John Cooper Aggressively Leverages Public Assets
(Alleged) thrown Stapler followup and: When I was 4, the Nashville Zoo was one of my favorite places to be driven, particularly because of the multi-tiered jungle gym.
A couple weeks ago we wrote about tense working conditions in the Mayor’s office.
We leaned on the rumor that Cooper had thrown a stapler during a particularly trying moment and wanted to follow up with y’all on damage reports. In July 2020, Case Restoration Co. billed Metro for $635k in repairs to the Metro Courthouse, including $35,000 for 738.5 person-hours of drywall touchups. Jennifer Westerholm, who fulfilled our records request, said that this bill covered damages incurred on May 30, 2020 during community protests over police killings, including work in the Mayor’s Office.
Without a more detailed invoice, it’s impossible to know if one or .5 of those person-hours was spent patching a stapler-sized hole in the people’s drywall.
The stapler is (of course) not the point. The persistence of that rumor, corroborated by many more sources since we published, says plenty about the Cooper administration. It’s one of many bad-boss stories that have escaped City Hall, like how Cooper, overcome with frustration, sometimes heads home early. Or gets picked up by his spouse. Or that former finance director Kevin Crumbo was not on speaking terms with the Mayor when Crumbo left over the summer. At times, Ben Eagles has been referred to as a professional buffer between Cooper and whoever he needs to have a conversation with.
Stress happens in the Mayor’s Office. But when a leader channels stress into a toxic work environment and that work environment becomes a revolving door of high-level personnel who are supposed to oversee the nerve center of the city, it is a problem for Nashville.
Cooper recently added long-time Nashville business guy Tom Jurkovich as Senior Advisor for Public Affairs. This perch is so ambiguous that it will allow Jurkovich to craft Cooper’s relationship to the public ahead of reelection: more community events, more glowing media releases, more self-graded assignments. Mayor’s Office public engagement strategies are groundwork for 2023, when Cooper will no doubt face some high-profile challengers. Just under 2 years out, no one has announced a run, but some names have come up.
Hal Cato has made a career of doing good, founding Hands On Nashville before running the Oasis Center and now Thistle Farms. Like Cooper, Cato has done pretty well, and just a few Woodlawn blocks separate their million-dollar homes. Unlike Cooper, Cato has spent decades going to work on the social, economic, and racial inequalities in Nashville—he might be more serious about using the Mayor’s Office to address them.
“I’ve been in the trenches working to improve this community,” Cato said in a short email last week. “I’m not sure if a Mayoral campaign is in my future, but I’m honored by the number of leaders who have been encouraging me to consider running.”
Already sounding like a politician.
Representing District 56 in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Bob Freeman hasn’t ruled out a run, either. Bob was elected to the State House in 2018 and runs a consulting firm called Freeman Applegate that has sustainability in its description. Freeman has a track record of environmental and climate change work. His dad, Bob, built a real estate empire and both have already made serious forays into politics and public life.
Bob’s dad, Bill, had a legitimate shot at mayor in 2015 during which he disclosed his nine-figure net worth. Those pockets could be the way to keep up with Cooper, who shored up his campaign with personal checks that totaled $2 million by the runoff. The Freeman family is ridiculously rich off the real estate and property management company Freeman-Webb, which Bill started with Jimmy Webb in 1979. Freeman-Webb is one of the largest owners and managers of apartment complexes in the Southeast and forecasted $234.2 million in revenue last year.
For the Freemans, political inroads have been careful and aggressive. Bill is a key booster for the TN Democratic Party and Freeman-Webb (once again, a real estate company) bought the Scene in 2018. A media property might seem unusual alongside apartment buildings and office space, but the Scene has offered Bill a nice outlet for his political musings and would be a valuable asset in his son’s campaign for mayor.
More from this week:
—Cooper released the Mayor’s Capital Spending Plan last Monday. It has to be passed by council for real $$ allocations. Read it here. Two highlights. First, Cooper wants $15 million towards a parking structure at the Nashville Zoo. Few things excite Cooper like the prospect of matching funds, which allow him to say phrases like ‘leveraged public assets’ and ‘public-private partnership.’ Obviously, $15 million on Zoo parking is... $15m on Zoo parking. When I was 4, the Zoo was one of my favorite places to be driven, particularly because of the multi-tiered jungle gym. But Zoo accessibility does not address the housing crisis. It is not public transit. It is not even a recommendation of any one of Cooper’s advisory committees. CM Freddie O’Connell made the same point to Axios. Second, Cooper wants to buy 88 Hermitage Ave, an old school owned by the state of TN, for $20m (plus $3 for design). As a council member, Cooper voted against acquiring 88 Hermitage Ave for $11.3m. Maybe it is a smart purchase now that he’s in charge. According to the Tennessean, Cooper said 88 Hermitage is part of a larger plan that could hypothetically include affordable housing, an “outstanding park feature,” and a boathouse—paid for with private money of course. Perhaps overflow parking, too, for the reptile house.
—Cooper’s boathouse thing isn’t out of nowhere. Rich people have been trying to make the river happen and he wants us to connect up with Oracle at River North or, more recently, Riverside (private equity billionaire Edward Ewing)
~🙏🏼 amphibious pedal taverns 🙏🏼 ~
—Legislation on license plate readers (LPRs) comes up tomorrow night (11/2) for second reading. No longer is council debating whether to have widespread passive data collection by police. Two bills—one carried by CM Courtney Johnston giving more expansive police powers and a narrower option from CM Dave Rosenberg—differ on how that data should be collected and under what conditions it would be stored. More on that soon from Nicole @startleseasily.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Freeman Webb “might better be understood as a slumlord.” The property management company owns and operates thousands of units across dozens of properties in several states and has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth for its owners. However, I am not comfortable making that comparison based on a limited number of tenants who reported poor living conditions and/or bad experiences at company properties.