An interview with Nashville Mayor John Cooper

Mayor John Cooper speaks at his July 16 press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network YouTube channel)
Mayor John Cooper speaks at his July 16 press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville Network YouTube channel)

Before Nashville Mayor John Cooper helmed a city grappling in rapid succession with recovery from a destructive tornado, a historic pandemic and sweeping protests for policing reform, he was a candidate who campaigned on his expertise in the wonkiest areas of Metro government.

A businessman and real estate executive, Cooper touted his experience in finance and land use policy when he ran for the job a year ago.

Redirecting tourism tax revenue. Reforming economic incentives. Fixing the city budget. Brokering better land use deals.

Those were the topics on Cooper’s mind a year ago when he said in the dining hall of the Heritage at Brentwood, a high-end retirement community he spent decades of his life developing, “The greatness of the city is simultaneously large capital plans being executed at the same time, right? And that’s why I wanted to bring you here to see how this project, which is my life’s work, is multiple capital plans being executed at the same time.”

Cooper continued, “I do think in my case particularly where I’ve spent my career, which is finance and land use, that is the way of making a great city. And in both cases, Nashville is fully challenged.”

As fate would have it, Nashville has been challenged in ways Cooper couldn’t have fathomed. Cooper also led the charge to pass a 34 percent property tax increase in order to balance the city’s operating budget.

The Tennessee Lookout’s Nate Rau spent 32 minutes this week interviewing Cooper by phone about his time overseeing Metro following the deadly March tornado, the response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and the racial unrest accompanied by unprecedented calls to change policing in Nashville.

Tennessee Lookout (after reading to Cooper the quotes above): You campaigned on issues like the city finances and land use deals. How has this job been different than what you imagined?

Cooper: I think the finance part of my background has been extremely useful in the last 10 months. Getting Nashville’s budget balanced is a huge achievement and not done without some strain. But I think the reality is that we were able to educate and illuminate the problem to where you had overwhelming council support.

So some of my life, the finance part of it has been super useful in this and the ever-evolving financial response from the federal and the state government is going to require flexibility from us. The financial part of my life has never been more useful. The liabilities part of our balance sheet and managing that is either going to be crushing to us, or it’s going to provide some path for going forward.

The second part of it in the large capital projects, clearly the pandemic is putting a pause to all of that. But, the background in real estate I think is going to be super useful, because I think you can feel the evolution of how cities develop happening right in front of us.

Mayor John Cooper and wife Laura on September 15, 2015, when he was elected to a term as Metro Councilmember at Large. (Photo: Holly McCall)
Mayor John Cooper and wife Laura on September 15, 2015, when he was elected to a term as Metro Councilmember at Large. (Photo: Holly McCall)

A prominent, well-known music person is apparently selling his house and going to move to 12South. Why? He and his family want to live and walk in that neighborhood. You have the village-in-a-city concept, which has already taken root with 12South and is going to be propelled in the COVID era. Downtown office needs may change quite a bit. Retail is clearly changing quite a bit. We probably had 10 years of urban development being fast-forwarded into a shorter period of time. I can’t tell you exactly what that looks like, but having some background in development is going to be super useful.

When you talk to friends and family, everybody remembers that feeling that the world was changing on March 11, 12, 13. Institutions were closing, and just the reality of the seriousness of the pandemic was setting in. What were those days like for you as a mayor, and when did you realize this wasn’t going to be like the swine flu in 2009, but that this was going to be world history you would be leading the city through?

Oh boy, each month seems like a year. I have to think back a bit. My memory of that – and I remember the original Safer at Home order, launching it at 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and calling people in advance of that. There was some consolation to me in that there was a kind of freedom in doing the right thing.

Once you know clearly what the right thing is, you don’t have to suffer anymore. Right? You’re doing the right thing. Being the mayor is kind of different. It can weigh on you the fact you’ve got a responsibility for 700,000 people. But, the freedom is if you’re committed to doing the right thing and always doing the right thing with the best information you have in front of you, then don’t worry about it so much. There are going to be people who will try to be mean. And you know, fine. I’ve got a responsibility here, and I will not be deterred.

I won’t always be right. And in some ways you have to shake off being naturally defensive about possibly making a mistake or not moving quickly enough to recognize something. But if you’re committed to always governing for the many as opposed to the few, there’s a freedom there.

I’ve covered four mayors now, and with the exception of the 2010 flood, the concept that the mayor’s office is dealing in life or death issues has never been a thing. There might have been people who saw your stay-at-home order, and they stayed home and didn’t get the virus and die. And the inverse is true. You might move to reopen, and people might be cavalier and go out and get the virus and die. What has it been like for you on a personal level dealing with and making those life-or-death decisions?

One always wants one’s work to be valued. So from that standpoint, if you went into this with the service aspect of it, you’re completely validated in doing it that way. That doesn’t mean it’s not a daily test of courage. It is. You can go through 100 things where it’s a daily test of courage.

You wouldn’t wish it on yourself, but it is rewarding. And it’s rewarding to be inspired by so many people working so hard. I have a very good vantage point on a whole lot of heroes. I don’t think other mayors got to see that all the time. Now, I also have the vantage point on people who want to make things small and about them all the time. The bigger picture is I get to see a whole lot of heroes working hard all the time.

Here’s the thing about the pandemic: we didn’t really know anything about it when it first showed up. Asymptomatic – we had to learn about that. I mean, we even had to learn that masks are useful. Initially people didn’t think they were that useful. How is it conveyed? How does it affect the health of people? All of that you had to discover in real time and a little bit slowly, probably which would have governed your response. Even right now, closing things at 10 p.m. probably de-masses things. Were these places really spreading things before 10? Probably not. It’s just after 10, when liquor’s being served and then people’s guards go down, you end up having super spreaders. Even super-spreading is something we had to learn. It can be transmitted all at once in a burst or not at all.

So, learning about something so deadly and in real time with such a devastating economic aspect is very hard. All you can do is just to accept the freedom of just governing for the many every day, doing the right thing and don’t let it get you down.

I wanted to ask you about your reopening plan, because when it was first released I was on the sidelines and not reporting at the time. But, I hadn’t seen a plan at any level that was that data-focused and that specific. It said, ‘When we are at this level and we make this amount of progress, we’ll move to the next phase and these things can reopen.’ But as you just described, as you’ve learned more about the virus you’ve had to modify the plan. Hasn’t that also opened you up to criticism where people are saying, ‘Wait a second, why are we going back a phase if these metrics are being met?’ Can you talk about that and how slavish you are to the plan?

We weren’t exactly slavish. Most of our errors were possibly being too tough on areas we didn’t know that much about. So, was tennis that much of a risk in April? Well in retrospect probably not but you didn’t know that. Then at the same time, the (unemployment) benefits run out this week. So you always had a time sensitive mission to try to push the economy as much as you could responsibly. 

  It can weigh on you the fact you've got a responsibility for 700,000 people. But, the freedom is if you're committed to doing the right thing and always doing the right thing with the best information you have in front of you, then don't worry about it so much.   – Mayor John Cooper

When we went from (phase two to phase three), really you had met your metrics. We would now consider it trivial an increase of about 20 cases per day on a 14-day average between going from one to two, then two to three. Now we would say that’s an inconsequential blip.

What you were not prepared for was the 41-state effect. I think Nashville having to revert is not because Nashville went into the next phase really too quickly. There’s frankly not that much difference between phase two and phase three. It’s, how are you ever going to be an island and have a county-by-county response to a global pandemic? And why was it a national finding I think is that nationally everybody got the message that it was kind of over. Or that it was not the same level of crisis.

I do remember, for me personally, about a month ago having to sit down and realize that the first 90 days of COVID were going to be viewed as the easy 90 days in the years ahead. You had a lot of patriotism and the shock of being a brand new life-or-death pandemic. Helping people with the response, and going forward to do this correctly, you’re going to have to be an increasingly better communicator to get people’s buy-in to being part of the solution.

Heretofore, people could rely on government, particularly in phase zero. You were quarantining, you were staying home, you were not out. You weren’t risking anything. As you could not stay in phase zero forever and you had to get back, you have to persuade people and educate people to self-enforce and to turn all of this into a habit. That’s the problem. We’ll know we’re successful when we turn this into a habit.

Also you’re in a country where people have not had to make big sacrifices recently. Everybody has a certain level of grievance or concern. But, if you look at past generations, particularly the Greatest Generation, there was a level of sacrifice: rationing and saving. We’re in a country that hasn’t even had a balanced budget, meaning pay for what we spend, in a generation.

Now, I’m very proud that in Nashville we have a balanced budget and we are paying for what we’re spending. But, nationally there is a level of irresponsibility. Make the next generation pay for it. So we have to relearn a little bit what made us a great country: how to work together, how to make sacrifices and, in our case, leave the city better than you found it. 

Relearning that is not as much fun as it sounds, probably. But, again, Nashville right now is doing fine. We have a balanced budget. We have stable finances for the time being. It’s still going to be threatened by COVID for a period of time. And, we have a fairly good response to very difficult things such as masks. In the end if 80 percent of people follow masks, then statistically like with herd immunity, you’re going to make progress with the disease. Well, are we doing it by 80 percent on our own? I don’t know, maybe not. But we may be doing 75 percent and we can educate or push along the last 5 percent. Now, it may be we’re at 85 percent. We don’t know, it’s part of learning, if we’re at 85 percent or 75 percent. There is a role for education and even enforcement. We have to do it on our own if it’s going to be done. There are too many opportunities for people privately to not make this a habit.

Then, again, to evade and say, ‘It’s up to you to catch me.’ Well if you’re in that environment, you’re never going to get to 80 percent. If people are somehow successfully sold on the idea of being successfully disobedient. Is it fun for me to sort of be a high school principal in a way? Not necessarily. But, I am a high school principal with lots of very good students, good not only academically but good in that they want to do good by their community. That’s inspiring too.

All of this, would I have known that knowing about herd immunity was an important qualification for the job? No. There were no public health questions at any of the debates.

You’ve been referencing something at your media availabilities and you’ve touched on it here again today. You’ve stopped short of criticizing President Trump, for instance, for not nationalizing the response. And you haven’t criticized Gov. Lee, who has kind of handcuffed you by being slower to give stay-at-home orders or reluctant to have a mask order. We’re not an island. The borders to other counties are invisible lines. So doesn’t it handcuff you to keep your 700,000 people safe when the president hasn’t had a national response and the governor has been more reluctant to give those public health orders?

Well, fault-finding President Trump is not that constructive. We need to do what we are able to do. I will say that the state and the state health department, having a positive working relationship with them I believe is beneficial to everybody in the state. Now we have been clear that we would have preferred a state mandate on masks. But the governor did allow counties to do this, and then the counties themselves have reassembled. It’s in keeping, I think, with a local government philosophy, which we all of course respect. The pandemic situation was always going to be the civics teacher’s challenge to a local government philosophy.

When you’ve got to that point in 11th grade and your (answer is) local government, well the teacher is going to say, ‘What about a pandemic?’ So it always had to be the exception. I think the way to change it is the business you’re in, which is public opinion. Nationally and in the state as public opinion changes, governance will follow.

The Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations beginning in late May after the killing of Minnesota man George Floyd by police uncovered a profound cry of America, says Cooper, who has no regrets about speaking at Nashville’s May 30 vigil and demonstration.

So, hey, Trump is wearing a mask. We can do better with a testing response. Part of the complexity of my job and in the country is how do you function without a fourth estate to form public opinion rationally and with the full set of facts, and then use that public opinion to drive what should happen in government? That’s always been the bulldozer that has eroded special interests. In theory right now, you’re driving a big bulldozer because never had the need of the many been so clearly enunciated. And that need to establish itself over the needs of the few, or kind of a narrow philosophy.

If Thomas Jefferson himself were alive, he would want a national response to a pandemic I believe. Actually there was one in Philadelphia and he went home. He closed the Treasury and everybody quarantined, and that was accepted at the time. People were, you know, much more comfortable with that relationship.

I would love for the country to get back to a place of being able to compromise and being able to not overtly partisanize everything. There are differences, but it does not have to be personal or partisan. In the current environment – this may be excluding Washington, who knows what goes on there – having good faith working relationships together I suspect is a better path.

I have been extremely impressed how consistent the governor is himself to wear a mask and encourage masks. He himself sets an excellent example. That hasn’t always been the national case, but he himself sets an excellent example. That has made our path a little bit easier. Because if he had not always worn a mask or been so overwhelmingly supportive of masks, I’m sure it would have been a lot harder on Wilson and Rutherford counties to issue mask orders.

Do you regret in hindsight appearing at the first Black Lives Matter rally?

No, I don’t regret appearing. In retrospect, this uncovered a profound cry of America. For a public official not to be willing to see it and understand it is its own wrong. It is my obligation, having taken that oath, to listen to something so profoundly felt and true.

Nashville did, except for that Saturday night, our protests were peaceful in the city and have exemplified that level of civic engagement. It is a First Amendment protected space. Nobody knew how big it would be, but I have every obligation to be there and listen.

Nashville, Tenn., May 30 - Nashville Mayor John Cooper at the "I Will Breathe" demonstration at Legislative Plaza
Nashville, Tenn., May 30 – Nashville Mayor John Cooper at the “I Will Breathe” demonstration at Legislative Plaza. (Photo: John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

That is the right decision. This is true for everybody. I expressed support for freedom rallies back in April, which are conservative. People have a right to have their political voice heard. Equally, think what a terrible message it would be if the mayor were not listening, right. ‘Oh you didn’t go, you didn’t bother to listen. We have concerns about your police force and you are not here listening?’ That would have been a worse message.

At the time, 95 percent of that audience was wearing a mask. I had everybody stand and stretch out their arms so as to not touch each other and to socially distance. Most people who were there told me, this is not true for the whole, but the first several hours was one of the most inspiring events of their lives. It was really an incredible experience.

I have got to weigh my obligation to hear all the people and particularly something so deeply expressed. So the answer is no. It’s not a Nashville you want to be in where the mayor is not listening to a significant demonstration on a heartfelt need.