Almost every year, the Tennessee General Assembly supports legislation that prevents cities from enforcing ordinances. The latest example is a law that curtails the powers of Nashville’s police oversight board.
So through the WPLN Curious Nashville project, one listener suggested a question for the mayoral candidates:
How would you address efforts of the Tennessee General Assembly to preempt initiatives by Metro government — on subjects such as affordable housing, transit and education?
As with many issues, the leading candidates are also divided over this one.
Councilman John Cooper said that being confrontational with the state government is not going to help the city.
"Weirdly, the mayor is the one person in Davidson County who shouldn't be going around complaining loudly about the legislature," Cooper said. "Because, frankly, state and federal transfer payments are a third of our budget.”
Cooper said that Nashville’s top leader needs to be mature when dealing with the legislature.
This point is also supported by Mayor David Briley, who said working with the general assembly means including members of the Republican supermajority.
“I've been doing that," Briley said. "I've been trying to build a good relationship with the governor as well, by identifying the areas where we can work together and exploring those to the greatest extent possible.”
But Briley’s behind-the-scenes approach has earned him critics.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said he has fought preemptions from his seat in the state House, and he says the next mayor can’t be afraid of challenging legislators.
“What I've advised Metro council members as well as previous mayors is to always do what you feel is in the best interest of Nashville residents," Clemmons said. "Do not legislate out of fear.”
Clemmons suggested that, in order to do this, Metro needs a strong legal department that can push back on restrictions.
Retired professor Carol Swain also said she is willing to fight on behalf of the city in front of the state legislature.
“I'm a strong believer in federalism, and that means that local government should be autonomous as much as possible," Swain said. "But when we are paying taxes to the state, I want to make sure that Nashville gets its fair share.”
But Swain's advocacy won’t stop on the Hill. She said she’ll also engage with the federal government when needed.
Read the transcript of their answers below, edited for clarity:
Well, it may may be structurally a little bit of a difficult relationship. But you have to understand that you can make things worse. And, weirdly, the mayor is the one person in Davidson County who shouldn't be going around complaining loudly about the legislature because, frankly, state and federal transfer payments are a third of our budget. You're gonna have to work both with Washington and particularly with the state legislature.
When I'm mayor I plan to go out into these rural counties and thank rural legislators for helping us. Meaning I spent part of my life growing up in a rural county. I understand it and they — I mean it's easy to get crossways with people, but that's not leadership. And they are, frankly, proud of Nashville too and they want to feel like they're connected to Nashville in a way that's making it a great state. Now, they have their own interests to serve. But, to make points by criticizing this group that, frankly, is writing big checks to us, is not very smart.
Now it's easy and it feels good, but you you have to be ready to work with them —that's the state that we are in.
Again there are fine people in the legislature like there are fine people in every levels of government. Are the outputs exactly what you want? Often not, particularly vouchers. But that means you roll up your sleeves and you you meet with them and you congratulate them when they're right, and you stop a needlessly hostile relationship from festering and end to explain what we need.
These are counties that have affordable housing needs too. These are counties that have transportation needs. Our ring counties probably feel the sting of transportation needs better than we do. Let's make them partners. Let's make them allies.
Government being confrontational and always binary is part of the trouble that we're in. So, I think it can start with the with the legislature. They're elected by voters to their serving needs of their communities too. And again, we can we can for sure bicker our way to failure. What we have to do is to begin to show some leadership and maturity and and manage for success.
The first day of the legislative session I'm going to be (in the legislature). I'm beginning to advocate for a lot of these changes in the tourist and development space that we need to have happen to finance what we do here successfully to make growth pay for itself. The next mayor has to go up there and advocate for those changes and get them done. There are not things that the state necessarily is hostile to us having. We just have to be articulate in our request.
I think I've spent more time at the General Assembly than any recent mayor. Just in my first year. In March of 2018, right after I was sworn in, I spent time up meeting with Republican legislators. Meeting with the Republicans is, frankly, as important as anything just because they're in a supermajority right now and control the direction of the House and Senate.
So, I've been doing that. I've been trying to build a good relationship with the governor as well by identifying the areas where we can work together and exploring those to the greatest extent possible. He's got a focus on criminal justice reform, so we're trying to collaborate on that.
I think a lot of it is about personalities, and just trying to make sure folks know that I appreciate the work they're doing, and I think people around the state appreciate the economic vitality of Nashville and Middle Tennessee and how important it is to the state and just trying to build more common ground on it.
It's hard sometimes. I'll be honest with you. But, I think we've made some progress in the last year.
John Ray Clemmons
As a state representative for the past five years, I have been the one leading the fight against state preemption on any of these various issues — whether it's against short term rental properties, local hire or even trying to impose vouchers on our city, as well as Memphis.
But, the reality that I have learned in the state legislature is that this supermajority preys on weakness. And right now they have an easy target in the mayor's office. Metro Government should not do anything.
What I've advised Metro council members, as well as previous mayors, is to always do what you feel is in the best interest of Nashville residents. Do not legislate out of fear.
That's very important as we move forward, is to show strength and move forward and in a manner that benefits the people of Nashville. And then, if the state wants to come in and try to preempt us, that's why we have a legal department. I am very serious about making sure that Nashville has a strong Metro legal department to push back against state preemption.
As mayor of Nashville, Metropolitan Davidson County and its interests would be my top priority. So, I would go to the state legislature and I would fight and argue on behalf of my city. I would also go to the federal government's agencies when necessary to advocate for my city.
I'm a strong believer in federalism, and that means that local governments should be autonomous as much as possible. But when we are paying taxes to the state I want to make sure that Nashville gets its fair share.