Q&A: Bob Mendes on endorsing Freddie O'Connell for mayor
'I'd prefer someone who doesn't have to learn the job'
At-Large Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes on Thursday announced that he is endorsing District 19 Metro Councilmember Freddie O'Connell for mayor.
The race is starting to heat up, with candidates Matt Wiltshire and Jim Gingrich airing television ads, forums occurring most weeks and the qualifying deadline approaching in less than a month.
The endorsement of Mendes, who himself opted not to run for mayor, is among the most high-profile in the race to date. Thirty-five religious leaders, including Jerry Maynard of Cathedral of Praise and Forrest Harris of American Baptist College, on Thursday endorsed At-Large Metro Councilmember Sharon Hurt's candidacy for mayor.
Mendes spoke with the Post about the decision to back O'Connell.
You didn't endorse in 2019. Why is this different?
In 2019, my focus was running for reelection, and it's just fundamentally different. I'm term-limited and not running for anything this time. I'm not bogged down handling my own campaign, and so I feel strongly that, as we transition to whoever's next, that I want to make sure to share what's on my mind about who will be best for the job, because I'm not going to be in office. I'd like to leave us in as good of shape as we can.
You know a lot of the people running, including another colleague on Council. How did you come to settle on Freddie O'Connell versus these other people you've worked with in the past?
It's absolutely a challenge. I think I know all of them, some of them a lot better than others. It's difficult because I do consider most of them to be friends. Really, I'm looking at the differentiating factors. With all of the turnover we've had in Metro government, I'd prefer someone who doesn't have to learn the job and who the department heads are on the fly. I do think that there's a spectrum in how the candidates are talking about the relationship with the state. I've been pretty public about the idea that I think that anybody who's campaigning on "you've just got to know how to talk to them over there at the state, and I've got a proven track record of being able to talk to them, so I'll do a great job," I find that to be a naive posture. I can't support that.
People like Bredesen set us on a path of becoming this world-class tourist-centric downtown built up in a great way. We're coming out of big civic success stories. We did it. That was the plan. But there isn't a lot of vision for, what do we do for the next generation. I'm looking for somebody who can have some believable vision of that and also willing to do the work to try to put it in action. When I look up and down the various candidates, they are friends, I do like all of them as people and have productive working relationships with all of them. But I think Freddie fits the bill for what I would like to see in the next mayor.
Are you confident that he has the capability to manage Metro government, including all of its employees and departments?
Two of them have got some executive branch experience, but nobody has the experience of having thousands of employees and a budget this size in government. We all have to make some predictions about performance ability. The thing that gives me confidence about Freddie is, I have seen Freddie work in teams, both in the Council and his various transit and homelessness advocacy, and Freddie is a team guy. He's a collaborative person. He leads by listening. I have had the benefit of seeing multiple administrations now, and it helps to have a collaborative approach and an honest understanding that one person doesn't have all the answers and the team is going to do better if they work together.
I trust Freddie's ability to lead that way.
You specifically mentioned the relationship with the state. Do you think that's the most important thing a candidate needs to have figured out?
I don't think a mayor has the luxury of having that be the most important thing, because the most important thing is we've got 700,000 people worried about where their kids go to school and whether their streets are safe and whether the garbage gets picked up. Being mayor is always going to have to be about that blocking and tackling stuff. The state relationship is an unfortunate add-on to the list of responsibilities, but I think it's important to be clear-eyed and principled about that, and frankly not waste time trying to figure out what Nashville supposedly did wrong. We shouldn't have fights just for the sake of having fights, but we shouldn't be acquiescing just for the sake of acquiescing, either.
Why did you decide not to run, and does this endorsement fit into that at all?
Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, I have never told a single person I'm interested in being mayor of Nashville, ever, at any point. My political team and I met a year ago this month, and I decided then to not run. When Mayor Cooper decided to not run, my team and I got together and checked back in about whether that changed the decision, and it didn't. My mindset for a while now has been that I wasn't going to do it. It's a little hard to articulate why. It's as much a gut feeling as anything. It's partially a family decision. I've got two kids in college. It's partially [that] it's exhausting being a councilperson. It's been eight years, and I certainly applaud the candidates who are doing it.
What does O'Connell need to do to be competitive?
I think the public craves authenticity in politicians over people who regurgitate polling data back to them. I think Freddie should be himself. If Freddie talks to the people in Nashville about the things he cares about, they'll find out he's a great listener and he's tuned in with the needs of regular people just trying to live life in Nashville. I think he should do more of that. He strikes a chord with people because he doesn't come off as regurgitating polls, and it's born from his ability to listen to what people really want and need.