The race for Nashville’s next mayor is well underway. In honor of Older Americans Month, AgeWell Middle Tennessee, FiftyForward, and The West End Home Foundation hosted a mayoral forum focused on issues that were important to older adults. The older adult population is the city’s fastest growing demographic and older adults tend to turn out to cast their ballots at a higher rate when compared to younger persons. Any hopeful candidate for mayor would be wise to understand the needs of the city’s older adult residents. Nashville is at a critical juncture and it is important to highlight the concerns of older adults as we prepare for a new mayoral administration.
The forum took place at FiftyForward Donelson Station on Monday, May 22 and was open to the public. LaTonya Turner, morning news editor at WPLN News, Nashville Public Radio, served as the moderator for the morning.vTen candidates (Natisha Brooks, Fran Bush, Heidi Campbell, Jim Gingrich, Sharon Hurt, Stephanie Johnson, Freddie O’Connell, Vivian Wilhoite, Matt Wiltshire, and Jeff Yarbro) participated in the forum and approximately 120 older adults came out to hear from the candidates.
The forum opened with the candidates introducing themselves and sharing why they are best suited to take on the role of mayor. After initial introductions and opening remarks, candidates were asked to respond to four questions over the course of the forum. The first question focused on economic security. The 2022 Community Needs Evaluation presented by Metro Social Services reported that the rising costs of housing, rent, groceries, and medical care disproportionately impacted older adults living on fixed incomes. The report highlighted the staggering statistic that more than half of the city’s 65+ population is experiencing livable income poverty. Candidates were asked to address the overall economic insecurity that many older adults are facing and what they will do to support older adults, especially those living on low, fixed incomes. The top issue that emerged during this discussion was affordable housing. Housing costs have skyrocketed for both renters and homeowners and there are steps that can be taken to support those that are housing cost burdened. Included are the creation of more affordable rental units, increasing access to programs such as the property tax relief program for older homeowners, increasing access to other services (food, in-home care, etc.) that support older adults living independently in their communities.
The second question highlighted key issues that were important for older adults. Older adults were surveyed prior to the forum and the top concerns were transportation, housing affordability, and public safety. Older voters want to know the future of transportation and how it will benefit older residents, the candidates’ plans for addressing the affordable housing crises for both homeowners and renters, and how the new mayor will work with Metro Council and the police department to improve public safety in the city. Each candidate was randomly selected to respond to one of the three aforementioned topics. All responses to the transportation question underscored the lack of affordable and age-friendly transportation options in Nashville. Approaches included expanding existing programs (bus, Access Ride), providing more door through door transportation options like Senior Ride Nashville, making neighborhoods more walkable, and the roads safer for driving. Responses regarding public safety addressed the need for more police officers, common-sense legislation regarding guns, better street lighting, and cleaning up overgrown areas. The housing issues were highlighted in the previous paragraph.
Eleven cities and two counties in Tennessee have partnered with AARP-TN to be Age-Friendly with elected officials making the commitment to actively work toward making their town, city, or county a great place to live for people of all ages. Nashville’s current mayor, John Cooper, announced this partnership in early 2022 and has convened working groups on Age-Friendly priority issues. Candidates were asked if they would commit to Nashville becoming an Age-Friendly City and each person had an opportunity to highlight their priorities for voters. It was encouraging that all of the candidates, if elected, enthusiastically committed to making Nashville an Age-Friendly city.
Nashville-Davidson County government has a unique – and often contentious – relationship to larger state politics. The final question of the forum asked candidates how they would bridge the relationship between Nashville government and the larger state political context. The key themes that emerged included building stronger relationships regionally so that Nashville doesn’t stand alone on these issues, working harder to develop collegial relationships with members of the state legislature to pre-empt actions that negatively impact our community, and, at times, being willing to fight back but in a constructive way.
AgeWell Middle Tennessee, FiftyForward and The West End Home Foundation all believe that it is critical that older Nashvillians have the services and supports they need to thrive. Each of these organizations works to enrich the lives of older adults in the city and wanted to offer older voters an opportunity to hear directly from the candidates about issues that were important to them. Nashville’s next mayor should care about the issues that are top priority for older adults and based on their responses at the forum, all candidates care deeply about older Nashvillians. A better city for older adults is a better city for all residents.