Jeff Yarbro at the Tennessee State Capitol Credit: Photo Courtesy Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus

Senate minority leader Jeff Yarbro jumped into the mayor’s race two weeks ago, joining an increasingly crowded field to succeed John Cooper. Yarbro first appeared on the political scene as a young upstart who nearly knocked state Sen. Doug Henry from his three-decade tenure in the Senate in 2010. He succeeded Henry in 2014 and has been on a short list of “Democrats to watch” ever since. The Banner talked with Yarbro about why he decided to get in now, whether a current state legislator is right to manage the city and state’s fractured relationship and what he thinks are the biggest issues in the race.

Why do you want to be mayor?

I believe in Nashville and its people. But right now this city is at a crossroads. When it comes to who’s going to decide our future, lots of people want to direct the future of our city. That includes investors from all over the country and legislators from all over the state. But the people of Nashville are the ones who need to write our own story going forward. And sometimes, it feels like our city hasn’t made the people who live here and work here and raise families here the top priority. We see the stadiums, the skyscrapers, the neat restaurants. But I genuinely don’t think any of that matters unless this is a great place to live and people can actually afford to live here. And the cranes that are in our skyline signal growth, but they don’t represent our highest aspirations or the values that we hold most dear. I think our greatness comes from the people and the communities that make Nashville the city it is, and I think it’s time for the city to start acting like it again.

So what makes you think that you are uniquely qualified to run the city?

There’s a challenge we face in Nashville right now where our relationship with the state government isn’t necessary to progress and is a potential barrier to our success, if not an existential threat. Whether you’re talking about public school funding, transportation, housing or our very right to self-government, it’s imperative for the next mayor to reorient our relationship with the state. I’ve got a track record over the last nine years of standing up for our city and our values when they’re on the line. But I’ve also found ways to work around those disagreements to build coalitions and to get work done for the city and for the state and Nashville can trust that’s exactly what I’ll do as mayor.

You brought up the relationship. And I think it is top of mind for a lot of people. Is your time in the state legislature a plus or minus in dealing with this kind of rift between city and state right now? On the one hand, you know everyone involved. But on the other hand, you’re on the bottom of a lot of votes and have spent a lot of time criticizing the targeting of Nashville by Republicans. 

I’ve been at the center of trying to address those relationship problems for the last decade with the last four mayors. And I know the difference between when the city is genuinely united and has built a coalition of support around a common vision and the opportunities that are available to the city when that happens. But I’ve also seen what happens when it feels like everyone’s out for themselves and how we can get picked apart in moments like that. And I’ve also built relationships and established respect with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and inside the administration. While we disagree, they work with me, and we solve problems together. And when we fight, we fight respectfully with one another. And I think that that is what has fallen aside, somewhat, in recent years, and I think we have to make it a priority to reorient that relationship. That doesn’t mean that the city should come hat in hand to the state to become whatever kind of city the Republican supermajority would like us to be. Because we can’t lose what makes Nashville the amazing place that it is. We’re successful because we’re not a carbon copy of the rest of the state. And we have to be willing to stand up for who and what we are and build a relationship around that fundamental respect.

There’s a standoff right now between the city and state over hosting the Republican National Convention. Would you approach this differently than Mayor Cooper has?

Yes, because I think the mayor has to have the ball in this situation. We should be very open to hosting a major party political convention, because we as a city are ready to do it. But we shouldn’t choose to do it because the legislature’s got a gun to our head. We should make that decision based on whether it makes sense for the city from an economic security and a reputational assessment. But we can’t send a signal that Nashville is welcoming to everyone except the folks who disagree with us. And I don’t think that even represents the kind of city Nashville is. We let Kid Rock own a business. And there’s lots of folks that don’t like him. And we have conventions from all sorts of different ideological perspectives all the time. And I think that we as a city genuinely welcome and embrace people who are visiting our city, and that should be the norm.

So, Mayor Cooper has said back to the state, “Okay, you know, we’ll put in for both, the DNC and RNC in 2028. But it has to go through the council.” Do you think that’s the right way to do it?

Look, I don’t think the job right now is to backseat drive how Mayor Cooper is handling these negotiations with the state legislature. But I do think it’s going to be critical going forward that the mayor, this Metro Council, the business community, and the civic leaders across the city, regardless of their political orientation, try to get on the same page about what matters to Nashville’s1 process and, and let that drive our decision.

Do you think Nashville right now is on the right track wrong track?

I believe the people of Nashville are on the right track. But I think there’s a serious disconnect between the people and how they experience government and politics day to day in our city. In this somewhat broken era of politics and diminished trust in city and state government, I think that we have to build back trust with the community. 

Come on, the people of Nashville are on the right track?

So I actually mean that quite intentionally, because when I go to talk to people, regardless of what part of town, regardless of what kind of folks they are, I think they understand what makes Nashville a special place. I think they understand what the character of the city is. And I think they want to see that reflected in their government. And I don’t think they feel that it is reflected in their government every day. 

One of the biggest problems that Nashvillians face — and you see this coming up, increasingly, in polling and in surveys and just kind of general sentiment — is the cost of living. Do you think a mayor can do anything about the cost of living?

I think a mayor can and must do something about the cost of living. You can’t have a great city, if the teachers, cops and firefighters who make it work, can’t afford to live there. And especially for a city like Nashville that has a significant hospitality industry, that is not going to be a recipe for economic success if the people who work in that industry have to have expensive hour-long commutes at the beginning and the end of every shift. We have to do something about affordable housing, and the cost of living generally. Cities that have faced this dilemma and failed to meet that challenge have kind of come to regret that. And Nashville got to get a handle on it while we still can’t.

So what’s one thing a mayor can do?

Well, let’s take housing. First, you have to build more affordable housing. Second, you have to make it easier and faster to build more affordable housing. Third, I think you can ensure that you’ve got the infrastructure and transportation system in place to support a city with more affordable and workforce housing. And I think, fundamentally, you also have to guarantee the citizens of Nashville, that they’re not sacrificing the safety of their neighborhoods or the character of their community in order to achieve that greater affordability.

Do you support a new Titan stadium?

Fundamentally, yes, because the east bank of the Cumberland River being a concrete parking lot, is a terrible use of space. Nor does it make sense for us to dump taxpayer dollars into an outdated facility that’s likely going to need replacement a few years down the road either way. I still think the success of that depends a great deal on implementation, and ensuring that you’re not just creating a gentrification engine in East Nashville, and that you’re not utterly disrupting the lives of the people who already make their home in that community. I think there’s a deeper issue at play here, too, that’s built on the trust of Nashvillians in the development that they say. I don’t think that Nashville resents that there’s big league sports in our city. I think primarily we are fans and appreciate those teams that make Nashville Nashville. But I do think that the people here are frustrated that we seem to only build stadiums. I think we can get around to stopping pedestrians from getting killed in between building stadiums. We can ensure that our public schools are funded and that sidewalks are built in between big projects. I think Nashville wants to be a city that can walk and chew gum at the same time. But I think we’ve got to prioritize the people who live and work in Nashville. It’s time that we invest in ourselves.

Let’s talk about education here for a second and about funding, because Nashville pays for its teachers significantly above and beyond what the state does. And that source of state dollars has been a real sore spot. Karl Dean, for instance, did not support suing the state in order to get greater funding. Megan Barry did. And Nashville joined the suit against the state over its funding formula. Do you support litigating with the state in order to force them to fund Nashville schools more or is there a different approach that you would take?

The single most important issue for the future of the city is the quality of our public schools and the opportunities that are available. The job of the mayor isn’t to micromanage the schools. But I do think the role of the mayor is to ensure that there’s adequate funding. It is far better for the city to partner with the state to address the chronic underfunding of public education in Tennessee. But the mayor has to be willing to enforce the law if Nashville’s children aren’t getting the support and resources they need. But regardless of what the state role ultimately is. Nashville’s mayor has to ensure that we’re not letting the availability of resources hold our kids back. That doesn’t mean that schools get a blank check. But it does mean that we’ve got to ensure that they’ve got the resources needed to do the job.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Nashville that the next mayor is going to have to tackle?

Nashville is and will remain a good place to make a living. We have to ensure that it’s a great place to build a life. To me, that means we have to have safe neighborhoods with affordable homes and great public schools and city services that people can count on. It means that we have to have a transportation system that is functional and doesn’t lead to parents having to go a different route every day when they’re dropping their kids off at school. And I think we’ve got to focus like a laser on ensuring that we’re making Nashville an easy, great and affordable place to live.

You were hosting a fundraiser last month for your Senate campaign. And as you were thanking folks, one of the people that you called out in the room was Matt Wiltshire, who you said is a good friend, someone you are glad to support for mayor. What’s changed in the last four weeks?

I didn’t endorse anyone for mayor before Mayor Cooper’s announcement. But there’s no question that Matt Wiltshire and Freddie O’Connell, and Sharon Hurt are all very good friends of mine. I probably have a longer, closer relationship with Matt. But I’m friends with a lot of people in this race. And I think that’s not surprising that people who have been involved in the life of this city come to be friends, but also have different visions and different hopes for what they want to see out of this campaign and this big decision that’s ahead of us.

So what changed?

The people of Nashville elected me to serve in the state Senate, and I can’t do my job and be running against the sitting mayor. I speak with that office two or three times a week, if not more, and have done so with mayors, Dean, Barry, Briley, and Cooper, because that’s the job that I was elected to do. When that barrier was lifted, and recognizing the intensity and volume of threats that are coming from the city’s relationship with the state, I felt a type of calling to be in this race and to at least present my hopes and plans for the city to the citizens so that we have the best chance we can as a city moving forward. That doesn’t mean that the city will choose me, it doesn’t mean that the city will choose my plans. But I think that we all benefit from having a debate right now, not about what was wrong about the last four years, but about what Nashville’s got to get right in the years ahead.

We are, as of this discussion, about 150 days from early voting. And you and I have talked for a while about this race and what it’s gonna cost. Say this is a $2 million race. In order to win, you’re gonna need to raise somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 a day, every day, seven days a week to be competitive. How much money do you think you can raise?

We’re 100 percent confident that we’ll be able to raise the money we need to communicate the choice to voters and be in a position to win this election. I’m not a millionaire. But there are a lot of folks who live in Nashville who aren’t millionaires. And they have just as big a stake in the city’s future as those who are. Our city is at its best when it’s actually about us and we come together. And so I’m gonna need to really reach out to people to make an investment in the campaign and an investment in the future of the city.

You moved like $148,000 over from your Senate campaign account. Do you anticipate putting any personal money into the race as well?

My plan is to raise enough money to be able to run this race. I would hope not to put a great deal of personal resources into play, because I frankly don’t have the personal resources to do that, like other candidates can. But I think that the people in Nashville don’t want the prerequisite for being the mayor to be a millionaire.

What do you want people to think about when considering your candidacy?

Campaigns at their best aren’t about the candidates. They’re about the voters. And I want to run a campaign that reminds people in Nashville of why they have pride in this city. Why we believe in each other and how we’re going to come together to shape our future as opposed to being bystanders in it.

(Photo courtesy of the Senate Democratic Caucus)

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...