May 6, 2024 - Politics

Pro-transportation team taps former O'Connell aides

Illustration of a bus seen through the view of binoculars.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Two former members of Mayor Freddie O'Connell's election team and a prominent attorney will play leading roles in the political campaign to pass the $3.1 billion transportation plan in November.

Why it matters: The proposal needs approval from the state comptroller, Metro Council and Davidson County Election Commission before it can go on the ballot. But pro-transportation organizers say they can't wait until then to fundraise and win over voters.

Driving the news: A group of businesspeople, mass transit advocates and civic leaders recently formed a pro-transportation committee, which is laying the foundation for a formal political campaign.

  • Jeff Morris and Scott Dietz, who worked for O'Connell's mayoral campaign last year, have been hired to top roles.
  • Charles Robert Bone, the attorney and businessperson, will serve as finance chair.

Between the lines: Morris tells Axios the political strategy will be centered on a robust door-knocking effort with the goal of reaching every neighborhood in the county. He called it a continuation of O'Connell's mayoral campaign, which overcame fundraising disadvantages last year to best a competitive field of candidates.

  • Bone says the goal is to raise between $3.5 million and $5 million. By comparison, the failed pro-transit effort in 2018 raised approximately $3 million.

How it works: Bone says supporters will create two nonprofit pro-transportation groups, a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), in the short term to get started on fundraising and messaging. A pro-referendum political committee won't be formed until the measure is on the ballot, Bone says.

What he's saying: The 2018 transit proposal was rejected at the ballot by a margin of 64% to 36%.

  • The research shows that cities typically reject transit referendums the first time, and it takes five or more years to put the plan back on the ballot, Bone says.
  • "We're not taking anything for granted," he says. "We know this isn't going to be a cakewalk; it's going to be really hard."

The intrigue: In addition to his role on O'Connell's campaign, Morris managed Vice Mayor Angie Henderson's campaign last year. "From both of those races, you have conversations and get a feel for what the city is thinking and feeling."

  • "Everyone will talk about Nashville and affordability," Morris says. "That's the single greatest touchpoint right now. The question comes down to the intrinsic tie between accessibility, mobility and affordability."

What we're watching: The pro-transportation side scored a meaningful political win last week when the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Prosperity announced it won't formally oppose the referendum.

  • AFP, which is funded by the Koch family, was against the 2018 referendum.

The other side: A formal opposition campaign hasn't yet emerged, but former Councilmember Emily Evans says there is a group of skeptics who have begun having conversations about their problems with O'Connell's plan.

  • "Top of mind is the regressive nature of the sales tax," Evans says. "Can a financing mechanism that punishes lower-income individuals be offset by gains elsewhere? The argument seems to be that people will only need one car, which from a practical standpoint is not very compelling, not to mention non-aspirational."

Here's who's on the Nashville Moves advisory committees:

Harry Allen, co-founder of Studio Bank

Charles Robert Bone, attorney and businessperson

Sara Finley, attorney

State Rep. Bob Freeman

Robbie Hayes, Tennessee group director at HNTB

Dan Hogan, entrepreneur

Kathy Leslie, co-owner of bakery and cafe Shugga Hi

Wanda Lyle, president and CEO of CNM

Renata Soto, founder of Mosaic Changemakers

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