Workers make final preparations and supporters are seated before Thursday night's mayoral debate at Belmont University's Fisher Center. Credit: Banner photo

For three weeks after the Aug. 3 election, the mayoral runoff between Freddie O’Connell and Alice Rolli has felt less like a race than an exhibition where neither side engages with the other. Through four forums/debates, the candidates barely drew contrasts with each other, instead preferring to only talk about how they would govern if elected.

Thursday night, on the eve of early voting, the gloves (sort of) came off.

Rolli accused O’Connell of hypocrisy on education for sending his daughters to non-zoned public schools while opposing the expansion of charter schools during the one-hour debate. O’Connell hit Rolli for siding with the state on local control issues at the airport, the school board and the size of the Metro Council, saying “Alice is clearly willing to work with state overrides.”

“When we are unproductive at the city level responding to the needs of our citizens, our citizens here go and petition the state,” Rolli said. “Fran Bush, one of the former mayoral candidates recently joined my campaign. She was the sole voice on our school board to re-open schools. A state law had to be passed when the needs of parents were being overridden at every turn by a bureaucracy committed to not listening to parents. So if our city runs well, the state will manage itself.”

Bush was a vocal advocate for reopening schools during the pandemic. She lost her reelection campaign.

“This is the most remarkable set of contrasts,” O’Connell responded. “Basically, Alice has just said the appropriate thing for Nashvillians to do is not to use our authority under our existing charter to do things like set our Metro Council size; it’s to go ask the state to override our local elected officials. That’s extraordinary to me.”

The event was hosted by Belmont University’s Fisher Center and aired on NewsChannel 5. The format also allowed the candidates to ask each other questions.

Rolli asked O’Connell why he voted at the last Metro Council meeting against renewing a license-plate-reader program that police have said is a valuable tool in catching criminals. 

“I think this is worth a community conversation that we never had,” O’Connell said. After the state’s abortion ban kicked in, he said the program could be used to track women in search of health care and that the locations of the readers were not “equitably distributed” and caught more black and brown defendants.

“If we look at crime rates over the last year, crime has already fallen without this technology,” he added. “As a software technology professional, when you have a large database of data like that’s got insufficient guardrails around it, later it can create new classes of victims for stalkers or people going through divorce.”

O’Connell then asked Rolli about her stance on debt and taking a pay-as-you-go approach to capital funding. Which schools or new police precinct would she not build, he asked.

“I think the question is around the philosophy of government,” Rolli said. “By kicking the can down the road, really over the last eight years, we have consistently not made decisions to live within our means. That means today, we’re spending 40 times [more] servicing our debt than we are on mental health and social services. We’re telling our communities to do ‘participatory budgeting,’ but we’re not asking them to participate in raising their taxes or each year adding considerably more spending than what we’re taking in.”

On issues like downtown development (both see the East Bank proposal as a necessary success) and the Titans’ stadium deal (O’Connell opposed it, Rolli was for it) there was little new ground broken.

But when the topic turned to education, the answers got more personal.

 “I want parents in our county to have the same choice that Freddie’s children have,” Rolli said. “Freddie’s children are zoned for a school that he does not send them to. He sends them to a different school. And yet, for some reason, we believe that when there are waiting lists at certain [charter] schools and other schools are failing, we continue to tell certain communities in Nashville that their kids, if they can’t provide their own transportation, they need to stay at a [failing] school.” 

Rolli proposed a transportation subsidy for parents to send their children anywhere within the county.

“I will say it’s completely reasonable to choose within public schools, I think it’s a little bit unusual to have another candidate determine what’s appropriate for my family,” O’Connell responded.

“I would say it’s just exercising school choice and many defenders of the status quo do not want families to have a choice where to send their child to school. Many of those defenders of the status quo elect to send their child to the more successful school. And it’s the hypocrisy there that is bothersome to me,” Rolli rebutted.

“I’d be happy to invite you back into our public school system,” O’Connell said, referencing Rolli’s decision to put her children in private school.

After the debate, O’Connell told the Banner that the presence of attack ads on TV by a pro-Rolli group may have given license for a sharper edge between the candidates.

“We’ve also now seen contrast percolate out into the media ecosystem, because there is a PAC, as you’ve seen, doing some contrast that may have said, ‘Okay, now there’s permission to go in a little harder,’” he said.

Rolli declined to talk to reporters after the debate.

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...