The new school of campaigning involves data, email and enough digital firepower to find every individual donor and voter who might support a candidate. And against that backdrop, Gray’s Disposal’s role in local Nashville elections is a glorious old school throwback.
In most political cycles, Gray’s fleet runs their routes, hauling trash for residential and commercial customers with campaign signs plastered on the sides of their trucks. If you’re a candidate seeking votes countywide, chances are high that a Gray’s hauler will drive past your target demographic. In past cycles, judges, district attorneys, mayoral candidates and state senators have all used their mobile ad service.
In 2015, candidates Charles Robert Bone and Bill Freeman got into a dispute over trying to lock down the Gray’s trucks. Bone, who had entered the race in the fall of 2014, plopped down $10,000 for the use of the trucks through a potential runoff in September. But when Bill Freeman entered the race, he offered to triple the deal, said Bone’s campaign manager at the time, and cover any legal costs.
Chip Forrester, who managed the Freeman campaign in 2015 and is advising Heidi Campbell this time around, had a different view.
“In my meeting with Edwin Gray, he assured me that there was no contract in effect,” Forrester told The Tennessean in 2015. Freeman won the trucks but lost the war, as he narrowly missed qualifying for the runoff behind David Fox and Megan Barry.
Did the Campbell campaign look at following that playbook?
“That’s not something we would put resources into this time around,” said Forrester, former chair of the state Democratic party. “As you’re aware, Bill Freeman was a candidate with significant resources and allowed us to pursue a lot of creative forms of advertising. Heidi’s campaign is much more of a grassroots effort.”
This time around, it will be Vivian Wilhoite’s giant “VIVIAN” signs on the fleet of about 20 trucks.
“Advertising with Grays supports a great minority family-owned small business in our city and gives us yard signs on wheels,” said Wilhoite. “That’s a win-win!”
Edwin Gray, the third generation of Grays to run the company, said they’ve offered the service for more than 20 years. Only in 2019 did the mayoral campaigns skip using his trucks.
“They’re trying to get exposure and we give them what we can give them,” said Gray, 51. “We’re all over town.”
And what kind of campaign uses his fleet?
“Generally the trucks are for the underdog,” said Gray.
Rolli Endorsed by Anti-Tax Group
It’s impossible to write the political history of the U.S. in the last four decades without Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who once told NPR “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
His Americans for Tax Reform group, formed during the heyday of Reagan-era tax cuts, has been asking politicians to take a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” since 1985 whereby hopefuls for office promise not to impose any tax increases.
ATR found itself in alignment with mayoral candidate Alice Rolli, who pledged in April — on Tax Day — that she wouldn’t raise taxes if elected. The group endorsed Rolli on Tuesday, with Norquist saying in a release, “After being hit with a 34% property tax hike in 2020, a new mayor who has ruled out further tax hikes would be a breath of fresh air for individuals, families, and employers across Nashville and Davidson County.”
But Norquist and ATR have been controversial for their extreme positions, opposing all tax increases reflexively, even at the local level where potholes need to be filled and schools funded. The group has taken millions from the right-wing Koch Brothers network and tobacco giants Phillip Morris and Altria (formerly R.J. Reynolds).
The Election Desk reached out to ask Rolli if the endorsement didn’t bring more headaches than help. She may not share all of the group’s views, but her opponents get to hit her with them.
“Here’s where I think the group has evolved,” Rolli said. “And where you can say, how does the history meet the present: So [Gov. Bill] Haslam, in passing the IMPROVE Act [which raised gas taxes for roads], worked with Grover Norquist group to make it taxpayer neutral. So it is not some kind of extreme can’t-do-anything group. But it’s sort of saying ‘What are all of the pieces of the puzzle that I have here?’ And how do I pull them together to make this net neutral to like your typical taxpayer?’”
Rolli said she thinks Nashville — which had one of the lowest tax burdens of any city in Tennessee before the property tax increase — needs someone advocating for taxpayers.
“I would say, the taxpayers, as a group, don’t really seem to me to have much of a seat at the table,” she said.
One more thing …
Just because the withdrawal deadline has passed does not mean candidates won’t drop out.
The competitive District 6 council race in East Nashville saw Brandes Holcomb email his supporters on Tuesday to say he was dropping out and endorsing Clay Capp.
“It’s clear he is the best candidate, and I want to do what I can to make sure he is elected,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb’s name will remain on the ballot. Daniel McDonell is the other candidate in the race.
Disclosure: Bill Freeman has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.