Analysis: State of the Nashville mayor’s race
A bevy of candidates and ten weeks until early voting
Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Hey kids, with early voting in Nashville’s wide open mayoral race just two months away, let’s check in and see what’s what. The qualifying deadline is still a couple of weeks off, but the field is pretty much set, and forum season — that uniquely Nashville cumulus of collective dog-and-ponies before every possible civic organization — is in full swing. So who’s up and who’s down?
I’ve assessed platforms and prospects by drawing on multiple sources. We have candidate websites and social media for message frames and reach, and I’m also paying attention to campaign email blasts. Especially helpful is a series of in-depth candidate Q&A conversations with Steve Cavendish of the Nashville Banner. I attended last week’s Bellevue Harpeth Chamber mayoral forum to get an unvarnished sense of each candidate’s in-person pitch. And I’ve examined first-quarter financial disclosures to gauge financial viability and organization.
For openers, everyone loves a big chart of numbers so here’s a big chart of numbers — things that can be quantified.
I’m a fan of longshots — hell, I usually end up voting for them — but in a field this big there are inevitably tiers of plausibility. Given their limited fundraising, public profile, and social media presence, I won’t comment on candidates Fran Bush, Natisha Brooks, Stephanie Johnson and Gilbert Ramirez (though props to Johnson for her 4,200 followers on TikTok, which is 4,200 more than anyone else except for WIlhoite’s 400).
The eight that remain can be chunked into two categories: five officeholders, Metro Councilmembers Sharon Hurt and Freddie O’Connell, state Sens. Heidi Campbell and Jeff Yarbro, and Vivian WIlhoite as Davidson County Property Assessor, and three who have never held office — Matt Wiltshire, Alice Rolli and Jim Gingrich.
Let’s take the electeds first.
Second term Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell was first in the race, announcing over a year ago and energetically navigating the hustings ever since. O’Connell is a policy-forward progressive — not one who just reflexively leans left, but rather one who puts in the work. I don’t live in his council district but have kept my name on his list because of the consistent depth and thoughtfulness of his regular pre-council-meeting emails. As a mayoral candidate he is battling the doubts that often surface with go-getter progressives: Can he raise the money? Is Nashville ready for this? And can he raise the money? He surprised observers with better than expected numbers in his 2022 year-end disclosure, and did less-but-still-pretty well in first quarter 2023. He has the resources to run a serious race, but he will certainly be outspent, possibly by a wide margin.
As his confident remarks at the Bellevue forum last week showed, O’Connell has polished the pitch, is not afraid to challenge an audience, and is skilled at working a room. Progressives are already on O’Connell’s side; his uphill climb is convincing establishment Nashville that last year’s frequently heard “he’s a really smart guy who can’t win” take can turn into this year’s “he’s an experienced top tier candidate with as good a chance as anyone.” He’s not there yet but making steady progress.
Councilmember Sharon Hurt was on home turf at last week’s forum, having lived in Bellevue and been a member of its Chamber of Commerce for many years. Described in her campaign bio as a non-profit leader and public servant, Hurt opened her Bellevue remarks with the declaration that “I am an action-driven, results-oriented leader of leaders.” As an elected member of council at large since 2015, she has successfully run twice countywide and is well known as a passionate advocate, especially for underserved communities. Hurt frames her campaign around the idea that Nashville is a “tale of two cities,” which she illustrates with her own daily experience of living in Bellevue while working in North Nashville. The path forward, she says, is to “restore trust in government, and the only way you do that is with truth and transparency.”
If that sounds lofty and inspirational, but kind of light on the details, well, that’s my impression of Hurt as a political figure. In person she is simultaneously charming and forcefully compelling, someone you quickly like and respect at the same time. Reading through Hurt’s Q&A with the Banner you get the sense of someone who is more about vision and justice than policy specifics. Can that be a winning formula? She won’t have the resources some candidates have, but she knows Nashville as well as any of them. As she told the Banner, “I represent people who have been underestimated by politicians, because I am one myself.”
Vivian Wilhoite is the race’s newest contender, having formally announced Friday: she accomplished the rare feat of deploying yard signs and participating in forums before actually getting in the race. A former council member who upset a popular incumbent to win election countywide as Metro Assessor of Property, Wilhoite enters with meaningful political experience and name recognition. It is hard to gauge the substance of her bid since I can find no website and she hasn’t yet done a Banner Q&A. At the Bellevue forum, Wilhoit framed her candidacy as one aimed at “stronger neighborhoods and businesses.” She uttered the word neighborhood 13 times in the first two and a half minutes of her remarks, culminating with “I want neighborhoods to know that I will be a strong neighborhood mayor.”
Wilhoite went on to embed the neighborhood theme in a litany of issues: policing, fire, education, affordable housing, growth, traffic. She largely directed a series of compliments at current department leaders for things done well and previewed meetings she plans to take once in office. No specific proposals were offered, other than a puzzling one about creating a listserv for neighborhoods. To be honest, it feels like a campaign just getting underway — which it is. We know Wilhoite can successfully run countywide, but with her late entry can she find the money and the message to be competitive in a mayoral contest, which is a wholly different animal than a race for property assessor?
And to throw in an uncomfortable wrinkle: will the presence of multiple accomplished and politically experienced Black women in the race make it harder for one to reach the runoff? That’s a question few wish to discuss openly, but which Wilhoite’s late entry inevitably raises.
Sen. Heidi Campbell has the kind of personal biography that seems tailor made for a Music City politico: songwriter and musician in a touring band, then some time in the music industry, and political involvement beginning with a neighborhood concern that led to time on the Oak Hill city commission, including a stint as (commission-selected) mayor. Then, a turn to the state senate where in 2020 she knocked off a pretty popular and non-crazy Republican incumbent. Announcing her run for mayor in early April, Campbell centered the interconnected matters of growth, tourism, and livability with a catchy turn of phrase: “Are we building a city to visit? Or a city to live in?”
An elephant in the room for all candidates is the matter of ongoing conflict between city and state. On this Campbell is more strident than most, declaring that “Nashville is in the middle of a hostile takeover,” but she asserts that her own “experience and relationships” can pave a way to approach the state “with a clean slate and get results.” A recent poll showed that most Nashvillians dislike what the legislature is doing to the city and regard it as a priority for the next mayor. The challenge for Campbell, as a late entrant whose communications to this point have been more about state issues and past accomplishments, and whose campaign website is rather light on Metro-relevant policy substance, is to pivot her messaging to concrete city issues that voters want to hear about. Will she have the money to get a message out? By entering the race in April she avoided first-quarter financial disclosure, but tells me her fundraising started “very strong with over 500 donors in 21 days.”
Like Campbell, Sen. Jeff Yarbro claims that his perch in the legislature has positioned him better than most to dilute city-state toxicity, having “built relationships and established respect with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and inside the administration.” And like Campbell, Yarbro seeks to put a happy face of accomplishment on the reality that Democrats can get very little done in the state house. Now in his third senate term, Yarbro sums up his time there as “trying to be a functional leader in a dysfunctional time.” A native of small-town Dyersburg with degrees from Harvard and the University of Virginia, he has the sort of rural-urban blended biography that is gold in state politics, though perhaps less fetching in a city mayoral race.
Listening to Yarbro at the Bellevue forum, I was reminded that if wordsmithing wins elections, his happy-warrior capacity for nimble locution would make him a front-runner. He is very good at using words to sum up the city’s challenges: “A lot of people in our city feel that growth is happening to us, not for us.” “When we look at the skyline…those cranes don’t represent our highest aspiration of who we are.” “It shouldn’t feel like winning the lottery to find a home you can afford in a safe neighborhood near schools you trust.” Fancy words, but ideas and policies to match? As with Campbell, Yarbro’s pivot to the kind of city/county agenda that many voters seek is a work in progress, though he does have a two-month head start (having announced back in February).
Moving on to the three candidates who are not elected officials:
There is typically a Republican lane in mayoral elections in Nashville, and Alice Rolli has grabbed it. With a message of fiscal austerity blended with a dose of the requisite crime-wave alarmism that often passes for policy substance on the right these days, Rolli looks to be fashioning an updated version of her campaign treasurer David Fox’s unsuccessful (but runoff-making) 2015 mayoral bid. But Rolli entered the race much later and with markedly less name recognition than Fox, who had been school board chair, and Rolli seriously lags the Fox template on the money front. By April of 2015 Fox had raised over $340,000 and loaned himself $1.4 million, whereas Rolli has raised just $63,000 and tossed in $144,000 of her own loot. During the first quarter of 2015 Fox spent over $300,000 on campaign and media consultants. Rolli’s March 31 disclosure shows she has spent less than $5K on consulting, specifically with a Las Vegas firm whose clients include a couple of extreme right-wing members of Congress as well as the nation’s most strident pro-gun lobby.
Professionally accomplished and thoughtful, Rolli frames her bid as a “journey … to reset a lot of things for our city.” The notion of “reset” as a guiding metaphor in a change election feels dry and clinical, and Rolli comes off as a political novice with limited insight into the actual workings of Metro government. Without a base or the resources to flood the zone with her message, her path to a runoff seems elusive. If she does make it, look for a runoff opponent to remind Nashville’s majority blue electorate at every opportunity of Rolli’s 2017 fawning op-ed celebrating the brilliance of Marsha Blackburn, Kellyanne Conway, and (yikes) Diane Black.
We have a different sort of political novice in Jim Gingrich, who engineered AllianceBernstein’s corporate move to Nashville in 2018 while chief operating officer, and moved here along with it. Gingrich, now retired, tweeted on March 15 an appeal for donations because his “campaign relies on grassroots support.” Two weeks later he wrote himself a $1.9 million check, so I guess he and I have somewhat divergent views of the grassroots concept. As with Rolli, Gingrich gives you the sense he’s someone accomplished but not well acquainted with the ins and outs of Metro. Quoting from his profile, he’s “a problem solver, not a politician.” If this election is about leadership and vision, that won’t cut it.
Gingrich has of late been burning some of his cash on 15-second cable ads telling voters he’s running because he is “fed up.” The ads aren’t terrible but it’s an odd way to introduce yourself to voters, which is to say not introduce yourself at all, when you enter a race with zero name identification. He did attempt an awkward sort of self-introduction in his Bellevue forum remarks.
Describing his life since retiring a few years ago as “doing what retired people do, having lazy mornings with a cup of coffee, planning trips, thinking about what bike ride I was going to take in the afternoon,” he said he came to realize the city needs his vision and leadership. Gingrich has impressive credentials (and opposed the stadium deal, so there’s that), but retired-guy-seeks-hobby is not a good look as the basis for a mayoral run in a city you moved to only a handful of years ago.
Though he’s never held public office, Matt Wiltshire is running on his record in public and private sector work—what he calls “a proven track record of delivering results.” Wiltshire, like O’Connell, got in early, announcing in July of last year, and he’s been raising money with gusto ever since. A genial and telegenic fellow who is good at summarizing issues without necessarily offering specific positions or commitments, Wiltshire is the candidate out of central casting (middle aged white male division) whose non-elective gigs in three mayoral administrations have had him rubbing elbows for years with the city’s movers and shakers.
This is probably why Wiltshire scores well in Bruce Dobie’s Power “Poll” (poll in quotes because it is an unscientific survey of business, political, and institutional professionals, not an actual poll). Dobie’s survey asks for predictions, not preferences, and there are reasons to believe that Wiltshire is not nearly as well known among the broader electorate. As he spends his prodigious war chest to broaden voter acquaintance with him in the coming weeks, Wiltshire will need to carefully navigate the risk of being seen as a participant in problems associated with growth that Nashvillians are hoping the next mayor will solve.
Getting the most from forums
So if that’s the field, then where is this race? We don’t yet have any public independent polling, but the Campbell campaign shared with the Tennessee Lookout an internal poll in mid-March conducted by venerable DC-based research firm GQR. The poll — which presumably helped convince her to enter the race — had Yarbro and Campbell leading with 17% and 13%, respectively, followed by Hurt and Wilhoite both at 9%, O’Connell at 8%, and Wiltshire at 5%, with Rolli and Gingrich barely registering. Candidate favorability ratings tracked in roughly similar ways. Factoring in the large share of undecided voters and the poll’s 4.4% margin of error yields a close race, just about anyone’s to win or lose.
In an open race’s early stages, building name identification is the first order of business, and it’s no surprise that undecideds lead all candidates. In the GQR poll, only Campbell and Yarbro had name IDs above 50%, with the other electeds O’Connell, Hurt, and Wilhoite all hovering around 40%. Wiltshire was known to 30% of those polled, Gingrich was in the mid-twenties, and Rolli in the high teens. But that was March, and campaigns are now in full swing, with copious events and forums and some press coverage, so the name-ID numbers are no doubt creeping up. Yet with ad buys and field operations just getting going, and no genuine candidate debates until mid-May, there is little reason to think the horse race has shifted very much.
The campaign from here is packed with candidate forums — some two dozen of them between now and the middle of July, and more surely to be squeezed in. Some, though not enough, will be streamed, and few will have a true debate-like format, but even so a good many voters — especially influencers from whom others seek opinions — will have their preferences shaped by forums.
They may grow insufferably tedious for candidates over time, but forums can be genuinely useful if (a) they focus on issue subsets with candidates asked to respond to specific and probing questions, and (b) they are live streamed or made available for online viewing afterwards. And with apologies to the also-rans, it is not political malpractice to make choices on candidate invitations that hinge on fundraising, polling, or organizational heft.
In forums, interviews, and living rooms, candidates should be pressed to offer specific policy intentions, not just articulate repeatedly the myriad issues they — and we — all agree are pressing. To mention just one possible example, instead of asking “What is your view on transit?” how about “How specifically will transit in Nashville look different in four years than it does now if voters give you the job?”
Had Nashville Mayor John Cooper opted to seek another term, the race would be a referendum on his essentially adequate but undistinguished stewardship of the office. But in an open race with a majority of voters believing the city is on the wrong track, the opportunity to engage in a serious and substantive conversation on Nashville’s future lies before us. We have ten weeks. Let’s seize it.
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