by Kimberlee Kruesi —
NASHVILLE – For years, Nashville leaders have watched Tennessee’s GOP-dominated Legislature repeatedly kneecap the liberal-leaning city’s ability to set its own minimum wage, regulate plastic bag use and place higher scrutiny on police officers.
Yet that simmering tension has only escalated this year as Republican lawmakers have introduced a string of proposals that local officials warn would drastically upend Music City.
It’s a common scenario felt in cities across the United States as statehouses flex their authority over municipalities, often while ignoring concerns raised by community members seeking to maintain local control.
In Mississippi, Black lawmakers are denouncing a plan by the state’s majority-white and Republican-led Legislature to take over power from the capital city of Jackson.
Over in Missouri, lawmakers are pursuing legislation to strip power from St. Louis’ prosecutor – a plan supporters say will address violent crime but is criticized by Black leaders.
While the disputes in Mississippi and Missouri reflect racial tensions, the issue in Tennessee also involves conflicts in political ideology.
The latest statehouse backlash stems back to last summer when Nashville’s metro council spiked a plan to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to the city. Progressive leaders argued that hosting the massive Republican gathering would go against the city’s values. Others expressed hesitation toward tying up so many city resources – particularly for an event that residents largely wouldn’t attend.
For GOP leaders, who had spent months lobbying and wooing party officials on why Music City should host the convention, Nashville had crossed yet another line. Warnings began trickling in that consequences were imminent.
Nashville continued to attract political ire after council members began discussing whether to cover expenses for employees who cross state lines to get an abortion. That’s because Tennessee’s abortion ban, which was enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, currently has no explicit exemptions.
Lawmakers have been swift in filing bills that offer retribution. Legislation has been introduced that would slash Nashville’s 40-member city council in half. A separate bill would give the state control of the governing board for the city’s airport, stadiums and other landmarks, while another proposal would remove Nashville’s ability to charge the tax that funds its convention center. Republicans then introduced a bill that would block cities from using public funds for reimbursing employees who travel to get an abortion.
Advocates have raised alarm at lower-profile bills, such as the proposal to eliminate all police oversight boards in Tennessee. Nashville has one, and lawmakers already restricted it under a 2019 law. Some Republicans have proposed a bill that would rename a portion of Nashville Rep. John Lewis Way to Trump Boulevard.
Specifically, the effort to cut Nashville’s abnormally large city council has sparked some of the fiercest concerns, as advocates warn that doing so will undo representation of minority communities and erode council members’ ability to address constituent needs.
“When people reach out to us about trash pickup, about deaths in their family, about needing things and resources, these are individuals that we are in community with,” said Delishia Porterfield, who has served on Nashville’s council since 2019. “And when you raise the number of constituents that we as council members serve, not only do you make our jobs harder, but you make us further from the people that elected us to serve.
Nashville has a combined city-county government and has operated under a 40-member council – significantly larger compared to some even more populous cities, including San Francisco – since 1963, when leaders were wrestling with consolidating the city with the surrounding county, and others were working to ensure Black leaders maintained a strong representation inside the southern city.
“When the city was consolidated, and the size increased to 40, there was a promise that we would have more Black representation,” said Democratic Rep. Harold Love Jr., whose father was among the first Black members to be elected to the newly expanded city council in 1963.
“So for me, there are some deep historical ties to the size of metro council when it comes to Black and minority representation that I hope my colleagues would understand,” he said.
To date, a quarter of the council’s seats are held by Black members, half are held by women and five identify as LGBTQ.
Republican lawmakers, however, push back that they’re explicitly punishing Nashville. House Majority Leader William Lamberth has said that reducing Nashville’s city council would help make it more efficient.
“There’s a reason why juries are just 12 folks, not 50. When you have a group of individuals trying to make a decision, quite frankly, it’s just less effective the more people that you have,” Lamberth said during a Tuesday hearing. “A smaller more cohesive group of individuals that fairly represent the diverse communities just work better.”
House Speaker Cameron Sexton downplayed that the Legislature was “bigfooting” cities that dare to defy Republican policies and instead argued that lawmakers have an obligation to oversee local governments.
“We want to make sure we don’t get progressiveness in these cities that will limit businesses from coming into the state,” he said.
Over the years, Tennessee Republicans have limited Nashville and other cities’ ability to ban short-term rentals, including Airbnb. Lawmakers have barred cities from decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, which Nashville and Memphis had moved to do.
And when Nashville’s district attorney said he would no longer bring those cases or prosecute certain GOP social issue laws, lawmakers passed a requirement that puts a special prosecutor in place when a district attorney has pledged not to charge anyone under a law as a whole.