David Briley was elected mayor of Nashville in convincing fashion Thursday, winning support from a majority of voters in a special election, allowing him to finish the term that he took over under unprecedented circumstances.
Briley, the race’s incumbent but previously not elected to the post, finished with more than 44,000 votes, giving him 54 percent of all votes cast in a crowded field of 13 candidates.
It was a strong showing for Briley, a progressive Democrat, enough to comfortably eclipse the 50 percent threshold that was needed to avoid a runoff election, which would have taken place next month.
Coming in a distant second was conservative commentator and former Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain, who ran as an outside insurgent on a mission to dramatically overhaul Metro government and take on the city's establishment.
Swain took in 23 percent of the vote, followed by At-large Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, retired conservative radio talk show host Ralph Bristol, state Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville, and community activist Jeff Obafemi Carr, who each collected around 5 percent.
Briley, at a jubilant victory rally at Cabana in Hillsboro Village, arrived on stage to chants of his last name from the couple of hundred supporters in attendance.
“Well hello, y'all,” Briley said to laughter, adding that he’s “extremely humbled and grateful for what the voters of Nashville did today."
“We went through a tough period of time, but we all came together and we decided not to give up, but to keep moving forward, to come back together,” he said. “We know that we have challenges, but I think we all also deeply understand and appreciate the fact that our city is going in the right direction.”
Winning without a runoff key for Briley
The special election was triggered following the March 6 resignation of former Mayor Megan Barry, who stepped down as part of a felony theft guilty plea related to her nearly two-year affair with her former police bodyguard. Briley, vice mayor at the time, was sworn in the same day to serve as mayor until an election could be held.
Briley’s victory gives him the office for only the next 15 months. Voters will head to the polls again in August 2019 to vote for a mayor again during the city's typical election cycle.
A special election to fill Briley's vice mayor seat will take place Aug 2. Councilwoman Sheri Weiner has been serving as acting vice mayor.
For Briley, 52, winning without a runoff stands as an important feat even though he was considered the frontrunner from the start, enjoying endorsements from 29 of 40 council members and holding a massive fundraising advantage against his 12 opponents.
A head-to-head race against the outspoken Swain — who went on the attack aggressively and often against Briley — could have taken a toll politically as he seeks Metro Council approval next month of a controversial budget and as he looks to establish his agenda over the next year.
Although Briley would have been heavily favored, some of his allies feared a potentially ugly race.
Swain, in her remarks at a watch party at the University Club of Nashville, vowed to hold Briley accountable despite her loss. Throughout much of her campaign, Swain regularly slammed Briley’s leadership and described Metro government as a place marred in corruption.
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“We will continue to bring good governance to Nashville and try to make America the kind of nation that we can all be proud of,” Swain said. “I’ve always said the call on my life was to hold politicians accountable and not to be one. And maybe that’s right because I intend to hold Mayor Briley and the city council accountable.
“God orders our footsteps, and, for whatever reason, this is part of the experience that I was supposed to have.”
Briley challenges Nashvillians to come together
The special election had originally been scheduled for August, but a decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court in April moved the race up to May, creating a condensed election like the city has never seen.
Briley, the grandson of Metro's first mayor Beverly Briley, framed his win as a strong endorsement of the direction of the city and for unity. He campaigned on message of “moving forward” but also a “back-to-the basics” agenda — a departure from big-ticket city projects and a return to neighborhood issues and a focus on education.
In his roughly 10-minute speech, he said his victory showed a “broad consensus in our community, across all racial and ethnic and regional and socioeconomic lines, that this is the right direction to go on.”
He also challenged Nashvillians to come together. Pointing to the city’s strong economy, Briley said it’s time to “lift up” Nashvillians who aren’t fully benefiting.
“We’ve got to work a little bit better to build trust amongst ourselves. We’ve got to work a little bit harder to trust the government," he said. "We’ve got to work a little bit harder to make sure we’re lifting up our neighbors.
"Because it's clear to me, and I think it's clear to all of us, that there's more to be done in that respect."
Budget challenges await for mayor
Despite his lopsided win, Briley has faced a difficult first two and a half months in office after inheriting a pair of challenges.
A referendum to raise taxes to pay for a transit plan failed wildly at the polls on May 1. Briley has also faced pushback over his proposed budget, which because of a revenue shortage, does not deliver a promised cost-of-living pay increase to city employees or the requested financial amount for schools.
“We are going to work hard to make sure that those disappointments don’t happen again,” Briley said, expressing regret that he was not able to deliver on the pay increases, in particular. "I think it's important for me to say right now that was a really true disappointment to me as the leader of this city. And I will do my best not to ever let it happen again."
A small group of council members has proposed a property tax increase to make up the revenue gap, but Briley has opposed that idea.
Briley’s most applauded move over his first two months in office has been proposing to reclaim former Greer Stadium next to the Civil War-era Fort Negley as a public park. He also called for gun control after the deadly shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch and has pushed for consensus on a new transit solution.
But his willingness to complete the economic development deals started by Barry, and to continue much of her agenda, has made it a struggle for him to set his own mark early on.
In his remarks, Briley touted strong schools, neighborhood preservation and protecting and expanding the city’s qualify of life as his top priorities.
“Those are the things that I will get up tomorrow morning and work on for as long as the people will let me stay," Briley said. "And I know that it will be at least through August of next year.”
“Five more years!” a couple of people in the crowd yelled out.
“We don’t do that,” Briley responded calmly. “We take it one step at a time.”
Briley concluded by urging everyone in the city to have a coffee and conversation with someone with different experiences than them.
“We need to talk to each other a little bit more. We need to build a little bit more trust with each other. We need to come together and build a better Nashville,” Briley said.
Holly Meyer and Jordan Buie contributed to this report.
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
Special mayor's race results
David Briley — 44,707 — 54.5 percent
Carol Swain — 18,795 — 22.9 percent
Erica Gilmore — 4,579 — 5.6 percent
Ralph Bristol — 4,335 — 5.3 percent
Harold M. Love — 4,319 — 5.3 percent
Jeff obafemi carr — 3,769 — 4.6 percent
David L. Hiland — 324 — 0.40 percent
Ludye N. Wallace — 322 — 0.4 percent
Carlin J. Alford — 240 — 0.3 percent
Julia Clark-Johnson — 168 — 0.2 percent
Albert Hacker — 169 — 0.2 percent
Jeffrey A. Napier — 141 — 0.17 percent
Jon Sewell — 92 — 0.11 percent
161 or 161 precincts reporting