted even before Mayor Briley took office that Metro revenues are so tight this would be the toughest budget the city has had to deal with since the Great Recession about a decade ago in Mayor Karl Dean’s first term.
Mayor Briley has vowed no property tax hike and said his goal is to propose a “status quo” spending plan. The budget he unveiled shows that means only $5 million in new funds for schools, and not funding $40 million of the Metro School Board’s spending request. Some that shortfall is occurring because of the loss of state funds Metro can’t make up. Both Schools and Metro have had their reserve funds dwindle significantly which further complicates matters.
Schools is the biggest part of the city’s budget. It is not clear how the $40 million budget difference will be made up by the Board if it is approved. But that is a significant amount of funds and that could impact a variety of school expenditures, including programs, class size even salary increases. Teachers, parents and students will be watching closely.
In that regard, under the Mayor’s budget, Metro employees, expecting to receive the second year of a three year across the board pay hike, will find that idea nixed due to lack of funds.
None of these pay developments are likely to be seen favorably by employee union groups such as teachers, police and service workers. The police have already announced they don’t plan to endorse in the May 24 special mayor’s race. What will the others do?
What will the Metro Council do? It has until the end of June to consider, amend and adopt a budget or the Mayor’s budget becomes law automatically. That has never happened in the 55 -year history of Metro government. And it won’t happen this year either, although the wailing and grinding of teeth by the Council over this budget will be a difficult experience for its 40 members who have never experienced such a difficult spending plan.
And, based on this TENNESSEAN story, the political angst of what to do about the budget is beginning. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2018/05/02/nashville-schools-budget-council-vows-find-more-money-david-briley-proposal/572675002/
MAYOR BRILEY ON INSIDE POLITICS
Mayor David Briley delivered his first annual State of Metro Address this morning (Friday). It caps a whirlwind week of events that we’ve been discussing (the transit vote, his first city operating budget and the first early votes being cast today in the special mayoral election set for May 24).
That’s why we are so fortunate and grateful the Mayor was willing to come back on INSIDE POLITICS this week (his second appearance in just three months in office). Mr. Briley came to our studios just a couple of hours after his address. I suspect the speech had some personal significance for him. 55 years ago, his grandfather, Beverly Briley made the first of his twelve State of Metro addresses while he was mayor beginning when Metro was born April 1, 1963.
We have much to discuss with our new Mayor Briley. I hope you can watch us!
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ANOTHER MAJOR METRO ELECTION FOR WOMEN AND AFRICAN AMERICANS
It got more than a little lost in all the coverage about the transit vote, but women and African Americans won a lot of additional countywide elected posts at the Davidson County Courthouse Tuesday night.
Among African American women, Matesha Johnson was elected the first black to be Public Defender. She won without opposition after working for some years as an assistant in that office.
Metro Councilmember Karen Johnson will soon become Metro’s first female and first African American Register of Deeds, while Brenda Wynn has been re-elected to another term as County Clerk.
Among African American men, Lonnell Mathews, Jr., former Metro Councilman and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods will be the new Juvenile Court Clerk come September and first African American to hold the position.
Meanwhile Howard Gentry was easily re-elected to another term as Criminal Court Clerk.
Diversity in terms of race, gender and ethnic background were also notable in the winners of the judicial posts up for election. Former General Sessions Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton will continue her work as Nashville’s first African American Criminal Court Judge in Division II, while former Metro Clerk and Asst. District Attorney Ana Escobar will be the city’s first General Sessions Judge of Hispanic heritage. Former African American Councilman Sam Coleman will continue his work on the bench as a General Sessions Judge in Division 10.
One other new woman coming onto the Nashville bench is Ann Martin who will become the Chancery Court Judge of Division 2.
That’s quite a lot of change in one election cycle, but it is a trend that has been growing in strength the last several years.
DIFFERING VIEWS ON PHIL BREDESEN’S SENATE CHANCES
Courtesy of Tom Humphrey’s HUMPHREY ON THE HILL blog, here are two very different views of whether Democrat and former Governor Phil Bredesen can win Tennessee’s open U.S. Senate seat this fall against Republican candidate Congressman Marsha Blackburn.
National political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says no in his newsletter, INSIDE ELECTIONS. http://humphreyonthehill.tnjournal.net/another-national-media-opinion-tn-u-s-senate-race-hot-button-blackburn-beats-pragmatist-bredesen/#more-7241
But in a NEW YORK TIMES op-ed, former NASHVILLE SCENE editor Steve Cavendish gives perhaps an old, but very interesting story why Blackburn might struggle this fall to Bredesen’s benefit. Some Republicans have not liked the Congressman for years… http://humphreyonthehill.tnjournal.net/nyt-op-ed-bredesen-staff-holding-ashes-of-burned-1995-blackburn-expense-account/#more-7207
And to complete a trifecta this week on Senate race news, Tom Humphrey reports on a POLITICO article that continues to stir the now seemingly never- ending controversy over current Senator Bob Corker’s “endorsement” of Blackburn. It even involves GOP gubernatorial candidate Congressman Diane Black. http://humphreyonthehill.tnjournal.net/black-says-corker-should-just-sit-back-and-be-quiet-in-u-s-senate-campaign-corker-says-i-guess-i-will/
Speaking of Congressman Black, I got a very interesting e-mail from her campaign. It’s a Tennessee Voters Survey asking what issues voters want to see candidates place their focus. The questions are interesting as well as the answer choices given. Here’s the survey which is also a poll on both the Governor’s and U.S. Senate races…
1. What is your email address?
2. What group (or groups) do you most closely align yourself with?
Tea Party Patriots
National Rifle Association
Tennessee Right to Life
National Federation of Independent Businesses
Americans for Tax Reform
None of these
Other (please specify)
3. What's the most important issue facing your household?
Size of Government
*4. Who do you plan to support in the 2018 election for Governor?
Other (please specify)
5. Who do you plan to support in the 2018 election for US Senate?
Other (please specify)
Paid for by Diane Black for Governor, Tommy Whittaker, Treasurer.
More to come on this I’m sure.
In the meantime, Black has released her latest statewide TV ad. https://www.facebook.com/DianeBlackTN/videos/10155472579813531/?t=6