Heidi Campbell

This story is a partnership between the Nashville Banner and the Nashville Scene. The Banner is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on civic news and will launch later this year. For more information, and to read a longer version of this interview, visit NashvilleBanner.com.

When Heidi Campbell announced she was running for mayor earlier this month, it was notable for two reasons. First, because of the relatively late-in-the-cycle decision, she had just over 100 days until Election Day, meaning she needs to connect with voters in a hurry. And second, she had a phalanx of legislators standing beside her, including Rep. Bob Freeman, who strongly considered running himself, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who ran four years ago. Campbell is hoping that the name ID she accumulated running against Andy Ogles for Jim Cooper’s old congressional seat bleeds over to this race. 

Why do you want to be mayor?

So, I looked at this race and did not feel like I saw the mayor of Nashville in this race yet and thought a long time about jumping in. I believe that we need somebody who has a good relationship with the state. And it's about relationships. It's not just about understanding the dynamics; it's about relationships as well. And somebody who has leadership and team building skills, and I think that we probably all agree on what issues we're facing. I think this race is about who has the capability, qualifications, temperament and experience to navigate the challenges in front of us.

Is there something you think makes you uniquely qualified?

Yes, I think that I have been defending Nashville in one way or another for the last 15 years. And I have been a mayor [of Oak Hill] already and have served on the solid waste board and the Greater Nashville Regional Council and the mayors caucus and the transit alliance and the South Corridor Task Force, and [I] have a deep understanding of how our city works. And while we're facing what I would call hostile takeover from the state, I also have a very deep understanding of how the relationship with the state and the city works.

Let's start there. How do you assess the city-state relationship right now?

It's very damaged. And I think that people have a perception that this is just reactive, and it's not. It's more complex than that. As somebody who is up here every single day working with the controlling party on legislation, I understand what is driving this process. I think it's not something that you could come into even if you did understand it, though, and do something about it if you didn't have the relationships that I have worked on.

So, what's driving it?

It's, well, this is a long answer for this particular piece. This is a long game, that's part of the Southern strategy. And a lot of this is driven by ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] and the Council for National Policy and the fact that they really do want to have a Republican-led city and a presence here that is primarily Republican and far-right. And it is also driven by what [Republicans] perceive as offenses that they feel that the Nashville [Metro] Council have committed. I have been able to get a lot done in a bipartisan way. Just this week, I quietly defended and was able to get voted down an amendment to our constitution without much fanfare. And I think a lot of work can be done out of the glare of the public eye because [working in the public eye] amps things up on both sides.

What do you do to improve it?

It's about communication. It's about relationships. It's about listening. I think that leadership is about listening and being able to work with people and stakeholders to get what's best for Nashvillians.

The city has an affordability crisis right now. What's one way the next mayor can begin to address soaring rents and home prices for those who are trying to buy into this market?

So, for years — for over a decade now — we've been building a city to visit, not a city to live in, and we have been capitulating to developers. I commit to focusing on the people who live here. And affordability is one of the main issues, and requiring new developers to — I realize that there are some state laws that make this difficult — but working with developers to encourage them to have a component of affordable housing in their projects and also working with Nashville businesses to give them contracts because they are incentivized to have affordable housing and provide for Nashvillians because they live here. It is a good way to change the story.

How high of a priority should transit be for the next mayor?

In the top five. It's very, very important. We are way behind in our approach to transit. For a city our size to not have meaningful transit is indefensible. And for too long, we've kicked the can down the road. So, I am on the transportation committee and just participated in the passage of the biggest — although I voted against it — the biggest transportation bill that we've ever had.

Why did you vote against it?

Because it prioritizes choice lanes, which are toll roads. And that will be a bad deal for Nashville. Because Nashvillians are going to end up, once again, paying the bill for revenue that's going to go out to other areas of Tennessee and not into our economy. And it puts us in a situation where we're on the hook in the foreseeable future with whoever has the lease for those choice lanes to pay whatever they require us to pay for maintenance and in toll fees. For a state that prides itself on being the most fiscally stable state — and let's not conflate fiscal stability with fiscal responsibility — it's ridiculous when we could actually pay ourselves to borrow money from ourselves to not leverage that to the advantage of Tennesseans and especially for Nashvillians.

What would the transit plan in your administration look like?

We have to start looking at light rail and bigger transportation initiatives. And initially, I served on the St. Paul, Minn., District Council, when we were approving a plan for light rail from St. Paul to the airport. And I went back recently to visit and was absolutely blown away by what that had done for businesses and neighborhoods along the corridor. And obviously it would be good for mobility and for getting cars off roads. And so that would be a good place to start. The airport has, in their new build-outs, created an entry point for light rail. That would be a great place to start.

The Titans currently have a stadium plan before the Metro Council. Do you support that plan or not?

So, that plan is being decided as we speak. And, you know, the main thing is making sure that we're getting the best possible deal for Nashvillians. We have to make sure that this time Nashville is not paying the price for, you know, a deal that's going to actually be costing us more money down the road. And so, I hope that as the negotiations are going forward before the mayoral election, that we won't be hamstrung by the decisions that are made, because I look forward to doing the best that I can to make sure we're getting a good deal for Nashville.

If you were the mayor, would you be pushing that deal?

I hate this question. It's a very complicated situation. And there are some issues with the current stadium and our requirement for reparations that really complicate things. Inevitably, the problem is that in the past, we haven't had people in the administration who are making good deals for Nashville.

What's your assessment of Mayor Cooper's East Bank plan?

I think there are some good things about that plan. I think there are some complicated issues about making sure that we are providing affordable housing and infrastructure around the area for people. But mainly, it is a plan that considers Nashville businesses and making sure that some revenue does go back to our city. So, it's a complicated plan, but I think there are some pros and cons. I'm not against development. In this whole entire future that we're facing, for me, it's about balance and making sure that the extreme developer-friendly decisions that are being made are being counterbalanced by strong decisions for Nashville in the coming years.

There's a criticism of the current administration and for the last few mayors that they have focused too much on downtown. Do you think that's fair?

Yes, I do think that's fair.

So what could a Campbell administration do differently?

We need to make sure that we're focusing on our underfunded and poorer neighborhoods like Bordeaux, North Nashville and the profound inequity in our schools as well. And we need to make sure that we're giving greater attention to the schools and neighborhoods that are experiencing extreme poverty. And also there are food deserts and transit issues in those areas that we need to address. Inevitably, we need to make sure that we're building an equitable Nashville for everyone.

There's 80 or so days until early voting. Do you have enough time to run a competitive race?

Yes, I just ran the congressional race. And so there's the degree to which in terms of name ID and awareness that I can pick up in a better place than I would be if I were just starting from ground zero.

How much money do you think you have to raise here in order to be competitive?

Well, I mean, it's probably going to be a couple of million.

How much of your own money can you contribute to that?

I don't believe in that. I don't think that self-funding races is good for democracy. I think that it's important that people raise money because that's part of the process, the democratic process through which we actually garner support.

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