Why I’m not sure I’m jumping on the Megan train: Reflections on the mayoral election of 2015

MeganTrain-01Like always, I want to remind folks that anything I say here is my own opinion, and does not in any way represent the official opinion of the United Methodist Church, the congregation I serve, or the company in which I’m a partner. This also does not represent an endorsement of any particular candidate that would put in question the 501c3 status of the church with which I’m associated. 

I haven’t written on this site in a very long while. Frankly, there hasn’t been much to say (although that seems to be ramping up in the coming months). And, I’ve been hesitant to write this post sharing my thoughts and feelings because I know it’s going to seriously tick off some of my progressive friends and colleagues in my unwillingness to succumb to ideology at all costs.

For the past couple of weeks since election day, I have watched with interest the conversation and propaganda spewing forth on the Internet regarding the mayoral election in Nashville, and the run-off between the Megan Barry and David Fox. My friends that identify as liberal/progressive have been quick to suggest that Megan is the only answer, that she represents the true progressive spirit, and that David Fox is a conservative Republican that will take Nashville back into the dark ages. Folks on the other side, of course, counter that Megan is a liberal who is shoving her progressive agenda down the throats of the people of Nashville.

By all indications it’s looking more and more like Megan has the inside track. She was the top vote getter in the run-off, she’s received all the right endorsements, and all of the media outlets are lifting her up in a way that suggests she’ll be the eventual winner. As someone who has been identified in the past as a “progressive/liberal” (whatever that means) I should be quick to jump on the train, cast my vote, and elect the first woman mayor of Nashville (something that is indeed appealing to me).

And yet….

And yet, I’m hesitant, uncertain, troubled, and not totally convinced.

You see I’ve seen this train before. It was the same train that I was told to get on when a candidate named Karl Dean emerged from the pack to be the progressive choice in the move to elect anyone but Clement. I was told at the time that he was supportive of social issues, that as a former public defender he understood the needs of the poor, and that he would be a unifier in our city. And so, I went into the booth and cast my vote for a man who I believe has certainly generated economic activity, but as a means of doing so has gutted our social safety net, enhancing the lifestyle of the wealthy, while condemning those whose “…backs are up against the wall…” (to quote Howard Thurman) to find making ends meet even harder and harder. Yes, Mayor Dean built a lot of cool buildings, and turned SoBro into a hip destination for convention goers, but he also privatized our only safety net nursing home and assisted care facility, both of which are in serious trouble of survival. Dean cut social services spending every year that he was in office, and while he may have presided over the rise of the gulch, he did so by supporting MDHA funding for those projects which identified “affordable housing” at levels that few middle class folks could afford, let alone a woman on disability trying to live on $1,000 a month.

If you like Karl Dean and what he’s done, then Megan Barry is the person for you, for she has been clear that she is committed to the same policies that we’ve seen during the past 8 years.

And there is an earthy image of what will happen to the poor under those policies that I can’t say because I’m a United Methodist pastor and it will get me in trouble.

The meme is that there is a clear difference between Megan and David — that she represents “progressive” voices and that David represents “conservative” ones. But the meme isn’t quite accurate. The fact that BOTH candidates lift of Phil Bredesen — the first incarnation of Karl Dean who had his own edifice complex — is proof of that. While David certainly believes we need to be careful about the debt we’ve incurred, he’s not anti-development. And the supposed progressive (an identity that in the past has been nervous about unchecked development) is the one who is advocating keeping the pedal to the metal and build, build, build.

As an aside, in my own anti-development screed, look at the example of most churches around town. The “if we build it, they will come” model has been pretty well debunked at this point.

Of course, I may just be getting old, cynical, and more conservative with age (in the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), but I don’t think so. What I fear is that labels are being applied without a true evaluation of what they mean or how they apply.

There is no doubt that Megan Barry is more of an activist regarding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and other social issues than David Fox. For many people those are the defining characteristics that will drive folks to vote for her. Unfortunately, a big city mayor really has very little influence around those issues, especially since the non-discrimination ordinance is already passed.

In my mind, one of the primary tasks of a mayor is to balance the competing demands of constituencies in the city. Yes, building up the downtown core and supporting tourism is important to our city. But not at the expense of other communities. People who live in Madison, or Antioch, or The Nation, must be just as important as the director of the Nashville Chamber or folks living in gentrified East Nashville. And, because they are generally underrepresented in the seats of power, special attention needs to be paid to those at the lower ends of the economic spectrum. A mayor’s job, in my opinion, is about creating the climate for a hospitable community . . . and as a person of faith, I would even argue for Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community. That plays out in policies that balance economic development with the need for obtainable housing, not creating a heavy tax burden with the needs of infrastructure improvements that benefit ALL segments of our city, and addressing social needs proactively, not reactively.

The mayor, in my opinion, needs to recognize that they are living in a glass bubble most of the time, so they need to seek opinions outside their staff or immediate friendships, and place themselves in places where they can interact with a variety of folks. Ideally, a mayor must know enough about our history and tradition to balance the desire to create something new with the real human need to hold on to those things that have become sacred.

While I have often been identified as more left-wing than right in my own beliefs (sometimes to my detriment in my local church life), I don’t really know what that means anymore. What guides me, and what I thought guided progressive/liberal folks, is a belief in human connection and responsibility, that is, that society DOES have an obligation to care for one another. We are, as MLK said, caught up in a web of mutuality, in which I can never be who I am supposed to be unless you are who you are supposed to be. I, as a person of faith, believe that Jesus was serious when he said we were to love others in the same way that we ourselves want to experience love, and that the whole of scripture is built on the call to love God and love neighbor. And, last but not least, I believe that the only way to maintain the moral high ground is to be above petty name calling and demonization, and speak the truth in love, holding others accountable for their opinions, but also being willing to listen so as to grow and learn.

It’s the latter point that has troubled me the most about this election — the willingness of my “progressive” friends to spew forth accusation without proof, assumptions without data, and to move into attack mode at the expense of love and unity. Very frankly, I have seen a “take no prisoners” attitude before from the Dean administration (just ask Jerry Maynard or Jason Holleman) and it is showing up again in this race from both sides, but more often than not from the Barry camp in my opinion. That attitude is completely at odds with my faith, and I cannot support or endorse it in any way.

Yes, David Fox presided over a turbulent time in the history of the Metro School Board. But before we try to overlay what he said then with what is happening today, remember that we were reeling after a contentious Pedro Garcia administration at MNPS, that the state (under Governor Bredesen’s leadership, if I remember correctly) was threatening to take over the school system, and that we ALL were trying to discern a correct path. Yes, Fox was the named plaintiff in the Spurlock case (as case in which MNPS actually prevailed) but his was one vote among many, including a current African-American Metro Council person. Yes, he is supportive of charter schools . . . but then again so is Megan.

Some suggest that David wants to privatize everything (a notion that he has rejected) and that somehow Megan is against privatization. However Megan was certainly willing to take the money from CCA, a company which is a poster child for privatization, built on the backs of inmates.

Most troubling to me is Megan’s response to me when I asked about her administration if she’s elected. Word on the street is saying that she will retain Greg Highnote and Rich Reibling from the Dean administration on her staff if she’s elected. Highnote and Reibling were the architects of much of Dean’s agenda, and I believe at the core of the “take no prisoners” approach, and I believe it’s time for a change. When asked if Greg and Rich would be on the team her response was “I’ve made no promises to anyone…” which is a far cry from “I’m likely to keep them because I think they have been from the city,” or “No, I think it’s time for a change.”

I like Megan. I’d like to share a beer with her. But there are so many unknowns for me, I don’t know whether I can trust her.

And so far, David Fox has been straight with me. I have no doubt that we disagree on approaches for dealing with our city’s problems, but I feel like he’s been truthful to me. Yes, I know there is the concern about his brother’s PAC and the coordination issue, but do we HAVE to always assume a conspiracy is in the works. Knowing a little bit about family dynamics, isn’t it possible that bro was doing things he thought would help behind the scenes without his brother’s knowledge?

This has been a place of struggle for me over the past couple of weeks. I frankly don’t know who I will vote for, but I’m not willing to jump on a train if I don’t have a sense of where it’s headed . . . and I’m just not at all certain that the Megan train will be anything but more harmful for the poor and marginalized of our city. The Fox administration may not be any better, but there is at least some rhetoric of faith guiding compassion for others that makes me look twice.

Earlier this morning, after a late night Facebook chat about these issue, my friend Sonnye Dixon posted the following on Facebook:

A lesson learned: I have received more blessing from my enemies who wanted to do right than I have from my friends who thought their friendship was enough of a blessing for me.

I’m still trying to discern if David Fox is an political “enemy” who wants to do right.

But I can’t simply write him off because I’m supposed to jump on some sort of “liberal/progressive” train, especially when it’s not clear that in the end it will be headed in a direction consistent with love, justice, and compassion for my friends living on the streets, trying to make ends meet at Madison Towers, or searching for a place for mom to live out her last days when there is no money available.

Prove me wrong.


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