Nashville Mayor Megan Barry resigned Tuesday, just more than a month after news first broke of an extramarital affair between her and her former bodyguard. The scandal has engulfed the city and, with Barry’s resignation, ended the career – for the foreseeable future of a Democratic rising star.
In search of what it all means, I reached out to Erik Schelzig, the editor of The Tennessee Journal – a political tipsheet on Volunteer State politics. Our conversation, edited only for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Megan Barry just resigned after weeks of scandal following her affair with a former head of security. Was it always going to end this way?
Schelzig: Some political operatives were impressed by the open way Barry dealt with the revelations about her affair: She appeared on live TV to acknowledge the affair, asked for forgiveness and took a multitude of questions from reporters.
But she stumbled on questions about whether taxpayer money might have been misused to conduct of her affair and she refused to say when the affair had ended. Other consultants were horrified that she appeared alone on stage without any visible show of support and that the questions weren’t limited.
Once the initial shock of the admission of the affair wore off, the drip-drip-drip of further details and revelations only fed the salacious chatter. And when the Barry camp started threatening reporters digging into rumors and attacking the city’s Democratic prosecutor, it signaled that her days as mayor would be numbered.
Cillizza: How big a blow is this to Nashville – and its political class?
Schelzig: In terms of short-term effects, we won’t have to wait long to find out: Barry’s signature $5.4 billion mass transit proposal goes before the city’s voters on May 1.
Opponents hope that the scandal will galvanize public opinion against the ambitious proposal – and the tax hikes needed to pay for it. (A poll released by Vanderbilt University this week found 42 percent in support and 28 percent against the ballot measure, so there appears to be a lot of wiggle room for what is expected to be a low-turnout election.)
As far as the politics are concerned, the resignation kicks off an accelerated process for electing a new mayor in August. Barry’s 2015 election was a victory for the Democrats’ progressive wing, and it’s unclear who might take up that mantle in her absence. Real estate magnate Bill Freeman, who came in third in 2015 despite spending $3.5 million of his own money, is almost assured to make another bid. Vice Mayor David Briley would also be expected to run.
Cillizza: Briley will now become mayor. What do we know about him?
Schelzig: Briley, the grandson of the first mayor of the merged governments of Nashville and Davidson County, was an up-and-comer in city politics in the early 2000s, but failed to capture the imagination of voters when he ran for mayor himself in 2007. That race was ultimately won by Karl Dean, Barry’s predecessor. Briley returned to city-wide office with his election as vice mayor in 2015. Briley’s politics don’t vary too greatly from Barry’s, so no major policy changes are expected.
Cillizza: What impact, if any, does this have on the state’s open seat Senate and governor’s races?
Schelzig: Nashville is a heavily Democratic city in an equally overwhelmingly Republican state. The Democratic Senate candidate, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, is also a former two-term mayor of Nashville, but comes from a far more centrist political tradition (for example, Bredesen supported a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2006, while Barry performed the state’s first gay marriage as a member of the city council following the US Supreme Court ruling legalizing the practice nationally in 2015.)
Karl Dean, another former Nashville mayor, is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor. Neither Bredesen nor Dean are seen as particularly closely tied to Barry, which won’t stop Republicans from trying to tie them together.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Megan Barry’s political career is __________. ” Now, explain.
Barry was superstar material in Nashville. She helped lead the against-all-odds effort to land a Major League Soccer team in Nashville last year and gathered the support of a mass transit plan that could transform the booming city’s landscape. She was an unabashed voice for progressive politics in an otherwise deeply conservative state. She would have been the prohibitive favorite to win re-election as mayor or to Congress whenever Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper decides to retire.