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As Nashville's mayor, Phil Bredesen was Mr. Right for a city starved for progress — just not at first

The Mayor: The First Hurrah


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As the Nashville mayoral election in 1987 began heating up, a guy dropped by the Nashville Banner cubicle at the state legislature where I worked. "Highpockets," as the guy was known, didn't stand over 5 feet tall and was a clothing disaster. But on this day, he had stuffed himself into a three-piece suit.

"I got a job," he announced, which only added to the mind-blowing nature of the moment. Then he said, "Me and this other fellow are working for a guy who's going to be the next mayor of Nashville. You want to meet him?"

"What's his name?" I asked.

"Phil Bredesen," he said. "He don't know any reporters."

We drove down West End Avenue to one of the large office buildings across from the restaurant Tin Angel. I followed Highpockets through a vast, empty office and past scads of unused cubicles — "He's gonna fill this with staff" — until at last we came to an office whose door was shut. Highpockets tapped on it.

"Hey, Phil, I got someone I want you to meet," Highpockets said.

Out of the semi-darkness came Phil Bredesen. I remember him being sleepy-eyed, reticent, quiet. We ended up making conversation about his new Toshiba 1100-plus laptop, which glowed brightly on his desk. I had never met a politician before who could write code. Fact is, I had never met another politician who even had a computer. The whole interaction didn't last longer than three or four minutes, with the conversation concluding as quickly as it had begun. Bredesen retreated back to his office, and Highpockets and I left.

Within the space of a few months, Highpockets had been fired, a massive campaign staff was hired, and a historically unprecedented and wildly expensive TV campaign began carpet-bombing the city of Nashville in an effort to garner the little-known Bredesen some name identification. His message was brash and slightly ill-informed — it lashed out at courthouse shenanigans and insider politics, when the truth was more nuanced and less life-threatening. But in the hands of Bredesen media consultant Joe Napolitan, it was a scorched-earth affair.

Voters had a choice: There was the health care millionaire and Ivy League graduate from up North whom nobody knew, who didn't seem real personable. And there was Bill Boner, the four-term congressman who loved the ladies but never forgot your birthday. Boner should never have gotten this far, but that in itself said a lot about Nashville politics at the time.

The next four years were what is special in Nashville history and Bredesen's biography. Bredesen lost, but built a government in exile. He deftly saved the symphony as its finances cratered. He created a group to feed the homeless from restaurant scraps. He hired a top-notch media handler in Mike Pigott, and bought lunch for everyone he should have bought lunch for before. At the same time, weird signs abounded, like prophecy.

Big chunks of the local economy — banks, savings and loans, real estate — got annihilated because of changes in the real estate tax code. Everybody who used to be important was suddenly broke, except for this emerging class of wealthy newcomers involved in health care ... newcomers like Bredesen. The secret society Watauga found itself not only on life support but definitively put out to pasture after unsuccessfully trying to run Eddie Jones for mayor. Political boss Fate Thomas, once Nashville's most powerful kingmaker, was being investigated in a bribery scheme. As for the once Machiavellian arbiters of the discussion — the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean — they were suddenly not so feared.

More weird signs: Andy Shookhoff, a smart, bookish guy with wild hair, got elected juvenile court judge in 1990. An increasingly active civic culture out West End and Hillsboro Road (dubbed the "goo-goos" by political writer Phil Ashford) flexed its political muscle. There were new restaurants even, not to mention a new weekly paper, the Scene. Unlike more provincial Southern cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and Birmingham, Nashville seemed to be saying goodbye to its closed social loop, which for decades had strangled growth, innovation and progress in their cribs.

So when Boner decided not to seek a second term but to go run a pallet manufacturing facility in Southern Kentucky, Bredesen had the run of the place. He found no competition in determining where to take the city from the declining gene pool of the old order. What he found instead, after being elected mayor in 1991, was a blank slate. Just about everyone was happy to fall in line at the merest suggestion of progress. With a city hungry to do something, anything, he sat down in front of his laptop — and quite frankly, made it look easy.

The Predators and the Titans said they wanted to come. He brought them both to town and built facilities for them. Of the two structures, the downtown arena galvanized local planning and architecture circles, expanding the discussion from the revitalization of Second Avenue into that of Lower Broadway. He recruited Dell Computer to open a huge distribution facility by the airport, the terms of which (even he later acknowledged) were excessive, but got people talking anyway. In education, his ideas seemed less well formed than those he would later push as governor, although he added significant numbers of teachers. This came courtesy of a budget increase that was brought about under the guise of introducing a pedagogy into local classrooms called "core curriculum." (Core curriculum, while a noble idea, was later gutted by an incoming superintendent named Pedro Garcia.)

Bredesen the conservationist conducted several large property acquisitions, which later became Beaman Park and Shelby Bottoms. Almost as an afterthought in his later years in office, he oversaw construction of a startlingly beautiful and distinguished downtown library designed by a noted national architect. It seemed to say, "You know, on top of sports and country music, this city also places a premium on learning."

During Bredesen's two terms as mayor, the Metro Council seemed mostly afraid of him. They were either cowed about being around a rich guy, or flummoxed because he didn't speak their political patois. He hired very smart operators: Tam Gordon, Dave Cooley and Charlie Cook. There were no ethical lapses, and the transparency of his office was such that I could almost always walk in and speak to him when I wanted. That said, his office always tried to keep it a secret when he flew away to his vacation house in the Tetons. But honestly, nobody cared.

Bredesen's mayoral stretch has the mark of what you'd expect from an entrepreneur rather than a manager, less recurring accomplishments than bold one-offs. He left the city's departments in the hands of good people, and, once confident he could ignore them, went about seizing the opportunities. (As governor, perhaps because of all the budget crises, he seemed more managerial.) One of the smartest things I ever heard him say was this: "It's often less important whether you decide to do A or B, than that you decide to do something at all." In other words, you get ahead by moving ahead. Paralysis by analysis was not his style.

One other very good thing he did: After he left office, he made the mayoral waters safe for others of the immigrant variety. Bredesen has been succeeded now by two very smart men, Northeastern-born and -educated, who employed similar political constituent blocs to get elected. Don't think he didn't have anything to do with that.

The Governor

The Underachiever

The Interview


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