On the campaign trail: Mayoral candidates pick Nashville’s biggest infrastructure issues
Early voting begins Friday, July 14.
Last week brought a fresh volley of campaign ads, a touch of controversy and bolder swings among candidates.
In a forum hosted by The Tennessean and NewsChannel 5 at American Baptist College, candidates flagged Nashville’s most glaring infrastructure issues: sidewalks, roads, flooding and more.
The race to become Nashville’s next mayor is intensifying in the final days before polls open for early voting.
Candidates’ criticisms of their competitors are shifting from subtle to striking, campaign signs are proliferating on city streets and campaigns released a fresh volley of ads — some of which have stirred controversy.
The polls open on Friday. Here’s what to know.
Ad game heats up
Sharon Hurt took a swing at Jim Gingrich and Matt Wiltshire in her first televised ad, displaying clips of their campaign ads while urging Nashvillians to “look past all the privilege” in choosing the next mayor of Nashville. Gingrich and Wiltshire have spent the most to date on television ads, and hold the top two positions in terms of contributing personal money to their campaigns. Hurt’s ad highlighted her pledges to lift up forgotten neighborhoods, struggling businesses and workers, asking viewers to believe in her to deliver “Nashville’s promise for everyone.”
Heidi Campbell made her first foray into the TV sphere with an ad hearkening back to her music career and pledging to take on crime and affordability, and “pick up the damn trash.” The ad’s tagline, “Nashville is out of tune,” reminded some viewers of competitor Stephanie Johnson‘s campaign slogan, “Music City is out of tune.”
In a July 7 tweet, Johnson said “due to recent events,” her campaign would not put out a commercial until the runoff. “We don’t want to confuse voters,” she wrote.
Campbell’s team said the line “Nashville is out of tune” was selected after conversations with the team’s media consultant to highlight Campbell’s background as a touring musician and music industry executive while addressing Nashville’s history and current issues. “The line itself is generic and has been used in headlines surrounding Music City politics and sports for years,” campaign representative Will Severn wrote in a statement to The Tennessean. “The messaging harbored no malicious intent, nor was it intended to in any way discredit or disrespect Campbell’s fellow candidates for office.”
It’s not the first time campaigns have seen some messaging overlap — Wiltshire and Vivian Wilhoite have both used iterations of “A Mayor for all of Nashville” in campaign materials.
Wilhoite released her first commercial Monday, focusing on her roots in Nashville politics and goal to make “all parts of our city strong.”
“I’ve been a mother to two African American boys in a city that hasn’t always seen our worth before our color,” she says, mentioning her experience as a factor in her support for Justin Jones for Tennessee House District 52.
Wilhoite finishes the one-minute spot by asserting she’s not afraid to pick up the phone: “Gov. Lee? It’s Mayor Vivian. I’m coming over. We need to talk.”
Gingrich found himself under pressure from Bristol Motor Speedway and supporters of a proposal to overhaul Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway after he derided “spending over $100 million on a NASCAR racetrack” in an ad featuring his father. Gingrich met with racetrack director Gary Neal and supporter Norm Partin last week for a presentation on the deal, after which Gingrich said he was told to remove the ads and encouraged to endorse the plan, or else be prepared for negative ads against him. After facing procedural speedbumps during Metro Council consideration, the speedway deal is unlikely to reach a final vote before the end of the council and mayoral term.
Campaigns also expanded their endorsement lists, with Jeff Yarbro picking up a stamp of approval from state Rep. Darren Jernigan, Wiltshire gaining the endorsement of retired Davidson County Chancery Court Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman and Freddie O’Connell netting approval from a collection of former Metro Council members and former MNPS board member Jill Speering.
In a moment of levity, O’Connell also gained a note of support from a Twitter account adopting the perspective of Demonbroomin, Nashville’s bike lane sweeper. The sweeper account’s #readyforfreddie July 4 tweet prompted the Nashville Department of Transportation to clarify the account is run by a private citizen and not associated with or managed by Metro.
“Our bike lane sweeper hasn’t endorsed any candidates in this election,” the department stated.
Progressive coalition opts out of mayoral endorsement
The Nashville Justice League — a progressive political action committee comprised of the Central Labor Council of Nashville & Middle Tennessee, TIRRC Votes and The Equity Alliance Fund — chose not to endorse a mayoral candidate in the 2023 election.
The grassroots group formed in 2019 to champion candidates reflecting their agenda of workers’ rights, immigrant rights and civil rights. Of the 15 candidates NJL endorsed in 2019, 13 were elected.
NJL endorsed four Metro Council at-large candidates for 2023:
The PAC also made several council district seat endorsements:
District 5, Sean Parker
District 7, Emily Benedict
District 8, Deonte Harrell
District 9, Stephanie Montenegro
District 13, Russ Bradford
District 16, Ginny Welsch
District 17, Terry Vo
District 21, Brandon Taylor
District 24, Brenda Gadd
District 25, Jeff Preptit
District 30, Sandra Sepulveda
NJL did not endorse a candidate for vice mayor.
What are Nashville’s most glaring infrastructure issues?
Several candidates took bolder swings at their competitors last week during the final Nashville Mayoral Debate hosted by The Tennessean and NewsChannel 5 at American Baptist College. But before they had the opportunity to grill each other on policy issues, they tackled Nashville’s lagging infrastructure.
Some of the most glaring gaps in the fabric of Nashville according to candidates: sidewalks, potholes, flooding and a vulnerable electric grid.
Here’s what each candidate identified as their top priority.
Matt Wiltshire: Sidewalks
Wiltshire identified sidewalks as the “single biggest challenge” for Nashville infrastructure, with more than 4,000 miles still awaiting construction.
“It’s related to everything else that we’re talking about: How do you get … kids to school in a safe manner? How do you get to transit alternatives? How can small businesses benefit from folks in their communities getting there without access to parking?” Wiltshire said.
Lower-density neighborhoods would likely have fewer sidewalks, but he wants people to be able to move throughout their communities. He commended Nashville’s water department for its work on the storm water and sewer systems, noting there is also “more work to be done there.”
Sharon Hurt: Sewage, water and storm water
“We have homes that have been built on single parcels, and now we’re putting four, five, six, seven houses on those parcels, and you have … 10 times as much need,” Hurt said. “I’m afraid that our piping system, especially with it being 100-plus years old and all of them leading over to Vanderbilt, that we’re going to blow up our system.”
Nashville sees too much flooding and needs to do an “overhaul” in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, she said.
Jim Gingrich: Everything, with an emphasis on roads
Gingrich seized another opportunity to take a swipe at competitors who already hold office.
“When you grow and you don’t do the things you need to do … you have a long list” of issues, he said, naming water, sewer, storm water, transit, sidewalks, landfill capacity and green space.
“In terms of the major priority that I hear every time I knock on the door, it’s ‘With all I’m paying in taxes, why can’t you keep my roads in good condition?’ particularly in neighborhoods that have been ignored for such a long time,” he said.
Gingrich noted his car’s windshield has broken three times over the last year from stones being thrown from potholes.
Vivian Wilhoite: Roads and waste
Wilhoite said keeping roads in good repair is essential for those who drive personal vehicles and use mass transit: Buses and cars alike can get tires blown out by potholes, and such incidents put passengers at risk.
“They sound like simple things, but you know what, they are simple, but they mean a lot to us,” she said, adding that those who attempt to sue the city over road conditions typically don’t win.
Outside of roadway safety, “I don’t want to see Bordeaux landfill be expanded — that’s an infrastructure in and of itself, and (it would be) an environmental injustice for it to be expanded without having people at the table,” Wilhoite said.
Jeff Yarbro: Roads and storm water
Nashville’s infrastructure and services are projected to catch up with the city’s growth in about 75 years, Yarbro said. Among the most frequent complaints: road maintenance.
“It should be possible to drive or to drop your kids off at school without using a GPS every single morning,” Yarbro said. “You should be able to drive in Nashville without needing a degree in tire maintenance or having to do work on your car all the time, but that is increasingly just a way of life here.”
He also flagged storm water as an unseen infrastructure juggernaut.
“It happens underground … but when it fails, we all know, and we all know quick.”
Alice Rolli: Metro’s balance sheet and the electric grid
Rolli said Nashville needs to “get serious” about city operations, and that begins with examining debt.
“Right now the line item that we spend the second most dollars on after schools is our city’s debt,” she said, laying blame for the city’s debt service proportion (which currently falls within a set of governmental best practices) on several of her competitors. “We’ve been sold a story that growth will pay for growth, but the reality is that it’s not.”
Aside from roads, Nashville’s electric grid needs attention. Seniors reliant on medical devices struggle with dayslong power outages following storms, she said.
Rolli wants to seek changes at the state level to allow counties to charge impact fees on new development to fund infrastructure and schools.
Freddie O’Connell: Transit and sidewalks over “nicer ways to watch sports”
O’Connell relayed the words of a friend: “We’ve been promised all these nice things, but we just keep building nicer ways to watch sports.”
O’Connell pointed to a lack of transit and multimodal infrastructure around GEODIS Park as an example.
“On the weekends, even on game days, we have not figured out how to run our transit system,” he said. “We did not pave sidewalks into the surrounding communities to allow our locals who love Nashville SC best to be able to get easily to the soccer stadium, and this was for a new asset that we knew was coming three years earlier.”
Transit access, state of good repair and sidewalk delivery are crucial, he said.
Heidi Campbell: Multimodal transportation and smart city tech
“The number one infrastructure problem that we deal with is people,” Campbell said. “The growth has outpaced our infrastructure.”
She referenced her experience with infrastructure and budgeting as mayor of Oak Hill and her role on the state Senate’s transportation committee. Nashville can use state and federal funds to address sidewalk and paving needs, she said.
The city could also expand on smart city technology being implemented by private developers to “increase efficiency,” Campbell said.
Upcoming mayoral forums
Moving Forward Mayoral Forum on Nashville-Davidson County’s rising transportation issues from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Cal Turner Family Center at Meharry Medical College, 1011 21st Ave. N. This event is hosted by regional transit advocacy organization Moving Forward and the Nashville Scene in partnership with Cumberland Region Tomorrow, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, Urban League of Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt University’s Office of Transportation and Mobility, and Walk Bike Nashville. This event is open to the public with free registration.
Metro Nashville Mayoral Forum on issues faced by Nashville’s disability community from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, 935 Edgehill Ave. The event is hosted by the Metro Nashville Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities in partnership with the Nashville Post and Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. A reception will follow from 6:30 to 7 p.m. This event is open to the public with free registration required as seating is limited. Registration is also required for livestream access.
Housing for All Mayoral Forum from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Downtown Nashville Public Library, 615 Church St. Hosted by Open Table Nashville and Renters Union Nashville, this forum will focus on housing affordability and availability, and issues relating to quality of life. This event is open to the public with free registration.