If speed is sometimes a measure of intent in lawmaking, the Tennessee General Assembly was sending a message when they cut the Metro Council in half.
When a bill passes, both the House and Senate speakers must sign it. In the normal course of business, this is an act that might sometimes take a day or two. After a bill is sent to the governor’s desk, Bill Lee has up to 10 days to sign it into law, veto it or simply let it become law without his signature. Most new laws take effect on July 1, so it is rare to see any amount of haste applied to the process.
House Bill 48, a bill to cut the Metro Council in half, from 40 to 20, was different.
After the House measure passed the Senate, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally signed the measure, followed quickly by House Speaker Cameron Sexton. The bill was then sent to Lee’s office, where he made the bill a law with immediate effect. In all, it took a little more than an hour.
Republican leadership was incensed by the Metro Council’s refusal to approve a plan to host the 2024 Republican National Convention last year. Their response? Make some of those councilmembers lose their jobs. It was a hammer of a reply wrapped in the cloth of good governance language — “Government functions best closer to the people,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) said after its passage — and one designed to remind Nashville leaders that the state holds the power in their relationship.
We’ve been hurtling toward this moment for years. State preemption of Nashville has been an ever-increasing function of a very blue city located in a very red state. In the past decade, the legislature has preempted Metro efforts on menu labeling (2010), anti-discrimination in hiring (2011), simple marijuana possession (2017), inclusionary zoning (2018) and short-term rentals (2022).
And in 2023, the floodgates have opened. Beyond the council-size law, a nonexhaustive list of proposed legislation this session that is aimed completely or partially at Nashville includes:
- A bill to abolish community oversight boards of police departments
- A bill to strip the dedicated tax funding of the Music City Center
- A bill to outlaw community benefits agreements with nonprofits, a device used recently in agreements to build stadiums or large housing complexes to ensure affordable housing
- A bill to eliminate runoff elections in local races
- A bill to take death penalty appeals away from local prosecutors and give responsibility to the state attorney general
- A bill to remove Nashville control of its airport authority
- A bill to remove Nashville control of its sports authority
- A bill to exclude Lower Broadway bars from the authority of the beer board
- A bill to criminalize all-ages public drag performances
One lobbyist described the session to the Nashville Banner as “open season on Davidson County.”
This wasn’t necessarily the plan when state Republican leaders approached Mayor John Cooper last year about making a bid for the 2024 RNC. Gov. Lee viewed the convention as a chance to show off Tennessee’s success on a national stage. Cooper was not thrilled with the idea, but his administration began working on a plan.
Initially, Cooper’s staff attempted to trade the mayor’s support in exchange for state reversal on two of a list of four issues: increased education funding, inclusionary zoning, more leeway on impact fees, or Medicaid expansion. The state ruled all of them out.
The deal that was hammered out — what one staffer called “another classic Cooper deal” as they tried to sell it — addressed issues like cost and security for an event that would encompass both Bridgestone Arena and the Music City Center. It was not perfect, and behind the scenes senior advisers still had a list of concerns: The security perimeter could potentially close corporate offices for a week or more; the typical federal reimbursement for conventions might not cover everything; the Metro Nashville Police Department is still understaffed, and officers are currently on mandatory overtime; after Jan. 6, 2021, how would President Trump’s staunchest supporters react if he lost at a contested convention?
Complicating matters was the 2023 local election cycle — Cooper was still considering running for a second term, though he has since opted out of a reelection bid. With two candidates in and more on the way, the mayor and his staff were aware that bringing the RNC to such a Democratic city might not be well received. So Cooper sought political cover by insisting the Metro Council sign off on the plan.
The RNC draft agreement got only 10 votes in the council, setting off the round of recriminations and legislation that continues today, including the slashing of the Metro Council.
The relationship between Metro and the state is at its lowest point since Nashville and Davidson County’s consolidation 60 years ago this week. How did we get here? And can it be fixed? To begin to answer that question, the Banner went to some of the people who know the relationship the best.
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In talking with more than 15 lobbyists, the three most frequent replies were as follows: “This is off the record”; “I can’t talk on the record because of my clients”; “you’re trying to kill my business, aren’t you?”
The Banner agreed not to name anyone in this section in exchange for their candor. As a reader, you may fairly view this with some skepticism. All of the parties involved, and their clients, could be negatively affected by on-the-record criticism of either the state legislature or the city. What we looked for were areas of agreement by multiple people and trends from a group of people who work with the legislature, state government and Metro on a regular basis. Here’s what we found.
There is no clear origin story for the devolution of Nashville’s relationship with the state. Two people point to a 2016 decision to sue the state over inadequate funding of schools as causing friction with both the Haslam and Lee administrations. But multiple people say successive election cycles that saw the Metro Council become more liberal and the General Assembly become more conservative made the current situation inevitable.
Several lobbyists describe the most extreme voices in the state GOP deliberately antagonizing Nashville, particularly on social issues, while the air of “Nashville exceptionalism” has rubbed many the wrong way. “Nashville doesn’t understand that, statewide, people don’t view Nashville as special as Nashville views itself,” said one person. “And it’s always been like that. It’s gotten a hell of a lot worse since that New York Times article, the infamous ‘It City’ piece.”
As cities have trended more liberal, states with conservative legislatures have increasingly targeted progressive policies and programs. In Florida, the state has struck down rent stabilization efforts while minimum wage standards have been preempted in multiple states, including Tennessee. The Local Solutions Support Center estimates that as of March 8, state legislatures have introduced more than 400 bills to preempt localities on issues from abortion to education to prosecutorial discretion to elections. “This is not just a Tennessee issue or a Nashville issue,” says one lobbyist.
Failed Efforts to Fix
In an effort to repair the situation, Cooper sent Vice Mayor Jim Shulman to the Hill to talk with legislative leaders. Shulman is a 30-year veteran of state government and spent some time in then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration. Most describe the efforts as a failure, with Shulman “wandering around without a strategy,” according to one lobbyist. Another notes that most of the current legislature had no idea who he was. Eventually, Cooper reined Shulman in. When asked about what seemed to be a thankless task, Shulman was candid about his attempts to increase communication in order to stop the flood of legislation. “There were times I thought we had slowed things down, but it just didn’t work,” Shulman said.
“The playbook that used to work doesn’t work anymore,” said one lobbyist. A decade ago, a particularly egregious piece of legislation might be stopped by a big business heavyweight like AT&T, which employed a small army of lobbyists and had a footprint in most counties. But few companies have that kind of reach anymore, and nationally, the far-right campaign against a so-called “woke corporate agenda” has given some legislators a permission structure for resisting business interests, particularly on social issues. “The whole ‘woke’ thing is not just inoculating some, it’s emboldening them,” said one lobbyist. The result is that “sensible people keep their heads down.”
Who Speaks for Business?
There is legitimate confusion about who represents the Nashville business community, which has often helped moderate these kinds of disputes. House Speaker Cameron Sexton has leaned on Republicans like Bobby Joslin for direction (and campaign cash). The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, led by Ralph Schulz, has largely stayed on the sidelines and, according to a few lobbyists, actively discouraged people from signing onto a letter to Sexton and McNally asking them not to downsize the council. “If they’re not going to take the lead, why are they there?” asked one lobbyist.
But if many in the lobbyist class are frustrated by extreme elements in the legislature, they’re also frustrated by at least one councilmember.
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Bob Mendes has enemies.
At times the list might include the proponents of a new Titans stadium, various members of John Cooper’s staff, three-fifths of the Davidson County Election Commission and most certainly Republicans on Capitol Hill. A restructuring attorney at Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison, Mendes has used his at-large council seat as a megaphone to become one of the most prominent progressive voices in the city.
Many blame his strident stance against bringing the Republican National Convention here for the state GOP’s backlash against Nashville this session. “Mendes” is the name that those same critics spit out privately when describing a section of the Metro Council that is more willing to fight with the state than seek compromise. He’s become the informal spokesman for a more assertive relationship with the state.
“The RNC was the cause of this the way the assassination of the archduke was the cause of World War I,” Mendes said. “Maybe it wasn’t the actual triggering event, but the war was happening whether the archduke died or not. You know, my class of councilmembers have been in office for most of the time of the [Republican] supermajority. And clearly, the supermajority has been getting its legs under it and spreading its wings, expanding what it’s done to the city. And the object lesson that we’ve had in the council is that we can be ‘well-behaved’ and still get punished.”
The councilmember becomes animated, however, at the thought that last summer’s political theater inspired the current round of anti-Nashville legislation. Mendes runs through the council’s recent perceived sins in the eyes of the state.
“When we passed inclusionary zoning, there was a letter from the chamber of commerce expressly endorsing the legislation asking councilmembers to vote for it,” says Mendes. “Yet we got preempted. When we spent two-and-a-half years finding a balance between property rights and neighborhood rights, to find a balance on short-term rentals, we still got partially preempted. When John Cooper went and worked with Gov. Lee to have the city take the lead on COVID regulations that every city in the Southeast followed — that the state of Tennessee follows — we were ‘well-behaved’ and gave the governor his kudos, and we got our health department power taken away. There’s no perceivable difference between us being ‘well-behaved’ and not being well-behaved in the eyes of the Republicans.”
It’s odd, then, to hear Mendes speak wistfully about Bill Haslam. There is respect for the former governor’s willingness to squash the worst impulses of the legislature behind the scenes. For example, the so-called “bathroom bill” aimed a transgender people was snuffed out in committee in 2016 after businesses complained vocally to the governor. In 2021, Bill Lee signed a version into law that later was struck down by a federal court.
Mendes’ critics say he and a large swath of the Metro Council frequently forget that the state holds almost all the power in their relationship. Mendes responds that Bill Lee and the GOP leadership in the legislature have been more concerned with their right flank than protecting Nashville and its economic engine, which accounts for almost a third of the state’s GDP.
Ultimately, that’s what Mendes thinks might moderate the relationship between city and state. He notes how the move to strip funding from the bonds attached to the Music City Center sent a ripple through the business community.
“I made this assertion to other business attorneys who aren’t on the payroll of any of the major interests,” Mendes said. “If you were working on a deal, and you had to give somebody the legal advice like, ‘Listen, five years from now, I can’t promise you that you’re going to be in control of your board anymore. And I can’t promise you that half your revenue is still gonna be there, because an outside party that we have no control over may kill half your revenue. I can’t commit to you that those things are fine. Do you still want to do the deal?’ It would immediately be pencils down, people pack their briefcases. That’s terrible for business. The mere notion that that legislation is still pending without being squashed immediately by the highest parts of state government calls into question the financial architecture of every single major thing we got going on.”
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Where does Metro go from here? The first place will be to court next week.
On March 13, Metro Legal filed suit against the state, arguing that the law cutting the size of the council was unconstitutional. To understand why, you first need to know a little about “home rule.”
In 1953, Tennessee amended the state’s constitution to allow that “the General Assembly shall act with respect to such home rule municipality only by laws which are general in terms and effect.” When Metro consolidated in 1963, it was done under provisions that allowed home rule and, as a result, was not subject to any law passed by the legislature designed only to affect Nashville.
Metro’s suit argues that the so-called “Metro Council Reduction Act” does just that.
“If the General Assembly can unilaterally unwind an existing metropolitan government’s legislative body, the Home Rule Amendment’s constitutional requirement for local approval of a consolidated government charter becomes meaningless,” Metro Legal Director Wally Dietz writes in a complaint. “In imposing these Council-reduction requirements on Metro Nashville just before a local election, the General Assembly undermines the purpose of local-government consolidation, ignores numerous other constitutional prohibitions on such a reduction, and creates confusion and chaos among citizens and candidates.”
The case was filed in Chancery Court in Davidson County. But because the legislature was irate over losing cases in that court — notably a 2020 voucher case presided over by Chancellor Pat Moskal — the case will be heard by a special three-judge panel instituted to hear cases with issues of constitutionality. Chancellor Moskal, a Democrat, will be joined by Republican chancellors from Memphis and Athens.
That might not be the end of litigation, either. The Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship, a longtime civil rights organization, has retained counsel and is exploring a federal lawsuit based on provisions in the Voting Rights Act.
And while past lawsuits have angered state GOP leaders, there is a sense that Metro has little to lose by filing suit. As one observer close to Mayor John Cooper notes, “You can’t be in a healthy relationship if your partner doesn’t respect you.” A win might add a bit of balance back to the dynamic.
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As a practical matter, the city’s relationship with the state won’t be reset until John Cooper leaves office later this year. There is deep enmity among state GOP leadership for how Cooper handled the RNC bid, and regardless of how this legislative session ends, there won’t be much trust going forward. A new council with new faces — whether there are 20 total members or 40 — will give both sides a chance to start over, too.
Among Cooper’s would-be successors, there are a few who have had a front-row seat for this conflict — District 19 Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, Councilmember At-Large Sharon Hurt and State Sen. Jeff Yarbro — as well as others like Matt Wiltshire who have experience in Metro. So far, all of the candidates’ answers for how to repair the city-state relationship seem to include some version of “better communication.”
Until then, hold onto your seats. There’s another month left in the legislative session.