by Steven Hale
It's clear that Mayor Karl Dean supports offering domestic partner benefits for Metro workers, a move that would make benefits available to the same-sex partners of city employees.
Last month, when we first reported that Metro Council members and local activists were involved in ongoing discussions about such an effort, the mayor's office all but gave them a green light to press on.
"Mayor Dean is proud that we live in an open, welcoming city that respects individual dignity and embraces the differences among us," Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said at the time. "Many major corporations already offer domestic partner benefits, and they certainly recognize that offering a competitive level of benefits attracts employees and is a smart way to do business. Metro Human Resources and the Metro Law Department are currently studying the issue."
Yesterday, in response to a letter signed by 26 council members requesting that the mayor appoint a Study and Formulating Committee to consider the issue, the vibes from Deanland remained positive. Johnson said the mayor's office intended to move forward with appointing the committee and reiterated the mayor's pride in Nashville as "an open and welcoming city that respects individual dignity and embraces the differences among us." She noted, as the council members had, that "many major corporations and other cities already offer domestic partner benefits" and added that "[o]ffering a competitive level of benefits attracts employees and is a smart way to do business."
But what also seems clear is that the Dean administration is letting this issue come to them.
The mayor himself has not even commented on the idea, yet. Instead, both statements have come from a spokesperson, describing his pride in the city and making it clear that "many major corporations and other cities already offer domestic partner benefits." (This could mean the administration has decided to keep the mayor in the background for now, or simply be a matter of the logistics involved in responding to requests for comment as opposed to rolling out a policy proposal. Either way, they're reacting.) Want to parse further? While one of the council members leading the effort tells Pith that the mayor's office had known the formal request was coming for three days, the administration's response didn't hit media inboxes until just before 5 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
So why not seize the issue as their own? Here's two guesses, anyway.
In a state with a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, expanding what has heretofore been a privilege granted to heterosexual married couples can put a strain on the relationship between the almost-exclusively Republican state government and more liberal city governments. Gov. Bill Haslam is already on record saying he doesn't "sense a huge demand from most Tennesseans" for such a change, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says any attempt to apply it statewide would probably be met with "a lot of resistance." Although McCormick added that he's "not sure there'd be that much of a concern" if cities were to do it, past confrontations with the state are not forgotten in the Metro Courthouse. Perhaps the mayor's office has decided it's best to tread lightly for the time being, lest they risk poking the bear. (There are also various I's to dot and T's to cross to ensure an expansion of benefits could withstand a potential legal challenge. Council members have certainly been working on that, and Metro departments have been "studying the issue." The mayor's office may well be trying to avoid accelerating the process to its detriment.)
But that's not nearly cynical enough to be true, is it? Despite the fact that Dean Teamers are always pointing out how the mayor isn't a political animal, it's widely assumed that he'll be eyeing a bigger office once his term is up. If that's true, perhaps he (or the people who think about this ugly political stuff for him) are trying to walk the fine line between supporting more equality and marching toward a red-state election waving a rainbow flag.
Or maybe we're over-thinking this. It's possible! The mayor's office could be more involved behind the scenes than it appears (although indications coming are way certainly suggest this effort is more rooted in the council). For now, it seems the Dean administration is nothing less than supportive of expanding benefits to same-sex partners, but more than happy to let someone else lead the charge.