The runoff for Nashville mayor kicked into higher gear over the weekend, as incumbent David Briley and Metro Councilman John Cooper went head-to-head for the first time.
At a far-ranging debate organized by the faith group Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, or NOAH, the two battled over the direction of the city — and which candidate had shown a commitment to addressing its problems.
The big topics debate organizers focused on were education, policing and affordability. Cooper offered harsh critiques of Nashville's recent track record on all three, including a mayor's office that he says has been reluctant to make companies that receive city incentives absorb some of the cost of rising rents.
"The attitude needs to be, from the beginning, it's central to everything that we do," Cooper said, "because affordable housing is the biggest negative consequence of all this growth."
But Briley struck back. He noted that Cooper had opposed the plan for the Nashville Fairgrounds, even though it included affordable housing.
"He voted against it," Briley said. "So his record belies what he says in his ads and in these meetings. He says he supports it, but he voted against it."
On policing, NOAH questioners criticized the rollout of body cameras for officers as moving too slowly, and they said efforts to restore driver's licenses to people who've had them revoked for court costs have been feeble. Cooper sought to pin blame for both on the city's current leadership. Briley responded that they're being pushed as fast as possible.
Similarly, Cooper accused Briley of mismanaging the city's budget to the point that its schools are chronically underfunded. Briley said his effort to wrest more control of the education budget from the Metro school board would solve the problem.
These thick debates over policy seem to suit Cooper. He grabbed a 10-point lead in the first round of voting by casting himself as a financial expert who can solve the city's problems through better budgeting and negotiations.
But voters likely don't know much about his policy record as a Metro Council member, and Briley sees that as his chance for a comeback. The combative tone by Briley is meant to puncture his opponent's persona, and the race could hinge on whether the incumbent mayor convinces voters that Cooper isn't the friend of neighborhoods he makes himself out to be.