Megan Barry mounted a smart and nuanced progressive campaign for mayor of Nashville—so smart, and so nuanced, in fact, that it should cause political candidates and commentators to rethink what can be said and done on a political stage that is too frequently characterized by bluster and bombast.
Even if Barry had not won Thursday’s runoff election for the Tennessee city’s top job, her campaign would have been instructive. Because she did win, with a decisive 55-45 margin over a free-spending hedge-fund manager who suggested she was too liberal to lead a Mid-South city, Barry’s victory offers a powerful reminder that another politics is possible in cities across this country.
And in statehouses.
And in Washington.
Barry, an at-large member of the Metropolitan Council for Nashville and surrounding Davidson County who will serve as the city’s first woman mayor, earned national attention as a liberal leader in a southern city. (A New York Times article even noted that: “On a recent visit to her home near Vanderbilt, where her husband is a management professor, a copy of The Nation magazine sat atop a copy of Southern Living.”) And her campaign certainly hit plenty of progressive themes. She hailed diversity, declared that the police must treat everyone equally, highlighted the need to respect immigrants, embraced sustainability, and celebrated public transportation.
But it was on a host of economic issues that Barry distinguished herself. She criticized privatization, talked up public programs, and said three things that marked the expert of business ethics and corporate social responsibility (who included footnotes with her campaign pledges) as a significantly more serious contender than most local, state, and national candidates.
First, as part of her economic development platform, she specifically explained that “the private sector can’t do it all” and argued that it is appropriate to use “public investment to stimulate sectors of the economy that will benefit from a jumpstart.” While she made a savvy case that public projects must be evaluated “in a way that is clear, unbiased, and fully transparent”—and while she has faced thoughtful criticism for backing number of “economic incentives deals, laden as they are with tax breaks for massive corporations”—her platform rejected the fantasy that only the private sector can stimulate job growth and address wage stagnation. That’s a vital understanding at a point in history when failed austerity schemes and privatization gambits are still peddled by politicians who should know better.