Freddie O'Connell Credit: Campaign photo

Freddie O’Connell built up a massive fundraising advantage over Alice Rolli in the runoff, in part because one out of every four dollars he raised came from a PAC or an LLC, raising questions about influence in his administration should O’Connell win.

Political action committees poured $199,850 into the former downtown councilmember’s coffers while companies gave him another $105,401. Most of the money from LLCs came from just three sources, who bundled up multiple companies in their portfolios to multiply their impact. They are:

  • Bill Miller, the CEO of Icon Entertainment, which runs the Johnny Cash Museum, Nudie’s Honky Tonk, Skull’s Rainbow Room, the Patsy Cline Museum and more. 18 different companies associated with Miller’s holdings gave the maximum $1,800 donation allowable by a company for a total of $32,400. He gave heavily to District 19 candidate Jacob Kupin, as well.
  • Chenault Sanders, the CEO of Blackbird Media and principal at Blackbird Capital. His companies own The Nashville Sign billboard where West End and Division split, outdoor advertising across Nashville and Atlanta, Jack Brown’s Burgers and Beer, Von Elrod’s and the 30A branding. 10 different companies associated with Sanders’ holdings gave $18,000 total.
  • Nashville Capital Group. Companies associated with this firm are primarily real estate holdings and developments. NCG has sought to re-zone a piece of riverfront land to turn into a mixed-use development. 10 different companies associated with Nashville Capital group gave $18,000.

It’s the second filing where Nashville Capital Group has mined its LLCs for donations for a candidate. In a January disclosure, NCG gave $19,200 through 12 LLCs to Mayor John Cooper before he dropped out of the race. At least one of their LLCs that gave to O’Connell was listed as inactive by the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office. Several others were registered in other states.

“I’ve got an 8-year track record of voting and working on consequential issues that have improved lives and outcomes, and the bipartisan financial support we’ve earned is a sign of people respecting my thoughtful, transparent decision-making process more so than an effort to buy influence, which I’m confident our donors know they can’t do,” O’Connell said in a statement to the Banner.

But even if donors know that, it may be less apparent to the public, who see businesses lining up with checks for a potential mayor.

“Let’s say that development, or someone who is interested in developing a property, goes to a zoning situation. If you are someone who maybe lives on the property or adjacent to the property, who’s just a normal person, a lot of times people feel that this system is stacked against them,” said Kent Syler, a professor of political science at MTSU and former political strategist. “This certainly breeds distrust in government. And you know, that some people are treated differently than others because they have more money.”

The system of campaign finance introduces these tensions, he argued. 

“It’s legal to contribute,” Syler said. “And, you know, people running for office have got to raise money, because it’s very expensive to run campaigns. But it’s far from an ideal situation.”

In the case of PACs, who lobby on behalf of their causes as well as in the case of donors, it’s all about getting access.

“They are wanting the ability to speak to the elected official, to speak to members of the staff about issues that are of concern to them,” Syler said. 

The rush to back the winning candidate has also put the O’Connell campaign in the position of receiving donations from political action committees that are not always aligned. Three pro-labor groups — the TN Laborers PAC, the Ironworkers Local Union 492 and the plumbers and pipefitters union — all gave maximum donations to O’Connell as did three pro-business groups: A Better Tomorrow, the Nashville Business Coalition and the Nashville Business Alliance. 

“They’re gifts with no expectation or obligation. A contribution is just that — not a guarantee of time or access to the mayor,” O’Connell said. “Look over the past eight years. In 2015, a series of Steve Smith affiliates contributed. Those donations did not guarantee him anything, as our relationship has shown in the following years. A group affiliated with the stadium also donated to my campaign despite my vocal opposition to the stadium deal.”

By contrast, Rolli received only $21,800 from PACs — including two donations that were also given to O’Connell — and $20,600 from businesses.

“There are a lot of forces that do not want to see change in our city as evidenced by the amount of money given to our opponent’s campaign,” said Rolli via email.

Additional reporting by Connor Daryani.

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...