When Vivian Wilhoite announced she was seeking to become mayor, the overwhelming question from observers was “why now?” With just under 100 days left before the election, Wilhoite launched her campaign with the endorsement of District Attorney Glenn Funk and a group of supporters in Southeast Nashville pledging to run as hard for this office as she had for Property Assessor and the Metro Council. Wilhoite sat down with the Banner to answer questions about her late entry, what she thinks can be done about transit and more.
Why do you want to be mayor?
So I’ve always been what is called a lifelong public servant, and I have not stopped being that person. I love people. I love helping people. I just like to see results. So when I was a council person for District 29, during that time there were quite a bit of activities that the community was involved in, whether it was neighborhood cleanups, whether it was neighborhood watch programs. And so as time has passed, I don’t see a lot of that, if anything – none of that. Even something as some people may see as small as National Night Out Against Crime, you don’t see those activities happening in different communities, other than IN communities closer to the downtown area. If we know who’s in our community, we will care. My point is, these types of activities help to strengthen neighborhoods. We need to be focusing on neighborhoods, and providing them the resources that have made them stronger before. Being a public public servant as I am, I want to help. I feel like I have the energy. I know that I have energy. Some people say what do I operate off of? I say one cup of Starbucks every day. That’s the key – and drink lots of water.
So let me ask you about that. There are some people who would say, “You know what? I don’t I don’t want somebody who’s been in government their entire life.” We need somebody with a different perspective. What do you say to those folks?
Well, I say to those folks what you’re saying is experience doesn’t count. That’s what you’re saying. What you’re also saying is that you want a new fresh perspective. Would you say that someone who’s been in government — not just been in government, but serving the people — is not worthy? Because that’s not the same perspective. They’re talking about being “The Establishment,” not listening to the people. “You are a one-person show and you don’t listen to the people.” That’s what they’re saying. But that’s not the type of public servant I’ve been since I’ve come to Nashville. I’ve never been that type of public servant.
Is there something that you think makes you uniquely qualified to be mayor?
I think what makes me uniquely qualified is that I genuinely love people. When I go into a position, I’m going in there to make it better than what it was before. When I went into the Assessor of Property office, salaries were at an all-time low — $32,000-33,000 for intro level in 2016. I had staff that were working part time jobs. That was not competitive pay. But the entry level for an Appraiser 1 is [now] well over ($40,000) I’m trying to move it to ($50,000) entry level by the end of the year. I invest in my staff. I encourage them about getting their classes and getting their credentials. I remind them about the work that they do makes up 59 percent of the city’s budget – so what you do is important. It is critically important. And I let them know that they’re valued. That’s a public servant that is there to help the people and make the situation better. You know, I want my people to know that I see them.
How do you assess the current city-state relationship right now?
Well, you know what it is: It’s not good. I want to help make it better. I think that we are going to have to do a hard reset. As I stated before, there are folks who have been a part of the reason why we are where we are. And I know there’s been frustration on both sides. But we can find common ground to work for the greater good for the people. And that is the part that I want to do. We may not agree on everything — that’s not going to happen. We’re not going to agree on everything. But there are some very important issues that we should be able to agree on and be respectful about it. So I think that the situation right now, it does need a hard reset. And it requires, I think, a new perspective — and that new perspective would be Vivian Wilhoite.
Education is something that every mayor says that they want to help move the needle. One of the problems, though, is that you don’t really have much control. What’s one thing that the next mayor could do in order to make education better in Nashville?
Well, you know, some people say keep throwing something at a situation and hope for it to get better. But education must be fully funded, there is no doubt about that.
What does fully funded look like to you?
Well, working with Dr. Battle, and her providing the needs of the system. I do believe that Dr. Battle has her finger on the button of needs for the Metro public school system. I think that as mayor, I should do my due diligence to also talk with staff, meet with teachers, and meet with those members of the edge of the educational system, to hear from them, in reference to creative ideas of providing for students — the more than 86,000 students in Davidson County — because they’re on the front line. They’re the ones that are actually seeing and experiencing what is needed. Speak with parents. I mean, you could have a PTO meeting with the mayor. Why not? Why can’t you hear from the parents? It doesn’t mean you can get everything done. But working with the superintendent of schools, because they know the needs, but also working with parents and working with teachers and staff to hear them directly.
Governor Lee is going to call a special session in August related to some gun legislation in the wake of the Covenant shooting. Do you think that there’s anything that Metro can do about school shootings?
You know, we can’t establish red flag laws and things like that. That is not within our authority. But we can assist in reference to reducing crime. We can assist by working with Chief John Drake. And, of course, [Juvenile Court Judge] Sheila Callaway, the DA’s office and all of that. It does go to funding in the most traditional way. We can provide resources and go after the root cause of why these crimes are being committed. We need to provide our youth access to community centers and activities.
The city has an affordability crisis right now. What is one way the next mayor can begin to address soaring rents and home prices, for those who are trying to either buy into this market or find an affordable place to live?
I’m very happy about the direction we’re going in hearing the mayor’s [State of Metro] address and the amount of affordable housing stock, but we can’t stop there. I think that one way that would be helpful in dealing with affordable housing is for us to continue to fund the Barnes Fund and ensure that we have the resources there for establishing more affordable housing and workforce housing. And you said one way, but you know, of course, we can’t do it alone. So a part of that one way, we have to continue to create public-private partnerships because Metro government cannot just do that alone. That has always been the case when it comes to affordable housing — we’ve had to do creative initiatives in reference to public-private partnerships, and that is now the situation more than ever. We must utilize that tool more than ever. So yes, I see those I see supporting the buyers buying and also definitely continuing with public-private partnerships that can help us increase the affordable housing stock that is needed.
How high of a priority should transit be for the next mayor?
Yeah, it should be a priority. But we’re going to have to be realistic: It’s not going to happen tomorrow. And as far as what we’re investing, we have to, again, look at it realistically to make it a priority. But no, that is not something we can promise people that’s going to happen just immediately, but tell the people of Davidson County that we are going to invest. We’re going to deal with this big gorilla one bite at a time. We’re going to set goals for where we need to be by Year 2, Year 3, Year 4. And in the meantime, we can go after some low-hanging fruit. I was looking at a map the other day while talking with a friend, and one of the things that was pretty clear in regards to Nashville: All the traffic comes through the center of downtown to go to I-65 and I-40 and I-24. And there was that I-840, looking like it needs to be completed going around [the north side] of Nashville. When I was talking about finding common ground, I’m talking about working with the state and getting them to complete I-840. I thought it could be definitely the path for 18-wheeler trucks to go to the other side of Nashville without coming directly through Nashville, but not for all of the trucks that come to Nashville. But that’s a low-hanging fruit and something that we can work with the state on, and getting it developed would provide immediate relief — not tomorrow, but much sooner than some folks talking about light rail. And then when we’re talking about buses, mass transit is not just about buses. Mass transit is definitely not something that we can do alone. It is not just Davidson County where mass transit is a major issue. It should be important to all of Middle Tennessee, so we need to also have this sitting down at the table in a regional effort in dealing with mass transit and the cost of it should not be borne just by Davidson County residents. So it’s going to take all of these Middle Tennessee counties to be able to help address this. We’ve got to get on that same page. That’s the only way it can happen. It won’t happen overnight. But it is regional, in reference to the approach.
The Titans just had a $2.1 billion stadium plan that was recently approved by the council. How would you have voted if you were on the council?
I don’t know all of the details to it, but it seems like it’s going to bring some great benefits to Davidson County. But the con of it, and the part that is hard for everyone to swallow, which I do understand, is that you’re talking about $2.1 billion. And we have other things that also should be addressed. So guess what? Let’s address those.
What’s an issue that we’re not talking enough about right now?
I would say economic parity. You live in the general service district, or let’s just say urban services — either one. And then, say you’re in your neighborhood in Antioch. You don’t have sidewalks. But if you go to East Nashville, they’ve got sidewalks. I’m paying the same tax rate as the person over in East Nashville, but I can’t have sidewalks. We’re going to close the gap on economic parity and work to get neighborhoods who are paying that same tax rate in another part of the city under that same umbrella and provide them the resources that another neighborhood of Nashville has.
If you promise to put a sidewalk on my street, I’ll endorse you right now.
[Laughs] I promise to get sidewalks in areas that are needed and continue to make sure the areas that want it and need it [get sidewalks] and continue to make sure that we keep fulfilling that promise to everyone in Davidson County. We’ve got to figure out a way to close that gap. Tell me your address.
You got in with a little over 100 days to go before the election. Is that enough time to run a competitive race?
Well, I say yes. That’s why I got in. I think it was enough time, but I had to get into the race when it was the time for me. So that’s what I did.
What made it ‘the time’ for you?
Just seriously, things that you want to talk about with family and look at, and yeah, pray about. That’s what I did. Running for mayor was something I had already considered
How much money do you think you have to raise in order to be competitive?
People tell me $350,000 to get to the runoff. I’m not there yet, so I’m working toward that goal. I mean, I start out with name recognition, so I think that’s good. So I’m just building on that, and there’s some things that I’m probably not going to be able to do traditionally, like five mailers a week. I won’t be able to do that. But I will work. There are things that don’t require money, but it’s going to require hard work and being everyplace and talking to as many people as possible, and putting a lot of skin in it. People have spent a lot of money and have not been successful in running for offices. So I’m just going to do my very best, and I’m going to let my passion and love for the people of Davidson County show through. And I’m going to do that sincerely, not authentically. And I hope that’s what people will see.
Finally, what do you think people should think about when they’re considering your candidacy?
This will be a mayor that they can trust. They should think about what she has done in a huge way in government, where she worked in her district in Southeast Davidson, and what she’s done in the office of the Assessor of Property. And maybe once you meet Vivian, you know that she does have the energy and sincerity as a public servant — that she loves people.