Home Art Blue city, red state: Why Nashville and Tennessee aren’t in tune

Blue city, red state: Why Nashville and Tennessee aren’t in tune

Blue city, red state: Why Nashville and Tennessee aren’t in tune

State Rep. Greg Martin’s Nashville office looks over the Tennessee Capitol. But looking out his window, he doesn’t know where City Hall is, even though it is only two blocks away.

That’s perhaps symbolic of the relationship between the red state and the blue city. As partners, they helped build a vibrant Tennessee, with a growing economy and attractive metro area. Now, they are virtual strangers to each other.

Why We Wrote This

Blue-city Nashville and red-state Tennessee used to be partners. They built a vibrant economy and had a reputation for civil politics. Now they are virtual strangers. What will it take to rebuild the relationship?

“I’m not going to go seek out Nashville just because the capital happens to be here,” Mr. Martin says. “But if they’ve got something that they want to tell me, I’m willing to listen.”

How did this happen? Partisan national political issues have crowded out cooperation on solvable local ones. Gerrymandering has made party primaries the state’s closest elections. The line between urban and rural areas has become the foundational divide in American politics.

Last year Nashville’s city council voted against hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention. State GOP representatives took that as an affront, though the city cited lack of hotel rooms and police officers as among their reasons.

The state legislature then voted to cut the council’s size in half – though a judge has put that move on hold. Other state bills have followed, increasing Tennessee’s power over such city amenities as the stadium and the airport.

Then came the Nashville school shooting earlier this month. Two Democratic state legislators who represent urban areas led protests in the Capitol. They were expelled, then reappointed to their offices.

As that uproar calms, some hope it pointed out how badly city and state need to communicate.

“This has hopefully, maybe, paved the way to bring about some serious discussions and maybe some real change,” says Nashville Vice Mayor Jim Shulman.

The view from state Rep. Greg Martin’s fifth-floor office in downtown Nashville looks over the Tennessee Capitol. But right now, staring through the window from a nearby chair, he’s looking for another building.

“I don’t even know where City Hall is,” he says. “I’m sure it’s close.”

It’s out of sight, two blocks away.

Why We Wrote This

Blue-city Nashville and red-state Tennessee used to be partners. They built a vibrant economy and had a reputation for civil politics. Now they are virtual strangers. What will it take to rebuild the relationship?

Those two blocks might as well be two hundred miles. As Representative Martin and the state government busily debate bills to increase the state’s influence over the city – adding state seats on the airport and sports authority, altering city tax policy – he’s not talking to the city government. He’s never met a member of the council. They’ve never stopped by.

“I’m not going to go seek out Nashville just because the capital happens to be here,” he says. “But if they’ve got something that they want to tell me, I’m willing to listen.”

The disconnect between these two seats of Tennessee political power is striking. Both city and state lawmakers say they want to hear from each other, yet they’re not speaking. Then this April their relationship, already out of tune, became a cacophony. A mass shooting at a Nashville school led to pro-gun control protests inside the Capitol and the expulsion of two state legislators who represent urban areas and led the chants. Reappointed, they returned to their seats, accompanied by thousands of supporters.

Rep. Justin Jones leaves the Historic Metro Courthouse after unanimously being reinstated to the state House by the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County, April 10, 2023.

Perhaps befitting in Music City USA, this political moment in Tennessee feels like a band breaking up. The state and its capital are thriving. Tennessee is ranked as one of the best states in America in which to do business. Nashville has become a tourist mecca. Their partnership has been crucial to their success.

But over the last 20 years, state and city have been growing apart. Partisan national political issues have crowded out cooperation on local concerns. Gerrymandering has made party primaries the state’s closest elections, while the line between urban and rural areas has become the foundational divide in American politics. Republicans now enjoy supermajorities in both state chambers, and they control the governorship. The only solidly blue parts of Tennessee are Memphis and Nashville, whose council has never been more progressive.

Other red states have difficult relationships with their blue cities – see Texas and Austin, Georgia and Atlanta, or Kentucky and Louisville, whose mayor begged the state for tighter gun laws after a mass shooting this month. In Tennessee, though, the contrast is sharper. A generation ago, the state was defined by its respectful, bipartisan, even gentle politics.

Many Tennessee lawmakers today lament the current lack of civility, the partisanship, and their state’s nationally-covered political chaos. At the same time, they’re hoping the other side – the city or the state – restarts lapsed talks first. The ready-when-you-are tone is fitting for the state and city’s current relationship. Nashville and Tennessee haven’t just become adversaries. They’re strangers.

“Anti-Nashville legislation”A few weeks ago, Nashville city council member Bob Mendes had grown confused. He was following the media coverage of state bills that would alter his city’s government, and there were so many of them that he’d lost track.

So, he went online and made a spreadsheet with the bills, their number, and their status. On April 11, he tweeted it out: “the slate of anti-Nashville legislation still pending.”

That’s how the city government feels – under attack from the state. “They’re a steamroller and we’re a fly on the pavement,” says Mr. Mendes.

Senators from the Tennessee General Assembly meet on the floor of the Senate chamber, April 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. Republicans have a lock on the state legislature and governorship.

This started last year, when the city council voted against hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention in Nashville, the RNC’s preferred choice. Their decision, city council members say, had as much to do with practicality as politics. There wouldn’t be enough hotel rooms or police officers, and they would have to nix other conventions already booked for that time.

State Republicans didn’t see it that way. And while the Nashville metro government is nominally nonpartisan, the current council is the city’s most progressive ever. Meanwhile, the GOP candidate reliably gets 60% of the Tennessee vote in presidential elections. Republicans hold 75% of the seats in the state legislature – and saw the RNC decision as the city thumbing its nose.

“Some of the members of the state House and state Senate got a little upset – more than a little upset,” says Oscar Brock, a Tennessee RNC member and son of former U.S. Sen. Bill Brock. “They’re like, ‘They can’t do that to us.’ They said, ‘We’re going to find a way to punish Nashville.’”

The state government started by cutting the size of the metro city’s council by half. That may seem like mild revenge – even some on the council admit that 40 members can be too many. But the metro government covers a lot of ground. In 1963, Nashville and Davidson County merged their city councils to better manage their growth. For the last 60 years, that choice has helped the city ascend.

A panel of judges put an injunction on that bill last week, but other legislation has followed. The legislature is considering bills that would give the state a majority of the seats on the city airport authority, just under half of the seats on the sports authority, eliminate community oversight boards, and erase a downtown tax that’s helping repay the city’s debt.

Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons speaks with GOP Rep. William Lamberth on the floor of the House chamber, April 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Then, two weeks ago, Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones – who represent part of Nashville – were expelled by the state legislature for protesting with megaphones in the House chamber. In a few hours, the vice mayor had called a city council meeting to reinstate Representative Jones the next Monday, which they did unanimously.

“Since the stuff with the representatives,” says Mr. Mendes, “I think there’s a not universal, but more widespread feeling that there’s not a way to compromise into peace and harmony with the state of Tennessee.”

InterdependenceFormer Mayor Bill Purcell has watched this saga from his 19th-floor downtown office, overlooking the river and the football stadium.

That stadium, named for Nissan, is a reminder of the old Nashville way. When then-Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander recruited the carmaker to the city decades ago, the Democratic legislature was supportive. Mr. Purcell, a Democrat, flew with Governor Alexander to Washington while lobbying for the move.

Nissan brought its North American headquarters to Franklin, near Nashville, which inaugurated decades of growth. The city and the state celebrated.

A view of the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium as fans begin to arrive before an NFL game, Dec. 11, 2022, in Nashville. The stadium is a reminder of the old Nashville way, when the parties worked together to woo automaker Nissan to the area.

“The underlying facts of our interdependence remain true,” says Mr. Purcell. “And yet the events of the last week, the events of this last legislative session, the events of this last year are beyond a season of discontent.”

Mr. Purcell is right: The city and state haven’t lost their economic reasons to cooperate. In 2020, Nashville’s share of the state’s GDP was almost 37%, far above that of any other city in the state. Companies are relocating to nearby counties in search of the Nashville brand name, says Jim Cooper, the city’s former congressman.

In years past, the state’s political motives used to be the same. Tennessee is some 400 miles wide and split into three “grand divisions”: west, middle, and east. Having borders on the Smoky Mountains and the Deep South has historically demanded cooperation from the state’s lawmakers. Tennessee could only be governed by coalitions.

That era is over.

After a 140-year gap, Republicans won a majority in the state House 14 years ago. From 1970 to 2018, the two parties traded the governorship. But since 2011, Republicans have controlled the governorship and the legislature. The General Assembly currently has a 75-24 GOP majority in the House and a 33-6 majority in the Senate.

Republicans have consolidated their power through gerrymandering and tight voter registration laws – Tennessee ranks among the worst states in the country for ease of voting and turnout.

The Democratic party in Tennessee, meanwhile, has withered. It’s hard to find many candidates to run in a general election they know they’ll lose, and candidate quality, state Democrats admit, is often low. Over 40 of the Republicans now in the General Assembly ran unopposed last year.

“We need to be able to talk to each other”That’s the state: under one-party Republican rule.

But it’s not Nashville.

Year after year, the city resembles America’s other pleasantly generic urban centers – new apartment buildings, scooters, coffee shops, upscale restaurants. Talk to a longtime resident and the topic will almost inevitably return to the state of their city, booming and nearly unrecognizable. It’s the Washington suburbs, with honky-tonks.

“We’re an oasis of blue in a red desert,” says Mr. Cooper.

And the recent trend of the city’s Democrats, he says, is not looking past that oasis. Tennessee is a largely rural state, and its rural political machines – like the state farm bureau – are well organized. Politics isn’t a light switch, Mr. Cooper reminds. Nashville is blue, but it still has about 40% of voters who vote red. That share increases the farther outside the city you go.

Downtown Franklin, in neighboring Williamson County, is filled with Civil War memorials and a central Confederate monument. The gunmaker Barrett, which makes one of the world’s deadliest sniper rifles, has a factory 40 miles outside the city.

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/File

A view of the Confederate Monument locally known as Chip, Jan. 10, 2022, in Franklin, Tennessee.

“Nashville is an incredibly quickly growing city,” says Mr. Brock, the Tennessee RNC member. “Their voters are understandably more progressive than somebody who lives on a farm in Marshall County, Tennessee. There’s a divide, but that divide’s been there for decades.”

What makes that divide different now is that the two sides aren’t competing for each other’s voters. Democrats haven’t been able to build majorities in their old rural strongholds. Republicans don’t need urban voters to remain in power.

The disconnect appears in the bright pockets of blue surrounded by red on Tennessee voting maps each election year. It also manifests in the way city and state governments talk – and members of both parties admit they do it – in tweeted insults or barbed talking points. Either that, or they don’t talk to each other at all.

Because Nashville’s city council is so large – meaning no one member can speak for the entire group – the mayor’s office has traditionally led lobbying efforts in the state Capitol. But when the state first announced its plan to cut the council in half last year, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman walked to the Capitol himself, just to figure out what was going on.

He says he heard the same arguments he’d heard before: that a smaller metro council would be more efficient and that there wasn’t space to negotiate. But he left a message.

“We need to be able to talk to each other, because obviously the legislature is not going anywhere and neither is the metro council,” he says.

City council and state House sessions are no longer national news. The thousands of protesters have left downtown Nashville. The city and the state, says Mr. Shulman, have a chance to consider how their relationship broke apart and whether they can find harmony again.

“The hope is that this is a change,” he says. “This has hopefully, maybe, paved the way to bring about some serious discussions and maybe some real change.”

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