With polls opening for early voting in less than a month, Nashville’s mayoral race is ramping up. This week saw candidates flesh out their stances on development deals, Metro-state relations, and the future of Nashville General Hospital.
Here’s what to know.
Preview: Second Nashville Mayoral Debate
Nashville mayoral candidates will convene at Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday for the second in a series of mayoral debates sponsored by the university, The Tennessean, NewsChannel 5, and the League of Women Voters of Nashville.
The 90-minute event will feature eight of the 12 candidates vying to be Nashville’s next mayor:
- Heidi Campbell, District 20 state senator
- Jim Gingrich, former AllianceBernstein chief operating officer
- Sharon Hurt, at-large Metro Council member
- Freddie O’Connell, District 19 Metro Council member
- Alice Rolli, business strategist and former political aide
- Vivian Wilhoite, Davidson County property assessor
- Matt Wiltshire, former economic development and housing executive
- Jeff Yarbro, District 21 state senator
Thursday’s debate will begin at 6:20 p.m. Tickets are required for entry and can be reserved online free of cost through Belmont University. The debates will also be streamed on tennessean.com and broadcast on NewsChannel 5.
Future debates include:
- July 6 at American Baptist College John Lewis Building
- Aug. 24 at Belmont University Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (if a runoff is necessary)
May 18 Nashville Mayoral Debate:Key moments as candidates seek to set themselves apart
The Nashville Post adopted a unique structure for its June 13 mayoral forum, dividing the event into 10-minute, one-on-one interviews with each of the eight participating candidates.
Alice Rolli: More police officers, won’t challenge state law nixing Community Oversight Board
Alice Rolli said Metro is in dire need of more police officers, and when asked how she would pay for this and other priorities without raising property taxes, she said Metro needs a “top to bottom review” to solve its “spending problem.” Rolli cited Metro Parks and city administration as examples of staffing or structure inefficiencies. She also said Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake is the first person she would ask to stay in their role if she takes office.
Rolli said she has no plans to challenge a new state law eliminating police watchdog boards with investigative powers. Nashville’s Community Oversight Board was a good idea, she said, but its extended turnaround time for case reviews limited its improvement on Nashville policing.
“The purpose of an oversight board is to inject accountability and to inject a sense of transparency and trust… I think what’s actually hurt us in recruiting and retention is the amount of time that it’s taking for them to make some basic decisions.”
Vivian Wilhoite: 2024 RNC was Nashville’s ‘opportunity missed’
Vivian Wilhoite described the Metro Council’s vote against Nashville hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention as an “opportunity missed” in discussing the city’s fractured relationship with state lawmakers.
“The council voted against opportunities, they voted against jobs, they voted against bringing economic advancement in reference to downtown and for the entire city,” she said. “I mean, the person who makes the drinks and cooks the dinners and brings them out to your table, all of them could have had some really good tips from some drunk Republicans.”
Wilhoite said her mother told her not to “poke the bear,” referring to the Tennessee General Assembly.
Separately, Wilhoite said she would prioritize giving raises and offering competitive wages to Metro employees.
Jim Gingrich: Growth management plan is on its way, ideas for housing voucher incentives
Jim Gingrich said his oft-mentioned plan to manage Nashville’s growth will be released this week.
Addressing Nashville’s underuse of affordable housing vouchers, Gingrich said the first step is to create more housing. He would then look to cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, for models of how to encourage landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, including strategies to “de-risk” the situation by providing legal assistance or security deposits to landlords. (Nashville’s Low Barrier Housing Collective currently offers incentives that aim to lower risk for property owners in exchange for lowering screening barriers for tenants.)
“There’s a difference between incentives and actually doing an intelligent deal,” he said.
On his strategy for working with state lawmakers, Gingrich said regional connections with other cities and counties is key.
“If you’re going to be in a room with an 800-pound gorilla, bring friends,” he said.
Jeff Yarbro: Streamline city departments and get Nashville General Hospital’s future right
Jeff Yarbro hinted at some structural changes he would make to Nashville’s government, starting with amending the Metro Charter to provide a “transition period” for newly elected mayors to build their administration team.
He said a senior-level official, perhaps what has been traditionally considered a deputy mayor, should be responsible for long-term planning for city infrastructure, utilities, transportation and housing. He’s also “not convinced” that Metro’s solid waste functions belong within the Metro Water Department.
Yarbro was also hesitant to commit to a long-term plan for Nashville General Hospital. Metro’s lease of the current building with Meharry Medical College ends in 2027, and discussions of relocating or constructing a new hospital have swirled in the Nashville political sphere for months.
“No one who is going to be mayor should do this based on their hunch, or quickly or quietly,” Yarbro said. “This is something you have to be engaged in intense discussions throughout the community.”
Matt Wiltshire: Downtown business movement and third-grade retention
Matt Wiltshire addressed companies moving out of the downtown core, noting Nashville needs to understand and learn from market changes.
“The market speaks, and for those couple of companies who have left, they aren’t going far, they’re going a few blocks away,” he said. “There are ebbs and flows, but I think this is reflective of the interest of those companies finding a different spot that was right for them.”
On education, Wiltshire said he doesn’t have a problem with setting high standards and the concept of third-grade retention. But the implementation was rushed and set children up for failure, he said. The state should have had a long-range plan that gave students and teachers tools to meet high goals.
“Just slapping down arbitrary standards with very punitive repercussions for not meeting those standards, and then not giving folks the time to be able to meet those high standards, is no way to operate,” Wiltshire said.
Freddie O’Connell: Doesn’t regret Lifeway deal, strategizes for next transit referendum
Freddie O’Connell said he doesn’t regret his work on incentives for Lifeway Christian Resources’ Nashville headquarters (the company announced their move out of downtown and into Brentwood in January 2022).
“We were trying to do strategic things to create massive property tax efficiencies within the urban core,” he said. “The old Lifeway campus generated zero property tax dollars… across dozens of acres of downtown Nashville. Now both of those sites are contributing enough money that whoever is elected mayor next should be able to pay for future needs on the basis of just the property tax efficiency of downtown Nashville.”
But on the East Bank, deals will need to favor public amenities on public land and provide affordability so stadium employees can live nearby, he said.
On transit, O’Connell said he didn’t enthusiastically support the 2018 transit referendum “on day one” due to concerns with a few elements of the plan: a $1 billion tunnel under downtown, an “overinvestment in light rail” and pushing sales taxes over 10%.
“Going forward, we’ll apply the lessons learned,” he said. “We’re going to focus on the things that we know are cost-effective, that are visible, that are useful and that are popular” to get majority support.
Sharon Hurt: A new Nashville General Hospital and an ‘economic tsunami’
Sharon Hurt said Nashville should build a new hospital when Nashville General Hospital’s lease runs out, perhaps on 400 acres of “underutilized” land in Bordeaux. She said the hospital is an essential Nashville medical center, not just a “safety net” hospital.
Hurt said her first hire if elected mayor would be a deputy mayor, a role she thinks could be filled by one of her competitors for the seat (she didn’t reveal which one).
When asked about no-cost public transit, Hurt said that is one potential incentive to increase ridership, but emphasized the immediate need for more bus shelters and benches, particularly for elderly users.
Hurt, a proponent of the deal to build a new Tennessee Titans stadium, said this about Nashville’s newest neighborhood: “I believe that the East Bank redevelopment project could be an economic tsunami.”
Heidi Campbell: Recent campaigns, Belle Meade Plaza and Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway
Heidi Campbell addressed her history of multiple candidacies (she previously served as Oak Hill mayor, is a current state senator representing part of Nashville and ran for the District 5 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives).
“Do I just run for everything I can? No. For me, this is an extension of the congressional race,” Campbell said.
Her campaign for that seat was about defending Nashville representation after state lawmakers split Davidson County into three congressional districts. Her mayoral campaign follows the same motivation, she said.
Campbell also said she did not oppose a recently-approved redevelopment plan for Belle Meade Plaza — she wrote a letter to Metro Council urging a pause on rezoning consideration at the request of her constituents, she said.
Campbell also remarked that she believes a proposed deal with Bristol Motor Speedway to complete extensive renovations to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway will pass before the end of the current term, noting she is concerned about parking for the site.
“I am certainly not here to relitigate any of the decisions that have been made,” she said. “I am here to make sure that we’re making the best possible decisions for Nashvillians going forward.”
T.J. Ducklo, communications head for Nashville mayor, will join Biden 2024 campaign
Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s head communications officer T.J. Ducklo will leave the administration at the end of June and is slated to join President Joe Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign team in mid-July.
Ducklo, 34, will serve as the Biden campaign’s senior advisor for communications.
He joined Biden’s Democratic primary campaign in 2019 and went on to serve as national press secretary for Biden’s 2020 general election campaign, all while undergoing treatment for stage 4 lung cancer.
He briefly served as White House deputy press secretary under Biden’s administration but resigned less than a month into the term after being suspended for threatening a journalist who sought to report on Ducklo’s relationship with a reporter who covered Biden’s campaign and transition.
Ducklo worked for a private sector public relations firm in New York before returning to Nashville, his hometown, to lead communications for Cooper’s administration in April 2022. Cooper announced in January that he would not seek a second mayoral term. Ducklo’s departure was first reported by The Tennessee Lookout.
During his Nashville tenure, Ducklo helped shape the mayor’s office response to multiple pieces of state legislation targeting Nashville, the Covenant School shooting, and the expulsion and reappointment of District 52 state Rep. Justin Jones.
“We’ve been lucky to have him serving his hometown, and (Biden) is lucky to have him back on the team doing what he does best,” Cooper posted on Twitter.
Candidate Bernie Cox could receive $80K injury settlement from Metro
Mayoral candidate Bernie Cox stands to receive an $80,000 settlement from Metro Nashville for a personal injury claim, pending Metro Council approval.
Cox sought damages from Metro after injuring his head and arm in July 2022 while riding his electric skateboard in a bike lane on Commerce Street and Rep. John Lewis Way, according to a resolution slated for Council review on June 20. Cox struck an unmarked large metal plate in the street, which once held a yellow pole meant to separate vehicle traffic from the bike lane, the resolution states.
Cox amassed more than $38,500 in medical costs for treatment of his injuries, including surgery to repair a broken arm and subsequent physical therapy. Metro’s legal department recommended settling the claim for $80,000.
Cox reported empty campaign coffers as of March 31. He previously ran for mayor in 2019, securing less than 400 votes in the general election. Cox did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Upcoming mayoral forums
Wednesday, June 21
Thursday, June 22
- Nashville Mayoral Debate, 6:20 p.m. at Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The debate will be streamed on tennessean.com and broadcast on NewsChannel 5. The debate is open to the public and tickets can be reserved online free of cost through Belmont University. Visit tennessean.com/opinion for more information about the event and ticket reservations.
Monday, June 26
- “For Nashville’s Future” mayoral forum, 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Honey Alexander Center, 2400 Clifton Ave. The event, hosted by Nashville Child and Youth Collaborative in partnership with Nashville Public Radio, will include a “child and youth data walk” with refreshments starting at 5 p.m. The forum and a question and answer period follow from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The event is open to the public with registration required.
Dates to know for 2023 election
- July 5: Voter registration deadline
- July 14-29: Early voting
- July 27: Last day to request an absentee ballot
- Aug. 3: General election day