In the Music City, LGBTQ representation is going off the charts.
A record seven out candidates are running for the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County -- the consolidated city-county government -- in Thursday's election. Two are up for reelection, and five are nonincumbents.
"Only five openly LGBTQ elected officials are serving in all of Tennessee, so these seven Nashville candidates could be transformative both for the city and the state," says Elliot Imse, senior director of communications for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed all seven. "It is in deep red states like Tennessee that LGBTQ candidates can make the greatest difference -- humanizing LGBTQ lives for their constituents and pushing their colleagues for inclusive laws and policies. Council members Nancy VanReece and Brett Withers have been the leading voices for equality on the council and have had a tremendous impact -- but they need backup."
All 41 of the council's seats are up for grabs in the nonpartisan election. Some districts have numerous candidates, meaning there are likely to be runoffs -- a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote to be assured of a seat. Those running to join VanReece and Withers as LGBTQ council members are Emily Benedict, Russ Bradford, Charles Flowers, David McMurry, and Zach Young.
"We're here. We have a voice. We can represent everybody," Benedict tells The Advocate.
Along the lines of representing everybody, the out candidates are dedicated to not only working for LGBTQ equality but to improve the city and county in other ways, such as making housing more affordable and accessible, raising pay for public employees, and spreading the prosperity of downtown Nashville to all districts.
"I decided to run because as Nashville's been exploding the last several years, that prosperity hasn't made it out to the county line," says Young, who's running in District 10, which includes suburban Goodlettsville and part of Nashville. "This district needs to be heard, and a lot of times it's not."
Bradford likewise points out there's a lot of development downtown and not so much elsewhere. He'd like to change that and also help to improve the city and county's finances and infrastructure.
On finances, Benedict notes that municipal employees haven't seen a raise in several years. "That's not acceptable," she says. "That's a moral issue, where we are not valuing the work we are getting from these folks." And if wages go up, people can afford to live where they work, she says.
They and the other out nonincumbents will bring a variety of experiences to the council. Benedict has worked in the business-to-business division of OfficeMax and later Office Depot, negotiating three- to five-year contracts for clients' office supplies. Bradford is a quality assurance specialist for a health care technology and consulting firm. Flowers is a teacher in the Nashville public schools. McMurry is marketing director for a real estate investment company. Young is office manager for a heavy equipment dealership.
The race for Metro Council has been largely free of homophobic backlash against these candidates, but Bradford's district is a notable exception. There are three candidates running for an open seat in District 13 -- Bradford, Andrew Dixon, and Dan Meredith. Meredith, a medical case manager and former nurse and minister, has posted homophobic and racist remarks on social media.
In 2015, for instance, he said he'd stop buying Campbell's soup because the company ran a commercial featuring two fathers feeding their son. In 2017 he wrote on Facebook that homosexuality is immoral, like crimes such as battery and theft, adding, "The homosexual lobby is out to destroy everything we stand for." He described out Fox News anchor Shepard Smith as a "prissy homosexual" and said he'd endorse the death penalty if Smith was the defendant in a trial. His Facebook page is now private, but Victory Fund captured screen shots of these posts. He has also circulated a homophobic flyer.
On the racism side, he "has come under fire for posts appearing to defend the use of racial slurs and comparing black women to apes," The Tennessean reports. In another post, he wondered when white Americans would "stop groveling and apologizing" for slavery.
In an interview with The Tennessean, Meredith denied he was homophobic or racist, offering as evidence the fact that he's treated gay, Black, and HIV-positive patients. But that doesn't hold much water with Victory Fund or Bradford.
"Nationwide, we see fewer homophobic attacks on LGBTQ candidates by their opponents, and when we see them, they tend to be more subtle than in the past," Imse says.
"But Dan Meredith oozes with hatred for anyone who isn't white, straight, and a cisgender man -- and this homophobic, ranting campaign mailer certainly fits him. In August, Nashville will choose between a forward-looking openly gay candidate and an opponent who defines himself by his bigotry. It is imperative voters prove the politics of hate is a losing strategy."
Bradford says he's "pretty much ignored" Meredith's homophobic statements, not wanting to get into a "back-and-forth" with him. But if anyone asks him about the matter, he says, "I'll tell them I don't feel that kind of rhetoric is appropriate for someone running to represent a district as diverse as District 13." He doesn't think Meredith's views have won him much support. "For the most part, I've seen it backfire on him," Bradford says.
On the whole, the candidates say, Nashville is a diverse, progressive city, belying the stereotype of the South and of the country music world. "We are not just the country music capital of the U.S., we are the music capital," Benedict points out.
"Nashville doesn't fit that stereotype that people place on it," Young adds. And Bradford notes that Nashville and Memphis are "two blue dots in a sea of red."
The redness of Tennessee affects what happens in progressive oases, though. The state limits the power of local governments, so Nashville and Davidson County have not been able to enact an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance regulating private businesses, although they do protect municipal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And a state law preempted a 2011 Nashville-Davidson ordinance requiring city and county contractors to avoid such discrimination. The local government, however, does consider LGBTQ-owned businesses minority-owned enterprises for purposes of contracting, something that can help send work to these businesses.
The out candidates for Metro Council are dedicated to doing whatever they can to improve this situation and to fight for measures that will better the lives of all local residents. "We are a progressive city in the South," Benedict says. "We still have work to do, but that's true of the entire nation."
For more information on the Nashville-Davidson candidates, go to VictoryFund.org.