Home stretch

A mayoral race nobody can predict heads for the (first round) finish line.

July 6, 2023 6:02 am
Nashville mayoral candidates, from left: Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Stephanie Johnson, Metro Councilmember Sharon Hurt, Sen. Heidi Campbell, Natisha Brooks, Matt Wiltshire, Councilmember Freddie O'Connell and Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Four of the seven women running for mayor of Nashville, photographed during a June forum. From left: Stephanie Johnson, Councilmember Sharon Hurt, Sen. Heidi Campbell and (Photo: John Partipilo)

The eight (significant) contenders for mayor of Nashville have been slogging their way through summer heat and humidity long enough to show those paying attention who they are and how they think about the city. But the reality is that many haven’t been paying attention: for elections of this sort (municipal races in odd-numbered years) voters tend to come late to the party. The large chunk of the electorate that may well determine the outcome is only now tuning in as TV ads ramp up, print pieces hit mailboxes, doors get knocked and the onset of early voting approaches.

In previous columns we’ve put the mayoral hopefuls under the microscope, analyzing tactics, mechanics and finances. Here I propose we zoom out for the bigger, if admittedly more superficial, picture and contemplate the essential rhetorical idea guiding each of these campaigns. For months the eight hopefuls have been doing what candidates do: polishing and pitching their messages incessantly at forums and community events, in living rooms and on social media. What, for each, is the single catchy theme (or two) that has come to define each campaign, and how is it playing?

A couple of thematic common denominators cut across (and to an extent distinguish) the campaigns. One is issue oriented — in particular, the conviction that growth and tourism have turned toxic, crowding out attention to the quality-of-life issues that most affect people who live here. The other is more candidate focused, invoking the kind of experience and leadership a particular individual is offering. 

Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell has played the growth-and-tourism card on two fronts. Early on there was his bullish appeal to disaffected Nashvillians: “I want you to stay.” The clever part of that line is its ability with linguistic economy to blend a shared sense of reality that things are amiss with a roseate invitation to buy into optimism that things can be made better. Onto that appeal O’Connell layered his now familiar wish for “more ville, less Vegas,” which finds entertaining expression in his TV ad riffing on bachelorette party culture that recently started airing. Again clever, but too downtown-centric? Are these themes that can sustain relevance and resonance with the many in the county who don’t measure their quality of life against the opportunity costs incurred and foregone by the madness downtown? 

Nashville mayoral candidates Jeff Yarbro, Freddie O'Connell and Matt Wiltshire backstage before a June 15 forum at Nashville Children's Theatre. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville mayoral candidates Jeff Yarbro, Freddie O’Connell and Matt Wiltshire backstage before a June 15 forum at Nashville Children’s Theatre. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Sen. Heidi Campbell does her own version of the “ville-Vegas” contrast with her most often repeated catchphrase: “Are we building a city to visit or a city to live in?” I liked that line the first time I heard it but on reflection found its deeper meaning enigmatic since of course the answer is both. A canny thing the Campbell campaign did, though, was bridge that theme to governing, titling her 15-page policy book “Building a City to Live In.” The ideas within may not depart terribly much from those of her rivals — let’s face it, the issue-based daylight separating most of these candidates is quite limited — but Campbell’s branding on this is shrewdly conceived, and in communication terms easy to replicate across platforms and contexts.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro also targets growth and quality of life with his frequently uttered observation that “it feels like our city’s growth is happening to us, not for us.” It’s a good line because it moves past critique to consider agency — the question of who gets to choose the city’s future — and Yarbro adroitly ropes in as foils the whole lineup of currently popular targets: that nasty legislature, greedy investors, and those dreaded out-of-town developers (adjectives mine). But unlike O’Connell and Campbell, Yarbro refrains from explicitly singling out tourism as a particular culprit. The many among us who earn their keep in the tourist economy may not appreciate being tied into all that ails Nashville. Yarbro walks the line between celebrating and denigrating the economic and cultural tyranny of downtown tourism more deftly than some of his opponents.

Even though Matt Wiltshire has been in the race for a year, has pulled in more not-his-own-money than the others, and has the broadest media strategy of any candidate, pinning down his campaign’s thematic epicenter can be a bit of a challenge. At a recent panel discussion on the mayoral race, three of the city’s top political reporters were asked to identify the central idea of Wiltshire’s candidacy; awkward silence ensued. (Note: Tennessee Lookout Editor Holly McCall was a member of the panel.) 

Early on Wiltshire pitched his campaign as a bid to become “a mayor for all of Nashville,” which seems like the sort of pedestrian tagline consultants conjure up as a substitute for substance, but apparently it’s good enough for Vivian Wilhoite to use as well so go figure. (Wiltshire, who entered the race long before Wilhoite, used it first.)

Jim Gingrich’s core messaging pushes his experience as a business executive who ran shit. Touting himself as the “only mayoral candidate with any experience close to running Metro,” he promises to “protect the soul of our city” by actually doing stuff instead of just writing reports and then doing nothing with them, like all those politicians he insists he’s not one of.

 Is this outsider-guy-who-means-business thing catching on? Early polls weren’t encouraging, but Gringrich’s mostly (and vastly) self-funded campaign has sought to move the needle by outspending the field from the get go — now at $1.2 million in TV ads, with the size of his weekly buy expanding as we edge into July.

 Wiltshire also likes to stress to audiences his own past professional history (public and private sector; inside and outside of Metro government), though that experience-focused angle doesn’t seem to have much of a presence in Wiltshire’s own heavy spend on advertising.

Like Gingrich with his riff about politicians who write reports but do nothing, Alice Rolli has rooted her campaign in the rather simplistic (and perhaps semi-narcissistic) notion that everyone who came before her was bad bad bad. “If we keep electing the same people we can’t expect a different result,” is her go-to way of putting it.  Rolli is also fond of saying that taxes are too high and crime is off the charts (a not-so-subtle way of reminding everyone she’s the Republican in the race), asserting that “we can love Nashville and we can love Tennessee” (a not-so-subtle signal to the right that she’s perfectly okey dokey with the state’s all-out political assault and battery on Nashville) and noting that she’s “the wife of a combat veteran” (a not-so-subtle way of letting conservative voters know … something). 

Metro Councilmember and mayoral candidate Sharon Hurt, photographed at a June 2023 forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Metro Councilmember and mayoral candidate Sharon Hurt, photographed at a June 2023 forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)

With plenty of angst out there about the city’s trajectory (backed up by underwater right-track/wrong-track polling), this incumbent-free race sure looks like a change election. Yet it is intriguing to locate Metro Councilmember Sharon Hurt as the only candidate hammering explicitly on the concept of “change” as a central theme: “I am building a movement for positive change.” “I am the change that Nashville needs.” And my personal favorite: “If nothing changes then nothing changes” (which at first I thought was frivolous, and is not original, but after a few listens began to grow on me). Hurt’s core messaging is unique in seeking to marry compelling personal leadership qualities with splashes of vision about change, as opposed to the more tepid and perfunctory management tropes we mostly get from the others. 

And while we’re on the subject of alternatives to tepid management tropes, we can’t not mention Campbell’s frequent assertion that “Nashville needs a mom.” Repudiating the mayor-as chief-executive schtick that spews so naturally from middle-aged white guys with business backgrounds, Campbell says a CEO “is not what we need” because moms “always find a way.” 

Nothing against motherhood and apple pie, but I am still waiting to encounter a single person dialed into the race (of any gender or maternal psychodynamic) who thinks this is a good messaging gambit for a mayoral candidate. A veteran campaign guru reminded me the other day that it goes against most of what research tells us about effective strategy when women seek executive branch offices. 

Early voting begins next week and it’s still a wide open race. A month ago it was a tightly bunched field competing for a rather large plurality of undecided voters. Now it feels like a tightly bunched field with a presumably diminished (someone somewhere must be making up their mind) but still sizable share of undecideds. Absent any good new polling since early June — I’d settle for some bad polling at this point — and with ad spending and field work ramping up for the final push, at least half a dozen campaigns can envision (or at least imagine) a path to making the runoff. It could well be an exceedingly slim margin on Aug. 3 separating the second place finisher who makes the runoff and the third place finisher who gets their life back. Insert every-vote-counts cliche here.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.