At-large Councilman John Cooper is known for his obsession with transparency and sound fiscal policies. It's a skill set Nashville needs now more than ever, he argues, which is why is why he’s running for mayor.
Cooper has been a perennial skeptic of many a Metro plan — the redevelopment of Fort Negley, the Transit Plan, the soccer stadium, to name a few. His opposition has been splash of cold water on many of the city’s most ambitious proposals.
This thinking comes from experience, Cooper says. He knows money management, he says, and he knows how to execute big real estate deals, first from a stint on Wall Street and now as a commercial real estate developer, mainly for projects in Williamson County.
Harvard-educated with an MBA from Vanderbilt, Cooper comes from a family of local politicians. His brother is U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. His dad was former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper.
What follows is an edited version of a 40-minute conversation.
Tell us about yourself and why you’re running for Mayor.
“I have a big, long background in real estate and finance, which is very useful, I feel, in a city that's undergoing real estate and financial challenges and tons of new growth,” he said. “And our finances are not what they should be. Anybody that's paying attention would be troubled about the financial status of Metro, one story after another. Ultimately the solution is, you know, an old one — which is, neighborhoods first.
“Our problem isn’t attracting growth. It’s now managing the cost of growth and making a livable, smart city going forward. It's not going to be easy but it's exciting.
“Every hundred years, the city has the opportunity to be its best self. I feel this is that opportunity for Nashville, and I actually think I'm the right person with real estate and finance background and a record to be that person.
“Yes, it’s going to be a lot of boring financial management. I mean, some people say it’s going to be like having your dad in charge, and I guess I feel up to that challenge.”
In the months leading up to the race, Cooper told people he had no intention of running for mayor. Then, Mayor David Briley announced that the city would take out hundreds of millions in municipal bonds to fund an affordable housing plan. Following that was a proposal to privatize the city’s parking meters. And Cooper says he had a change of heart.
“I wanted to give the current administration every chance to succeed,” he said. “And, in the end, I just felt we weren’t making the changes necessary to do it.”
As an at-large councilman you’ve been naysayer who's kind of rarely for anything. How might that change if you become mayor?
“When people say, ‘Well, you’ve been a naysayer.’ I often go, ‘Well, what should I have been for?’ ” he said. “And famously Fort Negley or transit plan — or even the Nashville Fairgrounds incentive — no one is standing up and going, ‘Oh my gosh, you should have been for that.’ They all pretty much agree that it needed air, and transparency and facts and data.”
During his time on the Metro Council, Cooper has fixated on the nitty gritty of various proposals. Which can turn conversations into a wonky thicket of numbers, and plan details and financial fine print.
“Whether it’s affordable housing or transportation or education, frankly the future of the city is based on well executed, long term, very expensive capital plans, right?” he said. “You do those correctly and our future is unlimited. You do those incorrectly, our future will not be as good as it is.”
How do you plan better manage the city’s finances?
Recently, Cooper pushed for the city’s new Blue Ribbon Commission, which is charged with scouring the Metro Budget for savings. He says, if he were elected mayor, he’d take it one step further, going through department operations with a fine-toothed comb.
“Ultimately, what a great mayor does is execute these long term plans,” he said. “Nashville has a lot of just process problems ... that we don't commit to multiyear visions on anything, that it's all very restricted and we don't do financial planning.
“We've gotten ourselves in a stewardship problem that's pretty great. People don't realize that we have deficits, pretty big deficits. People don't realize that this council has issued or is obligated to issue more general obligation debt, $2.6 billion. The state of Tennessee only has $1.9 billion dollars outstanding, in its whole history.
“We just you have to go back to basic financial stewardship and really putting the money where it should be.”
And that, Cooper says, means spending money on education, transportation, raising pay for city workers and helping the needy. He says it’s time to stop funneling all the money into downtown and start investing in other neighborhoods.
So, if Cooper says he wants to be the city’s dad, the neighborhoods are its children.
“You know, Nashville has more children than just one child, which is downtown,”he said. “We have lots of children. We need to raise them all and invest in them all. Our problem isn’t attracting growth. It’s managing the cost of growth. And making a livable, smart city going forward.”
At the end of the day, Cooper says, he wants to position Nashville to succeed in the long term.
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.