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Pragmatism in Music City, U.S.A.

eye on the news

Pragmatism in Music City, U.S.A.

Nashville’s new mayor, John Cooper, could serve as a model for other urban chief executives—if his approach delivers results. September 23, 2019
Cities
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Last week, real-estate developer John Cooper won in a landslide to become Nashville’s new mayor, unseating current mayor David Briley with 70 percent of the vote. Cooper’s win indicates Nashville voters’ desire for more pragmatic and less ideological mayors. Incumbent Briley faced nine opponents, including Cooper, for his reelection bid. Briley was elected in 2015 as vice mayor but became acting mayor following Megan Barry’s resignation in 2018. In his 555 days in office, Briley governed small—when he wasn’t losing big on hot-button issues.

Nashvillians tend to think in terms of “neighborhood mayors” and “business mayors.” When Briley announced a plan to chop down 21 cherry trees along the city’s riverfront to make way for the site of the NFL Draft, he sparked outrage—ultimately, no trees were cut down, though some were replanted elsewhere—and branded himself as a business mayor. He also became known as a “downtown type,” handing out corporate tax breaks while trying to hike property taxes, and permitting pedal taverns for bachelorette parties on Broadway.

By contrast, Cooper ran as an aspiring neighborhood mayor and “effective progressive,” and he took a winning vote share in all but two of the Metro Council’s 35 districts. Hailing from a political family—his father was Tennessee governor during World War II, and his brother Jim is Nashville’s nine-term congressman—Cooper inherits a messy budget, pricey housing, clogged streets, and an irascible city council. A businessman with a Vanderbilt MBA, he campaigned on getting Nashville’s books in order—the state comptroller is worried about the city’s rising debt. Rather than rely on a $30 million private-parking deal arranged by his predecessor to solve the debt woes, Cooper plans on cutting spending and rerouting tourism tax dollars. He says he won’t raise property taxes to fill the holes of next year’s budget, either. “If we can’t get the money right,” Cooper said, “we can’t get anything right.” His practicality clearly resonated with Nashville voters.

On housing and development, Cooper appears to be a fiscal hawk. He opposed Briley’s bid to help fund affordable housing through borrowing, and he’s long decried splashy economic-development deals, from the city’s $15 million cash grant for Amazon’s second headquarters to a quarter-billion in public financing for a Major League Soccer stadium. Cooper rejects multibillion-dollar transit plans, too, and other headline-grabbing mega-projects. Instead, he promises to bring an accountant’s eye for finances to help neighborhoods and their residents.

Cooper will have to confront land-use regulations keeping housing supply from meeting demand, and thus driving up prices. Housing is a mounting concern in Nashville; home values enjoyed double-digit growth from 2016 to 2018, though the rate has slowed down this year, and more than half the city’s renters now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Allowing more housing density where market demand exists could support Cooper’s desire for more reasonably priced homes. Bus-rapid transit and highway express lanes could help tame Nashville’s traffic without breaking the bank.

In the end, Cooper prevailed by promising a simple approach: do the governing basics, do them well, and do them for everyone. Other mayoral candidates might take note.

Photo: Vito-Palmisano/iStock

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