The Nashville Banner, the Nashville Post and the Nashville Scene co-hosted a mayoral forum Tuesday night featuring the main mayoral candidates.
Eight were invited: Heidi Campbell, Sharon Hurt, Vivian Wilhoite, Jim Gingrich, Alice Rolli, Jeff Yarbro, Freddie O’Connell and Matt Wiltshire. Rather than the typical format, this event featured each candidate onstage individually for a 10-minute interview with either the Post’s Stephen Elliott or the Banner’s Demetria Kalodimos.
Here’s some of what the candidates had to say.
Heidi Campbell, who promptly kicked her shoes off upon sitting down and took advantage of the casual atmosphere, just released a 15-page plan for what she will do as mayor. When asked how she would pay for the priorities in her administration, such as sustainability and affordable housing, she spoke about inefficiencies in Metro government and how there is an opportunity cost with everything. When asked about her letter to the Metro Council in May asking to defer a vote on the Belle Meade Plaza development, she said that she was not necessarily against the plan, but was just representing her constituents. She placed a large priority on making sure future development in the city is sustainable.
Sharon Hurt debuted a new anecdote involving Elvis, Memphis and buses. With the Nashville General Hospital deal at Meharry ending in 2027, she was asked where she believes Nashville General should be located next. Hurt said she has had conversations with Joseph Webb, the CEO, about possibly placing it in Bordeaux, where the community is underserved and facing health disparities. She was also very excited about future East Bank development, saying it could be an “economic tsunami.”
Vivian Wilhoite has been critical of the Metro Council’s decision to turn down the 2024 Republican National Convention, a decision that some have blamed for the state’s attacks on the city. When asked how realistic it is to say that open lines of communication between the city and the state are the cure to stop attacks from the legislature, Wilhoite said the city needs to not “poke the bear.” She also said a top priority for her administration would be giving pay raises to Metro employees, but would not give a specific source for the revenue, instead saying, “Vote for me and we’ll find out.” When asked what would fall lower on the priorities list because of this being a top priority, she said nothing would, and that by giving people more money we would also be alleviating the affordable housing crisis.
Jim Gingrich continued to emphasize his place as a “political outsider” who will run Nashville like a business. He said that his success has always been based on surrounding himself with the right people and that making sure the people around him would do a good job was the “thing I was good at.” Gingrich is one of two candidates who has released television ads. In several of those ads, he refers to his “plan” to manage Nashville’s growth. When asked for details on the plan, he said it’s coming next week.
Alice Rolli was the lone Republican candidate at Tuesday’s forum. When he asked her who her first hire would be, she instead talked about what a great job Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake has done. She spent much of the time detailing a need for more police officers, noting that the number of officers per thousand residents in Nashville lags other peer cities. How would she pay for this? Rolli said Metro is spending too much money on bureaucracy in areas like the Parks Department.
Jeff Yarbro started his time by talking about needing to soothe relationships with the state, saying the situation was like “getting in a fight with your spouse and burning down the garage to get even.” When asked for his thoughts on the closing of homeless encampments and what he would do to solve the problem of homelessness in Nashville, he pointed to Houston, Atlanta and Milwaukee as cities that have been more successful in addressing the issue. He said the normal pathway of first making homelessness less visible is wrong, and Nashville needs to follow a housing-first approach. When asked who he thinks has been the most effective mayor in Nashville history, he said it was hard to name just one, but the one he admired most was Phil Bredesen.
Freddie O’Connell placed a strong emphasis on making sure the East Bank plan is one that has lots of public amenities, such as housing that the employees working in the new stadium can afford to live in. District 19, which he has represented for the past eight years, has been one of the fastest developing parts of Nashville over the past decade, and in response to a question about making sure residents in Black neighborhoods are not being pushed out, he talked about the importance of informing people about the property tax relief program. O’Connell was a supporter of the failed transit referendum of 2018, and he said there were a lot of flaws in that plan that he would do differently as mayor, namely limiting the light rail portion. He said the city needs to invest in visible and usable transit infrastructure.
Matt Wiltshire used the first minute of his time to lead the room in singing “Happy Birthday” to his wife, who was in attendance. He spoke about the issues Nashville is facing because of its growth, saying he doesn’t want to downplay those issues, but contrasted them with other cities and said they are good problems to have — it means there are a lot of people doing great things in Nashville. A former MDHA executive, Wiltshire spent a lot of time talking about affordable housing, including specific places across the city that he says could be developed to provide at least 6,000 to 7,000 units. Wiltshire is the second candidate who has released television ads, and his latest focused on education, and providing more funding to Metro Nashville Public Schools. He said Metro schools need to have higher standards, and that while he was against the state’s third-grade retention legislation because it was rushed and poorly executed, he is not fully opposed to the concept.
Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.