Aug 17, 2023 - Election

Mayoral candidate Freddie O'Connell's approach to economic development

Illustration of a stack of hundred dollar bills underneath a football field.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Metro Councilmember Freddie O'Connell highlighted his vote against the $2.1 billion Titans stadium deal as a central selling point of his campaign, but his time on the council paints a more complex picture of a progressive who regularly supported economic development.

Why it matters: O'Connell's track record is facing heightened scrutiny as he hurtles toward a runoff against former Republican political strategist and businessperson Alice Rolli.

Zoom in: During his first seven years on the council, O'Connell supported every significant economic development deal that came up for a vote.

  • O'Connell backed 11 economic development proposals, including a new soccer stadium and incentive deals with massive companies like Amazon and Oracle. Those deals totaled over $563 million in tax breaks, incentives or direct city investment.
  • The downtown area boomed during O'Connell's council tenure with an array of new hotels, skyscrapers and residential developments.
  • As a result, O'Connell earned the reputation of a progressive and pro-business council member.

Fast forward: Then came the Tennessee Titans' stadium deal with Mayor John Cooper. Not only did O'Connell break his streak and vote against the plan, but he also argued that his opposition proved he was the best candidate to manage Nashville's growth.

  • O'Connell says the issue for him was the "magnitude" of the financial commitment involved in the deal once infrastructure and the surrounding development are added in.

Between the lines: O'Connell tells Axios that when economic development proposals came before the council, his approach was proposing changes and deferrals for more negotiation. "More often than not, I am not out there pounding my fist on a table saying 'hell no,'" he says.

  • He also argues that the council evolved to become better positioned to consider trading tax dollars for economic growth because of policies he supported. He singled out the tax increment financing reform, spearheaded by Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes, and the Do Better Bill, which increased reporting requirements and workplace safety regulations for companies receiving city financial support.
  • O'Connell showed a willingness to find a middle ground on business-related issues. When the Nashville Zoo sought city funding for its parking facility, O'Connell brokered a deal to commit more money to transportation.
  • When the council considered a record property tax increase in the early stages of the pandemic, O'Connell unsuccessfully pitched a smaller increase.
Portrait of Freddie O'Connell
Photo: courtesy of the O'Connell campaign

Some top business groups were apprehensive about O'Connell and largely threw their support behind former economic development director Matt Wiltshire in the general election.

  • There are signs that the business community is warming to O'Connell in advance of a runoff. Prominent pro-business political consultant Joe Hall and developer Tony Giarratana co-hosted a fundraiser for O'Connell at Elliston Soda Shop last week.
  • On Tuesday, the Nashville Business Coalition, a pro-business political group, endorsed O'Connell. Wiltshire also endorsed O'Connell earlier this week.

The intrigue: James Weaver, the city lobbyist with the longest client list, lauded O'Connell as a "pragmatic, progressive." However, Weaver questioned who would be O'Connell's top advisers if he's elected.

  • O'Connell is backed by labor and progressive activist groups, which are sometimes at odds with business interests.
  • "The whole myth that Freddie is violently anti-business is just that: a myth," Weaver tells Axios. "A lot of the apprehension you're seeing is not so much about Freddie, it's the people around Freddie."
  • "I've learned one thing in doing this for 35 years: Mayoral candidates and mayors are not apples and oranges; they're apples and pandas. You campaign how you need to in order to win."
  • "Being a mayor is hard, and it's about compromise every single day. The best Nashville mayors governed from the center."

What he's saying: "I've always looked at my role to be relationship-based, fostering collaboration," O'Connell tells Axios. "Back to 2015 [when he first ran for council], I was one of the few candidates that had broad support from both labor and business communities. That speaks to, overall, the model I've used for a long time."

The other side: There's less mystery regarding Rolli's approach. She worked on economic development issues in Gov. Bill Haslam's administration and supported both the Titans stadium and Cooper's proposed racetrack improvement plan.

  • Weaver called Rolli "thoughtful and business-minded."
  • "The same question about Freddie applies to her: Is she willing to govern from the center if elected?"

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