The Republican hopes to make taxes and crime central to the race

By Steve Cavendish

Alice Rolli knows she has an uphill climb as a Republican in a very Democratic city, but the business owner and former political strategist for Lamar Alexander sees an opening between Mayor John Cooper’s record property tax hike and lingering perceptions about crime. The last Republican to make it as far as a runoff — David Fox in 2015 — is acting as an advisor and treasurer for Rolli’s campaign. As a native Nashvillian and the daughter of Al Ganier, Rolli is banking on deep ties to the city to lure independent and Democratic voters to her campaign.

Why do you want to be mayor?

This is my hometown, and I’m running for mayor to put our citizens who live here first, to give a voice for the pragmatic everyday concerns of citizens across the county, who are worried about things like crime and taxes, managing growth, and improving our schools.

Those are themes that I’ve heard from some other candidates. Why do you think that you uniquely are the person to become the next mayor?

Well, I would say I don’t think any of the other candidates talk about taxes. I could be wrong. But I think that none of them actually talked about the fiscal position of our city. And I would posit that arguably the most important blueprint for what the city needs was laid out in 2019, with comptroller Justin Wilson’s address to the city council. And you could watch in the questions, how, in many ways, multiple years of administrations have, I believe, have misled our well-intentioned city council members. Of all of the things that people say that they want to do as mayor, most of those things cannot be done if you don’t shore up the city’s finances. And today, the city of Nashville, Davidson County, has more debt than the entire state of Tennessee. When we talk – and I hope we will talk about priorities and things that people want to spend money on that I’ve read in other [candidates’] articles – when we’re spending $410 million on just servicing our debt, much of our debt is in short term paper in a rising interest rate environment. We are in this really difficult situation. So I would say that probably a main distinction is a focus — when we talk about affordability — on the city’s taxes and our tax rates, our fiscal position. These are all challenges. Why would I be uniquely qualified? I’d say the combination that I bring to the table of public sector experience, with the state as an assistant commissioner in economic development for Governor Bill Haslam, and in the federal government, working on two different stints for Senator Lamar Alexander. And then in the private sector — most of my career has been in the private sector — helping lead and manage rapidly growing companies and getting them very focused on a critical few metrics. And frankly, I think most entrepreneurs will say, the end of a successful business is when you start to think you can do everything for everyone. And there’s a lot of success in stopping doing certain things so that you can be a little bit more successful at the ones that are important.

I want to back up to something that you said about taxes. Specifically, there was a property tax increase in 2020 that was designed to address some of the short-term and long-term financial issues brought up in the Comptroller’s report. Do you think that Mayor Cooper was not successful in shoring up the city’s finances?

Well, I would say two things. I think at the moment that that tax rate was calculated, it was calculated based on a lot of uncertain information in that early COVID moment. I think at that moment that 34 percent increase was believed to be the [correct] number. I think today, when we look at our increase in spending that has come since then — which is a combination of additional federal funds, but also a combination of additional revenues — I believe he had to make the tax increase decision that he did. But I believe that later he could have reduced spending. Davidson County, Nashville is the highest taxed city in the entire state, period, full stop, out of the pockets of people. We are paying the most taxes. So I think the challenge is that as the fiscal position corrected, we ought to have not continued increasing spending. We should have started to look at where we could have reduced spending to start to pay down some of our short term paper and work on our debt issue. My feeling would be to say, “what do I need to pay back so that my kids and grandkids aren’t continuing to be burdened with this debt?” And I think what happened instead is our city council and our current mayor said, “What else can I spend more on?” And I actually believe that’ll bite us, you know, later as the interest rate environment continues.

Would you be in favor of cutting property taxes?

I have actually spoken with several folks at all levels of state and municipal government and I don’t believe it is possible until we first drastically reset some of the spending priorities and deal with the short term paper issue. So I’m not making a promise today, Steve, “Alice Rolli says she will cut taxes” because I don’t believe that it is possible until we fix some of the fundamentals.

Can you describe some of those changes that you would make to Metro spending?

Well, I believe that there has been an appetite in the last couple of years to try to create the office of everything. And I actually think it needs resetting. We did this in the Haslam administration right at the beginning, a top to bottom review. And I know it sounds like a pretty basic idea. But it’s going into the city government and starting to say “we need 60 separate departments of everything?” Or are there places where we are creating our own internal bottlenecks and inefficiencies, where we’re actually not achieving a result? So I know that people will refer to that as “Oh, my God, she’s a Republican, she’s coming in, and she’s going to take away all the city jobs.”

What I would say for our citizens and our and our taxpayers of the county and our developers, everybody, when you look at a city right now and [there are] $5 billion dollars of property permit valuations, I think I think of all of the decades, we as citizens were told, “it’s not possible to track your mail overnight and have it delivered.” And we were told that and we believed it. And we believed our postal carriers were doing the best job that they could. But we all believed it wasn’t possible. And it took Fred Smith and FedEx saying, “There is a possibility to do this better, and more in a more accountable way.” So what I’m saying is that in city government there are aspects that I believe that we could rethink, that we could simplify, and that we could change our mindset that says certain things are untouchable or can’t be touched. And with that, today, the US Postal Service still exists. And today, the US Postal Service can deliver and track your mail overnight.

One of the issues everyone is talking about, which is an incredibly important issue, is affordable housing. There are some things that the government can do. But even in all of your other [candidate interviews], everyone has rightly pointed out the government is a piece of it, but the bigger piece is the density and in total diversity of housing stock and types. So it is literally a supply and demand problem. If you go over and talk to builders, they will say it takes me six months longer than it used to to get things permitted and move. And we are only contributing to that backlog, right? 

There’s supply and demand back to like Economics 101. But on that, I think that is an incredibly rational approach to say, hey, if our city permits and codes can’t keep up with it, let’s use the fact that we’ve got electricians with licenses, we’ve got, you know, folks with other licenses that can put their licenses on the line the same way we do with home inspectors, to help us clear that backlog. So what I would say is the government has to be the only solution to speeding the management of growth for our city. And I think that that is probably a real distinction for most of the rest of the field, who will say, “I want to add an office, I want to create an office.”

The Covenant School shooting was last week. Where were you when you heard about the shooting?

I was here in my kitchen. And at first, I thought it was at St. Paul’s and I reached out to my neighbor and his wife because he teaches at Covenant.

What do you think can be done about school shootings? I understand that the mayor is limited in what they can do. But what we’ve also seen is a lot of local folks advocating for different changes in state and national policy. 

The role of the mayor? Yeah, I have, I have thought, you know, I thought about this quite a bit. And most of my career has been in business. You know, you don’t wake up and say, “Gosh, I wish LIBOR today was different.” You operate your business with the interest rate and regulatory environment that you are in, right? And so as mayor, I have to think about, “How do I operate the city within the environment?” There’s no confusion in my mind.  There’s not something that the city can do that is separated from the state on the issue of gun policy, right? So I think about it as “What is our job as the mayor?” And first an issue that I don’t know if most readers understand, and most parents understand is that today in Metro Nashville Public Schools, we have SROs. And the “R” is important, because “R” means that they are part of our Metro Police in our middle and high schools. With the vacancies and the shortages that we have in our police force now we’re about 20 school resource officers short. And that was only staffing in middle and high school. But we as a city, had taken a policy or accepted a policy, that we ought not have an armed number of Metro Police in our elementary schools. 

Okay, I could not sleep as the mayor and feel that it’s okay for my child at the Akiva School — and granted that is in a different category of risk in our city — that he has an armed officer and that our elementary school students do not. Now, I know that what they had thought about were retired officers who are unarmed. And I also know that retired officers who are unarmed were not taking anybody up on that job. I mean, so here’s what’s different about today. So as the mayor, you know, I would say, funding and staffing an SRO in every elementary school would have been a first order of business. But here’s what’s different today and how fast this has moved. Legislation that for nearly three years, the professional educators of Tennessee have supported and all of these things that the governor has done in the last week was to make it the law to require an SRO in every school in the state, every public school in the state. And not just to have it, but to also fund it. Right? Obviously now the governor has done other things. So I guess to go back to your question, I look at it as like, what can we do? You know, I could sit there and say “I don’t like the national or state law,” and direct all of my attention and energy to that. Or I could look at it and say, “What can I actually do and control?” And the first piece would be the SROs in elementary schools. But today, legislation working its way through will actually make that the law. 

Some folks running for mayor have said that they would advocate with the state and national governments for assault-style weapons to be banned. Is that something that you would favor?

You know, the challenge that we have is there are 700,000 people in Davidson County and 400,000 voters. I think that they are pretty capable of voting for their state or national representative or voicing that. You know, we do have the beginnings of a Red Flag Law [Editor’s note: legislation is pending at the time of publication]. I actually think the city of Nashville has never benefited when its mayor and city council has directed most of their energy towards national political issues. And so I look at it as we cannot unilaterally disarm. I have to look at it as like, what can I do to try to make our schools safer? I’m not participating in the national gun debate.

Along those lines — we’ve mentioned this in a couple of topics already — the city/state relationship right now seems fairly broken. What could you as mayor do to improve it?

Yeah, well, I think it starts with the humility of realizing that while Nashville is a big city in Tennessee, we are one in 10 Tennesseans, not nine in 10. And actually, I would say it starts with recognizing that our challenges of growth are not solely unique to Nashville, and that there are opportunities to collaborate with bordering county mayors. Take the issue of transit. It’s my understanding that when Nashville takes a go-it-alone approach to a regional problem, we have always lost. We lost on the Amp. Right? We have more in common today with Maury County and Rutherford County, in that we are stuck on the wrong side of 2006 legislation, the County Powers Act that [Speaker Jimmy] Naifeh pushed through. We actually have a lot in common with our other regional mayors. And I think starting with that piece of what do we have in common that are challenges to our growth, and how can I actually work with other county mayors that have the votes? We don’t have the votes alone in Davidson County. So I think the big difference is starting to say we’re not the top dog here, regionally. We’re part of a 21-county group that, you know, has signed on to different issues like transit and funding. 

And we’re admired by our county mayors in some ways. Like, look at our police. I’ve actually met with several county mayors in the last couple of weeks — some that would surprise you politically — but I admire them just the same way. You know, a lot of those county mayors are like calling up their sheriff’s offices and saying, “Look at what the Metro Police did. That is astounding, the police work [in the Covenant School shooting]. Are we training our police in the same way to be prepared for a threat such as this?” But I also look at it as like, does everything constantly have to be a battle? And I think a lot of people look at that too. Right? The state, for all the things it’s taken away, it’s also given us some things right? It’s given us in the Haslam administration, the city has the ability to create a dedicated transit funding source. We haven’t done it. We’ve been given that ability to leverage 16 cents and dedicated transit so that we can get 84 cents of federal funding. And we’ve taken this constant, “It’s your fault I can’t do anything” [approach] .It’s kind of like the interest rate example, right? The interest rates are bad, I can’t do anything. It’s like you wake up and figure out what you can do. We can. 

So all the things that people are like, “The state’s taken everything away, the state’s terrible” … Tennessee is about to be the first state in the country to have every child under the age of two on Tenncare to have diapers covered. Okay, that is a practical issue for 20,000 families in Davidson County that don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or whatever. Nobody else has had the wherewithal to go, “Okay, we’ve got WIC benefits We’ve got TANF funds. We’ve got SNAP benefits,” different social programs for our most vulnerable residents, primarily funded by state and federal dollars. And someone figured the cost of unchanged diapers in the form of diaper rashes and urinary tract infections for babies was higher than the cost of literally paying for diapers for every baby in the state under the age of two. So that is it. And I recognize you can be like, alright, I was over here talking about diapers, but sometimes it’s finding some things to get along on. And I think Senator Alexander was really masterful in this, right? Federal [education] legislation we have today, he authored in 2015. A Republican from Tennessee, he got 85 votes, and President Obama signed it into law. So we started with, “How can we find some things that we can accomplish?” His opioid legislation? 99-1. So I sort of think about this, like, “How do you start to get along with the state legislature?” I think it’s starting to find, okay, can we pick off a transit issue with a bunch of our county mayors, and in a broader body? I think we can.

There is a deal for a new Titans stadium currently in the council. Do you support it or not?

What I’ve said is the opportunity to get 100 acres back under the city control, when for nearly two decades we have sold our public assets, our protected public park lands, like Fort Negley, or tried to [get] out the side door. That is a generational opportunity. So I look at how we are getting 100 acres back under city control. And how can we, by controlling that, do some things that we’re not able to do on affordable housing, right? If we own the land, we can actually dictate what’s built there in a different way than if we don’t. My current understanding is the way to get that 100 acres back is the current Titans’ plan. I recognize a lot of people say there’s a better unicorn way. But yeah, so for it for getting the 100 acres back, for it matching a revenue stream that is not pulling from the general fund, the question still is, are the numbers really the final numbers? I think any of us who’ve been in the city long enough have watched you know, the decimal places get moved and, “Whoops we forgot this.”

What’s an issue that we’re not talking enough about right now?

Our crime. So currently, Nashville has a massive and persistent gap between crimes that are reported and cleared. And do not hear in that anything against the police. That’s not what I’m saying. We’re 200 officers short. And with that statement that we’ve got two-thirds of our crimes that are recorded are never cleared, what starts to happen is criminals become more emboldened because they know they’re never going to be caught. And our victims become more silenced because they feel that what they are trying to do to advocate for a crime not happening again, and their shame in that crime happening to them. So I actually believe the thing that we have to talk about is the victim’s justice system, and finding resolution for our victims of crime. And right now, when we see that two-thirds of crimes that are reported are never cleared. That concerns me quite a bit. 

So I do realize that the question is, “How are you going to solve that?” I think it’s true, again, there’s never a silver bullet, but it’s twofold. One, with the 200 officers we are short, I think we would actually argue that when we look at the per capita staffing levels for a city like Nashville, we should actually have even more officers. So in theory, we are actually [a greater number of] officers short. And then two, I think it’s a reset in our officers – right – and how we treat our officers and how we treat our police force. Again, I’ve never worn the uniform, but my husband did [in the military] for 20 years. And it is an honor in wearing a uniform to protect and serve your community. I think, unfortunately – and I think most frontline officers will tell you this – pay is part of it, but so is how we treat and how we value our public safety first responders and police officers. Yes, we need accountability in our police force. We’re going to have to make this a place where officers want to come and I think that’s going to take more pay, but it’s also going to take a different attitude. 

What do you think people should think about when they’re considering your candidacy?

I am a Republican. I have many friends that are Democrats and independents who are supporting me. And I think here’s why: because I’m very clear on what the role of the mayor is. And I’m very clear about knowing that it’s not about holding a pro-life rally or a pro-choice rally at City Hall. It’s about holding a pro-filling-the-potholes rally, a pro-first-graders-reading rally, a pro-managing-our-infrastructure rally. And I actually think that pragmatism is pretty unique and – I would say – refreshing because it’s not saying I’m a business person that has no experience in government. It’s saying I am a person who has sat and worked at all levels of government and actually has a pretty clear sense of what our role is and what we can do and what we shouldn’t be doing.