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Nashville rejects English-only measure

Opponents feared the change would put up a 'go away' sign in the city where 1 in 10 residents are foreign born and international businesses keep the economy humming.

January 24, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATLANTA — Modern-day Nashville is a city that thrives as much on global trade as it does on its trademark twang.

So for many business and government leaders, it was a great relief Thursday night when voters rejected a ballot measure that would have limited local government to conducting its business in English.

The proposal sparked debates familiar to many American communities -- about the need for immigrants to learn English, for example, and the cost of translation services in a community where as many as 1 in 10 residents are foreign-born.

But opponents also focused heavily on the damage the measure could do to Nashville's image. In recent years, the city famous for its country music industry has also attracted hundreds of international companies and seen a surge of legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

At the same time, it has strived to market itself in a more cosmopolitan way: About five years ago, Nashville changed its nickname from "Music City U.S.A." to "Music City" -- because "the 'USA' seemed to link us more with the 'Hee Haw' brand," explained Butch Spyridon, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau president.

On Friday, Spyridon was one of a number of public officials who cheered the defeat of the English-only measure, saying it was "not who we are as a city, or as a community. . . . It's a creative community, and it's a diverse community."

Business owners like Tom Oreck concurred. "One of my great concerns about this was the message it would send -- one that took down the 'welcome' sign and put up a 'go away' sign," said Oreck, chairman of Nashville-based Oreck Corp., the vacuum-cleaner manufacturer. "I feel that that could have really hurt Nashville's ability to grow in a healthy fashion."

Nashvillians have been debating the merits of an English-only law since September 2006, when Eric Crafton, a member of the city-county council, introduced the idea in a bill.

In 2007, Crafton told The Times that he was motivated by "pent-up frustrations" over illegal immigration. He also said he wanted to encourage immigrants to learn English, and save money by having government business conducted in one language.

The bill was approved by the council in 2007 but was vetoed by then-Mayor Bill Purcell, who said it would make the city "less safe, less friendly and less successful."

The idea was resuscitated as a ballot measure that would have amended the city-county charter so that all meetings and communications were in English. It allowed the council to make exceptions "to protect public health and safety."

On Thursday, voters rejected the measure 41,752 to 32,144, in the largest turnout for a special election in more than a decade, according to Ray Barrett, elections administrator for Davidson County.

The measure was opposed by some of the most powerful forces in town -- including the Chamber of Commerce, the Visitors Bureau, church leaders and the current mayor, Karl Dean.

Some opponents argued that the law would punish not only illegal immigrants, but the large number of legal refugees from Somalia and Iraqi Kurdistan who have changed the flavor of the city in recent years.

They also pointed out that city legal experts said the measure, if passed, may have run afoul of federal law, and entangled the city in costly lawsuits.

Another turnoff for some voters: the election cost the city $270,000 to $300,000, according to Barrett.

Anthony Roberts, a real estate agent, said he voted for the measure but was upset about the expense.

"I'm for the English first," he said, "but I wasn't for the special election."

A number of opponents spoke Friday about the defeat as a bullet dodged for the business community.

John Butler, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president for international business, noted that 206 foreign-owned companies were operating in the area, providing about 34,000 jobs. Their presence -- in addition to help from a robust healthcare industry -- helped the metro area avoid a net job loss last year. (Butler said metro Nashville gained 3,300 jobs from January to November of 2008, a 0.4% increase from the same period in 2007).

Many of the companies are Japanese and German auto parts firms that set up shop in recent years to supply the car factories that have sprung up across the Southeast.

These days, Butler said, Nashville is courting Chinese manufacturers and has a leg up on other cities, because even the Chinese know Nashville for its music.

"But then you start to sour that with English-only, and all the connotations that brings," he said.

Crafton, the main backer of the measure, could not be reached for comment for this article. But in an interview with the Tennessean newspaper on Thursday, he appeared to be giving up on the idea: "Like Roberto Duran said after his fight, 'No mas,' " he said.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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