In Thriving Nashville, a Very Negative Race for Mayor

Thursday's election will test the appeal of anti-government populism in a booming Democratic city.
by | September 9, 2015
The Nashville skyline (AP/Mark Humphrey)

Nashville's election for mayor has something for everyone who hates contemporary politics.

The expensive, negative and highly personal race comes to its conclusion Thursday with a runoff between Megan Barry, who sits on the Metro Council, and David Fox, a former hedge fund manager and school board member.

Nashville has the third-fastest growing metropolitan economy in the nation, behind only Austin and San Jose, according to a report last year from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The city's population grew 7 percent between 2010 and 2014 and favorable press coverage and an eponymous TV show have helped to make Nashville, where Mayor Karl Dean is term-limited, an "it" city.

The race featured the usual run of issues associated with municipal growth -- rising housing costs, transportation problems and questions about whether the downtown has received more than its fair share of investment.

A total of seven candidates spent months -- and, collectively, more than $12 million -- debating such topics ahead of the Aug. 6 primary. Since Barry and Fox came out on top, however, the race has become more heated and personal.

Fox accused Barry of being an atheist, or at least hostile to faith groups. The Tennessee Democratic Party has claimed Fox's education plan would bring back segregation. Meanwhile, the Barry campaign criticized Fox for appearing with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at a recent fundraiser for a Republican state legislator.

One ad from the Fox campaign, which aired on black radio, implied that Barry, who was raised Catholic but doesn't attend church regularly, opposes public prayer and attacked a religious group, citing blog posts written by her husband, who served on the state board of the American Civil Liberties Union and once wrote about a "Jesus-Industrial Complex." Fox is Jewish.

The election is nonpartisan, but Fox has positioned himself as the conservative choice, while Barry relies largely on support from progressives. Nashville, like most big cities, votes Democratic. But a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed a statistical dead heat, with Barry at 46 percent and Fox at 45 percent.

David Fox poses for a photo on the campaign trail. (David Fox's Facebook page)

Democrats believe that if Barry can get enough people out to vote, the race won't be that close in the end. They believe the attacks on Barry -- which have come from Fox's own campaign, as well as a super PAC to which his brother George, another hedge fund operator, has contributed $1 million -- have turned off independents and rallied potential Barry supporters.

"A good turnout Thursday will put her in position to win," said Mark Young, president of the local firefighters union, which has endorsed Barry.

But Fox has managed to keep Barry on the defensive. He claims during her eight years on the Council, she's done nothing to address the city's problems, while raising taxes and supporting what he calls an unsustainable increase in municipal debt. Too much government spending, he argues, puts Nashville's business climate at risk.

"When I ran for office, I knew there would be attacks on me because I understand that politics is not necessarily a pillow fight," Barry told the Nashville Scene. "But I didn't think that I would be running against someone who'd go so low as to attack my family in order to win."

Barry talks up the investments made throughout the county in schools, parks, firehouses and community centers. In terms of tactics, Fox's campaign has targeted voters in friendly precincts. Early voting is up 9 percent, compared with the August primary, with substantial increases in friendly areas the Fox campaign calls "Fox boxes."

Barry appears to have a wider base, but it's widely dispersed across the city. Her campaign is not happy about the weather forecast, which calls for rain on Election Day.

Megan Barry, left, shakes hands on the campaign trail. (Megan Barry's Facebook page)

One thing that would strengthen Barry's chances is making deeper inroads in the African-American community, which makes up more than a quarter of Nashville's population. Neither candidate did well in predominantly African-American precincts in the primary, although Barry's showing was higher than Fox's. This explains Fox's attempt to discredit Barry among African-American religious voters. Still, many leaders and politicians in the black community have come out for Barry.

"If Megan Barry's campaign runs an effective get-out-the-vote plan, I do not think the final tally will be as close as the race appears," said John Ray Clemmons, a Democratic state representative who is backing her.

Until the results are in, however, the race appears very close. If Fox wins, it will demonstrate the appeal of a populist, anti-government message even in a booming, majority Democratic city.

"This time, for better or worse, voters have a clear choice between two distinct candidates," said Clemmons, "and they seem to be ready, willing and even eager to vote their  preference."