It has occurred to me that, somewhere over the past several months during weak moments, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Nashville Mayor John Cooper have had to wonder why in the world they wanted the jobs they now have.
Bill Lee was a successful Williamson County business owner with whom many of us have done business, albeit indirectly, right in our homes when we have needed plumbing or HVAC services. Lee Company is a household name around here.
Lee overcame unspeakable personal heartache after losing his first wife, the mother of his children, in a tragic accident about 20 years ago. He spent years as a single dad before finding love again.
I’m guessing along about 2018 he was at a place where he could have considerably slowed his pace and chosen to enjoy life for years to come. Lord knows he had earned the right to do so.
Instead, he ran for governor of Tennessee. A political novice, he easily bested opponents in the Republican primary, going on to defeat former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the general election.
I don’t know much about John Cooper’s background, other than he was a councilman-at-large in Megan Barry’s administration, as well that of David Briley, who succeeded Barry after her abrupt resignation before winning the position outright in a special election.
Cooper entered the 2019 mayoral election and received more votes than all opponents, including Briley, before defeating Briley in a runoff by a 2-1 margin.
Both Cooper and Lee started their jobs with much to be optimistic about. Sure, Nashville had its issues like any growing city. At the time, those included some pretty major traffic problems (a referendum for a mass transit system during Briley’s tenure was voted down by Davidson County voters), budget woes and other growing pains.
Cooper, with his time in city government, was aware of the challenges he would face, but he had to be excited at the prospects. Nashville was booming, having become known as an “It City” not only in the South, but around the country. Counting the cranes towering over downtown construction zones had become a popular pastime.
And the state of Tennessee wasn’t doing bad itself. With low unemployment, free community college and favorable taxes, our fair state had become the envy of its neighbors.
To be sure, Lee also inherited plenty of problems, as any incoming governor does. But with a like-minded predecessor who had run state government under sound business principals and a state legislature friendly to his conservative ideals, he had reason to at least expect a protracted honeymoon period while getting his legs beneath him.
And I guess you could say, for most of 2019, he was able to experience that.
But 2020? It would come calling like an unwelcome family member for both these esteemed gentlemen who chose to spend a fair amount of their late middle age in public service.
For starters, a terrible tornado ripped through the north part of downtown and East Nashville in early March, causing damage in the millions. Cooper, with the support of Lee and even President Trump, pledged his undying support to those affected by the horrendous storm.
Without a doubt, he rose to the occasion, as did Lee. (And Lee would get to experience it again when a tornado hit Chattanooga in April).
“Nashville Strong” was resurrected, and residents and businesspeople knew, with the support of their leaders, they would come back.
But as horrible as the tornado was, it was nothing compared to the storm that would hit only a couple of weeks later and linger indefinitely, that word that has become synonymous with 2020 – the pandemic. For all intents and purposes, it has become the central issue of the Lee and Cooper administrations, and an unimaginable headache.
When things shut down in March and downtown Nashville became a ghost town, the economy tanked. Hotels previously filled to the brim were suddenly empty, as were the shuttered restaurants and bars. Workers at those establishments found themselves unemployed.
The theme played out across the state and country and even though there has been some slow recovery, we have a very long way to go.
The governor and mayor have had to consider the health and safety of the citizenry while weighing against the state’s and city’s economic wellbeing. They have medical professionals telling them they tried to reopen way too early. Business owners, hanging on for dear life, tell them their restrictions are killing their livelihoods.
“Don’t make the cure worse than the disease” has become an all too common refrain.
It’s an unenviable balancing act for a mayor and a governor, one I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Which brings me back to my original point, which probably deserves a column unto itself. Why would anyone want either of these jobs?
I like to think it’s much more about the desire to serve than a desire for power. I don’t know either of these men, so I have no firsthand knowledge. They seem like decent enough guys, so I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Neither of them could have seen something like a coronavirus coming, but when you decide to run for such a position, I suppose you know something catastrophic can always happen.
Both seem to take it in stride, even as they maintain that balancing act, hold endless press conferences and answer the same questions over and over.
And if some days they do, in fact, think how life could have been different had they not chosen this path, they are doing a pretty good job of keeping that to themselves.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].