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Metro Councilman Jason Holleman fended off a coalition of the city’s most powerful Democrats — but how do he and Mayor Karl Dean proceed from here?




It's just after 7 p.m. on election night, Aug. 4, and the day's stifling humidity is already breaking into something resembling a cool breeze. Sunlight recedes behind the sparse trees flanking a narrow strip of Park Avenue, casting shadows across the parked cars proliferating outside the yellow two-story home of Jason Holleman.

With the polls freshly closed, the incumbent District 24 councilman is feverishly checking his smart phone for The Numbers, writing them down on a notepad in red felt-tip marker. He stops only to greet the guests flooding his front yard as his wife, Margaret, puts the finishing touches on a massive spread of barbecue pork. Dozens of friends, family and constituents help themselves to wine-on-ice and a keg of Yazoo Pale Ale beneath a gazebo, where WTVF-Channel 5 election returns broadcast from a pair of catty-cornered flat-screen televisions.

The flurry of activity doesn't last long. After about a half-hour of tabulating returns, text-messaging poll workers and glad-handing constituents, Holleman receives a phone call from his opponent, Sarah Lodge Tally. Their conversation is brief, and when he puts his phone down, he smiles.

The Numbers, it seems, are good.

Tally's concession call brings an early and decisive end to one of the city's most contentious campaigns, the roots of which coil around an umbilicus of supporters and beneficiaries of the $585 million Music City Center project. They attempted to paint the incumbent as an enemy of Mayor Karl Dean and a foe of capital-P economic progress.

"I'm just glad this is all over," says Holleman's mother, Charlotte. "We're all glad it's over."

By night's end, Holleman will retain his seat for a second and final term, besting Tally in a 59-41 blowout. The incumbent captured all six of his district's precincts, including West End Middle, which wasn't even included in the district prior to reapportionment in April.

It's a resounding victory, and the ensuing celebration on the Hollemans' front lawn goes on for a few hours as the sun sets on Sylvan Park. But when everyone wakes the following morning, the same question that nagged the campaign remains: Does defeating Dean and his deep-rooted allies by proxy change the contentious relationship between one of the council's most influential district members and the mayor? And will it affect the mayor's dealings with the council during his legacy-building second term?

Holleman's road to re-election has been anything but a joyride. While some see his victory as a defeat for the so-called Dean Machine, the animus Holleman has drawn from the city's executive branch long predates the schism over his criticism of the $585 million Music City Center.

Some political observers say the nucleus of the Dean administration's animosity toward Holleman is in the 2009 debate over stormwater drainage. That debate focused on how an increase in Metro's stormwater fee should be tabulated. Holleman thought there should be an incentive for property owners to cut back on items such as roofed and hard-paved surfaces that intensify drainage problems, and he proposed a progressive tax rate. Dean scoffed at that plan, however, and instituted his own, which the council eventually passed.

Councilwoman Emily Evans supported Holleman's proposal, and the two have since sided together on a number of big-ticket items, including financing for the Music City Center. Evans and others familiar with the issue recall Holleman's repeated attempts to talk through the stormwater issue with Dean's office, to no avail. The damage was apparently done: Holleman would not toe the line when he was needed, and those in the mayor's coterie took note.

"That's definitely where I would mark the beginning of any contention between Jason and the mayor," Evans recalls. "And I think that that's probably accurate for me, too."

Holleman continued ruffling feathers in parts of the Democratic establishment when he publicly backed state Sen. Douglas Henry over up-and-comer (and decidedly more liberal) challenger Jeff Yarbro, who lost by a hair last year — and who also drew support from a number of those in Dean's political galaxy. His support of Henry was not received well in his own district, which voted largely for Yarbro.

By the time the Music City Center debate came around, then, Holleman's orbit was already misaligned with the mayor's. His minority nay vote against the tourism-tax-based financing plan of the 1.2 million-square-foot convention center project had practically sealed his reputation as one who can't play well with others (even though he claims to have voted in line with the current mayor roughly 85 percent of the time).

Enter attorney Tally, who went from a political nobody to a credible threat in record time — something that indicates she'll be an even more formidable candidate in future runs. For the past several months, she waged a well-financed war against a relatively popular incumbent in a race that unexpectedly vaulted to the forefront of Nashville's political consciousness once Dean stepped into the fray — or, rather, as soon as Tally herself began to tout the mayor's largesse.

"Councilman Holleman has not been supportive of [the mayor's] agenda, particularly with respect to the fairgrounds and the convention center," Tally told the Scene in June. "And folks in this district are generally supportive of the mayor and his plans, so they've been unhappy to know about the lack of support from Councilman Holleman."

With rhetoric like this, much of the attention in the race fell on her familial and professional connections to the Democratic establishment here, the vast sums of money they raised for her, and the great and varying lengths that the establishment went to oust her opponent. The daughter of influential Democratic lobbyist Dick Lodge, Tally made her candidacy official just days shy of the May 19 filing deadline. But despite that perceived handicap, she managed to raise funds with impressive speed, reporting some $50,000 in contributions between April and June.

Her campaign manager, Russell Riebeling, is the son of the city's finance director, Richard Riebeling. Her father's law firm, Bass Berry & Sims, is the former employer of Anne Davis, who is married to Mayor Dean. The firm secured legal bond work for the convention center last year in a contract worth upwards of $900,000. Tally's own law firm, Miller & Martin, represents the Metro Development and Housing Authority in its procurement of the low-balled Tower Investments property, where construction of the convention center is under way. The firm has collected $1.6 million in legal fees from Metro.

To be sure, a mayor lending a hand — or face — to a council race is nothing new. Most recently (and unsuccessfully), Dean's predecessor, Bill Purcell, endorsed candidates for sheriff and juvenile court clerk during the 2002 Democratic primary. Prior to that, during his stint as mayor in the '90s, former Gov. Phil Bredesen was at one point involved in "at least half to three-quarters of council races," recalls Will Pinkston, a Democratic strategist and consultant.

"Again, it just shows you that the whole notion that [Dean's involvement in District 24] is some sort of unprecedented thing is ridiculous," Pinkston says.

In addition to the official support Tally received from elected officials — chief among them a mailer featuring her and a smiling Dean, another featuring a personal appeal from Bredesen (also smiling), and a $250-per-plate kickoff dinner fundraiser hosted by Leigh Walton, treasurer of the Dean re-election campaign — she received an assist in the form of anti-Holleman mailers disseminated by a group called Neighbors for Progress. The ostensibly grassroots organization based in District 17 advocated the Dean-backed concept to turn the Tennessee State Fairgrounds into a corporate campus. (Not surprisingly, voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment Aug. 4 to keep the fairgrounds at status quo and require a 27-vote council majority for any changes.)

Although Tally's name never appeared on the mailer, the implication was clear.

"Mayor Karl Dean had a plan to create a better quality of life in our neighborhood," read the mailer. "But Councilman Jason Holleman stood in the way. Earlier this year, a coalition of South Nashville neighbors and small-business owners supported a plan to create new opportunities and more green space on the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds site."

Interestingly, the only "neighbors" contributing to the initiative, according to second-quarter finance reports, were Pinkston, a former Dean campaign staffer; John Cooper, brother of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper; and a group called Building Nashville Together, a pro-convention center lobbyist organization whose primary contributor is the Tennessee Laborers PAC, which gave heavily to Gov. Bill Haslam's campaign.

Then came Tally's endorsement from The Tennessean's editorial board — not exactly a surprise, given earlier reports about the links between the Gannett-owned media organ and the new convention center's attachés. The paper's flagship columnist, Gail Kerr, was actively courted by former Music City Center public-relations shills McNeely, Pigott & Fox, while the paper's corporate arm shucked $15,000 toward convention-center lobbying efforts.

Finally, as if the race weren't heated enough, a YouTube video surfaced a week before the election equating the incumbent with the godfather of the American political ad hominem attack, Adolf Hitler. Consisting of footage from the 2007 film Downfall, which chronicles the Nazi leader's final days in a Berlin bunker, the video — titled "Getting Das Boot" — subtitles Der Fuhrer's paranoid ravings with Holleman-specific tropes, including a controversial redevelopment plan in which the councilman wished to preserve a church in his district rather than replace it with a Rite-Aid. (At least on this done-to-death Internet meme, the councilman and the mayor share common ground: Dean got his own Downfall treatment during Metro's 2008 gas crisis.)

"My take on it is that, obviously, I don't think a negative campaign works in a district council race," Holleman tells the Scene. "I don't think it's effective in this kind of campaign, and more importantly, I don't think it's effective in trying to bring people together after the campaign. It's something I decided not to really respond to, or counter, for those reasons."

In the end, the Hitler video didn't catch fire with District 24 voters. (At press time, the video had 722 views and no one claiming authorship.) Nor did the combination of support from big-name donors, a hefty newspaper endorsement, and Tally's strategy to paint her opponent as a pothole in the mayor's yellow brick road. If Holleman didn't sense any mandate before to oppose the city's power elite, he could be forgiven for thinking he has one now.

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