Backed by the Koch brothers’ dollars and digital know-how—and buoyed by the last-minute implosion of a pro-transit mayor in a sex and corruption scandal—anti-transit forces achieved a landslide win against Nashville’s US$5.4 billion bus, train, and tunnel plan, the New York Times writes in a retrospective on the early May vote.
Early polls suggested the vote was a sure win: Nashville’s streets were choked with traffic, and a coalition of businesses had given the plan a strong thumbs-up, as had the city’s (then) hugely popular mayor.
Introduced in October by Mayor Megan Barry, “the plan was to be funded by raising the sales tax city residents pay by one percentage point,” a tax increase for which two-thirds of Nashville voters signaled their support—or so an early poll by Barry’s team suggested, writes the Times.
The result of the May 1 ballot thus shocked many—though not Tori Venable, Tennessee state director for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a nation-wide organization financed by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch to further their libertarian agenda of low taxes and minimal government.
“I knew we were going to win,” Venable told the Times.
In an extremely well-orchestrated campaign which “used a sophisticated data service built by the Kochs, called i360, that helps them identify and rally voters who are inclined to their worldview,” the members of Nashville’s local chapter of AFP made “almost 42,000 phone calls and knocked on more than 6, 000 doors,” the Times states.
“Everything we do is very scientific, very data-based, very numbers-based,” explained AFP Policy Director Akash Chougoule. “We are able to see who are the people that are most likely to engage on this issue, who are the people most aligned with us that we need to get out, and who are the people whose minds we can change.”
Driving that determined outreach was the group’s fundamental belief that public transit “goes against the liberties that Americans hold dear,” the Times notes. “If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want,” Venable said, “they’re not going to choose public transit.”
But while “the Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free market, libertarian philosophy, it also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways,” the Times notes. “One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires, and other automotive parts.”
The campaign also relied heavily on anti-transit proselytizer Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. Popular on the speaker’s circuit, and a fluent generator of op-eds, O’Toole “gave an impassioned speech” on January 27 in which he said “that transit is for hipster millennials and would be a conduit for gentrification, forcing people to move further away to find affordable housing,” the Times recalls. O’Toole at one point condemned light rail as “the diamond-encrusted Rolex watch of transit,” which “serves solely to serve the ego of the people who are buying it”.
The broad assertion is not entirely without grounds, said Raj Rajkumar, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Mobility21 research centre. But while “there is some truth in concerns that transit could bring gentrification,” he said the solution is that “transit plans should be paired with measures to increase affordable housing.”
But no such measures were offered in Nashville’s plan, and “ultimately,” writes the Times, “the pro-transit camp failed to fend off criticism that the plan benefited a gentrifying downtown at the expense of more distant lower-income and minority areas.”
There was, however, one other accelerant in the surprising stampede of Nashville voters away from the city’s transit plan. Four days after O’Toole’s speech, Barry confessed to an extra-marital affair, complete with lurid reports of “steamy texts, overseas trips, and inappropriate spending,” the Times reports. She resigned in March, “and later pleaded guilty to theft.”
In the wake of her departure, Nashville’s pro-transit movement watched its strong support evaporate in the searing heat of voter indignation.