Karl Dean, Confident a Democrat Can Win the Governorship, Tours Memphis

The former Nashville mayor, on the first of two days here, says his "moderate," pragmatic positions resonate with those of Tennesseans and that a political pendulum swing will favor a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

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Karl Dean at Tennessee Voter Project event - JB
  • JB
  • Karl Dean at Tennessee Voter Project event

Thursday was Karl Dean Day in Memphis. Unofficially, of course. And Friday was Karl Dean Day Two. The former two-term mayor of Nashville, now an announced Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee, devoted a couple of days to making the rounds in the Bluff City, giving folks here a chance to look him over.

What they saw — to judge only by two of Thursday’s stops, a morning drop-in at the Flyer and an early-evening appearance at a Tennessee Voter Project PAC event — was a man whose laid-back presence hinted at a calm, even a steady, self-assurance within. The first name Democrat to offer himself for Governor since Mike McWherter took a drubbing from Republican Bill Haslam in 2010, Dean figures it’s time for a Democrat to win again in a state that’s gone deep-dyed red in recent years.

As Dean is fully aware, he is not alone in so thinking. Another prominent Democrat, state House minority leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is also expected to become a candidate for governor, setting up the prospect of a competitive Democratic primary in a state that in recent years has experienced significant statewide competition only in Republican primaries. And, as per usual, several Republican candidates have either announced for governor or are reported on the verge of doing so.

"They just want to see things happen"

But, as Dean noted at both the indicated Thursday venues in Memphis, the governorship has see-sawed back and forth between the parties with regularity since the 1970s. And, as he further noted, the last two governors, Democrat Phil Bredesen and incumbent Republican Bill Haslam, have both been big-city mayors like himself.

There’s a reason for that last fact, he suggested during his stop-over at the Flyer. Being a mayor is something like being a governor, Dean said, and, according to him, the voters want somebody with a sense of pragmatism. “They don’t want to hear political philosophy. They want to see if you can get things done….they just want to see things happen.”

And Dean takes pride in his record of making things happen in Nashville, of guiding the state’s capital city through the recession years and through the Great Flood of 2010 into a position of renewed confidence and security. He says that, as governor, he would focus on education and economic development and public safety.

And one more thing, which he sees, citing a Vanderbilt University poll and his own experience, as the major concern of Tennesseans these days: health care. Dean regards it as a “huge mistake” that the GOP-dominated Tennessee legislature, for ideological reasons, declined to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — and the billions of dollars in federal funding (“including Tennessee taxpayers’ dollars”) that would have come with it.

(Speaking of funding, Dean recently reported a fund-raising total of $1.2 million for the March to June period. “I can compete,” he says apropos the prospect of having to compete with any of several well-heeled Republicans.)

Dean was asked at the Flyer about a reported disenchantment with him among some Democrats in Nashville because of his support for charter schools. He noted that Nashville, like Memphis, was threatened with a state takeover of low-performing public schools. Acknowledging that “there were times that the school board didn’t agree with what I felt,” he said “the difference is that you’ve got to do things as mayor.”

"I know there is a pathway"

Dean is “a little leery of people trying to put a label on me” but sees himself as a “moderate” and thinks that “the state as a whole is more moderate than we give it credit for — certainly more moderate than the legislature.”

At the Tennessee Voter Project event — held in the downtown law officer of Glassman, Wyatt, Tuttle, and Cox — Dean shared the dais with state Senate minority leader Lee Harris, Democratic "Volunteer of the Year" Diane Cambron, and newly elected local Young Democrats president Danielle Inez. He joked about a point early in his first race for Nashville mayor, when a published poll showed him, a former public defender then serving as an aide to Mayor Bill Purcell, running last in the candidate field. His then 12-year-old daughter tried to console him: “Dad, you can still get out!”

 Dean stayed the course and would go on to win that race, of course. A basic part of running for any office, he said, is figuring out what the pathway to victory is. Apropos the race for governor in 2018, he told the crowd, “There are no guarantees in politics, but I know there is a pathway.”

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