Standing six feet and change, with a frat-boy flop of brown hair, Darden Copeland tried to calm the crowd assembled on the mezzanine outside Metro Council chambers. It was a cold January night, but all anyone felt was heat.
It was only a few hours into one of the longest and most roundly attended council meetings in Nashville history, and some 700 people in total had stood ready to speak their piece about the future of the 117-acre fairgrounds. Now it looked like that wasn't going to happen, even though they'd been promised — or at least led to believe along the way — that every single one of their voices needed to be heard.
And the people — boy, they were riled. Many wore the red T-shirts that highlighted the "Save My Fairgrounds" movement amid the crush of people (estimated in hindsight around 3,000) at the Courthouse that Tuesday night, Jan. 18. Many had taken up the Tennessee State Fairgrounds property, right or wrong, as their own hometown Alamo. Try telling the defenders of the Alamo to stand down.
But Copeland tried to explain that the longer they went on, the more likely council members were to leave. And because their vote margin was so slim — their bill ended up passing 21-19 — they couldn't risk another couple hours of public comments.
In the end, people shouted at him, sure. But think what they would've done had the vote swung the other way.
Such are the trials of the counselor to a movement of his own creation.
Copeland, after all, was the man hired to assemble a "grassroots" coalition of interests to preserve the fairgrounds property. He has a substantial history of such work — both in Davidson County and across the country. His firm, the Calvert Street Group, is paid by companies seeking one of two outcomes: They either want to create the appearance of a citizen movement supporting a project, or they need to defeat just such a swell to proceed.
That means whether it's silencing the NIMBY crowd working against a new landfill, or orchestrating public response to a soon-to-be-built shopping center, Copeland is comfortable playing either side of neighborhood issues.
Such is the new face of public relations, Copeland and others in the business say. It's supposed to look like yours. Firms like Calvert Street harness social-media users and other online communicators, then angle their activism toward whatever outcome those firms have been paid to create.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one Nashville-based lobbyist says paid "grassroots" movements are becoming a part of every major civic project. Indeed, Copeland himself has worked on at least five such high-profile projects in Middle Tennessee in the past five years. Until the fairgrounds, he had done so the usual way in this line of work — covertly.
But by serving as de facto spokesman for the sprawling coalition he gathered, which includes racing fans, money interests, state fairgoers, flea-market vendors and expo loyalists — not to mention political allies trying to kneecap Democratic Mayor Karl Dean in case he aspires to higher office — Copeland has pulled back the curtain on a kind of corporate-political hybrid operation that is, by definition, rarely supposed to be seen.
Don Beyer, a car salesman who'd taken over his father's business and expanded it across Virginia, decided he'd make a run for governor in 1997. Beyer had a short history of upending conventional political wisdom in that state, having knocked off an established state senator for the Democratic nod for lieutenant governor in 1989. Beyer served in that post under two governors, including George "Macaca" Allen, before taking his own shot.
The car salesman lost badly. But that hardly mattered to his scheduler-slash-fundraising-assistant-slash-guy-who-did-whatever-else-needed-doing. With one campaign now under his belt, Darden Copeland was hooked.
True to what would become his form, Copeland's next move was ascendant. He began a fundraising gig for former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt's political action committee while Gephardt was vying for Speaker of the House — a move that flopped after Republican Newt Gingrich refused to surrender the seat amid scandal, and a bandied-about bipartisan coup didn't materialize. But Copeland met some interesting people — including Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who would go on to lead Al Gore's bid for the presidency in 2000.
On the Gore campaign, Copeland says, he learned organizing, coalition building and how to work with constituent groups. But again, that campaign failed. And again, Copeland moved on, much as the campaign corps does. This time, he landed a job with pollster Stan Greenberg. Greenberg's firm — co-captained by famed Democratic strategists James Carville and Bob Shrum — was at the time consulting on international campaigns, including those of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Along with maintaining billboard clients, the firm conducted internal and external polling of brand recognition for various corporations, one of which was BP. In the early part of this century, BP was trying to recast itself, moving from British Petroleum to "Beyond Petroleum" — a nod both to the burgeoning environmental movement and the fact that BP had by then acquired other, non-British companies trading in petrol. Copeland took to the work as his interest in party politics waned.
After a few small-scale candidate campaigns — including former state Sen. Tommy Kilby's unlikely victory run in 2002 (where Copeland worked with Jim Hester, currently a top aide to Mayor Dean) — Copeland thought again about the BP branding campaign from a few years before.
"It opened my eyes that there's more to political campaigns than just the candidate side," Copeland tells the Scene. "There's a way to take that skill set and apply it to what I would call corporate campaigns."
Enter Copeland's new employer, the Saint Consulting Group, the Franklin-based firm made infamous by a Wall Street Journal exposé last summer that revealed it had been working clandestinely to build neighborhood opposition to new Walmart stores on behalf of the low-cost giant's competitors. Saint campaigns — of which the Journal identified more than 1,500 in 44 states over the last 27 years — are often self-described "black arts" tactical operations, in which employees create false identities and infiltrate neighborhood groups to swing public opinion.
Copeland, for instance, used the nom de plume Matthew Davis during a road project in Detroit, according to public records and confirmed by former Saint co-workers. (The Scene also linked the name and email address that appears on rolls of public meetings to a "John Doe" lawsuit Copeland filed early last year, after his email accounts were hacked. Copeland listed the address "firstname.lastname@example.org" as one of those violated.)
At Saint, whose iPhone-app icon bears a less-than-gleaming halo, Copeland moved up quickly, according to several of his former co-workers. They say his bosses thought highly of him and his work. Copeland worked out of the firm's Northern California office in San Francisco, and after a few years and successful campaigns, according to Copeland, CEO Mike Saint — who declined to comment for this story, citing corporate policy — promoted him to regional manager and gave him a choice of where to live: St. Louis, Chicago or Nashville.
Copeland chose Music City. He says he wanted to be closer to the boss.
The core of Saint's business is "defense" — parlance for keeping a competitor out of a market. Mike Saint told the Journal that his firm has done 500 such projects, most of which were covert operations. According to former Saint employees contacted by the Scene, much of the work Copeland and the others did involved using fake names and posing as members of neighborhoods to gin up either support for or opposition to a project. They made phone calls and sent emails to elected officials — using various email accounts or phone numbers — and gave neighbors the tools and knowledge to do so too.
But Saint also works to build community coalitions in support of clients' large-scale land-use projects, which is where Copeland found his niche. In Middle Tennessee, Copeland — as a Saint employee — worked on behalf of Buchanan Point, a 180-acre mixed-use development in Donelson being built by Nashville-based The Mathews Co. He also helped curry favor for the doomed May Town Center, developer Jack May's multibillion-dollar vision for Bells Bend. And Copeland worked on behalf of Bible Park USA, the "one-of-a-kind themed story park that brings the Bible to life through well-loved, familiar stories and ancient historical experiences" that ultimately got a smiting from Middle Tennesseans.
Yet his Saint career wasn't all roses. In 2009, Copeland was removed from his management position and reassigned to special projects, which took him to Detroit and Canada, among other places. He was no longer supervising other employees. According to former co-workers who spoke with the Scene on condition of anonymity, dissention brewed among those who reported to him, some of whom say he was generally difficult to work with and quick to anger.
"If there's a conflict, regardless of whether Darden is right or wrong, he will definitely go to lengths to try to convince everyone that the other party is wrong and he's right — regardless of whether he truly believes that deep down inside," one former co-worker says. "Which I think is related to his overall disposition for ambition and wanting to get ahead."
Around this time, Copeland says, he decided to form the Calvert Street Group, named after a Washington, D.C., street where he used to live. Before he left Saint, friends recommended he meet Kevin Sharp, an attorney (and now federal judge) who at the time happened to be heading up a group called Nashville's Priorities — the chief opponent of Mayor Dean's plan to fund the new $585 million downtown convention center that passed the council in early 2010.
The timing clicked. Copeland wanted an attorney to help him parse the no-compete clause in his Saint contract, which would determine whether his Calvert Street Group concept was even feasible. He and Sharp struck up a friendship, and late in 2009, Copeland says he began volunteering on Sharp's campaign to defeat the financing plan for the convention center. For his work, he was later paid — he won't say how much — out of funds raised by Nashville's Priorities.
At the time, though, Copeland was still employed by Saint, which intentionally stayed agnostic in the convention-center furor. Former co-workers say tensions rose between Copeland and Mike Saint after the CEO learned about his rogue work, but Copeland says he pitched the CEO on the project before launching out on his own. Whatever the case, Copeland remained employed at Saint until mid-January 2010, capping a five-year run at the firm.
Right off the bat, Calvert Street Group picked up business on some of Saint's stomping grounds, including rock quarry projects in the South. Calvert Street, which includes Copeland's business partner Jeff Haithcoat and has six employees, represents a variety of concerns: building wind farms in Colorado and California, a shopping center (he won't say where), landfills all over the country. (Incidentally, Copeland is a guest speaker at the annual Waste Training Institute this May in Dallas. His bio for the event reads, in part: "Copeland specializes in overcoming NIMBY opposition for controversial land-use entitlement projects such as landfills, rock quarries, hospitals, shopping centers, casinos, wind farms and entertainment venues.")
Yet even his critics say Copeland accomplished something unique with the fairgrounds. Long rumored to have been hired by racing interests, Copeland spun their desire to maintain the Fairgrounds Speedway into an outsize tale of economic and social justice in a time of corporate skullduggery — ironically, in the form of new development, something he's been paid to champion in the past — aimed at an entire class of citizens.
"Part of what grassroots consultants do is, part of their function, is to make the thing — whatever the thing is — appear larger than it is," says James Weaver, chairman of the state fair board. "That's how they do what they do, and there are ways to magnify that, and [Copeland is] very good at it and very skilled at it, and he's done that here. That said, he got a huge crowd to show up at the Courthouse, so he did a great job of building a coalition around the four parts, the things that go on out at the fairgrounds."
Councilwoman Emily Evans, a critic of Dean initiatives including the convention center and his fairgrounds redevelopment concept, says she got more emails — some 2,000 — about the fairgrounds than on any other issue since she was elected in 2006. She says Copeland is the first person locally to understand the raw power of the social network and align users for a contentious political issue.
"Ten years ago, if 3,000 people showed up at the Courthouse when we had an event, I would be more inclined then to say, 'Hey, you know what? Somebody paid them to be here.' I would be more cynical about their appearance," Evans says. "But given the way in which people can just communicate so instantaneously and connect on issues, he's tapping into that. He sees how the world is changing, and how you can assemble a grassroots movement in ways that you never could before."
But the power of social media is supposed to be with the user, not someone who is paid to manipulate the user. Regardless of whether a user would naturally find himself sympathetic to Copeland's client, the fact remains that Copeland has created a channel for that user's opinion — perhaps with a simple follow-up request to attend a community meeting, say, or to show up at the Courthouse for the final vote on the future of the fairgrounds property. It's like labeling chickens "free range" after you've herded them onto a farm, kept them in a warehouse of small cages and then run them down a chute.
And that simple idea causes a lot of grief when it comes to assessing whether the fairgrounds opposition was a legitimate movement or social theater. Inquiring minds both inside the Courthouse and out have debated it for months — especially since this December 2010 email from Haithcoat, a well-known Republican fundraiser and strategist, started making the rounds:
"Let me know if you think of anyone who might like to help bankroll us roughing up the Mayor," Haithcoat wrote. "He's their best guy on the bench for statewide and I have to think we won't get many opportunities to bloody him before he runs for the Senate. We're trying to pitch releases about him losing statewide Nascar/blue collar vote. Even $10K would be a big pop for this fight."
Both Copeland and Haithcoat write it off as a well-intentioned fundraising pitch to a group of people who might be motivated by something other than racing.
"We didn't have any big $5,000, $10,000 checks coming in to support that fairgrounds issue, so we were basically approaching every angle we could to raise additional funds," Haithcoat says. "Part of that campaign as well was to build a large, broad-based coalition to support the fairgrounds. So to be honest, maybe that was a little overzealous in retrospect, but it was an effort to raise more funds and to bring more people into the fold, whatever their agendas may have been."
Which is exactly what bothers just about anyone sitting across the table from Copeland. Asked to characterize his work, he says he's simply "teaching democracy" to people who need the guidance. A former Saint co-worker says the firm's motives were somewhat less lofty: "It was pretty rare that anybody felt [about an issue] past their paycheck."
Weaver, himself a lobbyist who has worked with Copeland on projects in the past, says Copeland and those in his line of work simply follow where the cash leads. He means that to be reassuring.
"They're mercenaries," he says. "They're capitalists. They're just hired guns, they're not political in their work."