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A big blue dot in a deep red state, ready for Biden

Three voters around Nashville explain their differing reasons — some local, some national — behind their decision to back Biden
Image: BLM Mural, Nashville
Nashville Black Lives Matter mural in progress.Courtesy Grayce Gadson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Marcus Henderson, an entrepreneur who specializes in wealth management, lives and works just south of Nashville in affluent suburban Williamson County.

Henderson says he has probably voted for as many Republicans as he has Democrats throughout his life. He's a married father, a book reader, a Black man and a more than casual observer of human tolerance for risk and the pursuit of rewards. He is, in many ways, a man leading a fortunate life in a very typical American community.

"I honestly think I'm concerned most about the things that everybody is worried about, looking for the things everybody is looking for from the two men who want to run the country," said Henderson, 58. "That's leadership, some sign or symptom of it, a plan to move us forward and a path that's going to allow us to come together and heal."

For most outsiders, Nashville likely conjures images of honky tonks and cowboy hats, melodrama behind the curtains at the Grand Ole Opry or the perception of an area steeped in Republican politics. But Nashville, long one of two major metropolitan blue dots in a deep red state, is also a community where nearly 42 percent of residents are Black, Latino or Asian, in line with many of the country's large and mid-size cities. Much like the country around it, about 13.5 percent of Nashville residents are immigrants. And Nashville is home to seven universities, including a medical school where researchers are studying, among other things, the physical effects of racism on the human body.

That is to say, there are people here who occupy the Nashville of America's imagination living and working with many who don't.

In their own ways, the campaigns have signaled their beliefs that the election will hinge on people living in the nation's heartland cities and nearby suburbs. Tennessee at large is expected to remain a Trump stronghold. But in Nashville, former Vice President Joe Biden has out raised President Donald Trump, according to federal election data analyzed by the New York Times. And in interviews with NBC News, voters with very different lives and different ways of viewing the same problems appear to have arrived at the same conclusion: It's Biden's time.

Henderson said he believes that no matter who wins, a tax increase is coming. There's too much need, too much unavoidable federal spending for a bill not to come due eventually. He described himself as a big believer in markets, hard work and the capacity of the two to deliver merited rewards. But as a Black man in America, he's also aware of other factors that can influence the course of a life.

Image: Marcus Henderson
Marcus Henderson, a Williamson County, Tenn. resident who lives and works in the Nashville suburbs. In October, he voted early there too.Courtesy Marcus Henderson

Henderson said he also sees in Biden a set of priorities likely to be of some help to ease the worries hanging over many Americans, especially through the pandemic.

"Markets like stability," Henderson said. "People like stability. … Biden would, I think, offer some stability."

At the same time, he also understands why some people feel — with equal conviction — that Trump is the answer.

"Why would you change a system that works for you?" Henderson said.

For Henderson and his family, voting is always a priority. "We're very political in this house," he said. But this year, his wife coordinated her schedule, her husband's and those of their two working adult children. Together at their polling site — a cool and comfortable Marriott conference room — they voted. Copious selfies followed.

Henderson voted for Biden.

The impact of Nashville's shifting skyline

Nashville — a city once known as "The Athens of the South," a reference to its role as a regional center of legislative, economic and intellectual activity — has morphed into something more than a music city. A multistory stone reproduction of the Parthenon remains. But there's a reality TV show centered on wild Nashville bachelorette and bachelor party getaways now. And there are other ways that Nashville has become "Nashvegas," a moniker emblazoned on coffee mugs and shot glasses and even taxis parked near bars and restaurants operating at half capacity because of the coronavirus.

In the last decade, downtown Nashville, north and East Nashville — not just the long affluent west side — have boomed. Mega-hotels and a massive convention center with an environmentally-friendly grass-covered roof define downtown. A gleaming glass and steel luxury apartment building with a Whole Foods on the ground floor sits across the street from where the old The Tennessean newspaper building once stood. The city has become the state’s largest, recently surpassing Memphis’s population and the average home price has soared since October 2010, from about $164,000 to $300,000, according to a Zillow analysis.

"In the before times, we were getting these big conventions and this new hotel and that new store, it seemed, every week," said the Rev. Kira Austin-Young, 36, a priest at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, a small congregation in East Nashville first organized in 1858. "And that's cool. But the question now is the same as it's been for some time. How does that help people in my neighborhood remain and keep rent that's affordable?"

Austin-Young, who is white, runs in what she calls "social justice-y circles" where those kinds of questions loom large. She's not sure whether people in other crowds are wondering or worrying about the airport workers, the waitresses and waiters, the songwriters and the artists on the brink of making it big, the schoolteachers and the firefighters. They are the working people of Nashville. They are people who, with growing frequency, face the same dilemma: Should they head to outskirt communities, paying less for housing but contending with long and expensive commutes?

When Austin-Young and her husband bought a home, they opted for East Nashville, a part of the city across the Cumberland River from downtown. It has been heavily gentrified since the late 2000s. Once home to a large part of Nashville's Black residents and the place where a Black-owed restaurant gave birth to the city's famous hot chicken, it's one of the places where much of the gentrification that has swept across much of the city began. East Nashville today is known as the home of white hipsters, ironic and non-ironic greasy spoons, artists and younger white adults, some with children. Austin-Young, the kind of minister often spotted in a clerical collar and a denim jacket, describes herself as somewhere left of the Democratic Party and a person deeply interested in politics.

"I'm not necessarily into the partisan part of politics but politics more broadly defined," Austin-Young said. "Especially as a pastor and priest who is very involved in seeing people's lives, being with people as they walk through difficult times. We may not see them as politics, but certainly, politics affects how all of those things unfold."

Image: Rev. Kira Austin-Young
Rev. Kira Austin-Young leads a historic and small congregation in East Nashville also voted early in Davidson County, a place made up mostly of Nashville.Courtesy Rev. Kira Austin-Young

Austin-Young said she feels fortunate to be part of a community where, before the pandemic, people vociferously debated topics like the merits of bike lanes and green wastewater management and showed up for weeknight school board meetings. Her neighbors think of themselves as people who care — a lot.

She has friends weighing the perennial dilemma about public schools or opting for one of Nashville's private schools, many of which date to the time a court ordered Nashville public schools to integrate. Austin-Young and her mostly white congregation of about 75 people (at pre-pandemic weekly services) watched the video in which a Minneapolis police officer suppressed the life out of a Black man, leading prosecutors to accuse the officer of murder. People at St. Ann's started talking about the need to live their values.

"There was a lot of conversation and prayer around" this racial reckoning, she said. "We're a congregation that had not been actively talking about racial issues but aware of them and trying to be on the leading edge of things. I am fortunate that I am at a congregation where I can preach pretty forcefully and not have to worry about getting run out on a rail."

A lot of those conversations have been about schooling, the choices white parents make, why and what it means for cities. Trump has described school choice as the solution to a variety of educational woes before and during the pandemic. Austin-Young also has a lot of LGBTQ parishioners and friends who fear that a second Trump term would bring more rollbacks of legal protections for LGBTQ Americans even as Trump and his children tout him as a proponent of gay rights.

With all of that, in addition to the pandemic and the duty to care for her small flock in a challenging year, Austin-Young has taken self-protective measures by watching election events from a distance.

"I've been following the race pretty closely, but for my mental health I haven't watched any of the debates or town halls," she said. "I'll follow along on social media, which is sort of like my way of watching without watching. It's less about being bombarded with rhetoric and the politicky-ness of it all. Watching clips is a way to kind of control the firehose."

By the time of the second presidential debate, which was held in Nashville, Austin-Young and almost 128,000 other people in Davidson County, or 30 percent of active voters, had voted. Austin-Young also cast an early vote for Biden.

A city, like so many others, grapples with multiple issues

Adding to the list of 2020 difficulties: The coronavirus response has been politicized in a way that directly reflects party lines. On debate day in Nashville, clusters of Trump and Biden fans stationed themselves in the area, including a contingent of QAnon pro-Trump voters. Even when away from their signs, Biden supporters were easy to spot from a distance: Most were wearing masks. In Nashville, 32,908 people had been infected with Covid-19 and 350 had died as of Saturday, according to state Health Department data.

In September, every county in the area lifted mask-wearing requirements except the one made up almost entirely of Nashville, Davidson County. Those decisions meant Nashville was surrounded by other communities flouting the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When a surge in case numbers was reported the week of the presidential debate, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, refused to re-enact a statewide mask mandate. Instead, while he was quarantined in his home because of exposure to the virus, Lee said he has encouraged counties with the state's worst outbreaks to restore requirements. And he drew reporters' attention to a state public service announcement focused on the idea of choice. Two days after the debate, after many of the visitors it brought with it were gone, suburban and conservative Williamson County's new mask mandate went back into effect.

It was one of many moments when irony, along with politics, appeared broken to Grayce Gadson, 68, an activist and social worker who used to work with companies and production studios to boost diversity in their workplaces.

Gadson, like a good share of people in Nashville, migrated to the area from Los Angeles, returning to the South to be near relatives and enjoy the formerly low cost of the city's high quality of living. She was attracted to Nashville's creative industry and the nostalgia of the childhood summers she spent in Nashville with her stepmother's family.

Long active in the Beverly Hills NAACP and other organizations in 1980s California, Gadson brought those experiences with her to Nashville. This summer, when Gadson, who is Black, saw Washington, D.C.'s Black Lives Matter mural, she thought Nashville could use its own.

"When the protests were going on and we were still highly emotional regarding the revelation of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's terrorist murders, ritualistic murders," Gadson said, "when the protesters in D.C. were assaulted by whatever is passing for government there, I was so proud when the letters were painted on the street. I think a lot of us realized that is a statement that needed to be made loud and clear in many parts of this country."

Image: Grayce Gadson
Grayce Gadson, an activist and social worker who lives in Nashville and has plans to vote in Davidson County.Courtesy Grayce Gadson

Gadson and two other people worked to obtain the necessary permits and funding. Then they commissioned a Black artist, Thaxton Waters II, to develop a mural plan. Waters and the organizers settled on a broad stretch of road that runs just in front of the county's juvenile detention facility, not far from a site along the Cumberland River where at least four Black men were lynched in the 1880s.

Today, the street also leads the Tennessee Titans' Nissan Stadium, a high-traffic zone built in part with public debt that is still being paid. It draws people to the area from all over the state. The stadium didn't join other major sports arenas in serving as a polling site with the space for mass social distancing.

Mural painters whom Gadson helped to bring together finished work on the Saturday before the debate. By Sunday night, witnesses told Gadson, a contingent of cars and trucks, some of them waving Trump and Confederate flags behind them, drove over the mural and burned rubber, leaving multiple dark tire marks behind.

"There's nothing Black people have been able to do in this nation that wasn't resisted or there was an attempt to have it immediately destroyed," Gadson said. "Never. So I was not surprised."

Days later, Trump was in town, describing Black Lives Matter as an offensive organization or idea upending law and order on the debate stage. Gadson, whose stepmother's brother was killed by police, heard him.

"This election, I think it is a turning point," Gadson said. "We will have to decide who we will be as a nation — how much of a deviation from the promise of what America could be can we take without righting the ship of state. That's why my vote is already set."

Gadson also voted early in Davidson County, for Biden.