Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 1

A Tough Act to Follow

Bill Purcell, '79, focused on "making Nashville a good place to live and work" during his eight years as mayor.

by Grace Renshaw Bill Purcell, '79

Bill Purcell was billed as "a new mayor for a new century" at the beginning of his first term as Nashville's mayor in 1999. Purcell followed popular Mayor Phil Bredesen, now Tennessee's governor and the former CEO of a major healthcare company, into office. Bredesen had used his business acumen to lure professional football and hockey teams to town, and Purcell built on Bredesen's accomplishments by focusing on improvements designed to make Nashville a more attractive and livable city. He encouraged the development of more downtown housing, created greenways connecting parks, and expanded and upgraded the city's network of sidewalks. That strategy not only benefited current residents, who appreciated the miles of new sidewalks and greenways that opened up during Purcell's administration, but it also helped attract major corporations, including Caremark, Asurian and Louisiana Pacific, earning Nashville a place on Expansion Magazine's list of "hottest cities" two years in a row. Some fellow Vanderbilt Law alumni appreciated another initiative Purcell completed: a badly needed renovation of the city's antiquated courthouse.

Purcell had begun his first term as Nashville's mayor in 1999 with a solid reputation throughout Tennessee, having spent five terms as a state representative, four of those as Tennessee's House Majority Leader. He also chaired the Select Committee on Children and Youth. His success in making the transition from state representative to mayor was confirmed when he was re-elected for a second term in 2003 with an astounding, record-breaking 85 percent of the vote. In 2006, he was one of nine "Public Officials of the Year" honored by Congressional Quarterly Inc.'s Governing magazine. In highlighting Purcell's accomplishments as Nashville's mayor, Governing editor Josh Goodwin placed particular emphasis on the fact that Nashville had attracted corporations "largely without generous state and local incentive packages. The fact is that businesses are coming to Metro Nashville simply because it's a good place to live and work," Goodwin wrote, adding, "Much of the credit for that belongs to Purcell, who has proven to be both an unusually competent manager and a talented communicator since taking office in 1999."

Having spent much of his career in politics, Purcell looks back fondly on his work as a staff member with West Tennessee Legal Services in Jackson, where he met his wife, Debbie Miller, then a recent college graduate who was running a local group home for children. The couple moved to Nashville when Purcell took a job with the Public Defender's office, where he spent three years before winning a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Miller is now director of the Child and Family Policy Center at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies (VIPPS), a program that promotes connections between academic research, politics and best practices to benefit children and their families. She and Purcell worked together to establish the Center before Purcell's run for mayor.

Purcell spent fall 2007 as a Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which he says "was a great re-entry into higher education." After finishing a stint as founding dean of the College of Public Service and Urban Affairs at Tennessee State University this summer, he will return to Kennedy School this fall to accept a full-time appointment as director of its Institute of Politics. The job is a perfect fit for Purcell, who can't recall a time when he wasn't interested in public service. "The Institute's central undergraduate mission is critical to the future of public service in this country, and its program reach is both local and global," he says.

Purcell also believes wholeheartedly in the study of law as a preparation for public service. As a Vanderbilt law student, he found himself drawn to the student legal aid society and ultimately became its executive director. "That made all the difference to me during law school," he says. "My work with the Legal Aid Society reminded me every day why I wanted to be a lawyer." While serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Purcell placed a special emphasis on legislation affecting Tennessee's families and children. As chairman of the state's Select Committee on Children and Youth, he steered legislation through the General Assembly to provide maternity leave, create America's first statewide family preservation program, reduce the number of high school dropouts, promote Family Resource Centers in Tennessee schools, and encourage immunization of children by providing free vaccines.

Now, with the Baby Boomer generation moving toward retirement, Purcell notes that more than half of all government employees in the United States will be eligible to retire within the next 10 years, creating opportunities for trained, motivated public servants. "It's a particularly good time to study law and public policy," he says. "This generation of students has a terrific opportunity, because they can enter government service and move quickly to positions of responsibility where they can make a significant contribution."