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Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote may be the most powerful man in Metro government you never read about

The Mayor's Muscle

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At the beginning of almost every Metro Council meeting, a clerk announces that "there are no messages from the mayor." But most of the time, that's not true.

That's because Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote is usually sitting to the left of the vice mayor's perch at the front of the council chambers.

Before the meeting begins, an at-large council member or two might come up and whisper in his ear. One of the mayor's other aides will show him something on a Blackberry. As he greets a reporter, he's low-key and disarming, a word cynical people use to mean friendly. If you're looking for news, there's a good chance your lead is whatever bill passes right before he gets up and walks out.

The average citizen would not recognize him on the street, even though they pay him a salary that's larger than the mayor's. Hinote makes $142,800 per year, while Dean receives $136,500.

But there's no doubt that a message from Hinote is a message from the mayor. Sometimes that message is one of support — that the mayor's office is simpatico with whatever issue or wish-list item is on the table. Sometimes it's one of opposition, and depending on the scale and severity of the disagreement, the recipient will get either the carrot or the stick.

Hinote's job, as Dean's appointed deputy mayor, is to apply whichever is needed to advance the mayor's agenda. And he has, as allies and adversaries alike tell the Scene. What you will typically not see, however, is any sign of his active involvement in the media coverage that follows. He disdains on-the-record interviews and shuns the spotlight.

Admirers — of whom he has many, from Nashville to Washington — say that's what makes him a classic coalition builder. Others who have ended up outside those coalitions describe him in far less glowing terms.

Who is Greg Hinote? Most Nashvillians don't really know. The answer is more complex than even friends or foes may realize.

Ask insiders within Nashville's political sphere about the deputy mayor, and you'll hear the same phrase with numbing repetition: "Can we talk on background?"

The irony is perfect. In journalistic parlance, background is a request to talk on condition of anonymity. An offer for a reporter to hang on to words and information, as long as they discard the name of the person giving out the goods. A council member might use this tool to speak freely about a city official without drawing fire; a city official might use it to tip off reporters to his advantage.

As deputy mayor, Hinote has practically made "background" his mantra. He interacts with the press almost exclusively as a background source. It's not really accurate to say that he's been absent from the news all these years. He's there, on occasion, just hidden between the lines.

Apropos of that, Hinote declined to speak to the Scene on the record for this story, though he was willing to confirm biographical information.  

The Scene reached out to council members, past and present; former mayoral and congressional staffers; lobbyists; and an assortment of other political insiders. Most asked to move the conversation onto background at one point or another.

Curiously enough, what they have to say is typically not vitriol. Many political insiders have something nice to say about Hinote, but they're still not sure they should say anything at all. One former council member flatly says he's reluctant to speak on the record because he's "a coward."

Most sources openly acknowledge his high intellect, and they describe him as outwardly friendly — again, with the hedging — and clearly devoted to the city. When the comments sour a bit, they seem to reveal befuddlement as much as anything else.

"He is one of the oddest people I've ever dealt with," says one council member. "It's almost like he gets up every morning convinced the world is out to get him, and then spends the rest of the day proving it true."

On background for this story, sources often pressed a reporter to reveal what other sources said, or to test the veracity of tidbits they'd heard about Hinote's personal life, which is similarly unknown and fascinating to most. Does he play piano and violin? (He does.) Did he spend some years in Vienna? (He did.)

What little they know about Hinote only stokes their curiosity. His affinity for cycling might be the best-known fact about him. He is part-owner of a high-end West Nashville bike shop, Gran Fondo Cycles, which he started with two partners in 2002.

He's just as well known for his eclectic interests, and an equally broad swath of connections and relationships across the city that he's developed over decades. One Nashville politico describes Hinote as a guy you could see at blue-collar eatery Wendell Smith's in the morning and at the symphony at night.

Jim Hester, a former Dean aide who left the mayor's office for the Parks Department in 2011, confirms that Hinote's relationships span the city, describing a "vast network" of people who spend their days trying to be the first person to tell Hinote something.

"If you're somebody that's out there being negative towards him, or you're somebody that's out there trying to bite him on something, he knows about it," Hester says. "He knows about it before you know about it. He's got a strong network of people who talk to him about things."

That much was evident over the past several weeks, during which the Scene learned of multiple calls from sources to Hinote, and from sources to sources, about the story — a Metro-wide game of telephone relay that eventually made it back to the Scene.

Little of what Hinote does as deputy mayor is done publicly. And because he's so allergic to the spotlight, in the absence of any cultivated public profile, a vague reputation has coalesced around him — that of the mayor's behind-the-scenes enforcer, dispatched whenever the Dean administration needs to bring down the hammer.

Without prompting, two sources independently pointed the Scene to the same example. And for once, the nail — in this case, former Metro Parks Director Roy Wilson — is more than happy to go on the record.

Wilson left his Metro post in December 2009 under a cloud of controversy, following seven-figure budget overruns that he said the Dean administration knew were coming. At a hearing prior to his departure, which one source recalls as a "public shaming," several council members defended him against what they saw as excessive punishment for a sin other departments committed frequently.  

Two-and-a-half years later, Wilson — now director of the Dekalb County Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Department in Decatur, Ga. — says he was "railroaded and treated terribly unfairly."

"And it had a lot to do with Greg Hinote," he says.

As he remembers, charged with opening two new nature centers on a tight budget, the former parks director identified several positions for layoffs. That's when he says he was called into a meeting with Hinote and Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling. Hinote told him not to lay anyone off, and to move ahead with opening the nature centers.

Wilson says he told Hinote and Riebeling then that he would do just that — but if he went over budget, they needed "to remember this conversation." When the "crap hit the fan," he says, they "got amnesia."

Now, Wilson says, the only word he can think of for Hinote is "evil." He still believes the deputy mayor was the anonymous source behind critical coverage of him in The Tennessean and the Scene.

"I would've played the race card, but I'm better than that," says Wilson, who is black. "My parents taught me better than that, and I taught my children better than that, and it would have been easy to play the race card. But I will say that what that administration did was personal. It was blatantly personal."

Told by a reporter that his words about Hinote sound unusually strong, he reiterates his assessment.  

"It was blatantly personal, and I know that it was Greg Hinote throwing the rocks and hiding his hands," Wilson says. "He's just evil. That's the only word I can think of. I could say so much more, but you can't print the words I would use."

Offered the chance to respond to Wilson's comments specifically, Hinote declined. But Jim Hester disputes Wilson's version of events and rejects his blunt characterization of Hinote.

Hester says he wasn't privy to Wilson's discussions with the administration, but he highly doubts they would have encouraged him to proceed along a course that led to such vast deficits. Moreover, he suggests that Wilson had been proposing cuts to the department that would be "most publicly painful" in order to pressure the mayor's office.

As for Hinote, he says evil just isn't in him.

"He's more of a thoughtful, thinking guy," Hester says. "And I'm not trying to kiss his ass or anything. He can be tough, but I think it's far-fetched to think of him as a hatchet guy. He's more of a compromising, conciliatory, try-to-please-the-people-in-front-of-him guy."

Unless, of course, he's displeased with the people in front of him. If Hinote's enforcer reputation is a myth, another story — less extreme than Wilson's, but more frequently cited by Metro insiders — helped make it.

The anecdote has taken on almost comically legendary status, perhaps because it didn't happen behind closed doors. Like so many things involving Hinote, even when it's fact, it is relayed like rumor in the form of a question:

"Have you heard about the time he berated Megan Barry in Noshville?"

The level of cursing and pointing involved in the incident depends on who's telling the story. Interestingly enough, the Scene did not initially hear it from anyone present. But the story is essentially true.

Barry, an at-large council member serving her second term, describes it as "a passionate disagreement in a public place that people saw" early in their first terms after the 2007 elections. It was such a "blip," she says, that she can't recall what the spat was even about. She insists the two have a great relationship now, and indeed Barry — the only candidate so far in the 2015 mayoral race — is a consistent Dean administration ally.

"Greg is smart, thoughtful, dedicated and approachable," she says. "He has a constituency of one — the mayor — and I think he serves him well."

If you go looking for stories of trouble involving Hinote, you won't necessarily find them where you'd expect. The Scene called numerous adversaries of the mayor's office over the years, and yet remarkably few had horror stories to share.

District 23 Councilwoman Emily Evans, for instance, relishes her role as a persistent gadfly in the administration's ointment, especially on high-stakes fiscal matters such as the Music City Center. One would assume there'd be gallons of bad blood between her and the man whose job it is to deliver the mayor's goals.

But while she acknowledges that the two have clashed, Evans' take is positive — although she's a little glad that news might needle him.

"This comment is going to make Greg really glad that General Services has those defibrillators in the courthouse," she says, "but I like him. I like Greg. And I don't think that when you break it down, that we actually disagree too much on what this city should or should not be. I think where we probably disagree is the how, and not the what, and that's where most of our clashes have occurred."

Perhaps the most surprising take on Hinote comes from District 24 Councilman Jason Holleman. The Sylvan Park councilman's relationship with the mayor has been positively icy ever since he opposed financing the Music City Center and helped derail Dean's plan to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Those relations didn't thaw after the administration publicly fueled Sarah Lodge Tally's failed effort to unseat Holleman in 2011.

But Holleman tells two stories that complicate things yet again. When he finally got a chance to sit down on election night, he says, he checked his phone. On it was a one-word text message from Hinote, the supposed arm of the mayor's wrath. It read simply, "Congratulations."

Holleman seemed to be poking the bear once again this year when he started raising questions about The Amp, the bus rapid transit line that will constitute Dean's last big project as mayor. While the $175 million system was planned to run along a 7.1-mile route from St. Thomas Hospital on the west side to Five Points in East Nashville, Holleman voiced concerns from constituents who thought the project would be better placed on Charlotte Avenue.

Earlier this summer, Holleman says, a few days before he was scheduled to meet with Hinote and talk transit, a bicycle pulled up next to him in McCabe Park during his morning jog. It was Hinote, the avid cyclist, who proposed the two go ahead and talk it out as they continued, appropriately enough, on a route from West End to Charlotte. By the end, Hinote had made a commitment to Holleman that the administration would move forward with BRT Lite on Charlotte in the next year.

In June, when the council voted on the mayor's capital spending plan — which included $7.5 million in funding for The Amp as planned on West End — Holleman supported it, vaguely citing indications that the administration was listening to views about where to expand transit next. Last month, the mayor's office confirmed its intent to pursue BRT Lite on Charlotte. Holleman says it reflected the roadside commitment he received from Hinote.

"Having disagreed with Greg in the past doesn't mean you can't work with him in the future," Holleman tells the Scene. "At the end of the day, he's very practical about how to get things done."

The least generous assessments of Hinote recall the stories about Will Pinkston in his oft-referenced heyday as a political neckbreaker for former Gov. Phil Bredesen. One source familiar with both men stops this line of thinking straight away — the Pinkston of lore would burn your house down if you crossed him, the source says, while Hinote doesn't even like to raise his voice. Still, if it takes one to know one, ask one.

"Can Greg be heavy-handed and tough from time to time?" says Pinkston, who has also worked strategy for Dean in the past. "The answer is yes. That's part of the job description. And that's what any mayor needs, is someone in that role who's willing to be tough but fair, and also hard-edged when necessary."

Now a Metro school board member trying to live down some of his former reputation, Pinkston says an aberration — like, say, a shouting match over breakfast — can have an outsized effect.   

"As much as some people have the reputation of being the bad cop, more often than not, probably nine times out of 10, what you're really doing is building consensus," he says. "It's just that 10th instance that people remember."

Hinote's professional political career began in the 1980s in the office of former Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton, when he was just 22. It's how he met Riebeling, and eventually Dean, and they were formative years — for better and worse, depending on whom you ask.

Fulton was very much an old-style politician, and four different sources say Hinote has some of the "you're with us or you're against us" approach they see as a vestige of that era. But just as many say Hinote's meticulous attention to the smallest civic detail is no less a remnant of the Fulton years.

The story goes that Fulton would pick Hinote up at 5 in the morning, and make him drive the mayor around while he dictated things that needed fixing around the city into a tape recorder. A stop sign that needed to be replaced. A pothole that needed to be filled. When they got to the office, Fulton would put the recorder on his secretary's desk, and she would dispatch his findings to various department heads.

From Fulton's office, Hinote left for more political activity — including working on a governor's race in Florida — as well as time at Fulton's consulting firm. He spent a couple of years in the early '90s working overseas for an investment fund started by George Soros and Robert Maxwell, among others, aimed at investing in Eastern Europe as the Soviet bloc collapsed. Hinote was in Berlin when the wall came down, and has two framed pieces of it hanging above his desk at the courthouse.

He returned to the States, where he did his first brief stint as chief of staff for Rep. Jim Cooper, then representing Tennessee's 4th Congressional District. After completing business school at Vanderbilt University, he spent the rest of the '90s running a company that built school buildings.

When Nashville's 5th Congressional District came open, Cooper — who had previously lost a run for the U.S. Senate — recruited him again. Hinote ran the campaign and served as Cooper's chief of staff until Dean came calling.

Not surprisingly, Cooper speaks highly of the man who serves as godfather to one of his children.

"No one's more capable," Cooper tells the Scene by phone from Washington. "No one's more reliable. No one's more trustworthy. And yet nobody's more humble. The idea that you're doing a profile on the lowest-profile guy in government is kind of amazing."

In the hyperpolitical fishbowl that is the nation's capital, Cooper says there were "a lot of brush fires to put out every day." Hinote, he says, has a gift for "seeing which ones could be a major blaze. Which ones could burn themselves out. Which ones are just little sparks that really aren't going to go anywhere."

Cooper describes his two-time right-hand man as invaluable during a particularly trying period under the Clinton administration, when he came up against the woman who many believe could be the next president.

"I'm a conservative Democrat, as you know," he says with a laugh. "And we tend to get a lot of grief from the left wing. And I got a particular amount of grief from Hillary Clinton back in those days, because I had a more conservative health care plan. Greg was an essential ally in that fight. Because to have the first lady's wrath coming behind you — those were tough days."

In an interview with the Scene, Mayor Karl Dean says Hinote's name came up frequently in conversations about the deputy mayor position as he prepared to take office. That led to what Cooper calls "nothing short of a raid on my prime staffer." The job — which was created by Dean's predecessor, former Mayor Bill Purcell, and filled by Purcell's canny deputy Bill Phillips — is less defined than that of, say, Metro finance director. Undoubtedly, that has contributed to curiosity about just what it is that Hinote does.

"The way I see his role is he's in many ways an extension of myself," Dean tells the Scene. "He's somebody whose job I think is to make sure that the things that we want to get done, get done."

Hinote stays in contact with the various department heads, although they meet with the mayor directly as well. Asked how the two interact and how much autonomy Hinote operates with, Dean says he doesn't micromanage his deputy's work with various departments. Nevertheless, he says, Hinote reports back to him.

When it comes to the administration's goals and initiatives, Dean says he doesn't give Hinote specific assignments. But they "discuss what we want to get done, and he goes about doing it."

Asked about the notion that Hinote acts as the mayor's muscle, Dean deflects that term from the mob's vocabulary.

"I don't know if I would characterize it as muscle," he says, "but I would certainly say that part of his job, and part of what I do, is you have to negotiate, you have to persuade, you have to make your case. And so he's certainly involved in that."

Sources within the administration and without say you can't talk about Hinote without talking about Riebeling. The two are longtime friends who frequently work in tandem. Both have also attracted, and deflected, speculation as possible mayoral candidates. Riebeling tells the Scene he's "not interested in running for anything at this point in time." Hinote has said he won't be a candidate, and sources close to him say the same.

When it comes to wrangling the council, Marty Szeigis, a special assistant in the mayor's office, operates as a primary liaison between the executive and legislative branch. But if it involves an item high up on the priorities list — for the mayor's office or a council member — the discussion involves either Riebeling or Hinote, if not both.

One criticism of Hinote — which doubles as a criticism of local media — is that he has played a major role in running the city for six years, and done so mostly in the dark. As one source says, "He has achieved a maximum level of involvement with a minimum level of accountability."

For his part, Dean, well aware of his own accountability to citizens, rejects that idea in a tone that acts as punctuation.

"He's got accountability," Dean says. "He's accountable to me."

When considering Hinote as the mayor's mover and shaker, two events stand out, for good and ill. One is the 2010 flood, the oft-cited "defining moment" of the Dean administration. Dean was roundly hailed for his leadership as the water rose and receded in May 2010, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone saying Hinote doesn't deserve the same.

"It was 25 of every 24-hour day during that time period that Greg was on call, side by side with the mayor, working with and supporting the extraordinary department heads from Billy Lynch to the emergency management folks, to police and fire," recalls At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine, who has known Hinote since the Fulton days.

At the time Nashville most needed hands-on, pinpoint city management, Hinote worked his top-to-bottom contacts. He functioned as the mayor's human switchboard, connecting needs and providers.

"Hinote clearly distinguished himself," Steine says. "The mayor gets tremendous kudos for his leadership during all that, and I think you can certainly make the strong case that without Hinote's work at his side, the mayor would not have been as effective as he was."

If the flood marks the Dean administration's high point to date, its biggest political failure remains the debacle over the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. It's still a sore subject in the mayor's office, and given that the property's future is still uncertain, it hasn't gone away.

One Metro insider asked rhetorically whether the Scene hadn't already profiled Hinote — referring to a 2011 cover story by Liz Garrigan that was sharply critical of the mayor's handling of the fairgrounds issue. (See "Spinout," March 17, 2011.) It described Dean's administration as "an undisciplined, disorganized machine lacking in managerial sophistication" and called the "breadth and depth of miscalculations and incompetence on their part in dealing" with the fairgrounds issue "staggering." Hinote wasn't mentioned by name, but the criticism was implicit.

In its attempt to outmaneuver the fairgrounds opposition — which was far better organized and had its save-the-speedway message more on point than the mayor's office understood — the Dean camp stumbled, coming off as flat-footed, arrogant and bullying. In such instances, critics suggest that a sort of muscle memory from Hinote's days in D.C. sometimes leads him to overreact. They say he's too quick to apply political strategizing to matters of direct involvement — playing chess, as it were, when the game is checkers. 

Riebeling says he likes the administration's batting average — "We'd be in the hall of fame," he says — but concedes that on the fairgrounds they struck out swinging.

"I think I can say that all of us feel some degree of responsibility for not carrying that out the way we should have," he says. "I carry my part on it, and I'm sure Greg does as well. We underestimated perhaps some of the intensity of people's attitudes. Clearly we should have done a better job of communicating and getting it out. We didn't do a very good job on that one."

But one thing that's certain about that affair — and his role in the immediate wake of the flood, and countless other matters of civic importance that he has touched, big or small — is that you haven't read an interview with Greg Hinote talking at length about it.

Earlier this summer, Hinote did something completely out of character: He spoke on the record about his job. A video of the speech he gave at the Kiwanis Club, which went unremarked upon at the time, has been sitting on YouTube for two months, hidden in plain sight.

"I'm the guy that lives in the cave of the courthouse 12, 14, 16 hours a day, six, seven days a week and makes sure things work," he said. He came off as focused and forthright, if a little nervous.

Of everything Greg Hinote told the assembled group that day in his exceedingly rare public address, one statement above others rang unquestionably true.

"I don't do this very often," he said.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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