Freddie O'Connell Credit: Campaign photo

Why do you want to be mayor?

I want to be mayor because there has never been a more important time for a leader in this city to tell people that he wants them to stay. Besides the policy assault we’re being subjected to from the state of Tennessee, we’ve got cost of living and quality of life concerns that we’ve just never had. Last year, when I was in one of my very first living rooms, somebody heard me talk. “So I’m hearing three things — I’m hearing, trash, transit and trust.” And really, each of those is a literal thing in the sense that, yes, I went out and picked up recycling myself when the city wasn’t. I have long been an advocate of transit. And I’ve long focused on a communication approach and an accessibility that leads to trust. But these are also bigger things. These are core city services and delivering excellence and having Metro be a premier customer service organization. This is the vision that binds transit to our housing policy to our educational opportunities to workforce development. And the bigger picture that big cities are supposed to have — and the trust piece is coming back to it — of having a mayor you can trust to fight for your belonging here.

Let’s talk about the trash piece of that. You did go pick up all your neighbors’ recycling when the city suspended it in the middle of a kind of mini-meltdown of garbage. What is it about city services and running a city that a mayor has to do well, and what can we do better?

I fret a little bit every time we get somebody who comes in and says, “I’m a business person. It’s time to run government like a business,” right? Because government is not a business. Government does need to do some operational things well, but we’re not here to create a profit. In fact, in so many ways we’re doing the things that state capacity is for. And so this is leadership. This is management. And this is just the act of governing. And so some of this is a coordination and a morale piece, right? This is making sure that every metro department is on the same page when it comes to how we’re responding to requests that come in to Hub Nashville, one of our most important interfaces to government, created by the Barry administration. This is making sure every Metro department head is empowered to lead on the mission that each of them has. This is waking up every day and knowing that a group of civil servants’ priority No. 1 is the residents of this city.

There is an increasingly large field of candidates, all of whom bring various things to the race. What do you think makes you uniquely qualified to be mayor?

So, I’ll say two things about this. I believed we needed a change last year. I mean, you were one of the first people I talked to about this. In my view, if you weren’t challenging the status quo, then you were defending it. Right. So a willingness to challenge the status quo last year sets me and a small number of people apart. Similarly, we have been through an intense volatility and disruption in our local government that began when an administration last term did not complete the term intact, and so we had three mayors in three years. We’ve had multiple department heads turn over. We’ve had significant turnover in the mayor’s office this year. If you don’t have an in-depth understanding of Metro’s fiscal history over the past five or six years, if you’ve never reviewed a Metro budget and looked at where the cost of government is coming from, this is not your moment. Let me throw one more thing on the pile there: In terms of vision, I also believe firmly that I am the only candidate in this field that is going to invest deeply, thoroughly and consistently in building a transit and infrastructure scenario that a top-25 American city needs and deserves. 

You brought up transit. Nashville voted down a transit proposal in 2018, and it seems like every time we do this, whether it was the rail proposal then or whether it was the Amp proposal five or six years before, we seem to kick this can five years down the road, and we’ve done little outside of reorganization. What is something that the city can do that is meaningful about transit?

Sure, this is a great question. And fortunately, it’s one that’s got an easy and ready answer. Not long after I first took office, WeGo public transit, formerly Nashville MTA, submitted to the attention of the Barry administration a letter outlining a fantastic program that would deliver the framework of a frequent transit network – basically a better bus system that showcased the most visible, useful and popular elements of helping people not have to come downtown every time they want to get to another part of the city using transit, shortening people’s commute times, putting transit investment right into key Nashville communities. We just cut the ribbon on the North Nashville Community Transit Center. We’ve got a huge opportunity to put one in Southeast Nashville where we now own a mall. We’ve got a potential opportunity to put one on the East Bank, regardless of what the future is over there. We already own land for one South of Broadway that would give MTA incredible flexibility. And this program, to your point, when I was on the MTA board, prior to joining the Metro Council, Mayor Dean made sure for his entire two terms in office to offer incremental investments in transit. And when he did, we saw ridership grow faster than population. That’s exactly the right trend to be on. We have not continued those investments consistently. If we follow WeGo’s near-term playbook and prepare for a bigger conversation, we can do so much better. This is about demonstration of reliability. We have a strategic opportunity to pursue in the near term that fits within our existing operating and capital capacity. And this is what we’re going to do when I’m mayor.

Affordability is top of mind with a lot of different people for you already mentioned. What’s something tangible that a mayor can do about the affordability crisis that we’re facing?

We were just talking about it, Steve. Transit is affordability. It should never be decoupled from our conversation about cost of living, and I’m living proof of that. The only reason I’m a homeowner is transit, because I was able to forego the cost of owning, maintaining, insuring and fueling a car for years enough to secure a downpayment for my house. If that becomes available to more Nashvillians, then we have just cut the cost of living for that household. If you look at the Economic Policy Institute’s data for Nashville, the cost of transportation for Nashville households is on par with the raw cost of housing, including utilities. It’s a huge cost. In three years, we will be able to reduce that cost dramatically for a large number of people. Even those who can do it a few times a week or take time out of their commute to reinvest in either time with their family or other economic opportunities for themselves is a huge, huge deal. So transit policy is almost the same as affordable housing policy. 

Meanwhile, it’s a “both, and.” It’s a walk-and-chew-gum, because we have a great housing division that has emerged at the planning department, which was part of an effort I spearheaded that also saw us create a standalone office of Homeless Services. There is a huge opportunity there to continue investing in that, I think. Before much longer, and this would be a specific goal of my administration, we will have a standalone Office of Housing, as well, that produces sustainable scenarios for the long term. It’s great to have it out of the mayor’s office. It’s great to have it on the table as a singular priority for the city, and I want that housing office to work closely with transit. We’ve done it before. Mayor Purcell was part of an affordable housing and transit task force that went along with some previous transit initiatives, and that’s exactly the right way to think about the issue. So we have some near-term capacity. We’ve been working on a program of improving our own awareness of all the [public] land and buildings, and buildable opportunities within our public land footprint, within our housing authority. And if we take those opportunities strategically, blend them with our tool kit and talent within Planning’s housing division, we’ve got significant opportunities over the near term to continue making meaningful investments and bringing people’s cost of living down — specifically for housing, and then also on the transit side.

I think you said you were born at Baptist Hospital here in town. Nashville’s changed so dramatically within the last 10 years. I hear from a lot of people who’ve lived here for decades who say that this is not the town for them anymore. Why are you here?

Me? The people. I came back because friends were here. I came back because friends were returning. I specifically went away, and I specifically chose to go to college out of the area because I wanted some different experiences and to see different parts of the country. And I’m really glad I did that. But I will also say as much as I experienced the nostalgia as a native, honestly, considering where the city was when I was returning, we can see the lessons that great cities don’t happen by accident from some of the important investments that then-Mayor Bredesen made. But those also are directly connected to some of the cultural pieces. We have a much more interesting landscape in the creative spaces, like art and fashion, and it has changed a lot through the years. But it’s also expanded. The downtown Art Crawl now has pushed into Wedgewood Houston and Germantown, and before COVID, along Jefferson Street. And, you know, that is one of the reasons I stay is to take advantage of those cultural opportunities. You know as well as anybody, Steve, that our culinary landscape has improved dramatically. We still have a shocking number of very successful meat-and-threes. And I love existing in a city that can give me both great pimento cheese and milkshake at Elliston Place, but also has a craft cocktail like it wasn’t possible to get 15 or 20 years ago.

Name an issue that we’re not talking enough about right now.

I think the ways in which we’re talking about the people that are falling the furthest behind the fastest needs more attention. And so I say this as somebody who worked, in my first term, to eliminate so-called “jailer’s fees,” and then that was kind of a prelude to what became the 37208 committee and sort of the work of that. And even in the conversation that we had about the Jefferson Street cap, we’re not talking about, again, how we prioritize the many communities that exist within Nashville and are intentional about it. You know, we don’t talk about turning the city from a demand-response government into an outreach-motivated government that knows where places that had been neglected are, or knows where people that should have been included long ago are and invites them in — not just with opportunity, but to participate, I mean, from a boards and commissions standpoint, to staffing models, to really just inviting people back into our public schools and celebrating success where they exist. It starts with a comprehensive understanding of where people’s needs are. And I’ve seen it in the way that Community Achieves as a really successful model of kind of wrapping around Metro schools and thinking about schools as opportunities to do so much more than just be classrooms with teachers and students in them, and really to be hubs of pulling the community into the school, and helping think about what achievement means in a bigger, broader context. That’s something we don’t talk enough about.

You’ve staked your reputation as being a liberal/progressive. There is an antagonistic legislature and state government led by Republicans who are sharply dismissive of a city led by a Democrat. How are you going to approach the problems that the city-state relationship has right now?

I would say it this way: It turns out that a lot of my policy priorities have a lot of resonance within progressive communities of Nashville. But it also turns out that the approach that I’ve taken — one that is thoughtful and deliberate and focused on good governance and effective returns on the investment of taxpayer dollars — has produced great support from Republicans. Right? One of the things I’m proudest of is despite the ways that I have pursued policy priorities. I think people appreciate that I’m trying to do this from the standpoint of having an effective Metro government, and we’ve got a bipartisan donor community and base of support. I think that’s really important for going in to have conversations. I’ll say it this way: Anybody who is offering an electorate the idea that they’ve got the secret incantation for deciphering the state and local relationship is either bad at it or lying because they would be doing it right now. It’s going to require deep and sustained investment in personal relationships. It’s going to require taking conversations off of Twitter and out of rumor mills, and honestly, having a mayor frequently travel to other communities around Tennessee just to build relationships and exchange contexts. And I expect as mayor, I’m going to have to not just be on the first floor of City Hall, but frequently at the Cordell Hull building, in the governor’s office, and pretty regularly meeting with chairs of key committees in both chambers out in their own communities. 

How are you going to vote on the Titans’ stadium?

I will tell you I was a “no” on the non-binding framework they put on the table in December, and I prepared an amendment to address some of my fundamental concerns about the taxpayer burdens. And as of right now, today, I’m still a “lean no” on this. If you look at the exhibits of the East Bank Stadium committee … let’s just say people are accepting at face value the assertion that there’s a $1.8 billion liability out till 2039 embedded in the existing lease. I don’t accept that at face value. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that exists. I can’t imagine, then, offering to the citizens of Nashville, a deal that encumbers $2.9 billion of local revenue, then another $500 million of state revenue, and then $500 million in potential infrastructure costs to build out that footprint. I mean, I said out loud when this first came up, “That’s nice to invest $500 million in the East Bank for infrastructure. How is this going to produce the $500 million and infrastructure needs for the rest of the city?” And we still don’t have a good answer to that question. Fundamentally, this very quickly became a $4 billion public subsidy. And I will tell you, I think this moment with such extraordinary cost of living and quality of life concerns is exactly the wrong moment for this city to set a record for public subsidy of an NFL stadium — almost five years to the day (from when) we were told we couldn’t afford a better transit system.

Along with the stadium, there’s a significant proposal to revamp the East Bank. How do you see that proposal? And what do you think about redeveloping all of that area?

Yeah, so you break the East Bank up into three parts. And I would say I am strongly in favor of something that puts long-term affordable housing closer to the heart of the city. I am strongly in favor of rethinking our antiquated designs of so many of our pikes and boulevards, and orienting things more toward a modern approach that brings people’s lives walking around a community more directly and more safely into local businesses. If we can create those kinds of opportunities in green space, and really make neighborhoods on the East Bank, I think that’s fantastic. I think we have to be very intentional not to create just a junior version of our entertainment district over there, regardless of the future of the stadium. But I also don’t think this should be an all-consuming project. It’s not like we’re going to complete it next year. It’s not like we’re going to complete it even by the time a new Titans stadium might open. This is going to be a project of five years or 10 years before it really starts to feel like a more complete urban environment on the East Bank. So I’m in favor of being able to do that. But I’ve also represented District 19, on the Metro Council, where we have created more housing, we’ve absorbed billions of dollars worth of construction. We have had strong public support for most of the things that we’ve done here, because we do it in a very community-driven way, and that’s the piece that I want to ensure exists. So if you go from River North, through the footprint of the Titans’ stadium down to PSC Metals, I think it’s better for the city in the long run if all three of those scenarios reflect very high quality, very community oriented, including long-term affordable housing — things that are baked into the East Bank vision plan, but not expressed as clearly or forcefully in the conversation about the Titans. And you create meaningful connections into the rest of East Nashville. All of those things, I’m for. I’m not for them at the exclusion of ensuring we’re also offering opportunities to the city as a whole.

About that city as a whole: You mentioned that you represented District 19 and you’ve been knee-deep in downtown issues for eight years now. Why should somebody from Hermitage or Bellevue who has looked at downtown and seen all the investment and all of the growth and all the whatever else support someone like you?

The best news for anybody outside of District 19 is I’ve been hard at work, preparing our land values here to produce benefits for people elsewhere. Right: We have the most efficient property tax base in District 19, and I am excited to be able to match spending priorities to community priorities across the city. It’s the best possible scenario to know how we’ve been able to draw people into the urban core, to put growth where people said they wanted it most during and after Nashville Next, and we’ve succeeded in that. And so now we take that template and we take the opportunities that’s produced in District 19, and we help districts that have never had parks and libraries get them. We help expand the footprint of fire services and first responders, right? These are things we can do, based on the successes that I’ve had as a district council member focused on ensuring high quality equitable growth, as much as possible, that produces a really vibrant tax base for the city as a whole.

Lastly, what do you think people should think about when considering your candidacy?

I think the biggest thing to think about is that more of the same is on the ballot, and so if you want that, you can go look at another candidate. I am going to be a mayor who puts the priorities of Nashvillians first. I am going to be a mayor who delivers not shiny objects and toys for tourists, but rather services and excellence for the people who live here.

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...