This story is a partnership between the Nashville Banner and the Nashville Scene. The Nashville Banner is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on civic news and will launch later this year. For more information, visit NashvilleBanner.com.
For the better part of a year, Gov. Bill Lee and his allies have worked to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to Nashville.
Why here? Republicans will tell you it’s the showcase city of one of the country’s most conservative states (despite all of the Democrats running the place). Critics — mostly from the other party — have been wishcasting the project as a vanity bid by Lee in an effort to possibly get on the GOP ticket as vice president.
Proponents of the convention, though, understood that only pursuing a Republican convention would not sit well with the city’s Democrats. Months ago, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp CEO Butch Spyridon and a host of longtime Democratic leaders were dispatched to make inquiries about bringing the Democratic National Convention to the city in 2028.
Mayor John Cooper’s administration negotiated for months over details related to security, staffing and costs associated with hosting the high-profile event. As the field narrowed down to just Milwaukee and Nashville — Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City were also contenders — state Republicans continued to sweeten the deal, including pledges of state money and guarantees that the city would be reimbursed for all costs. Last week, sources close to the deal called it “unique” among convention agreements.
One last hurdle remained, though. As the administration’s legal and finance arms signed off on the agreement, a bill was rushed to the Metro Council ahead of a June 24 noon deadline. The ordinance, if passed, would codify the city’s interest in a formal way ahead of an Aug. 5 decision by the Republican National Committee.
But before the legislation could reach the Council chambers, its hopes of passage took a massive hit: The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision was handed down, overturning a half-century of abortion rights and taking a torch to the emotions of Democrats. A joint statement by state Democratic and Republican party leaders endorsing efforts to seek both conventions was lost in a haze of angry comments on social media.
How bad was the timing?
“A meteor could have hit the city — that would have been worse,” says one source close to the negotiations.
John Cooper’s relationship with the state is complicated.
As the city’s highest-profile Democrat, he is often at odds with a state legislature that can seem openly antagonistic toward Nashville. At some point during every session of the General Assembly, the more liberal capital city has found itself in the crosshairs of cultural issues (so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at transgender people), economic issues (an attempt to preempt the city’s short-term rental regulations) or educational issues (voucher programs aimed only at Nashville and Memphis) pushed by a conservative supermajority.
But as Cooper’s supporters will tell you, the mayor has carved out a working relationship with the state and Lee’s administration, something instrumental in securing state funding for things like the Oracle campus, a proposed new Titans stadium and more. In return, one of the few things Lee has asked for, according to sources, is help securing the Republican National Convention.
This leaves Cooper in an interesting position. After carving out what one of his staff members called a “classic Cooper deal” to protect the city’s interests, pushing too hard to bring the RNC to Nashville will alienate Democrats. Letting the deal die in the Metro Council — the administration currently has no plans to lobby the body — could alienate Lee and the state’s Republicans.
The easy and politically expedient thing for Cooper, who begins fundraising for his 2023 re-election campaign tonight, might be to kill the convention deal, though that could incur consequences in the next legislative session.
“I mean, we've been told by more than one lobbyist that if we were to kill the deal, legislators would take great, great joy in getting creative on how to screw us further,” says a senior Metro official.
On the record, Cooper’s administration has gone to lengths to underscore cooperation between city and state. When a story from a national outlet included a perceived threat to the city’s budget if the city didn’t work to bring the RNC to Nashville, a spokesperson quickly moved to squash the issue.
“We value our relationship with our state partners and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with them on our shared priorities, including infrastructure, transportation and other initiatives that provide more resources for Nashville neighborhoods,” says TJ Ducklo, Cooper’s communications chief.
But now the contract must go to the Metro Council.
When the council convenes July 5, one of the few members expected to speak on behalf of the deal will be Robert Swope, who signed on as one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“I think it's a very good thing,” the District 4 councilmember says. “One, it puts Nashville in an incredibly unique light on a global stage, that we are the most welcoming city on earth. And everyone seems to be in lockstep agreement that if we host one, we’ll host both.”
As for the deal itself, the guarantees sold Swope, one of the council’s few conservatives. Security costs are only increasing for these events, which require years-long preparations, including things like hardening police systems to make them immune to foreign hackers.
“I will compliment the mayor's office in saying that this is an unbelievable ironclad contract to where the city spends absolutely zero,” Swope says. “It is completely covered and paid for. Honest to God, I can't believe the RNC agreed to it.”
While Swope would like to bring both conventions to the city, many of his colleagues have publicly come out against the bill, raising the specter that the measure could die on first reading, a rare occurrence. At-Large Councilmember Bob Mendes tweeted his opposition early, as did others, including Freddie O’Connell, who is Cooper’s first declared opponent in next year’s mayoral election.
“The national Republican playbook is attacking Democratically led cities, right?” O’Connell says. “And so, like, this is basically the governor inviting his party to come in and take a dump on the city of Nashville.”
Angie Henderson's District 34 includes some very Republican parts of West Nashville and normally would be an ally of the effort. She says, however, she has some “concerns” and is considering co-signing a letter to state GOP chief Scott Golden as a first step.
At-Large Councilmember Zulfat Suara, though, already was a no — as were other progressives on the council, including Ginny Welsch, Emily Benedict, Sandra Sepulveda and more.
“When I think about Roe v. Wade, I think about all the Republican justices that decided to overturn it,” Suara says. “And so as a woman, and for women out there, I have a chance to vote for them. And that's what this vote is for me. And then I also thought about what happened with Nashville, with the redistricting — our Republican state legislators decided to undermine [Nashville’s] power in D.C., decided to infringe on the rights of people, that choose to dilute our power. Right? When they cut Nashville in three? That was a vote that they made. And this is my vote.”
Given the tenor of the country’s politics right now, Mendes thinks that neither the RNC or DNC would be a good idea.
“I don't want either party's political conventions here for the foreseeable future,” Mendes says.
A Washington, D.C., source familiar with the Democratic convention process says efforts aimed at bringing the 2028 convention here might be moot, as the city isn’t big enough to actually host the DNC.
“Nashville is likely far too small and wouldn't have the hotel rooms to accommodate the Democratic convention, which is typically at least two times bigger than the Republicans’," says the source. "I think we're actually three times when you look at the overall footprint."
The finalists for 2024 — Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and New York — are all substantially larger cities than Nashville.
Then there's the question of economic impact. One of the arguments that resonated with Democratic city councilmembers in Milwaukee — who voted unanimously in favor of bringing the RNC to that city — was the estimate of $100-200 million in benefits to the city. Holy Cross professor Victor Matheson, an economist who studies political conventions, disputes the “multiplier effect” that achieves those valuations, especially for Nashville.
“While there's no doubt that hotel occupancy will increase during political conventions, it won't increase by that much over the regular level, because your hotels are usually full,” Matheson says. “And so, if you're not careful, you do all the addition and the multiplication, but you don't do any of the subtraction that you really should do. The other thing about a political convention in particular is it's such a security nightmare that regulars avoid the area around this like the plague, as well.”