Let’s get this party started

It’s time for Nashville’s mayoral candidates to start being candidates

March 9, 2023 6:02 am
Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Metro Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

John Cooper’s choice to forgo a second term as Nashville’s mayor is among the better things that have happened in this city in quite a while. At his 2019 inauguration he declared that “what our fellow citizens want from us is very clear: a focus on neighborhoods, a Nashville where tourism benefits residents, not the other way around.” That may be what the city wanted when they voted for him, but it’s not what they got when they elected him. 

Cooper has been an adequate steward of the Courthouse these last three and a half years. On the upside he closed a few economic development deals of the sort he wanted no part of in his earlier days on the Metro Council, and his administration has navigated more than its share of the unexpected — a tornado, a pandemic, a whacko bombing — with reasonable urgency and integrity, while keeping the city’s finances in some sense of order. 

But Cooper has clearly been out of his depth when it comes to building an administration that can think strategically, plan imaginatively, build coalitions, and pursue forward-looking public policy. And by the way, putting Nashville on the hook to build a two billion dollar temple of excess surrounded by Gulch 2.0 is none of these things. Also depth defying is Hizzoner’s consummate absence of leadership on that pesky little matter of Tennessee Republicans throwing gasoline on the Metro Charter and lighting a match.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced on Jan. 30 he will not seek a second term in office. (Photo: Lookout Staff)
Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced on Jan. 30 he will not seek a second term in office. (Photo: Lookout Staff)

Cooper’s departure transforms the mayoral race from a referendum on mundanity into a much more interesting and wide-ranging conversation on the city’s challenges and its future. Or, more accurately, it will transform it into that conversation—if the bevy of hopefuls who have jumped in will start actually having it. Early returns are spotty. At the political season’s opening mayoral forum on Tuesday, as the Nashville Scene’s Stephen Elliott reported, “all agreed that transit is good, homelessness is bad, and the city has grown less affordable.” 

That’s less than scintillating as meaty political discourse goes, though to be fair it was just the first of what will be many candidate confabs. But it’s easier to spout talking points than concrete plans and arguments, and it’s hard to formulate ideas in a short and costly campaign when your staff is hectoring you to spend more time dialing for dollars. The race will get past the banalities only if the candidates commit themselves to doing so. 

Consider, for instance, the inescapable matter of how pandemic-induced transformations in the nature of work and commuting are remaking the urban and suburban fabric of city life worldwide. Here in Nashville, with lots of cranes in the sky and plane loads of intoxicated tourists on the ground it’s as if nothing has changed. The look and feel of a post-pandemic city is a crucial conversation that our current mayor isn’t leading and Nashville isn’t having. No time for that when there’s a stadium to build and a racetrack to overhaul.  But urban planners and thinkers are having it, as are leaders in other cities, and these discussions bear on pretty much every piece of the mayoral campaign agenda: housing, density, education, economic development, affordability, retail commerce, transportation, crime, and tourism. 

Are the mayoral candidates — eight hats in the ring, and a few still circling — up to running the kind of race that seriously and substantive engages on these issues? By the superficial metric of single-phrase biographies we have a broad set of candidates: council members, community leaders, business types, a state senator, a former school board member. On the demographics there’s a lot of middle-aged-white-guy in there, but half the field are women, and three of eight are of color. At least a couple come off as Republicans. 

Alice Rolli. (Photo: Shannon Fontaine for Rolli for Mayor)
Alice Rolli. (Photo: Shannon Fontaine for Rolli for Mayor)

About those Republicans: I’m eager to see how red-tinged candidates will seek to ingratiate themselves with Nashville’s mostly blue voters at a time when Republicans nationwide are treating cities and their denizens as enemies of civilization, and the Tennessee GOP is well into the second round of its mission to disenfranchise Nashville’s voters and dismember its political integrity. 

One of those poised to give it a shot is Alice Rolli, who recently described herself as “coming from the Lamar Alexander part of the party” — literally true, I suppose, given that she is a former Alexander staffer and campaign official. But when pondering the Lamar part of the party, one should keep in mind that Lamar opposed abortion rights, supported defunding Planned Parenthood, consistently voted to throw people off health insurance by killing the Affordable Care Act, and repeatedly opposed limits on assault weapons and expanded firearms background checks. I wish Rolli the best of luck persuading Nashville voters that the Lamar part of the GOP is what they want in a mayor. 

Also reportedly poised to join the red side of the ring is Tara Scarlett, whose political contributions since Bill Lee took office have been a pair of thousand dollar checks to, you guessed it, Bill Lee. It’s hard to see Nashville’s electorate warming up to a candidate who warms up to the state’s bigot-in-chief and senior enabler of the GOP’s political decimation of our fair city, but it will be entertaining to watch her try.

At his inaugural back in 2019 John Cooper said that “well administered, long-term capital plans will create a great city” and added that “we are the envy of cities in America.” Yes, a city needs a healthy balance sheet, but a balance sheet is not a city. Cooper has been merely adequate as mayor because he lacks a well-informed vision of what a great city is, can be, and should be. Or if he has it, he has shown us that he is unable to articulate it, much less pursue it. 

The now-wide-open mayor’s race gives us a chance to find someone who can. But that happens only if we challenge the candidates to confine the platitudes to living room fundraisers, and drive a public conversation that is more focused, more substantive, and more serious. Let’s get this party started.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.