NASHVILLE — Karl Dean, a Democrat in his second term as this city’s mayor, had a few minutes to tell President Obama about his dream: building a “trackless trolley” line that would connect Nashville’s gentrifying east side with its ritzy west. He had spent years submitting applications for a $75 million grant, and he made sure the president knew about it.
Two months after that January 2014 meeting in Nashville, the dream seemed to be coming true. The White House announced that money for Dean’s project was in the president’s budget.
Unbeknownst to Dean, however, an extraordinary coalition was at work behind the scenes to take away the money before the check could be written. The local leader of a group created by the conservative Koch brothers helped write a bill that was introduced in the Tennessee Legislature by a sympathetic Republican lawmaker and that was designed to kill the project.
“I’m not used to having the state come in and try to crush us,” Dean said in an interview last month, on his last full day in office.
The tale of the trackless trolley is, on one level, a prosaic account of a fast-growing city struggling to pay for much-needed mass transit. But as the story unfolded, it became clear that there was something much deeper going on: a bare-knuckle city-versus-state fight at a time when the partisan divide between big cities — mostly run by Democrats — and state capitals, where the GOP largely holds sway, has reached a historic extreme. It showed how national politics, and secretly financed outside groups, can influence even local battles.
Indeed, Nashville had become a sort of ground zero for a series of local brawls infused by an “all politics is national” trend, as some have put it, inverting the mantra of former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.
A city ordinance designed to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians was undone by the state. An effort to ban guns in Nashville’s parks was overturned by the state. A plan by the Republican governor to expand Medicaid, providing health insurance for 179,000 Tennesseans, with Nashville the greatest beneficiary, was defeated because it was linked to “Obamacare.”
Then came the battle over the 7-mile high-speed bus line, lyrically dubbed the “Amp,” that was supposed bring together the disparate sides of Music City. Instead, it tore Nashville apart.
Zeroing in on this sort of local battle has become a key to success for groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed organization that counts its Tennessee chapter among its most effective.
The billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch have received enormous publicity for their announcement that they plan to spend $900 million to influence the 2016 elections. But with far less fanfare, they are having a clearer impact on local matters, right down to a fight over a bus line.
“The return on investment in time is much greater at the state than the federal level,” said Andrew Ogles, head of Tennessee’s Americans for Prosperity chapter, which played a key role in the fight against the Amp and Medicaid expansion. “If you have a rogue mayor or governor, our greatest influence is to talk to our state representative and senator. They are much more accessible to us than, say, a governor.”
Under recent Supreme Court rulings, the group is defined as a nonprofit social welfare organization that is allowed to advocate on legislative issues. It doesn’t have to identify who gives it cash, how much it has received, or how it spends the undocumented funds — known in politics as “dark money.” That is different from money given to candidates and political action committees, which generally is subject to disclosure.
What is clear is that the political ground is more fertile than ever for national groups to enter local fights. And it was exactly this divide that opponents of the Amp sought to exploit, pitting City Hall against the Capitol, two buildings sitting three blocks apart in downtown Nashville.
Mayor’s Massachusetts roots
Karl Dean, nicknamed by one headline writer as “Yankee Doodle Dean,” grew up in the furniture-making city of Gardner, Mass., went to Columbia University in New York — where, he said, he became enamored of public transit — and headed south for law school at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.
He married a classmate, served as the city’s public defender and legal counsel, and was elected mayor in 2007 to the first of two four-year terms. He kept a made-in-Gardner chair in his office to remind him of his roots, and says he often thought about the need to bring at least a semblance of his home state’s public transportation ethos to Tennessee.
A system of Boston-style trolleys was deemed too costly, so Dean pitched the idea of a high-speed bus network on dedicated lanes, which some refer to as trackless trolleys, with the city’s east-west corridor as the first route.
The line would start in East Nashville, which is 39 percent African-American, and has more than its share of public housing, with half its families earning less than $38,000. It has lately become a gradually gentrifying haven for artists, musicians, hipsters, and working-class residents who make the city hum, in more ways than one.
The route would cross the Cumberland River and run along Broadway, past neon-bathed
honky-tonks with their cacophony of country bands, near the historic Ryman Auditorium, and alongside the arena where the Country Music Awards are held. It would pass Lee Beaman’s auto dealerships and continue on West End Avenue past Vanderbilt before ending near a hospital complex.
That would bring it deep into West Nashville, where nearly one-third of families have an income more than $200,000, and 92 percent are white, according to census records. Just beyond the western terminus is Belle Meade, one of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where residents cross creeks to enter a park-like setting of rolling hills, emerald lawns, Tara-style mansions and French-influenced chateaus.
Nashville’s need for mass transit seemed clear. One of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, its population of 1.6 million is expected to add another million people in the next two decades.
The Amp was portrayed as a model that would be replicated across the state. Planners dreamed of a back-to-the-future day when express buses would be as prevalent as streetcars once were. After several years of hearings, it seemed like a done deal in early 2014, with supporters including the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Vanderbilt University, and major hospitals.
But some in the West End, in luxe neighborhoods such as Woodland, feared an influx. One resident, Edie Wenczl, elegantly dressed and wearing a string of pearls, stood during a 2012 public meeting on the Amp to declare her opposition.
“We don’t want the riff-raff of East Nashville in our neighborhood,” said Wenczl, who lives in what she calls a “precious” enclave of stately homes near the route’s western terminus, and explained in an interview that part of her concern was traffic on her street.
Rick Williams, the owner of Nashville Limousine Service for 15 years, also was aghast. He couldn’t believe it when he heard that taxpayer money would be used for the Amp.
“Is it my job to use tax money contributed by everybody to help a certain segment out, to say, you don’t want a car and responsibility of owning a car, or car insurance, is it my job to make transportation easier for you?” Williams said. He became chairman of a group he called “Stop Amp,” but said he figured the project was a done deal.
One day as he was pumping gas into one of his vehicles, Williams ran into Lee Beaman, the namesake owner of the auto dealership along the Amp route, and asked whether he had heard about the project. Beaman had not, but said he believed it was a terrible idea that would worsen traffic, make it more difficult for customers to get to his dealership, and attract few new bus riders.
Beaman also believed there was no chance to kill the project at City Hall, given Dean’s support. But stopping it at the state level seemed doable. That is where the Koch-supported group came in.
A few years earlier, Beaman had received an invitation from Charles and David Koch to attend one of their exclusive conferences. He went to a gathering in Palm Springs, Calif., and met the brothers.
“My wife and I went and were extremely impressed,” Beaman said. He started donating to the national Americans for Prosperity organization, and then to the state chapter. (He declined to say in an interview how much he contributes.) Eventually, he worked with Ogles on a successful effort to kill the estate tax in Tennessee.
So when Beaman heard about the Amp, he said, he again turned to the Koch group. Suddenly, what seemed like the mayor’s done deal was in trouble.
Power behind the scenes
Andrew Ogles holds no elective office. Yet he has, in the past 2½ years, become one of the state’s most powerful players through his role at the helm of the Americans for Prosperity chapter. A Tennessee native, he worked on former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, and watched how a series of ads paid for by Mitt Romney’s “super political action committee” helped destroy his candidate.
Since taking over the Koch group in Tennessee, he played a major role in killing an effort by the Republican governor, Bill Haslam, to accept Medicaid money from President Obama’s health care plan. A Medicaid expansion could have provided health insurance to 179,000 Tennesseans, with a 2016 contribution of up to $1.7 billion in federal money, according to a White House report released in June. Haslam declined an interview request.
Ogles has been given broad latitude by the Koch brothers. When Beaman talked to him about how to stop the Amp, Ogles suggested a strategy that the Koch group is using across the country that relies on targeting hyperlocal issues that once would have attracted little national notice. Other state chapters, for example, have helped defeat a gas tax increase in South Carolina, and backed a conservative school board in Colorado.
Tennessee, like many Southern states, has gone through a political transformation in the last two decades, with Democrats losing control of the State House. Today, as in most states, Tennessee’s Legislature and governorship are in Republican hands; 68 out of 98 state legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans, the highest proportion in history, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee. Republicans lead in governorships by 31 to 18, with one Independent.
By contrast, Nashville, like most of the nation’s largest cities, is led by a Democratic mayor, although the post here is technically nonpartisan.
The split has set up a growing dynamic in which big-city mayors often clash with state legislators, many of them representing conservative rural areas, in their effort to win dollars from Washington for urban projects.
In the view of Americans for Prosperity, the lure of federal dollars is too enticing even for many Republicans.
Ogles helped kill the governor’s plan for Medicaid expansion by raising doubts about whether the federal government’s contribution would be shut off in the future, leaving the state responsible. Similarly, Ogles questioned the value of taking $75 million for the Amp, even if those dollars would simply be given to a transit project in some other state.
Ogles found his legislative partner in a state senator, Republican Jim Tracy of Murfreesboro, who chairs the Senate’s Transportation and Safety Committee. He gave Ogles an inside track to stop what he belittled as the mayor’s “vanity project.”
He worked with Tracy on a bill that gave the Legislature authority over transit projects that would operate on state roads — a definition that included the Amp. Given that it was widely known the Amp was the target of the bill, the project would be considered dead if the legislation passed.
“I sat down with Senator Jim Tracy and came up with this idea,” Ogles said. Tracy confirmed in a separate interview that he worked with Ogles to write the bill. The city-state fight was on.
Legislature hits the brakes
A week after the White House announced that money for the Amp was in the budget, on March 12, 2014, Tracy held a hearing designed to stop the project.
Nashville officials were shocked. They had hoped that with federal dollars on the way, and Nashville providing millions more, the state would provide a $35 million share. There had been more than 100 public meetings on the project, and Tracy had not attended any of them. (Tracy said city officials never contacted him about the Amp, and he learned of it through the news media.)
State Senator Thelma Harper, a Democrat whose district includes East Nashville, was appalled, and accused Tracy and other legislators of interfering in city affairs.
“There is concern that it looks like the Legislature is meddling with Nashville. We wouldn’t do the same thing in Murfreesboro,” she said during the hearing, referring to Tracy’s hometown.
The bill nonetheless was approved by the Senate as well as the House, where it was pushed by Speaker Beth Harwell, who represents portions of Nashville’s West End. Harwell did not return calls seeking comment.
Mayor Dean was stunned. His aides were left to inform the White House that the city couldn’t take the federal money.
“It concerned me that we would have that outside influence,” Dean said, noting that local opponents were “certainly working with Americans for Prosperity to essentially thwart what a city was trying to accomplish.”
Jeff Yarbro, who had served for five years on the board of Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, including a term as chairman, said legislators who bemoan a heavy federal hand in their work were being hypocritical by interfering in city affairs.
“They talk about local control when it is about the federal government, but when it is about the cities, it is more about controlling the locals,” said Yarbro, who was elected last year to the state Senate. “It is immensely frustrating. It is hard enough for a city to make decisions on its own without a legislature putting a thumb on the scale in every debate.”
To be sure, those on all sides said they learned lessons, and some even say they hope a version of the Amp might be revived on a more palatable route. But it seems unlikely that such an agreement will be coming anytime soon. A federal transportation official said any new proposal from Nashville would require city to go to the back of the funding line.
Dean’s role is done. His last full day in office was Sept. 24, and he soon will be heading back to Massachusetts, where he will serve during the spring semester as “mayor in residence” for the Initiative on Cities program at Boston University. His battle over the Amp is bound to be a topic of discussion.
Ogles, the Americans for Prosperity leader, is waging a new battle, fighting a proposal to raise Tennessee’s gas tax, which some here hope will pay for much-needed road improvements, but which might now be blocked by some of the same people who killed the Amp.
As for Tracy, the state senator who vanquished the city’s mass transit dream, when he finished an interview he set off on a 55-mile commute to his Murfreesboro home. It takes 70 minutes on a good day but if he hit rush hour, it would take two hours.
With a pained look as he prepared to depart, the transportation committee chairman said, “I’ll be sitting in traffic. The congestion is awful.”