In Nashville’s mayoral race, one leading candidate paints herself as “the outsider.” Carol Swain says she never intended to be a politician, but she’s running again after placing second in last year’s special election.
The retired Vanderbilt University professor first became well known for inflammatory comments on national politics, but now she’s pursuing a platform of local ideas.
In most ways, Swain stands out in the race. She’s the only woman among the leading candidates, and at that, a black woman. She’s also unabashedly conservative.
And her life story stands apart: Swain is a high school dropout who was raised in rural Virginia with 11 siblings. She became a mother of three children by age 21, and later obtained her GED, followed by five college degrees. She taught at Princeton University and then at Vanderbilt as a law and political science professor.
Last year, Swain finished second when challenging David Briley in the special election to complete the term of former Mayor Megan Barry.
What follows is an edited version of a 37-minute interview.
Tell voters what they should know about you.
“I’ve lived in Nashville for about 19 years. I moved here to teach at Vanderbilt and I taught political science and law there. I never imagined myself becoming a candidate for political office.”
Swain says she has worked in nursing homes, a garment factory and as a door-to-door saleswoman. She has authored several books and her work has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I always said that the call on my life — and by call, I mean a spiritual call of my life — was to hold politicians accountable. … I want to be a servant leader.”
But you are a candidate now. Talk about your platform and priorities.
“No. 1 priority for me is crime reduction and public safety,” Swain said. “I’ve spoken with officers, I’ve done a ride along and I’ve attended many of their functions. And one of the things that I don’t believe the average Nashvillian knows is that the police are so short staffed they cannot do their job adequately, and the morale of the department is so low that they have an enormous amount of turnover.”
Swain said she’d hire a new police chief, along with at least 100 additional police officers.
She also laments what she calls an “out-of-control” crime rate, despite city crime statistics that show violent crime is lower than in the mid-2000s.
“Crime reporting may be down in Nashville. I don’t think crime is down. Nor do I think people always report it,” Swain said. “It’s all politics. And the mayor, for his State of Metro address, he announced that crime was down in Nashville and so there’s incentive to do that.”
Swain takes her stance in part from what she says police officers are telling her.
“The numbers are being fudged,” she said.
As she talks policy, Swain often cites what she’s hearing from rank-and-file Nashvillians. The message is often populist, and can include a dark picture of a city in need of help.
“I love the city and the conditions are getting worse and worse and it will take an outsider to change it,” she said.
Swain, like most of the competitors, tends toward brass tacks ideas.
For the Codes Department: hire more inspectors.
For housing, her idea is for Metro to give away more of its property holdings to developers who will build affordable homes. She estimates Metro has 1,700 available parcels.
She’s also bothered by homelessness.
“I don't think that’s good for people for tourists or for anyone that’s downtown to be harassed by panhandlers or see these people in a situation where they don't have anywhere to go to the bathroom,” Swain said.
For transportation, she proposes better turn lanes at 50 intersections; and more vans instead of buses.
“I don’t think we can continue to spend millions of dollars on big empty buses that don’t take people where they need to go,” she said.
“And so my top priority would be to make Nashville livable for people that work and they serve us,” Swain said. “There’s so many people that have been pushed out of Nashville, and I don’t want Nashville to be the kind of city where it’s just primarily for the affluent.”
You have hit on government efficiency and careful spending. So where do you think the waste is in Metro government?
Swain says “career politicians” are a problem.
“If you look at their records that’s the strongest case for not having them to run a city. I think that they’re too entangled with the system to really change the system. I believe sometimes you need an outsider,” she said.
This kind of frank criticism is how Swain has made her name.
She’s caught intense flak for her frequent critiques of Black Lives Matter and for disparaging Muslims.
Such comments prompted Vanderbilt students to petition for her removal. When Swain retired, she needled students as being overly sensitive.
Now, she’s trying to turn from national political commentary toward the ins and outs of city government — which she frequently blasts as being wasteful.
“It’s everywhere. I believe it is in every department,” Swain said.
For instance, she says it takes too long for builders to get their permits.
“I think government tends to operate in a way when you have leaders and people that have been entrenched for a long time. People don't always see themselves as serving the public,” Swain said.
Most people probably know you as an academic or public commentator. What qualifies you to run what is ultimately a $2 billion city government?
“I’ll start off with the fact that I have common sense, and I’ve spent the last 28 years teaching and studying government and public policies and I know what works and what doesn’t work. And what I’ve seen is that too many people have gone into public service for the wrong reason,” Swain said. “I have a clear idea of the public policy goals that I have, and I have a good idea of how to implement them. And I believe that I can bring the best talent together to solve Nashville’s problems.”
Editor's note: WPLN is conducting in-depth interviews with candidates who meet at least one of the following criteria: hold or have held an elected office; raised at least $25,000; or have the support of at least 10% of voters in a credible, scientific poll.