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[Interview transcript]

I’ve been looking through the Montgomery Bell Annual, and I caught a shot of Freddie O’Connell in the yearbook. Tell me about that guy in high school. 

So I started in 7th grade, and it’s an interesting story because my mom actually started teaching at MBA the year I was born. But it was like two different eras for not just that school, but for the model of private schools in Nashville, where there was an old fashioned way that worked, and by the 80s, she was not only seeing honestly, better compensation and benefits packages in metro, she got to teach her true love. So she started teaching Spanish at MBA in the 1970s and got to teach French, which is her real passion. I mean, she is a Francophile, if there ever was one. 

And then she started, one of her friends who was, here in the foreign language teaching community, announced an early retirement from MBA the year that I was going to start 7th grade, potentially. And so, my brother and I wound up being a part of a faculty cohort of kids. And I would say a lot of us felt a little bit like fish out of water, because we were all coming in from public elementary schools, which were much more diverse than MBA was, even by the time I got there. 

But it was under the leadership of Doug Paschall, this old fashioned model of gentleman scholar athlete started to add a whole bunch more dimensions. He built a new theater and performing arts building with visual arts in it. So, we had great art studios, had a great music program, had a, at the time, state of the art theater, which is still there, elevated the speech and debate program. And so… I did athletics and I did very well academically. I thought, you know, okay, here I am. I might as well take advantage of everything that it has to offer. And so I got to do a little bit of everything. And by the time I graduated from MBA, I honestly felt like I had an equivalent of a liberal arts degree. 

And so, by the time I went to college, I knew what I wanted to study and wanted to be able to jump right into that. And so I was looking at the schools that had an open curriculum where you could kind of chart your own course. And Brown was one of those. And so I had six great years in MBA after seven great years at Aiken Elementary and went on to Brown University. 

And that’s what schools should do, is prepare you to make that choice later in life. 

Yeah, and, so this was what was interesting. I mean, that middle period of growing up was me being a bobcat, almost, because my mom taught at Overton for most of her period in metro schools. And the Overton of that era had this student-run cafe called the Cat’s Meow. It had a garage where students could learn to work on cars, right? There was, I mean it was a reference standard in many ways for the way that, I guess, what you would call vocational education could work in a high school model. The Overton of today, if you tour it, is very different in the implementation of the academies, and sort of has this medical science theme alongside some of the other elements of what you can learn beyond just the basic academic curriculum. 

And that’s what’s also interesting is I think the preparedness for whatever you want to do next is still something I think a lot about because, I mean, certainly, even at MBA, it turns out there were kids that weren’t really interested in going on to college.

Let’s talk a little bit about Nashville. Give me three things the city does well, and conversely, three things where we need improvement. 

I mean, I would say, we are and have been the entire time I’ve been here, still, great at overall delivering on the idea of Music City. You can go see so many different kinds of live music and it’s funny to just even be thinking about the large scale shows that have just been at Nissan Stadium over the past few months from Beyonce to Taylor Swift to Ed Sheeran who, of those three, I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that he would be the one to set the attendance record, but you can still, get out to a place like Dee’s Country and Cocktail Lounge and, back for a while there, a place like Stone Fox was kind of my home away from home to just go see country standards off of Broadway on a Sunday night. 

Station Inn still gives an amazing opportunity to experience, again, a type of music that’s off of Broadway. In these mid sized venues, like Basement East, Brooklyn Bowl now, Marathon. There’s really an opportunity to see all kinds of music live. I was talking to somebody earlier today who was reminding me that we kind of met when he came over to our house for a house concert because, funny enough, one of Whitney’s old exes has been a touring musician for, like 20 years now and they came through Nashville and were like, ‘hey, could we do a show at your place?’ And we set it up. 

I’ve been to a couple of house concerts at other people’s houses. And I still think that’s one thing we do really well. I think even as we look past the age that I grew up in at the old Elliston place, soda shop, there’s still, there’s like this Nashville that goes beyond Meat and Three, and so we’ve added craft cocktails and fine dining, but I think Nashville as a food city, again, going beyond sort of like fried chicken and fried green tomatoes and milkshakes. There’s,a lot of still really great southern cooking, soul food places. Even just in the footprint that I’ve spent a lot of time in the past several years. Big Al’s Diner, Silver Sands, places like that.

Oh, you’re taking me back

I think it’s really important for Nashville to hang on to some of those while we add places like the Catbird Seat and the Continental. But I love having that same mix. It’s kind of like they’re, you know, we hope we’ll keep some of our independent music venues alive. 

But it’s amazing to have new venues come online like Geodis Park has started to be a place where you can see live music now too, right? Our daughter has already asked if I will take her to see Pink in a few weeks. I think that’s another thing we do really well.

I think overall, we have still claimed a lot of what I always thought of and recognized as southern hospitality. I think one of the challenges though, bridging to that, is we have maybe spent a little too much time letting that southern hospitality be exploited, right? We’ve been a friendly city, we’ve welcomed people, but now instead of setting an expectation that our politeness, our friendliness, which is frequently very genuine. People are kind of trampling on it. Right? And they are not meeting any kinds of standards of decency. I hear complaints, I’ve been sent videos now for years of people behaving in completely inappropriate and outrageous ways in and around the entertainment district. And I think it’s important to think about that. 

Another challenge, I think, is still, this many years after the era of our, kind of awakening in the civil rights moment and the post sit-ins era and desegregation of schools, there’s been a not explicit policy driven, but certainly a, a quiet and maybe implicit, and maybe sometimes self segregation, but it’s still out there. Our race politics remain a complicated environment for people. And even thinking about the live music I hear a lot of times from friends and sort of the black nightlife community that we still aren’t making that a core strength for a truly multicultural offering. If you look at our New Year’s Eve celebration, it tends to be anchored around honky tonks and a country-only delivery of what Nashville is to the world, and I think that actually  has something to do with the pressure points of some of the race conversation. 

And then, of course, you know, to me, personally, one of the biggest things that remains a challenge is we have done so little as a major American city to make it easier to move around the city. 

We don’t have enough sidewalks. We don’t have a truly functional, meaningful transit system. I mean, we do have transit, but it’s the kind that every other major American city has moved beyond, sort of a hub and spoke. We ripped out our streetcars, kind of, everybody comes into downtown to go out the other side version of commuting. 

We haven’t invested in it, we haven’t redesigned it. We’ve just been kind of stuck in neutral. 

Let’s stay there. Is it going to require another referendum? If you’re mayor, would you push that? And how would this one be different and succeed? 

So we can make incremental progress that keeps us on a course that Mayor Dean and Mayor Purcell kind of started us on. 

Mayor Purcell had created sort a first of its kind major downtown transfer facility with a lot of partnerships with state and local and federal. And then Mayor Dean took that catalyst and began a full two terms worth of incremental investments and tried to do something as a demonstration project, the AMP, you might remember, which would’ve run from five points to St. Thomas West and kind of run through one of the densest corridors in the city, serving the largest transit trip generator in the region, which is Vanderbilt University and VUMC. And it’s important to still do that. It’s important to do the cost effective, popular, visible, useful elements of that. And what that means is starting to break up that hub and spoke model where you start to put community transit centers around the community in places where people would and will and already are using transit. We got the first example of that at the renovated Hillsborough High School, where there’s now climate controlled waiting, much better signage, more routes coming together. 

We’ve broken ground on one in North Nashville out on Clarksville Highway. My hope is that we could get something into a future East Bank. We’ve got a big opportunity now at Hickory Hollow. We have land here right near you on the south side of Broadway that was supposed to be one that we just haven’t built yet, that would help not have to have every route not only come into downtown, but cross Broadway during rush hour. 

And these kinds of things are what WeGo recommended that we do six or seven years ago, our public transit authority. And we should still do all that stuff and that doesn’t require any kind of ask of voters, that just requires a mayor willing to put strategic focus and spending priorities together to make it happen. 

Mayor Cooper’s transportation plan has a lot of really important elements in it including work that we should also do right nearby with a traffic management center and modernizing our traffic signals so that not only our transit system can take advantage of it, but that motorists benefit as well.

But if we’re really to be a modern major American city, yes, we should look for dedicated funding for transit. And the only way that the state authorizes us to do that is by taking advantage of a referendum option under the terms of the IMPROVE Act which passed several years ago. If we were to do that I would look at not putting any surprise elements in there. I would look at where we know we can apply lessons from what we learned five years ago when that 2018 referendum failed and nobody was expecting a billion dollar tunnel under downtown. We don’t need one. I think very few people were expecting such a massive investment in light rail, and I would contend that we also don’t need that. If we have a near term light rail route it would probably connect the airport to downtown. What we do need though is 24/7 365 service. We have a hospitality and healthcare industry and other sectors of our workforce that work multiple shifts. And so a nine to five commute route or even a 8 a.m. to 8 p. m. service schedule isn’t enough for a city the size of Nashville with all the diversity of our workforce. 

We need to look at high-capacity modes. When we added what MTA called BRT Light several years ago on Gallatin, which was at the time the most popular corridor in the system for ridership, it almost created a local and an express route. You could see stops that one of the BRT Light buses would not stop at every then blue bus stop signs, now the purple ones, with the rebrand of WEGO. But it would look at the stations along the route and stop there. And then you’d have a local route that would hit whatever stop anybody wanted to. And that sort of allowed ridership along that route. If you were starting at the end and coming all the way into downtown, you could take the express and get there much more quickly. When we do service improvements like that, ridership goes up, and that’s exactly what happened on Gallatin. 

Let’s talk a little about education. Your opponent told the Banner a month ago that she would be in favor of taking over the school board in two years if things hadn’t improved. What do you think of that? Would you favor overriding the school board or taking over the school system? How quickly can you make improvements there? 

It’s the same thing. This is a question of leadership, and I don’t think you need to invite the state, because that’s what it would take. You don’t need to invite the state in to supersede even more of our local authority in order to make massive improvements in education. The hardest part about this conversation is linked to one about our race politics. It has been very difficult for Nashville in the era of desegregation to avoid a resegregation of sorts in our public schools, and that’s true in a variety of our elementary and a variety of our middle and in a variety of our high schools. 

So you see it happening. Do you have an example? 

Sure. The two schools, the elementary schools that I’ve represented for the past eight years, one of them has since closed and consolidated into Jones Paideia, but it was Buena Vista Elementary and Napier Elementary. Both of those schools were at a level of 98% black student enrollment. That is not diversity in a student body. They were both, for a long time, somewhat isolated in terms of community, but over time, Buena Vista had the combined challenges of serving a previously self segregated cluster of neighborhoods, but also serving more homeless students as a result of proximity to the Nashville Rescue Mission’s Women and Families Campus. They also, as a result, had incredibly high student mobility, meaning students wouldn’t both start and end the academic year in the same school building. And so they had some structural challenges. That’s a hard school dynamic to invite families into when the neighborhood composure starts to change. Meanwhile, Napier has remained, in a context of concentrated poverty surrounded by two major public housing developments, Napier Place and Sudekum Apartments, and a small residential neighborhood in their little corner of the world, and then Chestnut Hill kind of across the way. Again, from a zone perspective, it’s very hard to break that up, to make it a school where the entire student body, the families, interact in a way that allows the establishment of a strong, sustainable PTO. That correlation of race and socioeconomic status, when you’ve got concentrated poverty is a real challenge. And so disrupting that is really hard. Because I don’t look at success in schools as just, hey, have we improved student performance? It’s really about, hey, have we done the entire picture of, student performance is increasing, therefore the community is growing stronger, and therefore all kinds of people are not just satisfied but happy living in community with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of race or ethnicity. And that’s still a pretty significant challenge for Nashville. 

A lot of talk around town about the moves the state made to take over the airport authority, to possibly cut the size of the council. And those moves, I think, most agree were precipitated by this decision on the RNC locating. If you had been Mayor Cooper back then what would you have done? 

I think there were really two choices available. You either say, presumably to the governor, because I don’t know exactly how the negotiation started, but obviously it reached the mayor’s office, and you say ‘you can do this, but if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to do it generally without Metro. Because if we bring this to the Metro Council without bipartisan support. It’s going to fail.’ I mean, for instance, I could probably find a handful of constituents out of tens of thousands that were interested in the RNC coming, particularly if it was going to have a footprint in District 19. Most Metro Council members who were listening to their constituents were hearing very similar things. It was an overall unpopular idea for Nashville residents. And so I think it would be important for the mayor to acknowledge that and be candid about the challenges of Metro approval. But we also hosted two Trump rallies, an NRA convention, and none of those things were voted on by the Metro Council, and yet they happened here in Nashville, and they had appropriate safety elements in place and all of those things.

The other thing to do would be to say, I’m happy to be a part of this conversation, but you’re gonna have to bring a strong bipartisan coalition to the table and you’re gonna have to be a key element of working with Metro Council members to help them and help the overall conversation with the city to say, ‘here’s how we’re gonna do it, here’s how we’re going to keep controversy to a minimum, here’s how we’re going to prevent attacks on the ideas of Democratic majority cities coming from a stage in one of those, here’s how we’re going to keep people safe.’ And if you can do that, and we can demonstrate up front that we’ve got majority support within the Metro Council, then I think everybody can do this together. And neither one of those approaches is what happened. 

A lot of ground to cover and I hope we can get to a few more things, but you’ve got a new commercial out today where the top line is ‘invest in police.’ This seems to be a new message from you. What do you mean by invest in police? 

So, this has been maybe one of the most frustrating exercises of campaigning in general is when you encounter people who have wanted to draw caricatures. And then that becomes related to an imaginary version of something. And so, for eight years, and I think this has been true for even some city officials, there’s been this notion that I and maybe even other colleagues on the Metro Council who have spoken about accountability, right? I was there the night of the Daniel Hambrick shooting talking to witnesses, talking to neighbors in the area, talking to officers on the scene, and it was a pretty profound moment to have happen in the space where we were having a conversation about should we have civilian oversight of the police. And I concluded that this was a good idea. And I wound up signing the petition, I wound up voting for the oversight board. And similarly, we had very troubling data about race and policing made available to the Metro Council, with research support from Vanderbilt University, but presented by Gideon’s Army, that was then later independently validated by the Policing Policy Institute from an organization that was not based in Nashville. 

The Driving While Black you’re talking about. 

Right. And I think so often, because we know that the police are generally trusted and supported by the general public, and we have funded them. I mean, for eight years we have increased police budgets to include more personnel capacity, to systematically increase wages, to improve equipment and facilities, and yet I think for people who want to imagine that I am a very far left candidate it’s very easy to say ‘well this guy is, he’s part of the defund the police movement.’ But that’s never been the case. And so I think it’s important as we’re speaking to a broader audience than the — I mean, because we heard it in the general campaign, the general election campaign. And so now speaking to the whole city beyond just our base and speaking to supporters of other candidates, who’s support we know we have to earn, I think it’s important to start erasing some of that caricature. 

Would you add police? 

We already have. I think it’s a question of, I expect to be in conversation with Chief Drake. This is the hard part. You can put, in fact, most of the time we were in the Metro Council, we had budget capacity for more officers than were on staff. And so you can keep moving this number of how many officers you can afford out there, but I think you want to be realistic about the size of your recruitment classes, the pace of those things. It’s something I expect to stay in close contact with Chief Drake around what does our budget number need to be versus where you all are in your training and recruitment efforts and retention efforts. 

You have probably attracted more negative campaigning so far of anyone in the crowded field that was initially running. Does that bother you? Do you anticipate more? And how have you answered it? 

So, I think if you look at the timing of it, most of the — so I’ll say a couple things. One, no other candidate, no other campaign did this, right? I think the entire field was generally focused on running with their platforms, each candidate, expressing their message. I mean even in most of the forums. 

It’s pretty civil. 

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know that a foul would have been called, right? A couple of sharp elbows here and there, but I mean, it was all just trying to get rebounds and Idon’t think anybody ever got knocked on the floor. Even last night in the runoff, Pat Nolan as one of the moderators, kind of suggested, ‘Alright, we’re, we’re going to have these rules, you get rebuttals, and,, if you go too far out of bounds, you’re going to get a warning, you may lose speaking time, and we reserve the right to remove you from the stage.’ And, I mean, we joked after the fact, it was like, we didn’t even use the rebuttals. There was not even a tiptoe toward that. But I think most of the campaigns have remained civil. Those attacks came from individuals that I think started to recognize that we had seriousness about our campaign, that we were competitive, might be competitive to participate in a runoff. 

To me, it’s a credit to the success of our team, to the overall platform we ran on that obviously had some elements that probably startled some specific individuals with the way that they resonated with actual Nashvillians. And it didn’t bother me except that, again, it comes back to the caricature notion, right? I’ve got eight years of a public voting record, floor speeches, partnerships in the community, and anybody’s going to find something that they don’t like in that, because a decision is a function of a disagreement existing somewhere. But I think I’ve tried to be very transparent about how I reach my decisions, why I make those decisions, and so interestingly enough, we wound up outperforming the polls that were available before the election and so I feel pretty good about our overall effort. 

You talk about being ready on day one, but you’ve never led a large organization before. What’s your leadership style? Do you even know what your leadership style is? You’ve been a free agent, kind of?

No, I mean, this is — it’s really interesting that there has not been a lot of discussion about the private sector side of my life. For 25 years I’ve worked in software and technology and I think the best testimonial to the impact I’ve had within organizations where a lot of the time I’ve either worked for startups a handful of times I’ve worked for publicly traded companies, but the best testimonial I can have is that multiple founders, multiple colleagues, multiple people that I have worked with in a professional context through the years were ardent supporters of the campaign. In fact, on election night, there were some of the very first people I even interned with sitting there on the floor in the front row, and I feel like this is a pretty special moment where these people who have helped me as mentors on the way to professional success along the way. I wound up thanking Bobby Frist and Healthstream, where I’ve worked for the previous several years leading implementation of a significant technology innovation within the company. I’ve founded a couple of businesses myself. And so I’ve had higher fire authority. I’ve had to build, lead, grow teams, deliver success, and I think if there were an examination of my private sector life you’d see a lot of success there that has a lot to do with how a team succeeds in a large organization and how my leadership style is evident. 

One of my best moments recently was with a colleague on the Metro Council who spoke exactly to that. He said you know, ‘we haven’t sat down and had a long interpersonal history, but one of the things that I have a lot of confidence in as you got to this point is your leadership style is really great.’

And I think from the standpoint of Metro being something that I think really should be a top tier customer service organization, I think we’re going to be able to deliver on that.

Now you’ve gained some endorsements, both from the Nashville Business Coalition and the Equity Alliance Fund. Those two groups have missions that are at odds at times. As mayor, do you think it’s possible to keep both of those groups happy? 

Yeah, I think actually this is what we’re supposed to do. A good leadership model in Nashville, and this goes back to the first time I ran in 2015, where we had a mix of business support and labor support. There is enough workforce opportunity here that I think people can and should expect good paying jobs and, good wages, good benefits, safe work environments, for a variety of industries. 

And we also have such a strong economy that has diversified over the past few years that we were not in as bad shape as most other markets during the Great Recession. We bounced back quicker than a lot of markets after COVID. The overall Nashville economy is a really healthy environment, and I think one thing that I would expect to be a little bit of a difference from the past few years is regardless of the health of the economy, which we want to make sure remains healthy from both a jobs available standpoint, quality access, opportunities for young people, a constant attention to how our workforce development is working out with relation to our K through 12, but also our after high school opportunities, whether it’s what Nashville State is offering, what our major colleges and universities are offering as pathways into our economy. We should constantly have the mayor involved in strategic economic development and think about what are the next steps we need to take. What do we do if the economy is healthy? What do we do if there’s a downturn? How do we respond to external shocks or natural disasters? And then to, again, be very focused on workforce development and youth opportunity. I think the overall goal here is for the mayor’s office to ensure that access to the economy is something that is equitable, but that growth is a good thing for the city. 

I think most organizations, whether they are focusing on a specific demographic element within the city, whether they are focused on traditional corporate relocation or large scale employers. I think everybody knows we’d rather be a city that is growing rather than one that is in decline. 

And quickly, if you could, if you inherit this East Bank plan, which the stadium is a reality, it’s going to happen, what would make you happiest to see on the East Bank? 

So, to me, the East Bank is the place that is going to help us determine if we can do the things that cities are supposed to excel at. Is the housing market on the East Bank sturdy enough that people who are working in the stadium can afford to live within the footprint of the stadium? Have we succeeded in reinvigorating the riverfront so that Instead of Cumberland Park, which started to feel like it was crumbling within months of opening, where there’s a concession stand that I’ve never seen open, where there are elements in the play area that say, do not climb, and there used to be planters, where, the large slide was damaged and cracked within a few months of opening, where the spray ground has been closed for two years as one of the most popular elements because the pump station is crushing the pipes underneath it, right? 

This is a chance to show that we can end an era of deferred maintenance with our parks and green space where we can tackle affordable housing problems when we get to start from scratch, where we can introduce connectivity both into East Nashville, where East Nashvillians, if you talk to them about Titans game days, it’s an exercise in frustration if they’re trying to access any other part of the city, but also into downtown. 

And doing all of it while having a feeling of an urban neighborhood rather than a junior or secondary entertainment district, which I don’t think is what is most needed right now. And figuring out a way for the city and the Titans to be great partners in that effort along the way. I think if we do all of those things, then it shows that four years from now, when the Titans are playing in that 2027 season in a new enclosed stadium, that my hope is that Nashvillians will answer the question of are we on the right track or on the wrong track, with the majority of us saying we’re on the right track again. 

Thanks so much for your time. 

Yeah, thank you. I’m glad to be here.