Among the youngest contenders in Nashville’s mayoral race, Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons is trying to position himself as a charismatic leader that he says the city has been lacking.
Clemmons is focused on three issues he considers pillars of his campaign: public education, affordable housing and infrastructure. They’re big topics, and he says they require a leader who can see the big picture.
“What our city is lacking is strong, decisive leadership,” Clemmons told WPLN in an interview. “And we need to have a plan and vision for how to move forward as a city to build a more sustainable city that works for everyone.”
An attorney focusing on civil litigation and mediation, Clemmons is in third term representing a district that stretches from Midtown to Bellevue. And he got into the Mayor’s race in early 2019. Since then, he’s been hammering hard on this notion that Nashville needs a vision for the future, and that Nashville’s current leader, Mayor David Briley, simply doesn’t have the personality or the resolution to do it.
In the statehouse Clemmons is known as a vocal opponent to Republican politics. At this moment in his career, Clemmons says the chance to step away from the divisiveness at the Tennessee State Capitol and into the mayor’s office appeals to him.
Rather than trying to reach across the aisle, Clemmons says, he’s ready to reach across Nashville to help bridge an ever-growing divide.
What follows is an edited version of a 35-minute interview.
One of your mantras has been having a “vision” for Nashville, for the future. And we have seen Metro make tons of plans through Nashville Next, Walk Bike, Plan to Play, NMotion. How do these factor into a new vision? We've got a lot of framework already.
“What we don't see is action being taken and no plan to execute those and the tough decisions being made to bring those plans to fruition,” he says. “And you know, we have an affordable housing crisis in the city. Our public schools are underfunded. My children are in public schools so I see it firsthand. And our infrastructure system above ground and below ground is crumbling. And we're a 21st-century city sitting on top of early 20th-century infrastructure.
“We need to do the things that aren’t necessarily sexy, if you will, by focusing on infrastructure, by focusing on the foundation of our community, focusing on improving the quality of life for everyone in the Nashville area, or we’re not going to continue this prosperity.”
So would all these other Metro plans go out the window if you became mayor?
“Well, I think we can learn. We need to learn from the past. We need to take what was gathered in the past and build upon that. But we need to do it in a more thoughtful manner rather than coming in with a clear objective and planning to sell it on the backend.”
In the case of transportation, he is specific about what that entails. He says, if elected mayor he would spearhead a new transit referendum in his first term, one that would do a better job of soliciting community input.
“We’ve got to get out there and actually listen to the community. I think what we’ve seen in the past is we’ve seen plans designed around a couple of objectives to drive people into downtown from certain neighborhoods and our community. We have to be more thoughtful and view mobility ... thorough a more equitable lens. And focus not just on getting people from their homes to downtown, but from their homes to the grocery store. Children from their homes to their schools. And move people around the city in a more equitable fashion.”
So what does it mean to govern more equitably?
Clemmons is big on the word “equitable.” And he’s not the only one. It’s become a buzzword of this election.
Clemmons says he’d take action by redirecting dollars away from the tourist district downtown and putting them into other, more neglected parts of the city. And that he can do this without necessarily raising taxes.
“There are various ways that we can redirect revenues that are already being generated in this city and collect others that are not putting additional tax burdens on the back of our residents.”
What do you want voters to know about your career your family and why you got into this?
“I grew up in Lebanon on a farm, and I experienced firsthand the opportunity that’s provided by public servants who are focused on doing what matters and having a positive impact on people’s lives.
“My grandfather worked for the telephone company for years,” he says. “I was acutely aware at a very young age of the opportunity that I had as compared with some others that I went to school with growing up, and I saw the differences in us and that really shaped the foundation of my political ideology and my goal to provide everyone with an opportunity to succeed. I think it's very important that we focus on everyone and build out a sustainable community in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.”
You've said you wanted to provide or prioritize the well-being of Nashville citizens over tourists and corporate interests. How does that happen? What does that look like?
“Well, I think that starts with how we're directing our revenue in this city. Right now, everything is focused on downtown and once upon a time — you know, when our downtown was not thriving — it made sense to really focus on that and build a strong downtown. And I think the plan originally was supposed to evolve to spread that out throughout the community. Unfortunately, over the decades they’ve simply layered on top of layer, and all the money continues to funnel into downtown only, and we're not seeing it distributed in an equitable manner across our community.
“So while some people are doing really well and tourism is really driving this city right now, those dollars aren't making their way out into the community. You go into Bordeaux, you go into other parts of the city, they're not seeing the benefit of the boom. We have to make sure that everyone in this city is benefiting from this unprecedented prosperity.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how long Clemmons has been in the state legislature. He is in his third 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.