Candidates speak at a mayoral forum sponsored by the Banner and the Phoenix Club of Nashville on May 23, 2023

Matt Wiltshire smiled. 

In the moments after a recent mayoral forum, as the candidates and staff mingled with the public, he looked at an opposing campaign staffer and said, “I think I gave you a bingo with Rev. Barnes.”

It was the end of May, and the majority of the candidates to be Nashville’s next mayor had been on the forum circuit for a few months. As a kind of dark humor, one campaign staffer made a bingo card with each candidate’s go-to phrases on them. 

For Wiltshire, it’s a reference to Bill Barnes, the man for whom Metro’s affordable housing fund is named. “Transit bought my house” is shorthand for Freddie O’Connell’s oft-told story of using the bus system to save for a down payment. “I’m not a politician” has been Jim Gingrich’s go-to for months. “Derecho” is Heidi Campbell’s favored type of storm; “taxes” are Alice Rolli’s favorite subject; Sharon Hurt’s phrase is “I’m a leader,” as her preferred metaphor of Nashville neighborhoods as mid-’90s Chicago Bulls players was too long to fit on the card.

The candidates know each other’s material so well because they hear it so often. Campaigning for mayor has become a kind of road show, an endless string of appearances in front of different civic groups, sometimes with more than one per day. So if one candidate didn’t say “Nashville is at a crossroads” in the morning, they might get a chance later.

Fatigue wouldn’t be a problem for the campaigns if all events were of a certain quality, multiple campaign managers told the Banner on background. As one manager said, “All forums are not the same,” before detailing how one group invited the candidates to speak and just 12 people showed up. Another group asked questions for three hours in front of a crowd of 60 people. Many groups have also asked candidates to submit answers to lengthy questionnaires or even meet in person with a group’s leadership before appearing. Hours spent at a forum are often accompanied by hours spent preparing for the public appearance.

In early April, a group of mayoral campaign operatives got together and attempted to apply some standards to the ever-growing list of events. Many of them spoke to the Banner without attribution in exchange for their candor about the process. 

“How many people are there?” said one campaign manager, detailing the list of questions for forum organizers. “What’s the venue? What’s the capacity? How many people are you planning to invite? How are you inviting them? What kind of outreach are you doing to make certain that the room is filled? Do you have a media partner? Will this be live broadcast or livestreamed in any way? Are you recording it? And if so, how will you share the recording later with the public?”

If this seems blunt, a manager’s job is to get as much exposure for their candidate as possible with limited resources (for most) and even more limited time. While several of these forums have been televised, most are not, and 10 minutes speaking during a two-hour forum is time that might be better spent elsewhere. One manager said that the tradeoff for an evening forum could be meet-and-greets with multiple sets of supporters, who might be energized to become volunteers or at least help spread the candidate’s message. And no candidate has enough hours in the day to fundraise.

At least five of the campaigns signed on to an attempt to enlist former Mayor Bill Purcell to be the face of the standards effort in April, but Purcell eventually begged off. Any unity among the campaigns fizzled out. One campaign manager hoped, in the future, some independent group could identify criteria to maximize the public’s ability to hear from candidates.

“Look, after the cycle I think you’d have no problem getting a handful of us on the record saying the problem with Metro elections is that we’re completely segmenting voters’ ability to actually hear from the candidates in a meaningful way,” said one campaign manager.

To wit, one campaign operative detailed a set of guidelines for an upcoming televised Fox 17 “debate” in which candidates would be given half a minute to respond to a question. “There’s no way you can have a substantive conversation on legitimate issues with 11 people on a stage and just 30 seconds to talk,” said the operative. Added another manager, “That’s just TV, that’s not real.”

One manager noted that a recent TV forum asked for one-word answers from the candidates.

“When you have content like that, it’s not meaningful, it makes light of this situation in front of voters, and diminishes the process,” the manager said. “Does it make people seem more human? It might. But when the question is, ‘In one word, describe Nashville,’ and five out of 11 or 13 candidates say ‘home,’ what have we learned? Nothing.”

The problem is, in some ways, structural. A couple of operatives pointed to the May 18 deadline for submitting signatures on qualifying petitions as creating artificial incentives in the race, for both the candidates and community groups wanting to engage.

“It doesn’t make sense for a lot of these organizations to do forums until May and you have this really condensed timeline,” said one manager. “But it also puts a priority and a preference towards anybody that can self-fund, or anybody that’s been in the race significantly longer. And particularly in a scenario where we find ourselves now where the current mayor [declined to run for reelection], we honestly have a real inflection point for our city.”

If you want to see candidates in person at a mayoral forum, a list can be found here, though you should note that at least three more forums were still being organized as of publication time. 

Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.

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...