VOL. 8 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 11, 2015
Boner, Fate and the Summer of Shame
TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger
Phil Bredesen knew what he was trying to do. He just didn’t know if he could accomplish it.
Mayor Bill Boner had already decided not to seek re-election when his scandal with Traci Peel broke.
(Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)
“I had this sense that Nashville was ready for change,” says the former Metro mayor and Tennessee governor, reflecting on his early motivation for taking on the system that had run Nashville for decades.
“I thought that it was a city that was pregnant with possibilities,” he says, explaining his reasoning for getting out of the “make your money in business and retire to the mostly white suburbs” track in life and instead using his millions and his business sense, particularly the latter, in an effort – that eventually succeeded – in chasing off the ghosts of Nashville past.
Bredesen had been successful as a businessman in his adopted hometown. And as he looked around at his future, politics kept coming up.
“First of all it’s something I had wanted to do,” says the man who eventually cleaned out the East Nashville-ruled courthouse crowd and established a professional, executive form of city government that has been reprised by his two successors and that likely will serve as a blueprint for one of the seven current mayoral candidates.
“I had wanted to have an elected office.”
He had proven his ability to make money, particularly in health care, and could have settled into a social circle inhabited by people of wealth and grace who attend Swan Balls and steeplechases.
“Politics to me was an antidote to that,” Bredesen says.
So he wore his white shirt and tie likely without knowing how soiled they would become as he tried to take down the good old boys who had run the city for decades.
It was a world governed by a sheriff with a larger-than-life personality, a white-hat-wearing Boss Hogg of a figure, Fate Thomas, and a mayor picked from the other good old boys of East Nashville, Bill Boner, the hero of Russell Street.
Before going on with this story, I’d like you to mentally retreat to the time, decades ago, when country’s greatest voice saluted those who saw the law as a curved and changing road rather than one with squared corners and limits.
“Just two good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm
Beats all you never saw, Been in trouble with the law
since the day they was born….
Makin’ their way the only way they know how
That’s just a little bit more than the law will allow”
For some reason, while interviewing so many who were involved in the sea change that began to shift the course of Nashville in the 1980s, that old song, the theme to “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show, as performed by Waylon Jennings, has been on constant replay in my head.
Waylon, it should be noted, was an active supporter of Thomas, the high sheriff. Perhaps the country’s most notorious outlaw realized the benefits of having the shiniest badge in town on his side.
Driving down the road between appointments, instead of singing about Honky-Tonk Women or Working Class Heroes, I’ve been “performing” the song about “Just two good old boys, wouldn’t change if they could, fightin’ the system like a true modern day Robin Hood.”
And while the good old boys of this story may have thought they were Robin Hoods, the lack of discretion, sexual immodesty, ego and – at least in the sheriff’s case – bending the laws led to the end of that era and the beginning of the sleeker, cleaner and more robust, modern Nashville.
While the Nashville of that day was depicted in a Robert Altman classic film of that title about backwater politics and passion, the Nashville that was sprung by the arrival of Phil Bredesen is more accurately displayed in a glistening night-time soap opera of the same name on ABC where an iconic skyline and an NFL stadium play the backdrop to the singing and bedding shenanigans of a modern metropolis.
Shaun Carrigan, now a high-tech CEO and entrepreneur in Nashville, remembers that in his years at the still much-lamented Nashville Banner newspaper, he first became exposed to that old-time system when he was a young, not-so-freshly scrubbed police reporter.
“It was kind of interesting because I got a very up close look at the Fate Thomas, (Police Chief) Joe Casey, (Mayor) Dick Fulton courthouse operation. It was kind of a machine,” Carrigan says.
“This was the way things were done. As an impressionable young reporter, Fate Thomas was larger than life. He was this guy who would put on a white suit to go to funerals.
“And then there were his Sure Shot Rabbit Barbecues,” Carrigan adds, with a chuckle that indicates begrudging admiration and affection for the flamboyant political machine’s chief.
For those uneducated to the rabbit dinners, Sheriff Thomas’ annual Sure Shot Rabbit Hunters Dinner (its official name) was the political event of the year in Nashville. Perhaps 5,000-6,000 people attended and it was a lively party as well as a coronation of the political leaders in Nashville.
It has been revived in recent years by the sheriff’s son, Fate Jr., who has turned it into a charitable fundraiser rather than a political celebration.
But for decades, the Sure Shot barbecue was a “don’t miss” event for those seeking political office or patronage jobs. And politicians came from other states to be crowned by Fate, who would say, “Baby, you’ve got my backing” (or something likely more colorful).
Carrigan, who like most reporters grew to like the sheriff despite his sometimes-questionable ways, agrees that Thomas was “a Boss Hogg character,” like the guy who always was chasing “them Duke boys” in the dust of the General Lee.
“That’s just the way things were done,” says Carrigan, who later served as Banner city editor during the time Fate Thomas took his tumble from power and eventually into prison for misuse of public funds.
“It was nickel-and-dime stuff,” says Carrigan of the sheriff’s use of trustees for personal work or to help friends.
“It was just enough to get him into trouble. He’d been doing it for years. He had those prisoners out doing favors forever. … Fate would send someone over to take care of a problem for you. And then people started having problems with it” and the feds stepped in.
That was at about the same time that another political character, a representative of “the old ways,” Mayor Boner was saying goodbye, in rather passionate fashion to his own political career.
Boner, who barely had beaten the unknown Bredesen in a runoff election in 1987, had, by the summer of 1990, announced he wasn’t going to seek re-election.
Boner could get things done. He was a constituent services guy – think potholes, burned out streetlights – taught well by the rest of the courthouse machine.
But instead of turning up as an active political figure, he began to gain notoriety for odd behavior.
There was the incident, for example, in which his female officer “bodyguard” was seen shooting at pigeons from the porch of the Boner home on Russell Street.
Then there was his teasing and flirting conversation with Nashville Banner reporter Katherine Bouma, in which he and his then-fiancé (and eventual wife) Traci Peel spoke about spending the night together in their PJs. It became the famous “Seven Hours of Passion” of headline lore.
While it wasn’t really the tale of a seven-hour erection, it did illustrate something about Boner’s character and judgement.
Of course, as you’ll read elsewhere in this issue, the mayor and his future wife ended up on Phil Donahue’s New York-based talk show, where the still-married (though separated) Nashville mayor played the harmonica while Peel – a singer from New York-via-Paris, Tennessee – offered up “Rocky Top,” the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant-penned Osborne Brothers hit that is best-known as a UT Vols’ fight song.
While the national audience was charmed by the “performance” that set Nashville back in its efforts to overcome its “Hee Haw” rep, it pretty much spelled the end for Boner as a member of what Carrigan refers to as “the confederation of people” who ran Nashville.
“There were a lot of connections in the business community and even in the Metro Council (in those pre-term limits days),’” Carrigan recalls. “I was fascinated when I started seeing how things worked.
“Fate was much more significant than Boner. Boner was just a sideshow. He was a one-termer. The city was leaving him.
“At the same time as Fate was in real trouble, Boner was just messing around,” says Carrigan, who refers to the conversation between Bouma and Peel/Boner as being “like the John and Yoko interview on the phone: ‘We’re in bed. Been taking it easy. Yeah, for about seven hours.’ Little by little she (Bouma) drew it out.”
What Carrigan characterizes as a five-minute conversation “just caught fire ... That was one of the headlines that went around the world.”
Carrigan admits excitement at his staff breaking the story because Tennessean reporter Gail McKnight (since deceased after years as beloved and kind columnist Gail Kerr) was scooping the Banner with a story about the dandy engagement ring Peel was sporting.
Was the “passion” played too prominently? “I don’t think they were sleeping the whole time (the seven hours in their PJs), so it sounded fair to me,” Carrigan says.
Professing ongoing pride in that story, Carrigan admits it was during a “tabloid-esque” era. Between the sheriff, the mayor and the good old boys “there were a lot of stories back then that were on the tawdry side,” he says.
The Banner (where, full disclosure: I also worked as one of the editors and columnist) was happy to oblige.
For the record, it should be noted that former Police Chief Joe Casey, while certainly a friend of those in power – says he wasn’t part of the “machine” Carrigan describes.
“I knew Fate and I knew him well. We got along OK … (but) I wasn’t a part of that (network). I just did my job the best I could do and I tried to stay out of all of that stuff.”
Bredesen says now that he’s glad he lost that first runoff election to Boner, although there were some notable “dirty tricks” involved.
“Remember they tried to move the election date up about a week or 10 days. We joke about it now. I was coming up fast, so they tried to move the date to get the election to happen sooner.”
Bredesen’s team successfully staved off that attempt by convincing the judge that if the election was held sooner, “it would disenfranchise people.”
He recalls that a young man was sent out by the assessor’s office to reassess his house.
“They were trying to intimidate me,” says Bredesen, admitting to being furious and fighting that attempt by calling out the TV crews to capture him banging on the assessor’s door, the good guy, the white knight, fighting off the evil, sort of. The assessor’s office backed off.
“I think it was kind of the last hurrah of that kind of style of doing things,” Bredesen says, adding that there was “a lot of stuff going on … that you can’t imagine happening today.”
It should be noted that the 1987 election marked the last time the high sheriff had the power to get out the vote, using whatever transportation necessary or perhaps illegal to get “his people” to the polls.
This writer did reach out to Boner, a Facebook “friend” and long-time acquaintance, for his recollections of that time.
One of Boner’s friends, who asked to remain anonymous, wanted me to ask, among other things, whatever happened to his alleged stockpile of campaign funds when he decided not to seek election. I also wanted to see how he was doing in his new life out in Williamson County.
He politely declined the opportunity to be interviewed. I’ll translate his response slightly from social media abbreviations:
“Tim, Good to hear from you….You were always fair with me in the old days,” he wrote, noting that he had declined interview offers from just about every major news organization and personality in town.
“I have enjoyed my privacy since leaving public office. Certainly if I did an interview, you would be one I feel very comfortable with. … I choose for now to be old, worn out and retired. It is great hearing from you … I will read your articles.”
It’s interesting to hear Bredesen say he is glad, in retrospect, that he lost that 1987 election. First of all, it was a runoff, and the city would have been left pretty much split in two.
The good old boys were still in power, and Bredesen reckons he would have had difficulty pushing through the changes he envisioned without the mandate he received when he was elected 1991.
“I came close, and people were ready for some change (in 1987). But there were a lot of people who were either on the fence about the direction or who were moderate supporters of Bill Boner,” says the former mayor/governor.
Bredesen immediately ran for the congressional seat Boner had vacated to become mayor and he lost again, this time to someone who could also be considered “a good old boy” of high political standing and deep lineage: Bob Clement.
Knowing his outsider status was perhaps a detriment in winning over a city in which bloodlines ran thick in business and government, Bredesen then immersed himself in causes, letting people get to know him as an active and benevolent member of the community … even if he was a Yankee.
“Both Phil and Andrea (Andrea Conte, Bredesen’s wife) became much larger public figures,” says Dave Cooley, who was campaign manager for the future mayor’s successful 1991 run and went on to serve as chief of staff and to retain close ties with Bredesen through his terms and his initiatives as mayor and then as governor.
By the time Bredesen ran for mayor in 1991, a lot of that doubt that the city was ready for change had been erased by the cloud over Fate Thomas that led to a prison stint and by Boner proudly embodying his last name for the nation’s tabloid-loving public.
(It should be noted that Tam Gordon – the Banner reporter who broke most of the news that led to Thomas’ downfall, shortly thereafter left journalism for a career as a mayoral and gubernatorial aide – expressed her typical modesty and declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Boner didn’t run in 1991, as promised. And Bredesen did, still against the old machine, but with a much-freer hand.
“Bill (Boner), bless his heart, managed to put a period at the end of the sentence at the end of an era of politics here,” Bredesen says, adding that he remains on cordial terms with his predecessor.
In fact, according to Bredesen’s successor, Bill Purcell, it should be noted that in many ways political machines were a necessity during an era of American growth.
He is quick to note that political machines weren’t necessarily bad, “whether in New York or Los Angeles (or Nashville), they provided both the political and other needs of the city, but I think the capacity of those machines, by and large, was limited.
“They were more focused on self-preservation than they were on city advancement. That’s what happens with a machine: A world dominated by a political machine and the machine become the ultimate goal.”
Purcell who practices law and teaches 21st Century American Cities at Vanderbilt University, says that in a “good old boy” or “machine” system” doesn’t mean the city is harmed in visible ways, but you are clearly limited in your abilities to advance beyond your competitors and your own present. You find yourself meeting immediate needs and not looking for the long term.”
The machine itself, he says, became “the end, and ultimately that was the end of progress.”
Of course, Bredesen still had to win over the people who had been products of the machine when he took over for the flamboyant, back-slapping Boner.
“This is a city that has a very strong civil service system,” Bredesen points out. “There were some people who absolutely bought into the new way of doing things. For others, that was hard.”
He remembers, now a bit wryly, that he had a lot of trouble getting the purchasing department to line up to the new ways.
“They were used to operating out of the confines that we were doing,” he says, recalling one incident as an anecdotal example.
“Somebody got a no-bid contract just under the $25,000 limit, but then they did a change order up to four times that. It was that sort of stuff that was overlooked.
“It was not a case that someone was stealing money. It was a case of where there was a legitimate $100,000 contract and someone was going to make sure their friend got it by going about it another way.”
Corruption? Not really. Just the way things were done before Bredesen’s Nashville began to take shape.
“You work that sort of stuff out. I think we cleaned up a lot of things that were going on,” he says. “We were turning ‘square corners.’ Both of my successors have continued that process.”
Turning those corners wasn’t necessarily easy in a city where money and politics were fast and free-flowing.
“It was a changing of the guard,” says Cooley, who lunches with Bredesen pretty much weekly.
“And it was a pretty clear changing of the guard. I can remember it was really sort of a balancing act to make sure we maintained Phil’s relationship and image as ‘the new guard and the change agent’ while having a healthy respect for those who had been a part of Nashville and Metro government for decades.”
Bredesen clearly remembers that turmoil within his government.
“Early on I really had to face down the top who were throwing their weight around more than was appropriate,” he recalls.
“It was certainly a deep cultural gulf, what I was doing. It was like my experience in the business world. If you want a culture change, you start at the top.”
While there was some resistance from protected civil servants, they eventually came around to the more business-like approach to doing things.
”Metro has a very strong civil service system, so when Phil took over, there were very few changes at the department-head level,” Cooley says.
“There were a couple of early changes, but for the most part, Bredesen managed with most of the same cabinet that Boner had used…. Some of them pre-dated Boner.”
He agrees with his former boss that the biggest first step “was to focus more on changing the culture than the personnel. I think he did a good job of sort of drawing a picture and setting some broader goals that maybe Metro had not been accustomed to seeing,” adds Cooley, who now runs Cooley Public Strategies, an advocacy and problem-solving agency headquartered downtown.
“I think he raised the horizon and set expectations and put some accountability in place that served as an underpinning of the new culture.”
Bredesen well remembers those struggles. But he also remembers the end result was positive, that he had, as Cooley says, turned the city into one with a “can-do” attitude, building libraries and importing sports teams and setting the path for the future.
“I came away from my time as mayor impressed with the quality of the people who worked in Metro,” Bredesen says.
It wasn’t just the good old boys and their loyals he had to win over, either. While the citizens had been willing to take a chance on change with the new guy, there remained doubts.
“When I first proposed the arena (and that) we were going to build to the specs of an NBA or NHL team….This had people hooting and hollering, including The Tennessean: ‘If this guy thinks he’s going to get a major sports team in this town, he’s crazy.’”
Now, in many minds, the arrival of the NFL and Bredesen’s role in bringing the Titans to town is seen as one of his biggest achievements and something that changed Nashville forever and for good.
Bredesen says he simply approached Bud Adams and the rest with the same precise businessman’s skill that had helped him acquire his fortune.
Cooley notes the new mayor was not going to let the city be held hostage in some sort of negotiations that might really be aimed at getting improved facilities for the Oilers in Houston or perhaps in another city.
“One of the most brilliant points was he put a provision in place early on that they (the Oilers) could only talk to Nashville. Once they entered into conversations, it had to be an exclusive sort of arrangement.”
Cooley says this was the point at which Nashville’s past faded and the future began to appear on the skyline.
“There were only 32 cities in America that have NFL franchises,” he explains. “And corporate America looks at those cities (for investment) differently than other cities.
“It took Nashville to an entirely different level in the eyes of the world and even more importantly in the eyes of the citizens of Nashville. …. It really sort of raised the bar on where citizens considered Nashville in the broader scheme.”
The impact of that team (and to a lesser extent the NHL Predators) and the new attitude of Nashvillians – even reformed good old boys – can be seen easily.
“All you have to do is look out from any window in town and you see cranes in the sky and you see young people moving in on a daily basis and companies locating in Nashville,” Cooley says.
“Our city has transitioned into an urban city and there’s no going back, and I think the groundwork for all of that was laid under Bredesen.”
That former mayor and governor, the guy who beat back the machine, laughs now that one of the big stigmas he faced was that he came from Belle Meade, rather than the East Nashville power base that had been running government for decades and that those who were against him said he was going to ignore East Nashville.
That didn’t happen, and the East Bank not only got the football stadium, it continues to thrive.
“What I remember was when I was leaving office, I had one of those interviews with the Banner…. It was one of those things you usually do toward the end of your term,” Bredesen says.
“I was asked ‘What are you proudest of?’ I thought for a second. What they expected me to say was the new Library or the Predators or the Titans or Shelby Park.
“I thought about it and I said I really think that people in Nashville just expect a lot more out of their city government than they did eight years ago.
“That was the difference.”
Since many of the events explored here occurred long in the past and memories fade with time, Pat Nolan, local political commentator, columnist and host of “Inside Politics” on WTVF’s Channel 5-plus (Comcast-250) served as a sounding board for writer Tim Ghianni as he was researching this package of stories. Nolan also is senior vice president at DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company.