How the Tennessee GOP is Trying to Mute Music City

Recent Republican efforts to diminish Nashville’s political autonomy are adding to conservative state governments’ efforts throughout the South to remake liberal cities in their image.

Henry Hicks   |    March 27, 2023

Aerial shot of Nashville, looking towards downtown towers and the Tennessee State Capitol Building. (iStock/halbergman)

Large glass windows outside of the Tennessee House and Senate chambers allow legislators to look out onto the Nashville landscape: Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, City Hall, Legislative Plaza—sites that have hosted Nashville Pride festivals, rallies in support of climate justice, sit-ins for police reform, and more. Recently, the Republican lawmakers who hold a supermajority in both chambers have taken aim at their own backyard. 

The conservative politicians in charge of Tennessee’s state government have relentlessly aimed in the last year to diminish the political power of the state’s most populous and liberal-leaning city by curtailing Nashville’s representation in Congress, shrinking the size of its Metro Council, investigating the operations of its district attorney, and now attempting to interfere in its electoral processes.   

Most recently, Republican state Representative Jason Zachary and Senator Brent Taylor proposed a bill that would, if passed, ban runoffs in all municipal elections within the state. 

For solidly-liberal Nashville, the bill’s passage could have meant an upheaval for the upcoming mayoral election this August. The city’s elections are nominally nonpartisan, but Democrats have consistently won the mayor’s office for decades. Runoffs are common in the city’s mayoral elections, where the vote is often split between several Democrats and a few Republicans. Traditionally, after a consolidated voting bloc emerges following eliminations in a first round, a Democrat carries the mayoral election handily. The elimination of runoffs in Nashville’s mayoral elections would have opened the door for a Republican to win the position based on a plurality, even if the majority of votes go to Democrats.

Senate Bill 1527 was initially filed with placeholder language, but just before a hearing in the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee on March 14, Taylor brought two amendments explicitly banning local runoff elections. The entire bill was tabled before the amendments were approved and it has been deferred to the committee’s first 2024 convening, where it’s likely to resurface.  

But even though this year’s election remains unaffected by this proposed change, candidates for mayor, Democratic legislators, and local activists within Nashville have been loud in their opposition to the measure, and remain wary of similar moves being made in the 2024 session and beyond.

They point to the proposal as part of an alarming trend of conservative legislative attacks that threaten Nashville’s ability to be represented earnestly, and demonstrate a new approach for red states to skirt the voting rights of resistant communities in blue localities. They warn that this pattern, which has begun to reverberate throughout the region, signals a new era for voter suppression in the Deep South.

“This is not an isolated incident. This is an abuse of power,” said Senator Charlane Oliver, a Democratic lawmaker who represents Nashville. “This is about control.”

Before it was delayed, SB 1527 had amassed significant support among Tennessee Republicans, including vocal backing from state party chair Scott Golden, who claimed that the bill’s passage would “get local races in line with the rest of the state.” Taylor, one of the bill’s sponsors, had pointed to the state’s troubled history as a reason for advancing the legislation. “Runoffs are a relic of the Jim Crow South. They were designed to prevent minorities from winning elections,” Taylor told the Nashville Banner.

Taylor is right in pointing out this history—runoffs were initially introduced in Southern states as a way to prevent Black voters from winning elections based upon pluralities, with the runoff stage therefore allowing white majorities to consolidate behind a single, often anti-civil rights, candidate. However, scholars have pointed to Black voters’ integration into the political system to argue that the era’s context matters, and that in most contemporary elections—and in Tennessee’s in particular—this runoff disadvantage no longer seems to occur. Runoffs today are common in local elections throughout the state, especially in its three largest cities of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. All three cities currently have Democratic mayors.

Senator Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat who represents Nashville in the legislature—and who recently announced his candidacy for mayor—sees this bill as undermining the city’s elections, especially considering that Nashville is Tennessee’s most racially diverse city. “The problem with this bill, like so many election bills in recent years, is that there’s an attempt to change the outcomes of local elections, as opposed to changing the process,” he told Bolts. “This bill seems aimed at achieving partisan ends more so than democracy.”

“Any bill that is designed to eliminate an entire election procedure, by design, is voter suppression,” said Oliver. She recently won her seat in the state senate after a notable career as a voting rights and racial justice activist, co-leading The Equity Alliance. In the legislature, her experience as an organizer has shaped her perspective. “These efforts to stifle opposition and silence voices are an attack on democracy.”

SB 1527 comes on the heels of a number of legislative measures that would increase the state government’s authority over Nashville’s local proceedings and hamstring the city’s ability to elect officials that align with the city’s political makeup. 

In the 2020 presidential election, Democratic nominee Joe Biden got nearly twice as many votes as Republican Donald Trump in Davidson County, which contains Nashville. Shortly after, in the 2020 redistricting cycle, Tennessee Republicans eliminated Nashville’s congressional seat, splintering the city into three new congressional districts, all favoring the more conservative rural communities outside of the city. The 5th District, which contains the largest chunk of the city, is currently represented by U.S. Representative Andy Ogles, who is the first Republican to represent Nashville in Congress since 1875. 

In early March, Governor Bill Lee signed into law a reduction of Nashville’s city council size, cutting the council in half from 40 members, to 20. The measure, which sped through the legislature, does not name Nashville explicitly, but was still designed to target the city, which is the only one that currently has more than 20 members. It also overrides a 2015 referendum in which Nashville residents voted overwhelmingly to maintain the size of the Metro Council. The city government immediately sued to have it blocked, but if it is allowed to stand, it will impact the upcoming city council elections, also taking place this August. 

Additional bills currently moving through the legislature would eliminate funding for Nashville’s convention center and offer authority to state officials to oversee the Nashville airport

At the same time, state Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, a Republican, has opened a criminal investigation into the actions of Glenn Funk, the Democratic District Attorney of Davidson County over whether his team violated state wiretapping laws with cameras that were placed around the office. This investigation comes months after Funk said that he would not prosecute abortion after Tennessee’s abortion ban took effect in the wake of the Dobbs decision. 

“This is a coordinated attack,” said Oliver. “We have to sound the alarm. And this isn’t just an attack on Nashville—if you can do it to Nashville, who’s next? Memphis?” 

The actions of Tennessee politicians follow a pattern of other states with conservative legislatures using their authority to exert control over the policies of growing liberal cities and counties. This happens by way of preemption, a doctrine that allows state governments to restrict or overrule the powers of local governments. Preemption has at times been used to maintain equality and uniformity of application of environmental or labor laws, for instance. But states have more recently wielded preemption as a political tool to strip municipalities of their autonomy and representation—blocking local ordinances dealing with everything from housing and minimum wage to immigration and, since the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion access and reproductive rights.

“Unfortunately, what Nashville is facing is not unique,” said Marissa Roy, the legal team lead at the Local Solutions Support Center, a national organization working to strengthen local democracy and combat abuse of preemption. “Increasingly, state preemption has aimed at ideological outcomes without considering the long-term consequences for local governance.” Roy points to a bill being considered in Florida that would allow companies to sue local governments over measures they disagree with, and another in Texas that would wrest away local governments’ regulatory powers over agriculture, labor, and other areas. 

“Preemption is both bad governance and anti-democratic. Laws that reduce the size of the Nashville City Council, for example, impede more community-based representation,” she added. “Ultimately, these laws undermine the will of voters, who should be the ones to choose their representatives and vote for the policy platforms they support, without the risk of state reversal through preemption.”

In southern states in particular, preemptive legislation has taken aim at voting and criminal legal systems. In Mississippi, the legislature is considering a bill to create a separate court system for the city of Jackson, empowering white state officials to oversee criminal proceedings in a city that boasts one of the highest percentage of Black residents in the country. In Missouri, conservative legislators are attempting to strip St. Louis’s control of their metro police force, instead shifting authority to the state’s governor. 

“The playbook has always been there,” said Oliver. “The Southern strategy never left.”

In Nashville, these legislative attacks on enfranchisement and political autonomy go hand in hand with efforts to change local identity, and have tangible impacts within the community. In early March, following the governor’s signature on a bill banning public drag performances and gender-affirming healthcare for minors, white supremacists unfurled a banner in Nashville’s city center displaying a swastika and transphobic slurs, explicitly thanking Lee for “[securing] a future for white children.” 

Sharon Hurt, an at-large council member for the city of Nashville, and current candidate for mayor, traces the city’s current tension in its relationship with the state, back to the Nashville Metro Council’s decision last year to reject state GOP officials’ bid to have Nashville host the 2024 Republican National Convention. 

“They’re using their power because they’re upset that we did not vote to bring the Republican National Convention here,” said Hurt. “They felt like Democrats were denying Republicans from coming [to Nashville]. They’re now attacking us to show the power that they have.”

As Nashville continues to grow both in population and in national profile, the tension surrounding efforts to court the 2024 Republican National Convention highlights both the state’s interest in shaping Nashville’s image as a major conservative urban center, and local leaders’ and activists’ united resistance against this portrayal. Nashville has a history of being a locus of progressive activism in the South—going back to John Lewis and Diane Nash’s infamous 1960 lunch counter sit-ins

“Cities develop their own political cultures,” Yarbro said, “and Nashville is conditioned to have these wide-open debates that ultimately turn into coalition-building exercises… That’s really conducive to good politics and the kind of coalition-building that a mayor needs, not just to win a runoff election, but to lead a city. [However], there’s a dangerous national trend to advance minoritarian politics, where a cohesive minority can achieve disproportionate political power and control.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming mayoral election, recently spared from the threat of eliminated runoffs, Hurt sees the time between now and 2024’s legislative session—the period in which SB 1527 could resurface—as an opportunity to convince the legislature to change course. 

“It gives us time to change their perspective,” said Hurt, emphasizing that the change will only occur if the Nashville community puts up a fierce fight between now and then. “One thing that I love about Nashville is that in the most catastrophic and challenging times, is when the best of our city comes out. This bill may be a divisive move, but it is not our destiny. There is hope. I don’t care how bleak it looks.”  

Nashville’s representatives fear that more hits may be coming but say they’ll keep speaking loudly against these moves by the state government, urging organizing efforts, and looking for allies in the court system. 

“When you’re outnumbered [in the legislature], there’s really not much you can do other than speak out in hopes that the courts will step in,” said Oliver, who is one of only six Democrats in the 33-member Senate. Oliver and other Senate Democrats are vocal on social media about these bills—often posting direct clips and videos from committee hearings to emphasize the state of play. 

“We have to begin to really start to talk to one another and strategize together to fight these bills off from a selfless place,” she said, “because if it’s not me tomorrow, it’s you today.”