Karl Dean is running for governor of Tennessee in an uphill bid to become the first Democrat elected statewide in the Volunteer State since 2006.
Casting himself as a pro-business moderate focused on education and jobs, the former Nashville mayor said he made the call after consultation with family, deciding he had “a reason and purpose” to run and determining there’s a path for him to win in a state where Republicans have dominated in recent years.
Dean, mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, said he intends to file paperwork Monday to appoint Calvin Anderson, a former executive of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee from Memphis, his campaign treasurer. Doing so will allow him to begin raising money for his campaign in the 2018 race to replace Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
“I don’t think you do this for the exercise and you don’t do it just to do it,” Dean told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee in an interview. “You do it because you’re serious about it and you want to win.
“I think in life your regrets are not doing things instead of doing things," he said. "I’ve tried to live my life that way, and that’s how I came to the decision.”
Dean, 61, is the first Democrat to enter the governor’s race and he would be the first viable candidate the party has fielded for either governor or U.S. Senate since 2010. And yet he’s not guaranteed to be the party’s nominee. Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, a top Democratic donor, are weighing runs as well, leaving open the possibility of a contested Democratic primary in August 2018.
If Dean does become the Democratic standard-bearer, he would be running in a state where Democrats won just three counties in last year’s presidential election. Donald Trump won 12 rural counties by 80 percent or more en route to carrying the state with 61 percent of the vote.
“Everybody understands that somebody running as a Democrat enters the race with certain disadvantages,” Dean said. “Or maybe a better way to say it is Republicans have a lot of advantages. I appreciate that this will be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I don’t have any illusions about that.”
Nationally, Democrats have seen their number of governors dwindle to 16, only three in Southern states. Despite years of GOP dominance in Tennessee, Dean said he believes many Tennesseans from both parties favor the middle over party extremes.
He’s looking to stake out the sort of centrist lane that helped catapult Democrats’ most recent statewide officeholder, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who also was an ex-mayor of Nashville. For now, Dean is avoiding partisan attacks. In fact, Dean called Haslam, a Republican, a “very good governor” and he declined to offer a single criticism of the sitting governor when asked.
“I think I’m a moderate,” Dean said, claiming support of Democrats and Republicans as mayor, which was a nonpartisan office. “My sense is good things happen when you’re in the middle of the road. That’s where you can find agreement and move things forward.
“I think everybody would say Karl Dean is really pro-business. I’ve been criticized for that. I’ve been praised for it. And I’ve been ignored for it, I guess. But I have been unabashedly pro-business and I remain so. In Nashville, that has shown to work.”
Dean has a challenge to unite his party before getting a chance to deploy his statewide strategy. Although considered a popular mayor, Dean sometimes butted heads with Democrats over his support of publicly financed, privately led charter schools. He’s also not allied with labor unions, a key Democratic constituency. He instead has closer ties to the business community and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
In a possible general election, Republicans probably would paint Dean as a reliable liberal, particularly for his positions on social issues. But observers say a Dean candidacy could benefit from the governor’s race occurring during Trump’s midterm.
“His candidacy has to be taken very seriously,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “He was a very successful mayor. He governed the city with lots of applause over a period of eight years. We know that he was popular at that time.
“The other part of this story that makes Dean a formidable candidate is that midterm elections tend to work against the party who controls the White House,” he said. “There’s going to be in all likelihood some backlash against the incumbent party and that’s going to help Dean.”
Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, which doesn’t endorse in primaries, said Tennesseans are ready for a Democratic governor when asked for comment about Dean’s candidacy.
“Tennesseans are fed up with a lack of effective Republican leadership and are ready to elect a Democratic governor who won't stand for political games and will start making lives better for all Tennesseans,” she said.
Top priority is education
Dean called public education “the major civil rights issue of our time” and his top priority. He said he wants to build off the work of Tennessee’s “two pro-education governors,” Bredesen and Haslam. Both men supported education reforms that included expanding school choice and controversial accountability measures for teachers. Tennessee should be known as a place, Dean said, where you want to move to because of the education.
Though known for his support of charter schools, Dean said his education approach might look different as governor than as a mayor of a large urban city. He also said he opposes vouchers that would divert public funds to private schools and opposes for-profit charter schools.
“I think what my record as mayor of Nashville speaks to is that when I say education will be a priority, it will be a priority,” he said.
Dean’s tenure as mayor included overseeing several major civic projects such as the construction of Music City Center and leading the city during a booming economy. He often used tax incentives to lure companies to the city or to expand. His fans credit him with helping the city bounce back from a devastating flood in 2010 and battle through the Great Recession.
Before he became mayor, Dean served as Davidson County public defender, an elected position, and was later director of the Metro Department of Law under former Mayor Bill Purcell. Since leaving the mayor's office in September 2015, Dean has spent time teaching at Belmont University and Boston University. He also co-wrote "Nashville: The South's New Metropolis" and helped found an education nonprofit called Project Renaissance and chairs its board.
One major vulnerability for Dean as a statewide candidate could be securing enough support among voters in rural counties — conservative strongholds where he’s less known and where the Democratic brand has suffered. In the coming weeks, Dean plans to kick off a "listening and learning" tour of economically struggling counties in the state.
He said the same economic prosperity in Nashville and other urban areas needs to be in other parts of Tennessee. He said he would “double down” on the rural economic and development programs of Bredesen and Haslam. He said the key is to “look for the innate strengths of each one of those communities.”
“I get small-town life,” said Dean, who was raised in Gardner, Mass. “I grew up in a small town. It’s not something that’s foreign to me.”
GOP competition and cost
On the Republican side, state Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, is the only candidate to take a formal step toward a gubernatorial run, but several others are expected to join the field. Other possible contenders include House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin; Franklin businessman Bill Lee; former state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd; Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; and former state Rep. Joe Carr. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is considered a possibility as well.
Dean said the governor’s race could cost about $10 million to run competitively, a bar he said that prompted him to jump in the race early. Dean, who put about $1.5 million of his own money toward his 2007 mayoral campaign, said he’s in a position to contribute personal dollars for his gubernatorial run but declined to say how much.
For now, he lacks a campaign staff and hasn’t hired a consulting firm, but former mayoral campaign aide and Democratic operative Courtney Wheeler will play an integral role. Wheeler recently stepped down from a position at Project Renaissance.
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.