(Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for length.)
Over the last year, Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell’s district was devastated by a tornado, blown apart by the Second Avenue bombing, center stage for a series of protests over police brutality and racism and ground zero for the debate over the impact of public health orders related to the pandemic.
Those disasters and high stakes debates have placed O’Connell at the forefront of Nashville government. O’Connell is in his second and final term representing District 19, which covers downtown, Germantown, Salemtown, Midtown and Music Row.
When it appeared for a brief time in 2019 he would have a challenger, O’Connell flexed his fundraising prowess, raising about $175,000, which is believed to be a record for a district council seat.
O’Connell, 44, worked his way through the minor leagues of Metro government and Nashville politics, volunteering for nonprofit groups like Walk Bike Nashville and earning an appointment by then-Mayor Karl Dean to the WeGo board of directors. He earned a following among progressives as co-host of liberal radio show Liberadio.
Because of his community activism and fundraising prowess, O’Connell is viewed by Democrats as a possible candidate for higher office. Last week, O’Connell talked with the Tennessee Lookout about the tumultuous year in District 19, his assessment of how the government responded, how he views last year’s property tax increase in hindsight and what his political future may hold.
O’Connell said it was on Feb. 25 last year when his partner, Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Dr. Whitney Boon, attended a clinical presentation called a “grand rounds” about coronavirus. The next week, his district was decimated by the tornado that passed just a few blocks south of O’Connell’s home in North Nashville’s Salemtown neighborhood. O’Connell took shelter with his family as well as a friend visiting with her infant in a room downstairs, but didn’t realize the level of damage until the next day because his phone had died and the area suffered a power outage. After charging his phone the next morning, he received a cavalcade of texts about the damage and walked south toward Jefferson Street to examine it.
And what was that like?
It was crazy. It’s probably the closest that anybody who has never been to a warzone could see that level of devastation. It looked like buildings had been shelled. Utility lines were down everywhere. You had to literally watch your step to not potentially be on a live wire. There were giant chunks of rooftop tangled up in what utility wires were still on poles.
It really did have the appearance of bombs having gone off in and around some of these houses. Kacky Fell, who has her photography studio and home down around Germantown, there was no front portion of the roof. You were looking into an interior space. It was like a diorama. It was crazy. There were so many little, surreal moments like that. I remember walking further into Germantown and seeing signs of the force of the devastating winds. In one of the apartment buildings on Jefferson Street, a piece of wood was slammed into the exterior of the building, just poking out like a flagpole or something. The further I went through the day, the more amazed I was that it tore through the area I’m familiar with, and as many homes got demolished, those big apartment buildings were hit, some of which had to be condemned, and in this whole area the fact nobody got killed in the middle of the night. It’s astonishing to me.
Not just Metro, but for the community as a whole, what is your assessment thinking back to the immediate response?
One of the biggest challenges was the power outage. I don’t know if (Nashville Electric Service) has ever had to respond to something quite like that. The windstorm (later in 2020) had a larger number of Nashvillians lose access to power. I think it crept up over 100,000. But in this case the issue wasn’t downed lines, it was all the poles ripped out of the ground. So they had to do full-scale pole replacement. So, for the vulnerable communities where you do see concentrated poverty in District 19, often in public housing, I was over there trying to get Andrew Jackson Courts back online. We succeeded in getting them turned back on earlier than where it probably would have been in the queue. I think that’s important when you’re delivering relief. So we pushed that and got them online.
The day after the tornado was beautiful, but then a cold snap came in while people still didn’t have power. So we were organizing blanket drops, food drops. We had great support from the Metro Development and Housing Agency and partner organizations that were helping us do this. Gideon’s Army was out everywhere. The mayor’s office got involved at Lee Chapel. (State Rep.) Harold Love was really involved in that effort. I remember that loss of power being so impactful because it wasn’t just our lights were off for a few hours. We lost power here (at his home) for five days. Some places lost power for over a week. There were a couple tough spots in historic Buena Vista and as you went Buchanan Street where they had power outages for 10 days or more. That difficulty in even getting back to the normal comfort for those who didn’t lose their home outright, the difficulty of even being in your home. You might have lost heat. You might have lost all the food in your fridge, and now it’s cold and it’s dark. That was one of the most striking things. There were no street lights. It was hauntingly dark for days.
But the volunteer spirit was very much alive and well especially that weekend when people came through. But we had multiple organizations working hard to bring food assistance, whatever was needed.
The other thing I remember was it wasn’t even a week later after the big volunteer weekend, and then all of us were in safer-at-home orders.
What was it like for a district council member as those first government orders came down from the state and the city and businesses were affected?
When it’s first happening you think, “Can we contain this?” Those first couple days were all about the severity of the illness. We’d seen New York explode and we’d seen New Jersey explode but in terms of case count and severity. And that was after seeing all the problems in Italy that had made global headlines. You’re thinking, “Oh my God, are we going to see Nashville hospitals over-run with people on ventilators and rationing care?”
So much of early public health guidance was about flattening the curve so we don’t do that. My immediate instinct was, “Yeah we’ve got to do that.” I genuinely think all along Mayor (John) Cooper has taken this issue seriously as a mayor. Here’s where you see the partisan outlook that is out there across America right now, and I think Gov. (Bill) Lee was content to allow counties to lead on the issue of COVID-19. I think we had a week or two of very lightly-applied stay-at-home guidance.
The trick is in looking back a year later, I’ll say a couple things. I wasn’t somebody who was leaning into a mask mandate, because the difficulty is what we finally saw when we got one. The moment you issue a mandate, you’ve got to be prepared to enforce it. It is a resource issue, but it’s also – who was the first person we cited? A homeless black guy. That’s not great. The whole lead-up was that we were seeing really crowded bars where no one’s wearing masks, and who do we arrest first? That’s a legitimate problem with having a mandate in effect.
The most frustrating thing from the first six months of COVID-19 was the extremely limited coordination from federal down to state down to local. – Freddie O'Connell
So I can understand how Gov. Lee thought in Tennessee, in a state that’s probably going to be mask skeptical anyway, it’s going to be really hard to do this and have the Tennessee Highway Patrol or county sheriffs in charge of this.
But, the hard part is I don’t think Congress got it right. They did too little with too inconsistent an approach. There was never a two week period where we could have closed most businesses and paid people to stay home. We never took that approach. I think if we had done that, and said there’s a two to six week period to push a stimulus just to that. Businesses are not going to be allowed to fire people. People are going to be paid to stay home. We would have decimated the spread of the virus. Instead we did this kind of piecemeal approach to pay people unemployment, and surplus it, and it’s going to be a little better, but everybody’s still having to go to work and therefore businesses have to stay open.
Outside of the paycheck protection program, that was as far as it went. The most frustrating thing from the first six months of COVID was the extremely limited coordination from federal down to state down to local. We had things we knew were good public health things to do, but we couldn’t connect them to the things that would lead to the business closures, to limit the unemployment cascade.
I also think the other piece that was missing through 2020 is I think Trump politicized way too much of the American response. So mask skepticism ran rampant. We’re going to quickly move from a supply problem to a demand problem on vaccines. If we find 30 to 40 percent of Americans are not willing to get vaccinated, that’s going to be a problem we’re going to have to address.
In terms of the business disputes with Metro services, and your district being at the nexus of that, you’re the epicenter of the city’s restaurant explosion. And you had these restaurants and bars that were shut down or severely limited in service because of the health orders. When you look back, what do you say to the complaint from business owners that the government failed?
To deliver the best of what Metro can offer, I have to know the Metro side and go be an ambassador of that to my constituents, but also to the stakeholders who are almost like constituents, which are all the businesses in District 19.
I got pretty frustrated when I would learn major, new announcements at a press conference. But, also some of the people I’m interacting with would learn major, new things at a press conference. I think of it as I have a mental map of the things in District 19 that need to be a priority for me. And part of it is equity basis, looking at poverty, vulnerability and homelessness. And part of it is the economic side of things, and that’s the huge business community, the entertainment district downtown. In all of those spots I think about the district, it’s knowing who I need to be talking to, keeping in the loop on things, asking questions, reaching out to people.
Are you saying you were frustrated with the mayor’s office because you weren’t hearing about certain announcements so that you could communicate what Metro was doing and why to those stakeholders?
That’s part of it, but also I would hear from those stakeholders and they wanted to know, “Well, are you talking to the mayor’s office?” I was too often hearing frustrations about that. It is a two-fold problem. We just started the COVID-19 committee on the council side. We know we’re going to be living with COVID-19 for most of 2021. We did some things in fits and starts in 2020 like sidewalk cafe permit expansion, to-go and carryout alcohol sales. We did a little bit of stuff around traffic and parking to look at ways you could use space creatively. Those were all good.
But, you could look at our agenda for much of 2020 and we never put focal energy onto COVID-19. So, finally I pushed, and pushed and pushed to have an interactive call with (the mayor’s COVID response task force). We needed to ask questions to get the information out properly.
Council needed to be engaged in the public health decisions. I did not get the sense that (Vice Mayor Jim Shulman) felt the council could be engaged around COVID-19. I disagreed with that then, I still disagree with that. I think council has to be engaged.
Who has great contacts with the community? Metro Council does. I bet across 35 district council members and five at-large members, we probably have more reach than the public health department. That’s a big deal. It’s important for us to be communicating.
I did express to the mayor’s office that it seemed like it would also make sense for there to be at least a dialogue. My general outlook on this is we have a really large council. But on any given day of any given week, it’s an opt-in basis. You don’t, as a mayor’s office or Metro department, have to engage all 40 members equally on all issues all the time. There are some issues that other council members are deeply engaged in that aren’t going to be priorities for me. But I felt, again, that given the contours of District 19 I needed to be engaged in our COVID-19 response and I was not always. I was learning of public health orders that affected District 19 almost exclusively at press conferences instead of talking about them and raising potential concerns, because I know a lot of the potential concerns in my district.
Let’s talk about the tax increase. You proposed an alternative that would have raised taxes less, but you voted for the 34 percent property tax increase. Do you look back and still think that was the right decision?
I look back and I’m not exactly sure still to this day what was real and what was true about what we could have done. My sense is we have a mayor and a congressman (Rep. Jim Cooper) who are brothers. I would expect us as a city to enjoy better and more coordinated federal and local engagement than any other city in America as a result of that, right?
But my outlook on this entire scenario was this was a combined economic and public health crisis. It calls for doing some unusual things, and maybe some short term things to step away from an ordinary framework. The entire premise of the budget proposal I made was let’s break this into two. We know our tax rate was too low since we failed to readjust after the last (reappraisal process and rate adjustment). Multiple budget discussions, multiple property sales, multiple rolling hiring freezes and abandoning a three-year pay plan, all demonstrate our forecasts were too optimistic. We did not drop in the other pieces, like we didn’t pass dedicated funding for mass transit so MTA’s operating subsidy stayed on the books. We didn’t do parking modernization. We didn’t sell the district energy system. Most of these other things that were supposed to fall in place to support not raising the property tax rate way back when didn’t come to pass.
So what we did was adjust the property tax rate lower but we didn’t do any of the other stuff. So what were we left with? A too low tax rate and not enough additional revenues to support it. So that was a problem. We couldn’t just maintain the property tax rate.
The big picture I was looking at was this would devastate people on the business front. So paying business taxes was going to be challenging come FY 21, which was true. And just generally the rate we were going to need to do to maintain the status quo, given the forecast they came up with, was much higher than anybody was anticipating.
But, I also think it was evident the mayor’s office brought the Comptroller in to strong-arm us into supporting their increase. I feel like if I’m in that position the conversation I’m trying to have with the Comptroller’s office is, “Look we know expenses are outpacing revenues. Structurally, we agree with you. But, this is a crisis. Can we look at something under a state facility, or a short term solution, anything where we get a waiver or show over two fiscal years our budget is going to be this, and this, can we do anything else?”
We just didn’t do that.
Fast-forwarding to the bombing. How’d you learn what happened and how did you react?
The scene for me personally was around 6:30 Christmas morning, I hear a thunderous sound, but it’s our girls coming down the stairs because they’re excited about Christmas. That literally might have been the reason I didn’t hear or feel the bombing. Because as they reached my bedroom, my phone starts blowing up. I heard from a friend who said, “You need to go check this out.” Then within a few minutes I realized, “Oh this is not just a gas explosion.”
Over the course of the year, I probably had 1,500 or 2,000 people suddenly lose access to their homes and in some cases lose their homes altogether. So that was the morning of the bombing, again thinking through the complexity of displacement. I think on a quiet morning on Second Avenue on Christmas morning, it can easily escape your mind that above most of those businesses, people are living. There are people who live on and around Second Avenue. I was checking in with everyone I had contact info for. Then when my phone went offline, I was continuing to do it, just more slowly. That made everything that happened all the more challenging. I wound up driving around District 19 to try to find any hotspot I could use just to take my computer with me so I could catch up.
What’s the government response now? What’s the focus?
I’m looking at a (payment in lieu of taxes) program that would be an opt-in for any property owner within the area, probably on Second Avenue from Church to Commerce, where anybody who owned a property could opt-in and for a period of probably an assessment cycle we will freeze your tax rate at a pre-2021 rate. It’s complicated because there are so many different property owners and you have to have the agreement worked out in order to establish the pilot. But I think we can do it, and I think we should do it, and it’s something I’m going to do until it doesn’t pass or somebody tells me there’s a technical reason it can’t go forward. It won’t help anybody who had to submit their taxes for this year, but it can provide multi-year relief for anybody who’s looking to hang on.
We just passed this week something I did work on with the administration and Metro departments, which was waiving permit fees, and expenses. That just passed on second reading.
Are the existing overlays and zoning in place safeguards in preventing tremendous disputes between what property owners want to do as they rebuild and what’s allowed by the city?
My conclusion having done this work for five years is anybody with sufficient financial interest will find a way to create a dispute no matter how strong the safeguards are. If you think you could demolish your building and come away with something much more financially beneficial, even if you probably shouldn’t under the existing regulations, we’re going to see those disputes potentially.
Finishing up, I wanted to talk about the protests that occurred after the death of George Floyd. The policing issue hits home in your district. You have government housing. You have extreme poverty. Policing and use of force was a sensitive issue before George Floyd.
This got to the level of visceral in the moment of the Daniel Hambrick shooting. That’s what moved me from hoping we could improve the language of the Community Oversight Board referendum to support. And I did overall support the issue of community oversight, but I thought it was important to get it right especially if we were going to establish it by charter. I think then-Mayor Briley was correct that it had some sub-optimal components.
I’ll be honest. When I heard reports of an officer-involved shooting, and when I talked to residents and went on the scene that night, at that point I decided to go the next day to sign the petition. I was full-throated in support after that. It showed me, we’ve had this happen twice in this term where police have killed someone in questionable circumstances. Because the previous moment was with Jocques Clemmons when a public hearing got taken over and then-Vice Mayor Briley did a really impressive job of keeping the chamber together, negotiating with a really tense community of people who came out to talk to people and secure reforms.
Then we get into the Driving While Black in Nashville report. I hired a researcher to understand this and to put the best policies in place to help respond.
When I heard reports of an officer-involved shooting, and when I talked to residents and went on the scene that night, at that point I decided to go the next day to sign the petition. – O'Connell on how the Daniel Hambrick shooting spurred his support of a Community Oversight Board
That led to reforms where last term I worked with stakeholders to reform what were called jailer’s fees. We were charging people $44 a day in fees that weren’t going to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, they were coming to the general fund. For what? For the crime of being too poor to pay your own bail to get out of jail. So you’re in jail, can’t post bond, waiting for trial and we’re charging you $44 per day that the Criminal Court Clerk when you finished your trial is going to hand you a bill. So we abolished that.
Because you are term limited, people wonder what is next for you politically. Have you given that any thought?
I think it’s too soon to say. It was kind of like 2015 (when O’Connell first ran.) I didn’t wake up at any point particularly early and decide to run. Right now I guess I feel like I don’t look at this and say the only thing I must do with my life is try to participate in elections and win.
I have had the good fortune of being involved with nonprofit organizations, I’ve been on civic boards and city commissions. I’ve been a volunteer in schools. I feel like I’ve had a rich opportunity to be active in the community and try to make it better for as many people as I have a capacity to do.
I would be interested to see where the redistricting process leaves us, how the city looks at that point, who might also be looking at various local or state offices, and what I think my impact might be.