By Rosetta Miller-Perry
The campaign to succeed John Cooper as mayor of Nashville has attracted 12 candidates (now 11 though the one dropout remains on the ballot), and it has been a hotly contested one. But thus far only one candidate has been subjected to ugly, and in some cases ethically questionable and borderline racist attack ads. That is Freddie O’Connell, who has represented District 19 since 2015 and is extremely popular.
Two different factions have paid for these ads that include disturbing imagery of Black and poor citizens, and one inaccurately implies support for their position from an influential community leader who denies this. The ads began running in July, with the latest surfacing this past Monday. Honky-tonk owner (as well as Kid Rock a Donald Trump buddy). Sam Smith started the campaign with a 15 second ad in early July. Among other things the ad shows during in the opening narration, a group of homeless people with a photo of a man using the bathroom in public, while drawing a link between former Chicago former mayor Lori Lightfoot and O’Connell. The ad also claims the 19th District has grown progressively more crime ridden during O’Connell’s tenure on the council, making it seems as if he were personally in charge of law enforcement in the District.
It maintains O’Connell is “soft on vagrants and crime,” but hard on partygoers. Then it reinforces its racist trope at the end by urging voters not to support O’Connell because if elected he will turn “Nashville into Chicago.”
The truth is, a major reason Smith may be so opposed to O’Connell has nothing to do with crime or law enforcement. It could simply be revenge for O’Connell opposing his buddy Kid Rock to be grand marshal in Nashville’s Christmas parade, as well as his support of Mayor Cooper’s closing down of Second Avenue bars during the pandemic. Smith called this action “unconstitutional,” and labeled Cooper “a Communist’ because he placed public safety ahead of him and his fellow Broadway moneychangers making a buck.
As for crime, the track record of drunken sprees and lawlessness caused by patrons in places owned by Smith and his associates is public record, along with the proliferation of guns in the city, and the willingness of some honky-tonk owners to allow their patrons to bring them into their establishments. The number of times police are called to Broadway and Second Avenue for disturbances caused by tourists and/or patrons certainly rivals the incidents of property crime and violence in District 19. The ad makes claims of vast crime increases in District 19, but cites no FBI, police or national crime databases to support those statements.
In addition, while it is true O’Connell has spoken out against the license plate reader program. What he actually criticized is the problems and abuses of the program that have resulted in disproportionate traffic stops of Black and Latino people. These stops HAVE been chronicled by the police databases.
Yet, while certainly questionable in terms of its rhetorical distortions and racist tone, Smith’s ads are topped in terms of unethical behavior by a new one that also came out this week which invoked his name and suggested that Rev, Enoch Fuzz, a longtime Civil Rights activist and community leader currently battling cancer, had lent his support to another attack campaign against O’Connell.
This ad was paid by (at the time) a previously unregistered and (when initially released) unidentified group calling themselves “Friends of Enoch Fuzz.” The ad ridiculed O’Connell’s transit plan, which emphasizes public transportation and multimodal infrastructure, as well as access to sidewalks for pedestrians and designated routes for bicyclists.
It turns out neither Rev. Fuzz nor any significant Black organization or entity was responsible for, nor embraced or endorsed, that racist ad. A pair of local white businessmen Bobby Joslin and Bill Hostettler were at the time of the ad’s filing the so-called “Friends of Enoch Fuzz” according to FCC paperwork that is on record at three Nashville TV stations. They are NOT (or at least at the time were not) a political action committee nor an LLC, and that was still the case as of Monday. Hostettler confirmed to local media Rev. Fuzz had no part in the creation or approval of their ad.
Joslin, unfortunately, is also one of six new state appointed members of the restructured Metro Nashville Airport Authority Board, another local entity that the Republican super-majority in the state legislature is trying to take control of from the city. That law, which took the authority to name six of eight airport board members away from the mayor and gave it to the legislature, is now in court. The city is suing, calling the new law “an unconstitutional overreach.”
Both these men are public supporters of another mayoral candidate, Matt Wiltshire, and in addition Hostettler has donated $1,800 to the campaigns of both Jeff Yarbro and Jim Gingrich, but not Black candidates. But an additional motivation could be O’Connell’s outspoken opposition to giving developers free reign, his advocacy for more affordable housing to be built across the city, and his pledge not to let Nashville’s Black communities be left behind in the rush to more unchecked and unregulated mass property development. Hostettler also just happens to be named as the contact for HND Reality LLC, a property management company he co-founded with Carl Neuhoff in 1998.
The Tribune acknowledges that neither Smith nor these “Friends of Enoch Fuzz” have done anything illegal. The use of suggestive racist rhetoric and imagery, as well as the distortion and oversimplification of campaign stances, are old and familiar tactics in political campaigns. But fortunately, almost all the candidates running for mayor have avoided them. To their credit, none of O’Connell’s opponents to date have endorsed or embraced these tactics, nor commended these people for what they have done.
O’Connell’s response has been to use one ad as a fund raising weapon, and urge the “Friends of Enoch Fuzz” to stop falsely claiming Rev. Fuzz supports their efforts. O’Connell actually attended Rev. Fuzz’s church two weeks ago and for his part has reportedly told O’Connell not to let these white racist attack ads be a major distraction and to continue running a positive campaign according to reports from O’Connell’s campaign team.
The election is Thursday, August 3. Nashville voters can show how much or how little impact these ads have had on their decision at that time. The top two candidates earning the most votes in the general election advance to the September runoff, unless one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, which is widely seen as unlikely to happen. The runoff is on Sept. 14.