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Mayor Karl Dean's pet public-transit project is on the ropes — and he has only himself to blame

How the Amp Was (Nearly) Lost

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When the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned last week, it marked the end of a six-week legislative fight over Mayor Karl Dean's proposed bus rapid transit project, The Amp. The scorecard can only be read one way by anyone who's not getting paid to convince you otherwise: The mayor, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, their army of flacks and PR professionals — and the project — lost.

Their defeat wasn't total, by any means. The final legislation, approved by both chambers and now on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam, requires approval of the project from the state legislature, whether it receives state funds or not. It was a compromise between a House bill (which would have amounted to the status quo) and a Senate bill (which would have blocked the project in its current form by prohibiting its center-lane design).

In other words, it could have been much worse. But try that at a political rally. The signs print themselves: Amp Yes (It Could Still Happen)! Amp Not Dead Yet!

So what happened? After weeks in the fluorescent-lit halls of the legislature, and interviews with more than a dozen people on both sides of the fight, this much is clear:

• The Dean administration and its allies were caught flat-footed by a political skirmish they didn't think would arrive until next year.

• The opposition may not be a supremely organized force itself, but it was able to pre-empt the project at the state level and frame the debate on its own terms.

• A lack of political strategy and foresight very nearly cost the mayor and his coalition a signature project.

Signs of trouble appeared in August. Even as she was sitting in West End traffic, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican, told WPLN at the time that "it would be difficult" to convince legislators to approve the $35 million that The Amp would be seeking from the state. That inkling of resistance portended a bombshell three months later, when Harwell told The Tennessean outright that the state should not give the project any money.

Explicit opposition from one of the state's most powerful legislators (and one of Nashville's own) clearly caught the Dean administration off guard. Harwell's stance up to that point had been neutral, according to multiple sources familiar with private discussions between her and the administration. No one received a heads-up that the speaker's grenade toss was coming. Dean said he hadn't spoken to Harwell about her newly minted public opposition, but called "that type of conclusion premature."

"A decision on The Amp should only be made when you have all the facts and information," Dean said.

That statement was a blatant contradiction: Was all the support Dean and the Amp Coalition had been drumming up "premature" as well? Regardless of the administration's preferred timeline, other Nashville legislators were working toward their own conclusions. State Sen. Doug Henry, the legendary Nashville Democrat, told the Scene that week that he was undecided on the project, but that he had been discussing it with state transportation officials. Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson said he had reservations but noted significant opposition among his constituents. (In the end, Dickerson and Henry both voted for the Senate legislation that would have effectively killed the project in its current form.)

More troubling, though, was that Dickerson said he hadn't heard a word from Metro or the mayor about the project. Remarkably, the same turned out to be true for Gov. Bill Haslam. He told reporters a few days later that nobody had come to him with even a preliminary pitch for the $175 million project — even though it planned to use a state road and some state funds, and had been sold as the spine of a regional transit system.

The administration's response typified the pro-Amp side's frequently incoherent message — a surprising problem for an effort that has acted as a stimulus package for the local PR industry. The project wasn't seeking any money from the state this year, they said. The administration and the project team were working closely with officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and they would make a formal funding request when the time was right.

True as that appears to have been, it landed like a statement issued from a different political dimension. The state-level debate was beginning, yet the official response from the Amp team was to insist it wouldn't begin until next year. Whatever was happening in private, state lawmakers were already going public with their misgivings about the project. Meanwhile, the Amp's supposed champions were either unready or unwilling to engage.

Despite all that smoke, operatives working on the pro-Amp side say it still came as a surprise when a full-fledged legislative dumpster fire broke out in March. Republican State Sen. Jim Tracy had signaled his intentions the month before, when he introduced a budget amendment blocking any state funding for The Amp in 2014. In that instance, the Dean administration's timeline argument is apt: Metro wasn't seeking any funds from the state in 2014 anyway, so his amendment was moot.

But nobody in the Dean administration saw the real threat coming. A caption bill, sponsored in the Senate by Tracy, was amended in a transportation subcommittee. Under the amendment, it would require explicit approval from the General Assembly for any metropolitan government to implement a bus rapid transit system with dedicated lanes on a state highway. Sound familiar?

Looking back, one pro-Amp operative says, the legislation was an obvious strategic move by the opposition — one the pro-Amp side was short-sighted not to have seen coming. There is some disagreement in the rank and file now about what should have happened next. At the time, though, the prevailing view was that putting the bill down completely wouldn't be possible. The Senate and House lawmakers were taking divergent paths. The Senate version was adopting broad language that would have killed the project. The House, meanwhile, was backing away from the original bill and simply tying the General Assembly's approval to the budget.

The Dean administration and The Amp Coalition rolled the dice. They threw their support behind the House version.

As the weeks and committee meetings went by, they called on project supporters to send letters to legislators urging them to support the House language. Given the two options, supporting the House version made sense at the time, because it seemingly did no harm to the project.

But the lesser of two evils is still evil. By accepting the premise that the state might have greater involvement in the approval process for the project, the pro-Amp side allowed for the possibility that the bill would end up ... where it ultimately ended up. That may prove to be the opposition's biggest achievement — forcing the mayor, and the chamber, and a host of other green-clad Amp supporters to have the debate on their terms and timing.

The legislative fight over The Amp has stirred up a volatile set of political dynamics that could be factors in this and other issues going forward. For instance: What effect, if any, does the open gubernatorial race in 2018 have on issues that pit Democrat Karl Dean against Republican Beth Harwell? That's a juicy what-if. But at present, there's a more pressing issue, according to insiders and a good set of eyes: the frosty relationship between Dean and Davidson County's state legislators, exacerbated by the mayor's inability, or unwillingness, to cultivate Tennessee lawmakers on pivotal city issues.

That is to say, the Dean administration is bad at politics.

Longtime Metro insiders say it's not uncommon for the relationship between the mayor and the state delegation to be strained. But there are indications those struggles are somewhat pronounced with this mayor, and this delegation.

Freshman Rep. Darren Jernigan, a former Metro councilman, says he's always had a good relationship with the mayor. But he acknowledges frustration within the delegation about the lack of communication from Dean. On certain issues, he says, some members have been blindsided by the mayor's position on issues that land in their lap at the legislature — the state charter authorizer, for one.

"That came out of left field," Jernigan says, "and we're up here trying to fight for public education, public schools. And then our mayor comes out ..."

That issue rankled some of the legislators whose support Dean needed most. Pro-Amp operatives tell the Scene that when they went to meet with lawmakers who had concerns about the transit project — or voiced outright opposition — the mayor's stance on the charter authorizer came up regularly.

Jernigan, like others, says the mayor's office never approached him about the pending legislation that could have killed The Amp, and that they haven't reached out to him about the project in general. Rep. Gary Odom, also a former councilman whose state House district includes a large piece of The Amp's proposed route, says he discussed the project with the mayor before the legislative session, when he warned Dean trouble might be coming. After that, Odom says: nothing.

Speaking to the Scene at the legislature after the final deal on the Amp legislation was reached, outgoing House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner hinted at similar tension. A likely 2015 mayoral candidate, Turner made sure not to say that Dean was at fault. But he did suggest there was room for improvement by touting his longstanding relationships with legislators. He also asserted that under his own potential mayoral administration, "I don't think we'll have some of the same problems that we might be having now."

Jernigan says Dean arranged a lunch with the Nashville delegation last year. He tried to repeat that outing this year, Jernigan says, "but he couldn't get all of the representatives on the same page for a date. I don't know if that is telling or not."

Some Nashville legislators opposed the project completely (Dickerson, Henry), while some defended it (Sen. Thelma Harper). Others supported the final deal, but were unhappy with the precedent it set by allowing greater state involvement in local projects (Turner, Jernigan and Rep. Bo Mitchell). Still others may remain undecided. But many feel the delegation was ill-equipped to defend the project or Metro because they hadn't been properly briefed — especially once it became a statewide hot button. In fairness, it's reasonable to flip the question: How is it state legislators were uninformed about a project that has been relentlessly covered and discussed in Nashville for at least the past year?

As for tending to political personalities, it might have been prudent for the mayor to pay a visit to the Republican moneyman with bottomless pockets whose name is in lights along a pivotal section of The Amp's route. Pro-Amp operatives say they knew Lee Beaman — the auto dealer who has wielded the state legislature against the mayor before — wasn't likely to sign up for a green shirt and matching yard signs. But they also say looping him in, with politics and the route's logistics in mind, might have at least kept him close and lessened the escalation to come.

Instead, it's a shot they didn't take — a misstep that only adds to the perception that the administration failed to include the all-important "stakeholders," not to mention broad swaths of the public, in the years leading up to the current debate over the project.

When anti-Amp legislation first appeared in a House subcommittee, Beaman was in the front row. For weeks to follow, he could be seen walking the halls and ducking into offices to visit legislators to whom he has doled out thousands of dollars in recent years. If Beaman's presence was felt by Republicans, that pressure was only increased by the Koch Brothers-funded organization Americans for Prosperity, which parachuted into town to fight Haslam on the Hall income tax and took a late interest in The Amp. With two very conservative Republicans running for higher office — Tracy, running for Congress, and Rep. Joe Carr, running for U.S. Senate — and many more running for re-election in the state, it's hard to imagine them going unnoticed.

(It remains unclear how much AFP truly affected the twists and turns at the legislature. But their appearance on the scene noticeably riled both sides. To those in green, the noble goal of improved local mass transit had been hijacked by a shadow campaign of right-wing billionaires. On the Stop Amp side, AFP's publicized presence complicated what had been a tentative coalition of people spanning the political spectrum, given the decidedly partisan connotations of alignment with the Kochs.)  

It's a bit like setting your house on fire and then accepting congratulations for making it out alive, but Beaman's pockets and the Koch Brothers' might have factored into the claims of victory coming from the pro-Amp side. Privately, pro-Amp operatives say, the fact that the project withstood such a frontal assault portends good things. Publicly, the spin was different but no less dizzying.  

As the governor and leading lawmakers were wrapping up a post-adjournment press conference, the mayor and project allies painted the pig with Day-Glo lipstick.

"We are satisfied with the outcome in the General Assembly today," Dr. Mike Schatzlein, Amp Coalition chairman and president and CEO of Saint Thomas Health, said in a statement. "This bill clearly defines approval levels of local and state participation in the transit project process."

Since it's almost impossible to divine what that even means, Dean's statement was an improvement.

"The good news is that the legislation to stop The Amp did not succeed," he said. "The new bill allows us to keep moving forward with The Amp, and that is what we're going to do."

Undoubtedly, the outcome could have been far worse for Dean and the project he and others claim is vital for Nashville. But in the past month, the mayor has proposed abandoning dedicated lanes in two controversial sections of the route — a concession that might have been more effective politically if it had come long ago, and may well sacrifice some of BRT's supposed benefits. He has formed a Citizens Advisory Committee that neither side seems to believe will have much effect. And he has been forced to accept the possibility of another hurdle for approval from a state legislature that has showed little interest in the project thus far.

If that sounds "satisfying" or like "good news" to you, you're probably rooting against The Amp.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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