It’s been nearly a year since the first candidates for mayor started campaigning, but Tuesday marked a major milestone in the race to succeed Mayor John Cooper, who opted not to run for reelection.
Six of the top candidates in the August election met for a semi-public forum, the first of the cycle, hosted by EO Nashville Tuesday morning at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.
Business strategist and former Republican aide Alice Rolli, District 19 Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, former AllianceBernstein executive Jim Gingrich, At-Large Metro Councilmember Sharon Hurt and former Metro official Matt Wiltshire debated in the hour-long event. They were asked about mass transit, the Titans stadium deal, the fractured city-state relationship, education, housing affordability, homelessness, crime and the city’s entertainment district. Other candidates have declared their intentions to run for the office but were not at the event.
At-Large Councilmember Bob Mendes, who recently decided not to run, and state Sen. Heidi Campbell, who has not yet declared her plans, sat next to each other in the audience.
With six candidates and seven main questions, there was limited time for candidates to distinguish themselves at the event. All agreed that transit is good, homelessness is bad, and the city has grown less affordable. Some distinctions did arise during discussions about the Titans stadium deal and law enforcement.
On the proposal to help fund a new multibillion-dollar enclosed stadium on the East Bank:
Wiltshire said he was in favor of the deal because it helps reduce the city’s financial burden for improving Nissan Stadium despite a stated general distaste for sports team subsidies.
Rolli said the deal signed by the Titans and the city was a “bad deal” and “this is a better deal.” She is “absolutely for it,” in part because a redeveloped East Bank could include transit and affordable housing.
O’Connell said the city should leverage from the existing lease to negotiate something better. The new deal encumbers Metro taxpayers too much, he said, especially when infrastructure and other related costs outside the stadium are factored in.
Yarbro, who helped pass some of the legislation related to the proposed stadium’s funding, said it doesn’t make sense to invest significant resources in the aging Nissan Stadium. Still, he said, it is important for city leaders to show residents that they care about major projects that aren’t sports stadiums.
Gingrich doesn’t like the deal for the new stadium but said the next mayor is likely to inherit the deal and should focus on managing development of the surrounding East Bank area.
Hurt said it is important to make sure Nashville residents benefit from the deal.
On crime rates and police funding:
Rolli said the state should pass laws requiring vehicle drivers to lock their doors in an effort to reduce stolen guns. She also said the city has “systemically underfunded the police force” and needs to hire more officers. Downtown business owners have grown so frustrated with crime in the area that they have hired “a mercenary police force,” she said. “I’m not for a mercenary police force, but I’m for it right now because our city doesn’t have the officers,” Rolli added.
O’Connell said the city should upgrade its police training facility in an effort to better recruit and retain officers and increase pay plans. He also said the state should further regulate gun ownership.
Yarbro said he is working on legislation related to the stolen-gun issue and he respects MNPD Chief John Drake. He said it is important to foster “transparency, accountability and trust” while also looking for non-police partners to take on some of their work.
Gingrich said Nashville needs “to properly resource the police force but that alone will not solve the issue.” He said there needs to be more coordination on crime prevention, including related to workforce development and schools, so that the city can “intervene before people get in trouble.”
Hurt said that “we have to make sure we address and give resources that are needed.” Additionally, she said, the city needs to “make sure not one block in this city is forgotten” and “give everyone the chance to be successful.”
Wiltshire said that “making Nashville a safe city is the most important thing.” If the city loses its reputation as a safe place to live or visit, “we lose everything.” He added that Nashville should fully staff the police force but also have non-commissioned personnel respond to things like traffic accidents.
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