Farewell to Dr. No

I miss David Manning.

There were times in my earlier career that I would never have thought that possible, let alone write it down anywhere, but I realize its truth today. Today I have learned that David is gone.

I remember the very day that I met David Manning, in 1979. We were both young staffers at the Tennessee State Capitol. David then worked for the State Treasurer, Democrat Harlan Mathews, one of Tennessee’s constitutional officers, and I was a staff assistant to the new governor, Republican Lamar Alexander.

We were representing our bosses in a routine meeting of the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp., one of a myriad of low-profile agencies that together have much to do with the fiscal stability and services of state government.

David had been in his job longer, and was way smarter in ways I was not. We got to be friends, in spite of our bosses’ allegiances to different political parties. Even at that early point, David seemed to have an innate grasp of finance, administrative process, bureaucracy, and institutional politics at the capitol. What I didn’t yet appreciate then was how he already had earned a deep level of trust among members of the Tennessee General Assembly on both sides of the aisle.

In later years, David would make his reputation as a whip-smart and savvy finance guy in the highest levels of Tennessee’s public sector. In late 1986, following Governor Ned McWherter’s election, David became one of his most trusted advisors, as his Commissioner of the Department of Finance & Administration. Later on, he was the Director of Finance for Metro Government in Nashville, under Mayor Bill Purcell. (They had worked together during the years of the McWherter administration, when Purcell was the Democrats’ long-serving Majority Leader in the state House of Representatives.)

Some people liked to call David “Dr. No” as happens with most any tough-minded budget chief who keeps a tight grip on revenues and expenses. (I also remember how my friend Lewis R. Donelson, who was Alexander’s first F&A commissioner, kept a sign tacked inside his office door; when a guest was ushered in and the door was closed, you saw the sign with one word: “No!”) Even so, David helped Governor McWherter accomplish two significant achievements that endure to this day: He was the architect of TennCare, the innovative variation of the federal Medicaid program - not just designing the new program but shepherding its approval by the federal government. David also quarterbacked the visionary but politically fraught project to develop the Bicentennial Mall on the north side of the capitol.

During his Metro Government years, both Mayor Purcell and David’s own Finance Department office were relocated to the old Ben West Library, temporary quarters while the historic City Hall and Courthouse downtown underwent extensive renovations. One particular meeting there with David has remained in my mind to this day.

The project under discussion that day was development of the Nashville Symphony’s new home, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Project leaders, hoping for some city government funding, had arranged for an economic benefit study. The report showed a positive balance to the city in the form of added construction jobs, tourism, and downtown revival. The Symphony’s CEO Alan Valentine was proud of the report and suggested we take the Finance Director a copy to buttress our case.

David made short work of that part of our meeting. “You know,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “a person in my position ought to ignore a report like this from a person in your position,” meaning a non-impartial advocate. We hastened on to the next (non-financial) item on our meeting agenda. (Mayor Purcell and Metro Council later agreed to participate in the project, including the gift of land at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Demonbreun.)

But David was always a hard sell. And a hard sell is precisely the type person that a state and a city (and a governor and a mayor) most need in the jobs that David Manning held, over so many years, with such distinction.