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[Interview transcript]

Well, I was thumbing through the Hume-Fogg Yearbook. 

Oh, good! 

Tell me, tell me about Alice in high school. 

Yeah, well, Alice in high school was two blocks away from here. Gosh, I guess I got there in 1993. Nashville downtown was a really different place. There was a little corner market there. The Classic Cat was behind us. You remember that? But Alice in high school, I was on the track and the cross country team. I was the manager of the girls basketball team. I was on the math club and the computer science team. I went away in high school for a year and was a page in the United States Congress, came back and got to serve as the chief justice of our student court. So yeah, Alice in high school, and actually part of this campaign has been so great, one of my former teachers and basketball coach, retired teacher, near the beginning of the campaign sent me $1,800. And I called him and I was like, ‘Coach, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I feel like if anyone can fix this, if anyone can bring people together, it’s you and we are all in.’ And when your former teachers, the former principal of the school, Dr Whitefield, her daughter contacted me after watching a show and said, ‘We’re so excited you’re running.’ So I’ve gotten actually a couple little high school memories here. It’s been a lot of fun. 

Was teaching your first job? 

It was, yeah. Yeah, so when I graduated from Stanford, there were, these kind of job fairs at the college and Los Angeles Unified School System was up at Stanford recruiting people to be emergency credential teachers because well intentioned public policy made class sizes 20 to one for ninth grade English, but they didn’t really have enough teachers. So they created an emergency permit process. And yeah, I went and taught high school. It’s actually a good memory too, the principal at the school that I worked with Dr. Doris Lassiter. She has stayed in touch is, you know, propelling on this journey too, and it’s great to have those early career experiences. 

Why did you leave education? 

Well, I don’t think I left education. I think I accepted a different place to work in education. I had five classes, I taught 9th and 10th grade English. And then I coached the track and the cross country team. So in a regular day, I’d see about 120 kids. But we had 50 million kids nationally. And the country didn’t have a sort of a pragmatic center right voice. We had Senator Ted Kennedy, who was leading the Health Education Labor Pensions Committee nationally, but there wasn’t a Republican that anyone took seriously, right? And here was Lamar Alexander deciding to run for the United States Senate. He’d been secretary of education, president of the University of Tennessee, a governor. And so I think, I left the classroom, but I think I said, ‘Hey, how could I maybe help someone have a bigger impact?’ And so went to work for him. 

Let’s talk a little about Nashville. What are three things the city does well, and then think of three things the city doesn’t do so well. 

Well, I think things that the city does well is to be a welcoming place for families who want to have a better place to raise their kids. I hear it all the time, new families to my children’s schools will say we moved here because we thought it was a better place to raise our family. 

I think that the city does really well our faith community, and we have really deep and differing faiths. You and I were classmates with Zulfat. I hosted one of her fundraisers at my house when she first ran. And so we have people from many different faiths, but their faith and their service in their community is a big part of the of the fabric. 

And I think the other thing that Nashville does well is the entrepreneurial fabric that’s here, right? This sort of sense we can solve big challenges. I mean, this is the place, companies like HCA or Delgado guitars, places that entrepreneurs kind of say, ‘Hey, I want to set up shop here and I want to thrive.’ And those are things I think that attract people to Nashville. 

What about the flip side? What needs work? 

Well, what needs work is managing the city’s growth, right? We’ve gone from six or seven years ago, about a billion dollars of property that we were permitting a year to now, five billion dollars, right? We’ve got a city infrastructure and a machine, an old truck, if you will, that’s been running for 60 years with the same kind of an engine and it may, at this point now, need a little bit of a refresh, right? So I think that the clunkiness of the way that some things work in helping permit or plan and work through development issues. 

Right now, I would say, we are getting better, but issues around homelessness is something that we need some work on. And then I think where we began, schools, right? We have too many kids in our city that we are not serving as well as we could. And that’s not to say that it’s any one place’s fault, but it’s to say, how do we start to bring schools, faith community, nonprofit community to say, all of these 

kids are our kids. And if we’re not going to do better, what are we bringing all these businesses here for? 

You made some news when you told the Banner back in June that you might consider taking over the school board in two years if things hadn’t changed to your liking. How and why would you do that to a democratically elected board? 

Well, the way that I would see that is the last education mayor, ten years ago, when more than 40% of our kids were reading on grade level. That was the last mayor, and the way that question was asked, that was the last mayor who said maybe we should look at a different governance model, right? 

You’re speaking of Karl Dean. 

Karl Dean, yeah. And if we keep approaching — I think frequently, City Hall, the mayor’s office, they sort of say, ‘that’s not our issue, education, just send them a check.’ But at some point, if we are only graduating about 20% of our kids college or career ready, and we keep doing the same thing, at some point I think you’ve got to step up and say if we’re not ready to take responsibility for that, if we’re not getting the results that we know that we need, maybe we do need a different model. And I think that’s what Mayor Dean had proposed before. And the reason I said, I never said, ‘let’s take over tomorrow,’ but let’s start to look at, are we not listening to parents? We have a huge number of high performing charter schools that are coming up for their 10 year renewal. Schools like Valor, schools like Purpose Prep, a lot of the KIPP schools, schools that are shattering levels of literacy for our kids. And if this school board says we’re not going to re approve those charters, I think that’d be a problem for a lot of parents and a lot of families in the city. 

But wouldn’t those charters become somewhat unaccountable without a board? 

Would they become unaccountable without a board? I mean, no, I think what would happen if this school board didn’t, then we’d lose 15 to 20,000 metro schools, public school families that currently are part of our public schools, and they’d end up going and becoming authorized in the state charter school. Then you’d end up with a situation like we’ve seen other cities. We’ve seen this play out before. Parents are not going to be captive to schools that aren’t performing. Parents are going to walk with their feet. We see it, right? We see it in Davidson County. There are more kids that are school age 5 to 17, but we have fewer students enrolled in our metro schools than we did six or seven thousand fewer than we did five years ago, right? So parents are either moving, and we see it in the data, with the Chambers data, they’re moving to Wilson County, they’re moving to Sumner County, or within our schools, they’re making other choices. So if we want to have the best schools, we’ve got to keep and attract and retain all of those families, families that want to make a choice for where their kids go to school. 

You’ve brought up Miami-Dade several times. What do they do so well? 

Yeah, well, so Alberto Carvalho, and you always think about this, I think business people, the way that we think about a lot of these problems is if there’s a regulatory shift or sort of a cataclysmic change in the market, it causes all of us to rethink how we do things right. We continue doing things how we’ve always done them until a law changes. The budget falls out. Covid happens. It makes us rethink everything. So Miami Dade, following the 2008 financial crash, found itself like a lot of cities in a difficult budget situation. You start to step back and say, What is the single most important thing? They were ranked F rated at the time. Florida ranks schools in that way. And they stepped back and said, what is the single most important thing to get right? Instruction for kids. And so all of the dollars, most all of the dollars were moved from central office to the school sites. All of positions to say, ‘I know you’ve got a high paying central office position, but we need you on the front line.’ They pushed that and they pushed instructional dollars and you look at the ratio that they spend on instruction versus everything else. They went from F rated to A rated and they now have zero failing schools. It took ’em eight years, but it took somebody at the top saying, no excuses, they’re bigger than us, they have an equally diverse and complicated student population, and they actually spend less dollars per kid. I’m not saying we should spend less dollars per kid, but I’m saying we should go over there and say, ‘it is possible.’ And I think for too long we’ve operated in this we might do two or three percent better instead of saying ‘what’s the moonshot? How do we go from okay too great? And we have to look at places where we see it’s possible, and here, I think a great parallel here in Nashville is what we’ve all seen at Warner arts, right? Ricky Gibbs when he came into that school, a leader who was committed at every level, and he carries that passion and that pride, and he’s from Liberty City in Miami. And I think it is a sort of a different attitude. Like, all kids can learn and we are going to make this work. 

So are you saying our central office is too fat? 

I think when we look at our percentage of how our budget dollars are spent, and we compare it to a Miami-Dade, you can see a real distinction, yeah. 

The state, as you know, has insisted on taking over or changing several local institutions. The airport authority board. The attempt at cutting the size of Metro Council. Where do you stand on the state making those sort of changes in local governance? 

So I think there’s sort of three models that we saw come out of this last one. And I think a third path. So, Music City Center. Remember there was a minute where that was going to be taken over. Where did that end up? The mayor is appointing the Music City Convention Center, your neighbor here. But there are three ex-officio members from the state, right? To help bolster, I think the finances and sort of the direction of that, that feels like that ended up in a good place. The airport board, you can see that there’s two boards right now. Everybody’s in litigation. Where I would love to see our former classmate Doug and that airport board is kind of where the music city center ended up, right? A mayoral appointed board, with members and partners from the state. The last $150 million that weren’t levied from fees at the airport that have come in, they didn’t come from Metro tax dollars. They came from the state. When I went to Tokyo with Nissan and Bridgestone to work on recruiting a transpacific flight here. The dollars that we were talking about to backstop that were the state dollars, right? So I think we want a partner that is going to say ‘this is an asset. This is a regional asset, We don’t want all of the dollars to have to come off the backs of Davidson County taxpayers,’ And if we can bring state dollars to help propel that let’s do it. 

So you’re talking state voices without state control? 

Yeah, absolutely. And state money. And I think that in the mayoral race we have a pretty distinguishing perspective here, right? I’m not a creature of the city council. Our last three mayors have come out of the city council. And in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from the majority of Nashville voters thinking we’re going in the right direction to now the majority think we’re going in the wrong direction, right? Seven years ago, the NRA convention was right here across the state. Nobody said don’t come. You know, now we kind of have this war of some people can come, some people can’t come, and I don’t think that’s particularly productive. I think most people want to say, ‘how are you going to get the most dollars here? How are you going to get the most help here? And how are you going to do it in a productive way that’s fighting for the people of Nashville and not fighting for these kind of like other agendas?’ 

So you still favor a 40-member Metro Council? 

Well, this is in the work, too, of where’s it going to end. I think we’ve got to see where it is and go from there. 

I think one of your first spots tapped into the frustrations with lower Broadway as a non stop party. What would you do to make that area more palatable to families? 

Yeah, no, and yesterday I was down there meeting with some business leaders, too, and it is the same thing. It feels like a party all the time. 

When we saw the recent transfer of funds from the Music City Convention Center, to be really specifically directed to helping Broadway be clean and safe, right? Dollars for additional officers and additional — I think they pick up trash seven times a day down there. I mean, at some point, I wonder how many more times a day we pick it up. But I do think we have to with our tourism partners try to elevate the experience some to start to say, ‘what, what do we want this to be safe and a place that families want to come.’

You’ve got relatively young children. Would you ever take them to lower broad? 

Oh, no. I don’t take my kids to lower broad. I mean, my kids are 7 and 11. I would say we do go to 5th and Broadway. There’s a nice little candy store about 6th and Broadway, we’ve gone to the Looney Tunes at the Symphony before. We’ve gone to the Music City Mariachi program. But those are more sort of daytime pieces. I don’t think my children will be allowed to go in to a bar on lower Broadway, right? It hadn’t really crossed my mind. I did take my littlest one in a stroller. We had friends visiting, and this is probably 10 years ago. And we don’t live that far from here. So we walked, trying to get a baby to sleep. And I do remember sort of laughing that my oldest slept through a daytime visit with some visiting friends. But no, look between, nobody’s holding birthday parties down there. Our social life’s a little different. 

On transit, you’ve talked about not taking a go it alone approach and a dedicated funding stream. Where do we find the dedicated dollars for transit? 

Well, Governor Haslam’s IMPROVE Act actually let us, and any municipality in the state, be able to levy dedicated transit funds. I think the challenge and really the distinction between me and the Councilman on the issue of transit, he was very out front, in the last transit referendum, and there’s some great news clips where he says, ‘look, if $8 billion isn’t enough, we’ll just go get some more,’ right? And was very much for that. I think when I say that that was a go it alone approach is, I think most Nashvillian’s looked at that and said ‘hang on. Um, how is this going to work if I get my if people are coming in from other other parts of the region, how are we going to dig up broadway and put $9 billion underground and it might work?’ Or we looked at the big dig and the big dig ended up being three times as long, and I don’t know how many times as expensive. And so the not taking a go it alone approach, though, we have done that. The Moving Forward Nashville Coalition has built buy in from I think about 20 county and regional mayors that have said, ‘We agree with this regional plan’ and what they’ve said is that the single most important thing for the next mayor to do is to help quarterback dedicated transit. 

Now, dedicated transit has to be by the vote of our citizens here. 

So you’re talking referendum. 

Yeah, absolutely. Has to be. I think the earliest it could be there would be, I think, November 2026. And somebody else with all the plans and everything would have to, you know, when are things allowed? But here’s the why. And here’s the why that’s different in the way that I think taxpayers understand this differently now. Of the 25 largest metros in the country, we’re the only one that doesn’t have dedicated transit funding. So that means that we cannot leverage some of these state and federal dollars that require that. For some of those state and federal dollars, for us to get them, they don’t want to see one time budget dollars. They want to see a dedicated stream because transit projects are more than one budget cycle. So Davidson County taxpayers know, hey, we’re at a disadvantage if we don’t get that half a penny or quarter of a penny, I don’t know what that number will be, sales tax added. If we don’t have that there, we’re leaving these other federal and state dollars on the table. We’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage for our transit projects. 

Paying for extra police, or at least to fill the positions that are unfilled right now. Where do you find that money without raising taxes? 

We are adding effectively the city of Chattanooga’s tax base every three years here. We’ve got almost six billion dollars of permitted properties in just this year. So we are actively growing the pie. So you find the money by not saying large conventions can’t come here, saying we are open for business, we are ready for your tourism tax dollars to come here. We are going to continue to grow as a city, invest in the city. We are going to try to get government out of the way so that those permitted projects can come online and that those cash registers can get going. And I think that the revenues are there. 

Affordable housing, and we’re trying to cover a lot of ground today, I understand, but what specifically could an administration like yours do to incentivize the private sector to build more affordable housing? 

I think there’s three main issues on affordable housing, and people always say to me, ‘affordable to who?’ That is always the question. What does that mean? ‘Affordable to who?’ So the first, most consistent for everyone is to not raise property taxes. That makes people’s housing less affordable. Longtime county neighbors, you can feel it. A metro retiree earlier this week said to me, he can’t go on a vacation anymore because of how much more he’s paying in property taxes. 

And that’s hard to hear for our long-time residents here. So that’s the first part. The second part is are we doing something in city government that we’re getting in the way, that we’re making the time to construction longer than it needs to be? So in a permitting or sort of regulatory question. There’s a question of are there conversions of certain types, retail space? Could we help ease the conversion from that to affordable housing or housing zoning? If the market has changed where we need more housing maybe than we need malls right now, which I think we see. And then the last, I do think that there’s a place for this city to be part of that capital stack. So that the way that our city and our state works a developer has to voluntarily create those affordable housing units. So how can we get them to do that? Is to be part of that capital stack to set aside a certain number of units and what they’re building to be affordable. And then maybe I’ll add a fourth, which is using the land that we have. We did this in our neighborhood. I live right here in Edgehill. And City on land on the corner of Wedgewood and 12th, I remember working with the city, the city land, if it is our land, we can dictate through a 99 year lease what that looks like, what’s built, right? And we can say it doesn’t need to be a third, a third, a third. We can say it needs to be half and half, right? We can’t make more land or time, so how do we use the land that we have and build what’s needed most right now? 

Switching gears a little bit, what’s your assessment of the racial climate in Nashville? 

I would say we have continued to fail our marginalized communities. Last night we did the Nashville Public Television debate, and the statistics show overall where our kids are graduating career and college ready, it’s about 11 points less for our black and brown and our economically disadvantaged students. And that tells me we still have a big problem. 

The Tennessee Tribune says you won’t talk to the black press, the black media. Is that true?

I don’t think so. I think I’ve gone on every show. I reached out to Ms. Perry through her Facebook page when originally she wrote — I remember listening to her on WPLN’s hour-long show that I, when I was a board member helped vote to start early in the campaign, and she said something along the lines of ‘none of these candidates have ever stepped foot in a black church.’ So I actually sent her an article. I know everybody’s made a lot of hay about one of my nine op eds. I didn’t write the title. I wrote the words. I hope you’ll read the words, not the title. And so I sent this to her when she said nobody’s ever been to a black church. I actually sent her the op ed that I wrote about going after the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston. About going that next weekend, about how I was received, about how brave the church community was and then about how I went back subsequently every year for the next three years. I just found it sort of interesting to say some of these people have never stepped into a church. After I mentioned in one of the questions, ‘who’s somebody from Nashville history that we don’t know?’ And I said, Catherine Drexel. Catherine Drexel as you know, some of the agitators that make our community stronger don’t always look the way that we think they’re going to look. This was a nun. She came here to this city and opened schools to teach black children when our city would not. So when I said Catherine Drexel, I was invited up by Deacon [Harry] Guess to come to St. Vincent’s, which is one of our oldest. But just because I don’t advertise that doesn’t mean that you can’t quietly do those things. 

And then I think my work with Fort Negley. So I reached out to her with those couple of articles to be like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’d love to visit.’ I don’t think we ever received a request to come and do an ed board. I’ve done, I don’t know, probably 40 interviews. I don’t think we have not done one that we received an invitation to. So I’d love to be invited. 

As you know, when you put yourself out there and you run a campaign, as you said, you get criticism and things surface. Something that’s been circulated is this photograph of you at the Trump inauguration. I’m assuming you voted for Donald Trump last time as a Republican? 

You know, when we nationalize City Hall, it doesn’t really help Nashville, right? So I think how people voted, I was at the President’s inauguration, so were I think about half a million people. The Commissioner of Economic Development, Randy Boyd, is in that picture with me too. He came to pick me up. I’m actually, funny enough, I think people who really study it, a teacher the other day, she said, ‘I don’t know why they’re making such a big deal about it. I took a hundred of my kids there too.’ I’ve been to the Democratic National Convention when native son Al Gore was there, the governor of West Virginia, an education guy too, Gaston Caperton, I went with him. So I think this sort of world of ‘let’s make people angry all of the time.’ If there wasn’t a Liz Cheney, how would the country have recovered? 

So are you a Liz Cheney-type Republican? 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I don’t think there’s any part of my background that would say otherwise, right? There’s two people who have ever paid me in politics. One is Lamar Alexander and one is Randy Boyd. And then everything else I’ve done, hosting a fundraiser for Zulfat at my house, hosting an event for Ginny Pupo-Walker, hosting events for Steve Dickerson. I mean, these are all people that are serving Nashville in different ways, and I think that we have a world that wants to find boogeymen where they’re not. 

But your campaign consultants had some pretty questionable associations. 

Yeah, yeah. 

Why didn’t you know about that? 

Well, I know. The person I hired here locally, I asked him for a reference to call. And I called, and I said, I’d like to talk to someone who is totally counted out. I’d like to talk to somebody, not your self-funder client, not the person who is the most extreme, but a municipal candidate, and he gave me a person, and that person actually reached out to me this week after all this happened, and interestingly, she is an African American woman, single mom, we talked for a long time about did they stay within the budget? Did they do what they could? It was a non-partisan race, mine is a non-partisan race, that’s who I hired. 

There was a much bigger team over time that got added in, I guess, as we sort of moved up in the work and the work got more complicated, more people got added to my team over time. And you’re right, I didn’t check on every single person. When I found out about that person last week, we let the whole firm go. 

As mayor, though, you’re going to have to check on every single person in some regards, aren’t you? 

Yeah, well, and we’ll have, there is a large and very structured team there. Yeah. 

Nashville’s first female mayor didn’t serve out her full term. Do you think she was held to a different standard than her male predecessors? 

Absolutely, yeah. I mean, being in this campaign, look, my mother was the first female partner of any major firm in Tennessee. They used to list the partners at Waller Law in order, and she’s number 18. She made partner in 1982. And so I grew up and I have always believed women can do anything. I have led large companies. When I sold my company to World Strides, we had a thousand employees. Two women were actually on the board when I became pregnant. Other women had never had a baby. They had to, like, make up a policy. But you sort of get to a point where you think, all of this nonsense about women in politics, ‘I’m different. They’re going to treat me differently. It’s not the same.’ I joke about it, but it’s true. I was asked early on by a group, in one of these many meetings with who I call the big shots. The people who try to get you not to run. They’re short of the whole strategy is how do we get her to not run. 

They had nine questions. And number three was ‘the last lady mayor slept with her bodyguard. You gonna do that.?’ Came right out and said it. And it is. It’s so interesting. I’m confident that no male candidates were asked that. People always say, Why don’t you put up that this mayor did that, and this mayor did that. And we can’t do that, right? We have to answer the question, because otherwise it looks like we have something to hide. So, my answer then and now is, I’ve been with my husband for 21 years, married for 17. I think a 15 month deployment to Iraq is harder on a marriage, but we’ll have to see.

A little scenario here before we run out of time. Tonight in South Nashville, picture a single mother with two kids, and she’s worried about the rent going up on her apartment, worried about child care she can’t afford, and is inconvenient, worried about the rising cost of everything. How does Alice Rolli, Mayor Alice Rolli, speak to her and what does she do for her? 

First, I think we step back and say what are some available resources? Frequently I find that people are not aware of some of the available resources. So you know, actually through a lot of great work of journalists and others that the temporary assistance to needy families funds were for too long held up, about three quarters of a billion dollars of those funds have come out. So how do we help her find child care? Or supplement child care? How do we help her get the job training, right? How do we help her to upskill? Because we have a 3% unemployment rate. That means right now we’ve got a nearly full employment rate. So how do we start to also work with our partners in the faith community to say, how can we serve our families? 

And then importantly, how do we try to help keep families together? 

Your opponent says he’s going to be ready on day one. And I know you’ve got about two weeks after the election to build out a sizable staff. Who would be part of your administration? Have you already given that thought? 

Yeah, well, we’ve both, I’m sure Freddie has too, gone to meet with the mayor’s team. Look, when I built out for Senator Alexander, his initial staff, you had two people on your staff before you were sworn in. It was me and Tom Ingram. We had to hire and staff seven offices, two in D.C. and six across the state. For Governor Haslam, part of the top to bottom review, there are a lot of great people there. 

When voters make a decision to go in a new direction, individuals who are capable and competent of serving, and serving their fellow citizens, I think are drawn to that work. So I’m not too worried about that. There are some very strong individuals here already in the city government. And then there are also folks who have reached out to us on our team that are ready to step in. 

And I know finally your campaign has had to make kind of a reset here. Have you got the ammunition and everything you need to be, let’s say, back on television again? 

Yeah, well, we actually put up a spot day before yesterday, a 90 second spot. We cut it last week. The film team that cut it, it’s up. The question is, look, at the end of the day, all of our teams for the voice, the writing, the policy, we’re all here. Those people are all still here. 

No one left

No, you know, Casey, Mills, John. I mean, this team, we’ve added a lot of folks to the team. You’ve started to see that. And we need to, right? But how we’re chopping it up and who we’re serving it to, we only just today received all of the data from from that group to say what message needs to go to Dimitri, what message needs to go to Steve, what message needs to go, sort of the cut up pieces. So I don’t really think that we’re, we’ve missed a step. We’ve brought additional fundraising folks on board too. And I think that’s pretty typical for a runoff. 

You’re feeling good? 

Yeah, I feel good. So I’ll be tonight — when you asked about what’s great about Nashville is entrepreneurs in this city. So tonight, Cordia Harrington, who founded the Tennessee Bun Company is hosting an event for me. I’m excited about that. And Sunday, John Wang, and about 20 different minority business leaders are hosting an event for me down in Nolensville, and it has been the honor of a lifetime when Feller Brown auctioned off my hat this week in Old Hickory. So we are out there, we are meeting with people that are saying, ‘maybe if we keep doing what we’ve always been doing, we’re not gonna get going in a new direction,’ and I know that’s uncomfortable for some people to say, wow, let’s just take a desk from the city council and move it over to the mayor’s office. But if we keep doing that, and we’ve done it now three times in a row, I know I represent shaking things up, but I think that people are like, Well, maybe it’s time. 

I think that’s all the time we have. Thanks Alice. 

Thank you.