Linda Rebrovick's quiet buildup to the mayor's race plants seeds for a 'smarter Nashville'

Editor's note: The coming mayoral election in August promises to be one of the most decisive in Metro Nashville's history, in determining the future health and managed growth of a city at a crossroads. In this seven-part series, we profile the people competing to maintain Music City's newfound success, to represent those in danger of being shoved aside, and to steer the city past the shoals of bubble and bust. Read the rest of our profiles: Megan Barry, Charles Robert Bone, David Fox, Bill Freeman, Howard Gentry and Jeremy Kane.

Name:Linda Eskind Rebrovick

Birthdate:December 26, 1955


High School:Hillwood High School

College:Auburn University

Jobs:IBM, business unit executive in professional services and consulting division; KPMG, Executive Vice President, HealthCare consulting; Bearing Point, Chief Marketing Officer; Dell, Vice President of Health care Sales; Consensus Point, CEO and president.

Boards: HealthStream (board of directors); Western Express (advisory board); Nashville Entrepreneur Center (board of directors); Leadership Nashville (board of trustees); Nashville Sports Council (board of directors); YMCA Foundation (board of directors)

Family:Art (husband); Tripp (son) 27, Leigh (daughter), 27

Pets:Snow Bear (Golden Retriever)


Around Mile 3 of a walk through Percy Warner Park, Linda Eskind Rebrovick clarifies something.

The reporter trudging beside her asks how she spent the months between September, when she made her mayoral candidacy official, and January. She kicked off her campaigning that month with a 30-minute speech at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center that felt like a State of Metro address, only punched up for the campaign trail. Yet before that her campaign had largely flown under the media radar — prompting an aside in an earlier Scene candidate profiles that the Rebrovick campaign had seemed "hypothetical."

The Rebrovick campaign politely objected, then made the question moot, in a sense, by rolling out a substantial campaign team and policy vision at the January event. After more than 35 years as a business executive, Rebrovick, 59, prides herself on a methodical approach.

So roughly three miles into the hilly, wooded trail, with her aptly named Golden Retriever Snow Bear padding beside her, she wants to clear something up.

"Technically, I never announced I was going to run to the press," she says. Her laugh suggests that said press — present company very much included — had somewhat messed up her plans.

It's true: She had simply filed paperwork allowing her to start fundraising and confirmed her plans when reporters came calling. After that, she says, it was back to the plan. She had always intended to wait until January to kick off her campaign. She had always known that her initial campaign manager, Brenda Gadd, would be stepping back after the first few months and would need a replacement. (That turned out to be Ally Letsky, a veteran Democratic operative.)

During those months, she hired Mark Putnam, a media consultant who worked for the successful campaigns of Mayor Karl Dean and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, and pollster Fred Yang, himself a veteran of winning campaigns with Bredesen, Dean and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. She spent her time at the drawing board with them, when she wasn't fundraising and meeting people in the community.

"All of that was intentional so that I would have a good first quarter in terms of fundraising, so that I would have my message ready," she says.

So far, it's working.

Last month, before a crowd of approximately 100 supporters, Rebrovick stood behind a podium at the Entrepreneur Center and unveiled a candidacy with perhaps the most coherent theme in the race. Her pledge is to "build a smarter Nashville" — a slogan borne from her experience at technology companies but made manifest in her policy vision.

Her ambitious platform features a number of technological investments that she says could immediately improve the ways citizens live and the way government works. Special transit lanes, for instance, that would offer a clear lane of traffic to citizens with a transponder in their car willing to pay a fee for the convenience. (The fee, she says, could help fund mass transit projects.) Or self-watering parks and permeable paving surfaces that reduce stress on drainage systems.

A packet of campaign and policy information handed out at the event went even further. It outlines her heavy focus on business and education, including expanding pre-K and increasing the exposure students get to technology in the classroom. In a section on supporting the tourism and entertainment industries, she pledges to focus attention on a part of town whose importance to Nashville history hasn't necessarily matched the attention it gets from city government.

"I'll also be a champion of development on Jefferson Street, putting a priority on spurring business development and growth to bring back a strong retail sector and make it a tourist destination," she says. "We need to create awareness of the historic origins of the Music City and bring live music back to Jefferson Street by making its storied music halls historic landmarks."

In a section on transportation, she says, "We'll create a sound methodology for future projects that starts by looking at transportation needs, and not just aimed at chasing federal dollars."

Beyond her platform, a clearer picture emerged of what Rebrovick had been doing in those quiet months leading up to her campaign kickoff when candidates filed financial disclosures last week. Rebrovick posted nearly a half-million dollars in cash on hand, having brought in $308,000 from 416 donors, on top of $350,000 in personal loans to the campaign.

On this Saturday, she was up early for a Kiwanis Club breakfast in Madison, then off to the Pancakes and Politics candidates forum at Meharry Medical College — then here, at the grand stone steps that mark the Belle Meade entrance of Percy Warner Park. She's invited a reporter to join her in her weekend ritual: a walk, sometimes alone, or with Snow Bear, or with friends, through one of Metro's parks.

Today, it's a 5.8-mile loop — "if you're up for it!" Her love of Nashville's green spaces dates back to her childhood, when she says her father would often take her to Centennial Park to feed the ducks. A fourth-generation Eskind — a famous political name in Nashville, most notably for Rebrovick's cousin Jane Eskind, who became the first woman in Tennessee history elected to statewide office, by winning a seat on the Public Service Commission — Rebrovick has deep local roots.

After graduating from Hillwood High School, she went off to Auburn University in the early '70s with a plan to pursue a degree in office administration, inspired by her father's office administrator, a woman who had been a role model to her growing up. It wasn't long, though, before a professor came to her with some advice.

"I think you're going to be a terrible secretary," he told her. Instead, he encouraged her to go into sales and marketing. She did, and after graduating she landed a job with IBM, hired into a new division called General Systems — the advent of the small business computer. She stayed with the company and soon made her way back to Nashville, where her vast social and family network would make it easier to get a career in sales off the ground.

That directed her toward three decades of work in corporate America, including executive positions at IBM, Dell and KPMG consulting, among myriad other roles on community and business boards. She's spent the past five years as an owner and CEO of Consensus Point, a market-research technology startup. Her overt political involvement has been limited, aside from a successful campaign in college when she was voted Miss Auburn — an extension of student government, not a beauty pageant. During her years in sales, in fact, a dinner-table prohibition held against talk of religion and politics. In 2007, after Dean's first election, she says a few women she admired approached her about running for the mayor's office next time around. But she says she didn't give it much thought.

In 2008, she got a call from Alan Coverstone — today the executive officer of innovation at Metro Nashville Public Schools — who had been her son Tripp's debate coach. He was then running for a seat on the Metro school board.

"You'll do anything for anyone who does something for your children," she says, laughing as she recalls how she initially said no when he asked her to manage his campaign. Eventually, though, she came around and agreed to take on the role.

Coverstone won. In March of last year, she says she got a call from some members of a Leadership Nashville class who said they wanted to take her to lunch.

"I thought, they want money, they want me to run a committee ... this is not gonna be good," she remembers.

Actually, they wanted her to run for mayor. Her husband of 32 years, Art, encouraged her to think about it. So she embarked on a methodical process. Checking off all the reasons not to run — she says she did research on herself, her background, her financials — she then moved on to whether she could build a campaign team and get support.

"I got really passionate about the opportunity, confident that it was a moment in Nashville's history where my skill set and experience was needed," she says, somehow unfazed by the fact that she's done most of the talking on this taxing stroll.

Rebrovick and her husband were early supporters of the Dean campaign in 2007. Like most of the mayoral field, she is largely supportive of the way his administration has approached issues from education to economic development.

"I'm not sure I'd say I'd do them differently," she says, when asked if there are things she wouldn't do the Dean way. "I'd say that Nashville is at a point in time now. He focused on the priorities he needed to in those eight years, and I can take it to the next step. And technology, to me, is one of those steps."

The Dean administration has laid groundwork, she says, for the smarter Nashville she wants to build — from the open data policy to the Office of Innovation and the recent announcement that Google Fiber will be coming to town. Her campaign is built, in part, on selling people on innovations that will change how they and their city function, even if they don't see it yet.  

"What I did for IBM was sell people a computer who've never had a computer before," she says. "My job was to show them how a computer could automate their business, make it more efficient, make it more effective.

"I've been here before at this spot where you take an organization that has proliferated some technology. And you drive through to very significant kinds of enterprise-wide system, and you start to capture data that becomes real important analytical information to make better decisions. We're at that spot where this is going to change our city. It's going to allow us to reduce cost in many areas, and it's going to allow us to be more connected to the citizens.

"I truly believe Nashville is becoming one of the world's leading smart cities."

When the topic of education comes up, she returns again to technology — to help teachers and students alike — but also to the notion of "public-private partnerships."

"There's nothing else that Nashville hasn't been able to do when we bring public-private partnership together," she says. The mind springs immediately to charter schools, the privately run, publicly funded schools that are the most obvious example of such a partnership — not to mention the most contentious. 

"Where charter schools can provide the right solution, I support them," she says. "Where magnet schools with the lottery provide the right solution. I just want excellent education, and I'm not caught up in selecting one choice and saying that's the only way it has to be. Maybe that's my business background and my education background. You know, there's a lot of colleges people choose from."

She talks about increased autonomy for principals and goes on at length about the effect of poverty on education and the need to find the areas where Metro can lessen the burden. For instance, she wants to see the Top Floor after-school program, now in use at several Nashville high schools, expanded across the system.

She also says her experience positions her to address an issue recently brought into harsh light by a report from the Metro Human Relations Commission: the woeful state of diversity in Metro government.

In the early 2000s, she was asked to join the board of Nashville-based health care technology company HealthStream, where she chaired the nominating and governance committee with the specific goal of diversifying the company and its board. Such a goal takes time, she notes, but is succeeding. In her kickoff speech, she pledged to have an administration that "looks like Nashville" and says she'll hire a chief diversity officer if Metro isn't making progress down the line.

What goes unmentioned is that this election has the potential to be a big step in that direction, with two candidates vying to be the first woman mayor and another hoping to become the first African-American to hold the office. It wouldn't be the first time any of them occupied a desk more accustomed to tenants of the white male persuasion.

For now, Rebrovick is spreading her vision of a smarter Nashville along a circuit of breakfasts, panels and community meetings. On weekends, you can find her on a different kind of trail, deep in one of the city's parks. Just look for a dog that responds to "Bear," and looks like one too. His owner will give you the elevator pitch — if you have about six miles in you.


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