Six days ago, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry publicly acknowledged an extramarital affair with her head of security. She pledged to stay in office and work to restore the public’s trust in her. How’s she doing? I reached out to Joey Garrison, metro politics reporter for The Tennessean, to answer that question. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: It’s been six days since Megan Barry admitted an affair with her former head of security. Are things in the city politics settling down at all yet?
Garrison: There’s been no settling down at all. Barry’s admission of a public affair with her former top security guard, Sgt. Rob Forrest, has rocked the term of an enormously popular first-term mayor – and there are no signs of things quieting.
The scandal – in particular, the use of taxpayer dollars for trips taken by Barry and the security guard – has raised questions that remain unanswered, including why stays at cities extended beyond the length of the conferences she was attending.
It has also complicated her political agenda – most notably, a public referendum on a $5.4 billion transit project that she wants to hold in May. Barry is facing some calls for resignation and an investigation from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Nashville Metro Council is exploring the creation of a special committee with subpoena power to review expenses during the mayor’s trips and overtime pay earned by the security officer. It appears that the fallout is really just beginning.
Cillizza: Let’s go back before Barry’s admission last Wednesday. What did her first three years as mayor look like?
Garrison: After getting elected in September 2015, Barry has enjoyed approval ratings of better than 70% during her first term.
She came to the mayor’s office with her background as a liberal Democrat and two-term at-large Metro councilwoman. In the mayor’s office, she’s carried out a pro-business but socially progressive political platform, which also defined some of her predecessors.
Barry also is one of the highest profile Democrats in Tennessee. She’s known for her accessibility and remarkable visibility, becoming a regular presence at Nashville Predators hockey games, concerts and public events. Barry played a central role in getting approval for a new Major League Soccer stadium, which led to Nashville getting awarded a MLS expansion franchise in December.
Her top stated priorities have been increasing the amount of affordable housing as Nashville gentrifies and expanding transit options. She needs approval of the referendum to accomplish the latter. Barry’s political opponents have largely been from the right, but she’s faced some increasing criticism from liberals over-fulfilling her progressive campaign agenda.
Cillizza: Barry made very clear she wasn’t leaving office. Have there been calls for her to do so? By whom – and why?
Garrison: A fair amount of our readers have demanded the mayor’s resignation, but it has not turned into a widespread movement so far. I’m unaware of any locally elected official who has called for her to resign to this point. An online petition with a few hundred signatures recently formed calling for her resignation, but that’s not a total surprise given this sort of scandal. I’ve also seen unscientific online polls conducted by other media outlets that show some support for her to step down.
The bulk of the resignation demands have seemingly come from Republicans in town. But a prominent African-American pastor on Monday called for Barry’s resignation. It will be worth following whether that could be the start of something. Democrats and other Barry loyalists have quickly rallied around the mayor, adopting hashtags such as #IStandWithMegan, #StillMyMayor. A mysterious billboard with the words “We love our mayor” popped up last week. We’ve been unable to figure out who paid for it.
Cillizza: Where does the story go from here? Are there criminal or legal implications or investigations?
Garrison: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating whether the mayor violated any criminal laws, including misappropriation of public funds and official misconduct. The city council is exploring overseeing its own investigation that would include subpoena power to bring in witnesses before the city’s legislative body.
At issue are taxpayer dollars that were used for nine trips over the last 10 months that were taken by only Barry and the officer, including to San Francisco, Washington, DC, and overseas to Athens and Paris. Barry has welcomed the investigations and has maintained that all of the trips were for city business. But others have noted the discrepancies between the dates traveled and conference dates and questioned why security details were needed for out-of-country travel in the first place.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “By this time, Megan Barry is ____________.” Now, explain.
Garrison: “still in office and running for re-election.”
The mayor has taken a hit to her brand. No doubt. But she’s shown no signs of resigning despite pressure to do so. She’s clearly digging in for a fight, having hired a prominent former US attorney to represent her in the matter. Other politicians have survived sex scandals before, although this instance is unique because it features a woman mayor. As long as things don’t get muddier legally for the mayor – and that’s certainly not a guarantee – then there’s reason to believe she can bounce back. But, ask me again later this week. This story is moving fast.