Will Nashville Still Be a ‘City on the Rise’ Now That It Lost Its Rising Star Mayor?

Nashville’s charismatic mayor, Megan Barry, resigned on Tuesday, after a sex scandal that had been simmering for weeks boiled over into charges of corruption. When she admitted in January to an extramarital affair with Robert Forrest, the now-retired police sergeant who headed up her security detail, a local district attorney asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to discover whether the mayor’s conduct broke any laws. Barry pled guilty to felony theft after it came to light that Forrest had earned $170,000 in overtime since the start of Barry’s tenure—including overtime for nine trips last year in which he accompanied the mayor alone.

Barry’s brief administration is over. Whatever residents think of her conduct—and local pundits have an awful lot to say about it—her resignation cuts short the future of a rising star not just in Nashville but regionally and nationally.

She was more than a magnetic mayor. Barry was a pivotal leader, one who showcased how ambitious cities can chart their own course—even when the currents in business, technology, and growth seem to run toward the coasts. She facilitated one of the boldest municipal transit plans in recent memory and pledged unprecedented support for affordable housing. But depending on how residents respond to her departure, much of that legacy could be at risk.

Barry was a popular figure. Even in February, in the weeks after she fessed up to the affair—even after the conservative editorial board of The Tennessean wrote that she had “betrayed Nashville”—a remarkable 61 percent of Nashvillains still approved of her. That feeling was sure to sour once people found out the truth, that the city was paying for official trips that looked like a string of rendezvous. That’s what makes Barry’s resignation a shame: People liked the job she was doing, and she cussed it up.

Nashvillains are disappointed, yes. But offended? A column in The Tennessean offers that Barry “used Nashville” and that it “really hurts.” Brad Schmitt describes her as a “politician desperate to hold onto grand ambitions, seemingly at any cost.” He further writes that Barry’s “unchecked ambition overtook the good person inside of her.”

People who agree may be looking forward to the next referendum. Barry’s legacy is coming up for a vote. On the May 1 countywide ballot is her signature push in office, a $5.4 billion transit plan that would, among other things, introduce 26 miles of light rail. When voters decide the “Let’s Move Nashville” referendum, they have a chance to ensure that Nashville’s growth is sustainable and equitable, with transit options that both facilitate and guide that growth. Voters also have the opportunity to punish Barry for her ambition.

Let’s Move Nashville is a hard-won initiative. State politics in Tennessee usually mitigate against such proposals at the local level. (As I wrote in November, “The real genius of ‘Let’s Move Nashville’ is in the way that the city won state support for long-term local planning initiatives.”) Barry pushed state lawmakers for a change to a bill on the gas tax (the first hike since 1989) that would allow cities to introduce local surcharges. These bills applied exclusively to large counties and large cities; the sales tax levy can be used exclusively for transit projects. The Tennessee legislature might as well have called it the Let’s Move Nashville Act.

Barry’s brief tenure is memorable by at least two more measures. The mayor pledged $25 million in bond proceeds to the city’s affordable housing trust fund and committed the city to an additional $10 million a year—Nashville’s biggest step yet toward addressing its affordability crisis. Barry can’t take credit alone for luring a Major League Soccer expansion club to Nashville, but she was key to securing the “private–public partnership” (as she puts it) that earned the confidence of the Nashville Metro Council and, eventually, professional soccer. Whether building a sports stadium with even modest public funding is a good idea or not, it could have been Cincinnati or Sacramento’s decision to make instead.

For some voters, Barry’s mistakes irrevocably tarnish her goals, including a transit overhaul the likes of which Nashvillains may not see again. It’s certain that her enemies will seize on her personal failures to undercut her legacy, from the progressive growth strategies she championed to her support for public–private partnerships. These ideas have their critics—the conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee has criticized virtually everything Barry’s ever done—and that’s fine.

But to dismiss this mayor’s accomplishments for the wrong reasons, or worse, to pin the blame on mayoral ambition itself is to miss something that’s very apparent outside Nashville. Residents in most cities, even up-and-coming cities similar to Nashville, would relish the opportunity to have leadership that is comfortable courting partners from a conservative business community and sometimes whackadoodle political class (though likely one without the whole romantic corruption thing).

When soccer’s top executive, Don Garber, spoke about its expansion, he said that Nashville wasn’t on the league’s radar at first. He calls Nashville “a city on the rise.” Nashville itself prefers the name “It City.” The city has lost a strong leader who helped to define what that “it” means and how to hold onto that “it” status. Maybe the “it” means ambition.