Dean’s hurdle: Winning over state’s rural voters

Friday, April 28, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 17
By Jeannie Naujeck


As mayor, Karl Dean helped usher in Nashville’s current boom of economic growth and development. Now, as candidate for governor of Tennessee, Dean wants to bring prosperity to other corners of the state.

A former public defender and then director of law for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Dean was elected Nashville mayor in September 2007 and served two concurrent terms, leading the city through the national economic recession, the 2010 flood, and the economic boom Nashville is currently enjoying.

Since leaving office in September 2015 Dean has been teaching, co-authoring a book, Nashville: The South’s New Metropolis, and exploring a bid for governor with his family, which includes wife Anne Davis, an attorney who leads the Nashville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In November 2018, Tennesseans will elect a new governor to replace the term-limited Bill Haslam. Besides Dean, other declared nominees include state senator Mark Green, businessman Bill Lee and Randy Boyd, former commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development under Haslam.

Dean, the only declared Democratic candidate for governor, recently granted reporters the opportunity to ask about his positions on a variety of issues and the 18 month campaign that lies ahead. (Boyd has agreed to do the same in May.) Following are Dean’s responses. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

How will you compete against a candidate like Randy Boyd, who spent his tenure as economic development chief traveling the state announcing new jobs and companies coming to Tennessee?

“One of the best things about being in office is when you get to bring good news, but as mayor you’ve got to do a variety of jobs. Nashville clearly has a strong economy, and over the last five or six years you can point to a lot of positive things that have happened in our local economy.

“And the fact is that Chattanooga is doing very, very well, Knoxville is doing well, and Memphis is moving in the right direction, but there are places all around the state that aren’t doing so well. If you go to West Tennessee, you get the sense that they feel a little bit left out.

“They feel that they need more attention and that they haven’t received it.

“A great example would be the mega-site in West Tennessee. That sits vacant and that is an area that I would look at as a great challenge and an opportunity to try to bring something there.

“What I would talk about is the need for prosperity everywhere. We are all part of this. It’s one state. People are happy for Nashville. They are proud of Nashville. But they want something to happen in their communities, too.

“Each one of these communities has their individual strengths. I really enjoyed going up to the Upper Cumberland. It is an incredibly beautiful place – access to great hiking, water activities – and it has different strengths that we need to magnify and use to promote those areas.

“You look at a city like Cookeville, which is actually doing very well, and their magic is they’ve got technology, they’ve got the university and they’ve got these beautiful surroundings that give it a really high quality of life. That’s a good model for success, too.

“If you go to rural counties and the only job news there has been that a company is closing or moving out, or if you hear that their biggest concern is that none of their kids are returning, that there are no jobs for them, then those are things we need to address.

“So what I will talk about in this campaign in terms of my belief in economic opportunity, is that we need to really focus on the areas that have not had the same success that Nashville has had.’’

Gov. Haslam hasn’t had an easy time getting some of his initiatives passed through a Republican legislature. As a Democratic governor, how will you work with lawmakers to advance your agenda?

“It’s highly unlikely that the legislature would change its party domination in the next election, but I think a Democrat would probably be in the same position that Gov. Haslam has been. It will be difficult; there will be challenges. The key thing is to look for common ground, to try to find areas that you can agree on.

“Obviously, you don’t violate your core principles, you don’t walk away from what you believe in, but government only works when you can find areas in which everyone can agree to move forward.

“One of the things that voters will be looking for in the election is the candidate who has experience as an executive. I think they are looking for someone who will be pragmatic, not an ideologue, someone who wants to get things done, someone who will focus on the issues.’’

One of those issues is health care. Gov. Haslam tried to expand Medicaid but it was shot down by the Legislature.

“I think it was a mistake not to do the Medicaid expansion. If the federal government came to us today and said, ‘We’re going to give you $900 million to improve your roads and make your bridges safe, and if you don’t want the money we’ll give it to Oregon or Arizona, who do want it,’ we would take it in a heartbeat.

“Basically what happened (with Medicaid) is the federal government said, ‘We will give you hundreds of millions of dollars to provide more care to those in need and to those most at risk, and if you don’t want it, some other state will take it,’ and we declined it.

“And I think that puts us in a worse position than we ever anticipated, because if the federal government moves toward giving block grants to the states we will probably receive less money than we are getting now, and we will be in a position where our ability to negotiate will be less.’’

Tennessee’s rural areas are perhaps most severely affected by lack of access to health care. As governor, what would you do to increase resources for rural health?

“You have to be a strong advocate for rural areas in medical care. Right now rural hospitals are not able to perform as well financially as they should or would if there had been Medicaid expansion.

“You’ve had hospital closures; you have parts of the state that have only one insurance company involved under the Affordable Care Act (the insurance marketplace), and there is the possibility that that one insurance company might go away, and so those would become sort of bare zones where there is no insurance available.

“The presence of rural hospitals and rural care is so key to economic development. If you are running the mega-site in West Tennessee, and you’re looking to bring in a business that is going to bring in two or three or four thousand jobs, and the executives are looking at their checklist and on the checklist is ‘hospital’ and you don’t have that, it makes it very hard.

“These things are truly related, so my commitment would be to be a strong advocate for the state and to make sure that we are doing everything we can to take care of those who need the help the most. I think that is a commitment I can make.’’

There are concerns that privatizing government functions, such as Gov. Haslam’s proposal to outsource the operation of some state parks, would decrease transparency in how the state spends money. How would you increase transparency in state government?

“You need to conduct business in the open. You need to follow the open meeting laws that we follow on the local level. I think it’s important that the state or any other governmental entity provide the information that the media or citizens request.

“There are things about privatization that concern me. I am apprehensive about some of the proposals regarding privatizing the operation of state parks. Our state parks are meant to be there for everyone in perpetuity. Parks, to me, are sort of the ultimate thing we do to aid our citizens and to preserve land long-term and to make the beauty of nature in this very beautiful state available to anyone.

“So, anything that would curtail the ability that we now have to offer affordable access to the state parks, that raises a lot of questions.

“And we also need to bear in mind that those state parks play a very large role in the economies of localities around the state, so any action taken here has to be taken so that we don’t hurt local economies. I think I need to see more details and that (proposal) is something that needs to be fleshed out very publicly.’’

A Tennessee Supreme Court task force just released a report on the state’s system for providing legal counsel for those who cannot afford it. The report recommends increasing funding for public defenders and raising the rates for private attorneys who represent the poor. What is your take?

“I was a public defender for 16 years, and it’s something that I think is very important for our society and our values as a country, in the terms of the way we handle trials to provide defense to those who cannot afford it, and that we have a court system that works and is perceived as – and actually is – fair.

“Public defense in Tennessee has had challenges. When I was a public defender, we were funded largely through the courts as if we were appointed to cases. Metro would get reimbursed by the state.

“And at one point the state ran out of money for any further reimbursements, and we had lawyers working for free, and there was a lot of concern about public defender budgets and district attorney budgets at that point, too.

“One of the things you learn as a public defender is how important public safety is. If you are going to have a working criminal justice system, you have to appropriately invest in it and support it.

“I don’t have an exact plan, but after 16 years I understand what the challenges are, and I want the state to be helpful in rectifying problems that exist.’’

What do you think about the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation overseeing cases of police-involved shootings, as with the Feb. 10 shooting of Jocques Clemmons by a Metro Nashville police officer?

“I would be a big supporter of any efforts that we can make to aid the local government when it comes to public safety. I think the TBI plays a valuable role in the state in what they provide for local district attorneys and police departments. Public safety is a core mission of government. For a city or a state to function as successfully as it can, you need to have a high degree of public safety and confidence in feeling that people actually are safe.

“As for the discussions that are going on between the police departments, the TBI and the mayor, I will leave that to Mayor (Megan) Barry to work those issues out. I know she is working very hard to make that as transparent as she can and to bring assurance to the community that there are outside eyes looking at it, but I am generally supportive of what she’s been doing and I don’t want to weigh in on what is a local issue that I think the folks are competent to handle here.’’

When you were mayor, the Nashville “Amp” bus rapid transit proposal failed due to opposition both locally and at the state level. As governor, how will you build consensus to help solve urban transportation issues and promote innovative transit solutions?

“I think the state needs to play a big role in transportation solutions in the state – and by that I mean alternative transit, too. The state’s role is the following: If you’re going to get federal funds for those massive projects, you need state commitment and state resources. The key component that the next governor needs to play in terms of transit solutions for Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville is to be a leader on issues of regionalism.

“When we created the Mayors Caucus during my first term, we invited all the mayors in Middle Tennessee to come together and work on issues. There is huge agreement that continues to this day on what needs to be done in terms of transit.

“In terms of working across county lines to create the organizations and funding sources that are necessary to deal with transit, state leadership is going to have to play a key role and I would be more than happy to engage in that because I think it’s critical.’’

Would you support something like the gas tax proposal, which has finally moved forward in the legislature?

“I support an increase to pay for roads and transportation. The other option is to use the state surplus. That’s attractive because it solves the problem for this year, but it does not solve the problem year after year after year, and you have to pay for infrastructure. Once you stop paying for infrastructure, once you stop maintaining the roads the way they need to be maintained, you are taking a big step backwards.

“And if you talk to people around the state, there are lots of rural communities, and I know there is interest here in Nashville and the other major cities, about additional roads that are needed for their economic development and their prosperity. To me infrastructure investment is investment in the future; it’s an investment in the economy, and it’s something that we have a responsibility to do.’’

When it comes to education, your critics will no doubt bring up your advocacy of charter schools. How do you think that position will resonate with Democrats?

“I think education is the No. 1 issue for the state, by far, and I think we need to keep making progress. We’ve had two governors in a row and both have done very good work in education. But to get to where we need to be, you can’t do it for 16 years and then say we are done. This is a long-term effort and we need to have the commitment to get it done.

“To me, charter schools are not the main issue around education. I’m not sure charter schools have any relevance at all to the rural areas because the numbers don’t work and you have schools that are already there and the student enrollment is not such that it would support that.

“I have and continue to advocate that parents should have choices, that charter schools are public schools, and that when they work – which I think they do very well, for the most part, here in Nashville – that is something that parents should have available to them, and that is something that has happened with success in Memphis. But that is not the cornerstone of everything I’m talking about.

“I think the most important issue for education in the state right now would be to increase teacher pay. One of the most important things we did as mayor was to increase teacher pay in Davidson County. The key thing that makes schools work is bringing in the human talent and teachers are absolutely essential. So I would be an advocate for us getting to the national average or above because it makes a huge statement about our commitment to education.

“The states that are going to do well are going to be the ones that produce and attract the most college graduates. One of the issues we’ve got to confront is workforce development. If you are going to have a growing economy you’ve got to have the folks who can do those jobs.

“And so making those investments in education, particularly in the small towns, particularly in West Tennessee, is going to have a huge positive effect on workforce development and that is a critical, critical issue in Memphis.

“Recently I was in Memphis and I visited the iZone schools and I found that very inspiring. The iZone schools are run by the Board of Education. And there is significant participation by philanthropy in Memphis in this program and the schools put more money into the low performing schools.

“They’ve moved into those schools some of the best and most talented teachers because they are serving the kids who are most at risk, which I think is a great concept.

“They have brought in strong leaders and given the principals more autonomy. They have extended the school day by one hour and they pay their staffs more for this to happen. And they are showing real progress in terms of advancing those schools in the education of those students. That’s another great model that’s out there.

“Education is the thing that will distinguish us from other states, it is the thing that will ensure our future, and it is the thing that will help us most with economic development.

“So to me the focus is going to be increasing teacher pay, looking for innovative solutions like the iZone schools, looking to build better confidence of parents in the schools and trying to do everything that we can to make sure that every school seat in Tennessee, rural, urban or otherwise, is a quality seat where kids are going to get the education they need.’’

What is your position on school vouchers?

“I am opposed to vouchers. It’s important to remember that charter schools are public schools. And vouchers would be taking money out of the public school system and placing it into private hands. That is something that I am not in support of.

“I am very much opposed to for-profit charter schools. That is something that I think is definitely not something we should be doing here in Tennessee and we should continue not to do it.’’

Tennesseans are traditionally tax-averse. How would you respond to Republican criticism that you are a big city mayor who wants to raise taxes on Tennessee?

“Well first, I don’t want to raise taxes in Tennessee. I would point to my record as mayor. In my first term I was, if not the first and only, at least one of very few mayors who did not raise taxes in the first term.

“In the second term, after there was a property reappraisal, there was a tax increase – and that accompanies tax rates actually going down when the appraisal takes place – and we did that for a variety of reasons.

“No. 1, you’ve got to run the city and make sure that you are taking care of the services that are needed by citizens, and that tax increase was directed largely to education. One of the goals at that time was to increase teacher pay, and through that increase we moved into the top five statewide in terms of teacher pay.

“We also embarked on a large capital spending program directed at our schools. So I think my record is one of being a careful manager of public resources, and not being one who raises taxes as a way to answer all problems.

“About seven or eight months after I was elected, the country went into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. And we actually had one fiscal year where we had less money coming in than the year before, which was the first time that has happened in the history of Metro government. And we made a very conscious decision that we weren’t going to balance the books of the government by unbalancing the books of families and businesses, and we did not raise taxes during the toughest economic period post World War II.

“We made very hard decisions about making cuts. We eliminated, largely through attrition, over 600 positions in government. We cut most departments, including my own, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, but at the same time we made progress on our priorities.

“We weren’t able to add money to schools, and not as much as we wanted to public safety, but we protected those and we continued to make investments. We actually added police officers, and we did work in schools and we were very aggressive, at a low point of economic activity in the city, in working on economic development.

“Those investments paid off when the recovery began, and that positioned us throughout my second term and up to this point now, where we have had expanding revenue in the city and not had the need for a tax increase.’’

With Democrats at a significant disadvantage in Tennessee right now, what is your path to winning the governorship?

“The Democratic Party in Tennessee is in a unique position historically. There has never been a time when it has had less representation in the state government, and the Republican Party is very strong. If you look at polls you would say this is a very difficult thing to undertake. There are a lot of Democrats in the state still, but you are not going to win this election by just attracting the party base because the numbers just aren’t there.

“You’re going to have to win independent votes, moderate Republican votes, and that is the only way the election can be won. And that is not necessarily a bad thing if you appeal to a broader base of people and work with the legislature by attracting a broader coalition.

“One of the things that we will do is to build a base of support at the ground level and develop a campaign that has a significant grassroots component to it. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the right way to run a campaign, and I thought about this in my waning days in the mayor’s office, and then during the last year and a half when I’ve been teaching, and I felt I had to make three decisions to get to where I’d be comfortable running.

“The first was whether I had something to offer, whether I could make a difference and make a positive contribution to the state. “Second, would my family want to go through this – which they are OK with – and third, is there a path?

“I think there is a path. You’ve got a state that is growing, you have a state that has increasing diversity, you have growth in cities, you have growth in the towns.

“Middle Tennessee is a dynamic area that will have a larger percent of the vote than it had in the past. We have had a tradition of alternating the governorship between parties every eight years. I concede that we’ve never been quite in the position we’re in now but that tradition has gone on since the 1970s. And I think that Tennesseans believe in a two-party system.’’

The campaign is a big financial commitment. How much does a Democrat need to raise to be competitive in the race?

“You hear everything from $8 million to $15 million. A lot of factors go into it. One, will there be a primary? Another, who your general election opponent is and how much they raise. If you look at the recent history of the elections I would say somewhere between $8 million and $12 million is probably where you need to be.

“I am obviously willing to invest in the campaign, to support it but I am certainly not in the position financially to pay for an entire governor’s race. We are working right now on raising money and we will see how it goes but I am encouraged by the results so far.’’

With Democrats gaining ground on Republican candidates in some recent elections (Georgia), does that indicate that the mid-term elections could be a referendum on Trump and benefit you?

“Clearly, there’s an indication that there is some voter dissatisfaction in that race (in Georgia) that was transformed by national forces into some sort of referendum. I think what happened was a pretty powerful statement. And then you look at the results in Kansas where the district that had been won by President Trump by a significant margin had been reduced to about a seven percent victory. That indicates that there are some issues out there.

“The last poll I saw that struck home to me was a Tennessee poll that had the president’s popularity or approval in Tennessee falling somewhere into the low 50s, which was dramatically less than during the election itself.

“And we are all familiar with his approval ratings. I want the president to succeed; we all want the country to be successful and the presidency to be successful, and I’m not banking on him having further difficulties.

“Historically, with very few exceptions, midterm elections have been good for the party out of power, but it’s too early to predict where we are going to be 18 months from today.’’

Are there any other issues you will bring up during the next 18 months?

“I think the environment will be a key issue in the coming campaign. If you look at the president’s budget and what’s going to happen with the Environmental Protection Agency, we need to be thinking about that.

“For Tennesseans, this isn’t an academic issue; this isn’t something that’s happening far away and somewhere else. We’re talking about clean air, clean water, the things that make people healthy and our state beautiful, the things that make it attractive for people to want to live here.

“Those are things we need to be concerned about.’’