Oct. 18, 2019 – The Tennessean – Opinion by Lebron Hill
The Nashville mayoral runoff election between David Briley and John Cooper was a race centered on change.
Then-incumbent Briley sought to continue a path of moving Nashville forward. And challenger — and now mayor — Cooper set on a campaign to change Briley’s direction by saying that Briley’s policies weren’t benefiting the whole city.
With both candidates claiming to be the progressive candidate, the true winner of the election was the progressive movement.
The Oxford dictionary defines a progressive candidate as someone who supports or advocates for social reform. According to a recent guest column in The Tennessean, Our Revolution Nashville and Mid TN, a local progressive advocacy group, “the more progressive candidates received 169,251 votes to 92,737 votes to non-progressive candidates.” That is a pretty convincing margin.
Among the list of progressive winners: At-large council member Zulfat Suara, the first Muslim elected to that body, and District 30 council member Sandra Sepulveda, the first Latina elected to the council. The number of LGBTQ council members grew from two to five.
And it seems early on in his tenure as mayor, Cooper has taken his progressive mantle seriously by signing the Community Covenant, which the council passed earlier this month. It is a grassroots proposal, crafted by a number of progressive social justice groups, urging community leaders to work to increase prosperity and reduce poverty.
Despite the success of this movement, however, I have my concerns. While progressivism has gained much traction in recent years, I wonder whether words will translate into action. It’s a new chapter for Nashville, and in this season of rebuilding and restructuring, the foundation that we lay will be a long-term investment.
Can progressivism actually create a strong enough foundation to sustain all of Nashville?
Former mayoral candidate and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons ran the only progressive campaign from start to finish in the recent mayoral election. He shared with me how his beliefs developed.
“I have a core set of values, that I talked about in the campaign, that have driven my entire career in public service,” he said. “I don’t think of myself in one lane; I think of myself as a problem-solver and prepared to do what’s in the best interest for everyone.”
Though he believes that the progressive movement will be great for the city, it’s not yet prevalent.
“Comparatively speaking, we’re a more progressive city than other cities in Tennessee, but are we a truly progressive city? Absolutely not,” Clemmons said. “We’ve had the same people run this city for the last 30 years. You’ve seen a lot of people in the city prosper and you’ve seen a lot of people be left behind.”
I concur with Clemmons‘ point. When I drive down the spectacle that is 12South, I see an area that was once a working-class black neighborhood now turned into a tourist hot spot consisting of mainly white people. Another example is Edgehill, once a neighborhood of working-class black families and a massive public housing development. That neighborhood has flipped from primarily black to increasingly majority white and affluent, with a portion of it being rebranded as the “South Gulch.”
I don’t see evidence of the progressive movement that is being pushed in our city. A progressive agenda must take into consideration what and who the city is leaving behind.
Something that stuck with me from my conversation with Clemmons is the notion that we live on a blue island in a red sea, meaning Nashville, which goes toward Democrats when most of Tennessee goes Republican.
It’s puzzling, though, because some people believe progressivism is just a rebranding of liberalism. That’s due to those who don’t want the stigma of being labeled a liberal in an era when it’s highly scrutinized or compared to socialism.
In an interview I conducted with members of Our Revolution, they defined the distinction between liberal and progressive. “Progressive is from the bottom up, and liberal is from the top down,” said Lauren Rolwing, an Our Revolution volunteer.
The progressive group told me its endorsement process begins by interviewing candidates to make sure their platforms match up with the group’s. The platforms include education reform, raising the minimum wage, and civil rights. After selecting candidates to endorse, Our Revolution then takes to the streets, working around the clock — knocking on doors and making phone calls. While members endorse their candidates, it’s also a time to let the community know about their movement, which has grown from when they first started in 2015.
In 2018, they endorsed only one candidate, Wade Munday, a Democratic candidate for Tennessee Senate, District 25. Fast forward to the past Metro Council election, the group supported 13 candidates.
Going back to our recent election, Briley and Cooper come from families with a political legacy. Briley’s grandfather was Metro Nashville’s first mayor, and Cooper’s brother is Nashville’s congressman and his father was a former state governor.
Their campaigns were fueled by the notoriety of their names. Though many Nashvillians may claim to want more progressive leadership, Clemmons, a true progressive candidate, couldn’t gain enough traction, finishing fourth with over 16,000 votes.
Progressive is relative to what you are progressing from. In more conservative areas of the country, it doesn’t take much to be labeled as progressive because there is a lot of work to be done to move forward. It seems that this movement stems from most Nashvillians being tired of the same political discourse, tired of societal inequity, tired of the status quo.
What Nashville, the fed-up Nashville, wants is change, and progressivism is portrayed as a vessel for change. However, it seems that this movement currently is trendy and fragile.
My hope is that Nashville’s marginalized and forgotten will move forward with the rest of us.
LeBron Hill is an opinion writer for The Tennessean. He is a 2019 graduate of Lipscomb University who joined the team in June. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet to him at @hill_bron.