Freddie O’Connell addresses supporters gathered at an Eastside Bowl victory party on Thursday, Sept. 14. Credit: Hamilton Matt Masters/Nashville Scene

Freddie O’Connell will become Metro Nashville’s 10th mayor.

The former District 19 councilmember convincingly beat Alice Rolli 64 percent to 36 percent, capping an improbable 18-month rise from critic of John Cooper and a deal for a new Titans stadium to the leader of the city. After leading a crowded field in Aug. 3 general election, O’Connell consolidated the support of almost all of his opponents into a convincing runoff victory.

Rolli, a business owner and former Haslam administration official, successfully parlayed Republican support into a second-place finish, but the wheels came off of the campaign not long after the general election. When reports surfaced about a link between the far-right Proud Boys and Rolli’s campaign consultant, she cut ties with the firm, but the damage was done. 

Rolli spent two weeks getting her campaign back on track, but momentum and fundraising were interrupted. O’Connell outraised Rolli by 3-to-1 during the runoff period and was able to use that financial advantage to saturate broadcast and digital viewers with messaging. By the time Rolli was able to get her own ad on television 10 days before the elections, O’Connell answered with a barrage of direct mail to voters critical of Rolli and the race was effectively over.

According to one analysis shared with the Banner, the early vote was heavily Democratic, by one measure plus-34 percent. In order to overcome what would be a huge O’Connell advantage, Rolli needed to not only carry all independent voters, but flip some traditional Democrats on Election Day while bringing a number of new voters to the runoff. It didn’t happen.

A packed Eastside Bowl played host to the O’Connell election night party, and the mood was celebratory from the moment the crowd began to make its way into the venue. And when early voting totals went up on the TV, showing O’Connell ahead 46,669 to 24,904, the question for many was simply what the final margin would be.

Across town at Plaza Mariachi, Rolli supporters got the same news. A crowd of the candidate’s staff, including Treasurer David Fox and former mayoral candidate Stephanie Johnson, crowded around a laptop quietly. The news was grim. 

Rolli’s campaign manager Casey Newcomer was sent out to put on a brave face.

“Obviously we knew we were going to be a little bit behind on early voting going into tonight,” he said. “Still a lot more than can happen tonight. But we put in a lot of work to be here. So we’re just excited to be in this situation here tonight.”

Jubilant supporters cheer during a victory celebration for Mayor-elect Freddie O’Connell. Credit: Hamilton Matt Masters/Nashville Scene

‘I’ll Take You There’

At Eastside Bowl, O’Connell campaign manager Marjorie Pomeroy-Wallace said the playlist for the night had been crowdsourced from campaign volunteers, and considering the first song of the night was the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” it’s clear the O’Connell camp was in a good mood. (The candidate himself had posted earlier that, in honor of her driving 14 hours round trip to vote, Margo Price would be the only artist played at the party, O’Connell’s only notable broken campaign promise of the night)

The crowd was a diverse mix of campaign staff, volunteers, supporters and familiar political faces. Among them, former mayoral candidate Jim Gingrich, who suspended his campaign before the general election.

“He’s talking right now about how does he make city government work for the people of Nashville,” Gingrich said. “I’m thrilled that Freddie will be our next mayor.”

A smattering of boos at the bowling alley rose up when Alice Rolli appeared on the TV around 8 pm, though a group near the front of the room seemed more puzzled about why she was making an appearance in the first place, if she wasn’t conceding.

“We’re not out yet,” Rolli told NewsChannel 5. “Sometimes people vote against a party instead of for a person, so I think there’s probably some of that at play here.”

But within a half hour, Rolli had seen enough and called to concede.

“I did just speak with Freddie, our mayor-elect, and I told him that the man I met 10 years ago at a Nashville Next table, the person who I know has a heart for service, that we congratulate him on being our city’s 10th mayor,” Rolli told the subdued Plaza Mariachi crowd.

Up until that moment, Rolli’s election party had been in relatively high spirits. Even early in the night, when early voting numbers had O’Connell already well ahead, the crowd of around 70-80 people in orange shirts remained positive. But as Rolli finished her speech, there was audible grumbling when O’Connell’s name was mentioned by her supporters.

“We found in our city there’s so much more that unites us than divides us,” Rolli said. “In this room are so many surprising people you would never expect to be together, and this is what I believe is the future of our country.”

Retired Judge Bill Higgins celebrates at Mayor-elect Freddie O’Connell’s party on Thursday, Sept. 14. Credit: Hamilton Matt Masters/Nashville Scene

‘I Want You to Stay’

Back at Eastside Bowl, though, the party was kicking into high gear. 

Dr. Alex Jahangir, the city’s COVID czar during the height of the pandemic, brought his daughter to the party. “I know fundamentally in his heart, he cares about the city, he cares about people,” Jahangir said. And he said his sense, having met with O’Connell, was that as mayor he would work to make the city’s success “felt by everyone.”

When the TV screen onstage showed that the race had been called, a huge cheer went up, followed by a chant of “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” Phil Collins’ dramatic drum fill from “In the Air Tonight” seemed to indicate an appearance from the mayor elect was imminent, but the house lights went up soon after while a campaign staffer patroled the stage with a cell phone to his ear.

Before too long, District 30 councilmember Sandra Sepulveda gave a rousing introduction, reminding the crowd that O’Connell was one of the first people to support her run for Metro Council, when she was just 25 and, politically speaking, a nobody. “This is the new politics,” Sepulveda said to huge applause. “This is the new wave of leadership.” Among the dozens of supporters joining Sepulveda onstage were former mayoral candidates Sharon Hurt and Vivian Wilhoite,

Around 8:45 p.m., when O’Connell finally took the stage to ecstatic cheers, he made sure to note that the last time he was in this room, it was to see Jason Isbell perform — not knowing he’d have his own sold-out crowd a few months later. 

As ever, O’Connell didn’t give a particularly fiery or flowery speech. Unlike Jason Isbell, you couldn’t imagine him doing this six nights in a row. Over the course of about 20 minutes, he stuck to the basics, and almost right away hit on one of the major themes of his campaign: “I want you to stay.”

He talked about his love of Nashville as a native son, “the legacy of Music City that started with the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” the successes of the city’s public schools. He acknowledged that there are still deep scars “from a past that treated too many people unjustly” and new pains on top of that — a tornado, a bombing, civil unrest, a pandemic, a school shooting.

“But we’re still here,” he said. “Together.”

The biggest applause moment of the night came when O’Connell thanked his wife, Whitney, who said, “sources close to the campaign say would like to be referred to as First Doctor.”

Mayor-elect Freddie O’Connell celebrates with his two daughters and wife Whitney on stage at Eastside Bowl on Thursday, Sept. 14. Credit: Hamilton Matt Masters/Nashville Scene

Eighteen Months in the Making

Driving O’Connell’s success in the general election and the runoff was a strong performance in the field. In total, the campaign knocked on more than 63,000 doors, made 58,000 calls and put up 2,700 signs in yards and businesses. The campaign’s efforts were bolstered by work from the Nashville Justice League, a PAC coalition of progressive groups that reached another 7,600 doors and 1,000 voters via their volunteer efforts. 

That campaign was by design, took months to build and execute and paid off what had been an effort eighteen months in the making, relying more on a ground game and pinching pennies than the expensive air campaign some of his competitors would wage.

O’Connell entered the race in April of last year, the first candidate to declare against incumbent John Cooper. The mayor was seemingly vulnerable, having been battered by two years of pandemic response as well as a negative response to a 34 percent increase in the city’s property tax. Polling showed that a majority of Nashvillians believed the city was on the wrong track.

Even in the beginning, O’Connell had a clear message: the key issues of transit and affordability are inextricably linked.

“This is a mayor who seems to be resolutely not building a transit system for a city that is a top-25 American city,” O’Connell told the Banner as he filed. “I want to build a Nashville that works together again, right? I want people who feel so good about the sense of common purpose that we’re coming together to do amazing things in our schools, to build that transit system and have it be a community-based plan that serves people and literally drives down people’s cost of living.”

Others entered the race: Former MDHA executive Matt Wiltshire hopped in a month later and displayed the most fundraising prowess of any candidate; Sharon Hurt, an at-large Council member at the time, entered the field in December. Community and political leaders like Hal Cato and Bob Freeman kicked the tires on a potential run before bowing out.

Then, in January, Cooper changed everything by dropping out. At a press conference, the mayor declared victory on city finances, public safety and education, and announced that he would finish work on the Titans stadium and the East Bank. But it was clear that COVID and the bruising fights with the state had taken a toll.

“In many respects,” Cooper said, “2020 was a full term in office.”

With the incumbent — historically tough to beat, with notable exceptions — out of the picture, a steady stream of contenders joined the field: Jim Gingrich, the former COO of AllianceBernstein, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, state Sen. Heidi Campbell, and Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite. 

In the middle of the newcomers was Rolli, a former official in Gov. Bill Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Rolli had spent the last six years working for a variety of education companies after leaving the administration. Her father, Al Ganier, had been a Republican fundraiser and a Sundquist administration official who pled guilty to impairing a federal investigation into state contracts. She grew up in Republican circles, working for Lamar Alexander when he was elected to the Senate and then running his campaign for a third term in 2014.

Unlike many mayoral elections, the field was late arriving and spent most of the spring getting organized. Only in early July, with a first round of polls, did the election’s shape become evident. O’Connell and Wiltshire’s early entries had given them both an organizational and fundraising advantage. Gingrich’s millions had made him familiar to the city’s electorate, but the crowded field kept picking off parts of his message. Campbell’s early name ID advantage evaporated and Yarbro’s slow rise needed to quicken if he was to have any chance to make the runoff.

O’Connell, meanwhile, had begun field work months before, knocking on doors around the city to find supporters. It showed up in polling, with most surveys placing him first. The battle for second became a match between Wiltshire, a centrist, and Rolli, a conservative. Rolli’s campaign got a boost as a political action committee called Save Nashville began running ads that appealed to conservative voters, emphasizing crime and taxes as major issues. Wiltshire, meanwhile, was hampered in part by the size of the field and, in particular, the entry of Yarbro.

When Aug. 3 arrived, O’Connell was first with 27 percent of the vote. Rolli finished the general election strong, eventually capturing 20 percent of the vote and edging Wiltshire for the second spot in the runoff.

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...