Nashville now and then: Civic forebodings

1987: The downtown elite fails in efforts to prevent the election of a dimly regarded congressman as mayor
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This week 20 years ago, the Nashville business community bowed to the inevitable.

For more than a year, the downtown elite had been maneuvering to avoid, at all costs, the election of a hayseed congressman as the city's mayor. Nashville had experienced dramatic growth in recent years, but nobody knew what would happen if leadership were to pass to this man.

His accomplishments in Congress had been minimal. Questions about his ethics had risen repeatedly during his political career. He displayed what political scientists had come to call "rent-seeking behavior," showing every sign of being in public life primarily for his own private benefit. Perhaps worst of all, in the eyes of his detractors, he was just not someone who could be taken very seriously as a leader. It was anyone's guess what cronies he would surround himself with as mayor, or how he might embarrass the city.

His name was Bill Boner. On July 13, 1987, the campaign of his business-supported opponent, former Chamber of Commerce chief Eddie Jones, folded its tents after failing to make significant headway against Boner in the polls.

"The establishment types have just made no headway whatever in this election," local political expert M. Lee Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The paper reported that business people had begun flocking to the populist Boner's camp as his election appeared more inevitable.

The anyone-but-Bill crowd would eventually coalesce around 43-year-old healthcare entrepreneur Phil Bredesen, overcoming doubts about his electability as a certifiable, Jersey-born Yankee. But Boner would win the September runoff against Bredesen handily. In so doing, Bill Boner would launch a successful political career -- for Bredesen.

Losing to Boner was destined to become a badge of honor for Bredesen. By the end of Boner's four years in office, everything about Nashville seemed to be in despondent swoon, starting with its recession-ravaged real estate sector and its savings-and-loans that were going belly-up. Those woes weren't Boner's fault, but he made a convenient target because of antics that had repeatedly made Nashville a laughing stock the world over.

First there was the story about his female police bodyguard, who was said to be not only cohabitating with the mayor as his third marriage came to an end, but also shooting pigeons in the front yard of his Russell Street home. And then came Traci Peel.

A Nashville Banner reporter chanced to phone as aspiring country performer Peel and hizzoner were engaged in an intimate moment. Most political advisors would have said you ought not to pick up the phone, or let your partner pick it up, when you are a public official in the midst of sexual relations with a woman not your wife, even if the object of your affections is not a lounge singer. Most would likewise counsel against letting one's paramour engage in girl-chat with the reporter, even if the comments do not include a reference to the "seven hours of passion" in which the city's elected leader has just exerted himself with his partner.

Most would offer that much advice to any politician, even if his name was not Boner.

Sadly for just about everyone in Davidson County, no such sage counselor happened to be available that morning in 1990 when the Banner reporter called. A bumper sticker soon appeared in some profusion on Nashville streets, expressing what folks felt Boner had done to the city: "Seven Hours for Traci. Three Years for Metro."

An appearance by Boner and Peel on the national television talk-show Donahue, featuring a musical interlude in which the mayor backed his friend on harmonica, left locals even further aghast and Nashville's image in tatters.

In the mayoral election of 1991, which Boner had the discretion not to contest, Bredesen swept to victory. He would go on to win a second term as mayor, followed by two terms as Tennessee's governor.

Nashville's old elite got comfortable with Bredesen, and the sting of its failure to mount an adequate challenge to Boner in 1987 would gradually abate. As years went by and another northern-born good-government type, Bill Purcell, took the reins of the city, there was a growing confidence that Nashvillians could henceforth be counted on to make discriminating choices in the voting booth.

Birthdays of note this week:

A big birthday week looms ahead, and not just because of the centenaries of the late Barbara Stanwyck and Orville Redenbacher on July 16....

  • Waller attorney Mac Davis, singer Louise Mandrell — July 13
  • Tennessee Humanities Council chief Robert Cheatham, Bass Berry Managing Partner Keith Simmons — July 14
  • Attorney Mario Ramos — July 16
  • W. Ovid Collins Jr., now in his 65th year with the Nashville law firm Cornelius & Collins — July 18
  • John Lawrence Connelly, Metro's county historian — July 19

"Nashville now and then" is a week-by-week look back at Nashville's economic, political and social history. Your thoughts, suggestions and questions are always welcome — leave them in the comments section below, or e-mail




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