Karl Dean waves to onlookers during the Mule Day parade Saturday, April 7, 2018 in Columbia, Tenn. Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, is a democratic candidate running for the Tennessee governor seat.

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Karl Dean brings measured, moderate approach to governing

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of stories profiling the major candidates for Tennessee's U.S. Senate and governor seats. This week, we are profiling candidates in the governor race. Visit to read previous profiles.


Name: Karl Dean

Political party: Democrat

Age: 62

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Columbia University, 1978; law degree, Vanderbilt University, 1981

Family: Wife, Anne Davis; children, Wallen, Frances and Rascoe Dean

Work: Attorney, sometime professor of law at Vanderbilt

Why are you running for this office? “I’m convinced that the people of Tennessee want a moderate, pragmatic, common-sense kind of get-it-done governor. I don’t think they’re interested in an extremist, or somebody who’s going to be completely committed to following the party line.”

Campaign moment: “I tried raccoon. I was at a coon supper and they were serving it and so I had it on my plate and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not eating this.’ Then somebody said, ‘You know, everyone’s looking to see if you’re going to take a bite out of that,’ so I did. It was all right. I didn’t go back for seconds.”


Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council; Road Sprinkler Fitters U.A. Local Union No. 669; former U.S. Reps. Lincoln Davis and Bob Clement; former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley; Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way employees of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733 in Memphis

Political accomplishments

Elected Nashville mayor in 2007 and re-elected in 2011 with 77 percent of the vote over three other candidates.

Who is running for Tennessee governor


› Diane Black, Gallatin

› Randy Boyd, Knoxville

› Beth Harwell, Nashville

› Bill Lee, Franklin

› Basil Marceaux Sr., Soddy-Daisy

› Kay White, Johnson City


› Karl Dean, Nashville

› Craig Fitzhugh, Ripley

› Mezianne Vale Payne, Gainesboro


› Mark “CoonRippy” Brown, Gallatin

› Sherry L. Clark, Knoxville

› Justin Cornett, Lenoir City

› Gabriel Fancher, Murfreesboro

› Sean Bruce Fleming, Bradley

› William Andrew Helmstetter, Cleveland

› Cory King, Knoxville

› Matthew Koch, Chattanooga

› Tommy Ray McAnally, Tullahoma

› Jessie D. McDonald, Nashville

› Toney Randall Mitchell, Cleveland

› Yvonne Neubert, Knoxville

› Alfred Shawn Rapoza, Henderson

› Chad Riden, Nashville

› Robert Sawyers Sr., Nashville

› Heather Scott, Mt. Juliet

› George Blackwell Smith IV, Chattanooga

› Jeremy Allen Stephenson, Seymour

› Tracy C. Yaste Tisdale, Maryville

› Mike Toews, Signal Mountain

› Rick Tyler, Ocoee

› Vinnie Vineyard, Pigeon Forge

› Jaron D. Weidner, Memphis

› Patrick Whitlock, Franklin

› Joe B. Wilmoth, Nashville

› Mark Wright, Murfreesboro

Source: Tennessee Division of Elections

COLUMBIA, Tenn. — The calendar said April 2, almost two weeks into spring, but it was 33 degrees and spitting sleet at the Mule Day parade.

The annual celebration of all things mule dates to the 1840s and is a political rite in election years.

So there they were: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in a black cowboy hat, reining in a restless horse; officeholders and candidates, waving from inside coats or under blankets to the well-wrapped-up viewers lining the street.

Afterward, Karl Dean shed his dark green coat and warmed up in the parlor of an 1850s-era house owned by Dick and Gail Moore, supporters of Dean's Democratic campaign for governor. They had held a breakfast for him that morning and, after the parade, greeted a slim stream of Dean backers who came to meet and chat with the candidate.

Gail Moore said Dean, a two-term Nashville mayor, attorney and sometime college professor, is the right person to lead Tennessee at a time when politics seems to be moving to extremes.

"I think he's moderate, just what we need," she said. "There's something everybody cares about that's getting taken apart right now. I think Karl is level and he'll help us get through that."

Dean thinks so, too.

"I'm convinced that the people of Tennessee want a moderate, pragmatic, common-sense kind of get-it-done governor," he said in an interview. "I don't think they're interested in an extremist, or somebody who's going to be completely committed to following the party line."

The 62-year-old was born in South Dakota. His father was a salesman for IBM and the family moved frequently before settling in a small town near Boston. He attended law school at Vanderbilt where he met his wife, Anne Davis, and they settled in her native Nashville.

Dean notes he's spent his adult life serving in nonpartisan positions. He was Nashville-Davidson County's elected public defender from 1990 to 1998 and was law director under Mayor Bill Purcell before being elected mayor in 2007.

In his stump speech, he likes to quote 1930s-era New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the limits of partisan politics.

"He said there's no Democrat or Republican way to fill up a pothole," Dean told a crowd at a Democratic candidate rally in Manchester in April.

He was promptly thwacked by his primary opponent, Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, Tenn., whose passionate populism contrasts sharply with Dean's measured, professorial style.

Fitzhugh, the House minority leader, told the crowd he'd just come from the 50th anniversary observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis. King was shot to death on April 14, 1968, while supporting a strike by city garbage workers over pay and working conditions. The mayor of Memphis at the time was Democrat Henry Loeb.

"By golly, I'll tell you there is a difference, not [to work] for a dollar an hour, not for no benefits, and if it's a Republican, that's the way it's going to be," Fitzhugh thundered. "I'm proud to be a Democrat!"


Dean certainly embraces Democratic themes on issues such as health care, education and jobs.

He favors expanding Medicaid, an idea Tennessee lawmakers twice rejected under Gov. Bill Haslam. It's different now, Dean said.

"A few years ago, the feds couldn't be trusted to deliver the funds; there were hidden costs. Now you can look around the country and see who has been hurt and who has been helped."

Tennessee was definitely hurt, he said, losing $4 billion in Medicaid dollars and seeing 10 hospitals close.

"Look at the evidence; you have to admit it was a mistake not to do it," he said.

And education is "the No. 1 priority" for most people, Dean said.

"The more educated folks we have, whether it's vocational skills or college graduates, the more ability we will have to attract the jobs that pay a wage people can live on," he said.

As Nashville mayor, he boosted the education budget by 37 percent, put $600 million into capital programs and raised starting teacher pay from 30th in the state to third. But Dean also has been criticized for supporting charter schools during his administration.

Will Pinkston, a Metro Nashville school board member who was an adviser to former Gov. Phil Bredesen, slammed Dean in a 2017 letter to The Tennessean newspaper.

Of the new money Dean recommended for schools, Pinkston wrote, one-third "went to cash outlays for privately run charter schools."

"Dean fed charters at the expense of our public schools," Pinkston charged.

Dean now says he's all in for public education.

His vision starts with universal pre-kindergarten and includes "more and better" vocational programs, as well as significantly better pay for teachers. He also wants to look at the Basic Education Program, the state's school funding formula, to see about leveling the playing field between wealthier urban and poorer rural districts.

"I don't think one can make an argument that education is overfunded in Tennessee. That's just not the case," Dean said. "And I would never be an advocate for throwing money at a problem, but at the same time, you have to be willing to make the investments, say, in teacher salaries or in capital programs for schools. You've got to be willing to look at disparities around the state in terms of education funding. And I think you've got to be willing to think outside the box."

Tied in with education and economic development is the need for broadband internet in rural parts of Tennessee.

"If there are young people who don't have access to the internet in the 21st century, it's like tying two arms behind their backs and making them compete," he said. "The same goes for farmers, small businesses and rural communities."

Dean said he would look at "a substantial financial commitment" along with public-private partnerships to get it done.

As Nashville mayor, Dean took heat for what some saw as his eager embrace of tax incentives for business relocations and expansions including Bridgestone Americas, HCA and Omni Hotels. He insists such deals have their place if used properly.

"No one likes tax incentives, no one likes the sound of it, no one likes them in a philosophical sense, but the reality is if you're going to retain business or attract new business, sometimes you have to play," Dean said.

He said he'd fund his initiatives by prioritizing them in the budget rather than looking for significant new sources of revenue. And he's not in favor of tapping Tennessee's healthy reserve fund.

"I understand that the business cycle has not been repealed," Dean said. "There will be other economic downturns, and I think it is very appropriate to have a good, solid Rainy Day Fund."


On the other hand, he was widely praised for his steady hand during the disasters of the Great Recession and the devastating 2010 floods.

He's smart to emphasize that experience in appearances and on his website, said Kent Syler, assistant professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Syler also is a political strategist who managed the campaigns and served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

"He'll work to convince people he's a combination of FDR and Noah," Syler joked, but added that Dean "is a very solid candidate."

Dean is a good speaker with experience in government who lays out a vision for Tennessee, Syler said.

"If you look back for a long, long time, mayors weren't successful in statewide races, but for the last 16 years our governors have been former mayors" in Haslam and Bredesen.

Having Democrat Bredesen running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Bob Corker will help Dean and other Democratic candidates, too, Syler said.

"If he wins the nomination and is at the head of the ticket, a Dean-Bredesen ticket would be very appealing to the voters," he said.

Dean also has personal wealth, which has played a "major role" for other candidates in statewide races, Syler said.

The Tennessean reported in December that Dean and his wife had $19.2 million in taxable income, mostly capital gains, between 2013 and 2016. Anne Davis inherited a fortune from an uncle. The paper reported the couple earned nearly $2.7 million in 2016, compared to $454,000 reported by Fitzhugh.

With second-quarter fundraising reports due in mid-July, Dean said he has raised about $2.25 million for the race, including $200,000 from his own pocket.

Major contributors in his first-quarter financial report include BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, $5,000; Lifepoint Health PAC, $5,000, and Waller-Landsen PAC, $4,000.

Bredesen gave money to both Dean and Fitzhugh, the Times Free Press reported in January.

Very early polls and political sites such as RealClear Politics show Dean ahead of Fitzhugh, but trailing all the Republican candidates — Diane Black, Randy Boyd, Beth Harwell and Bill Lee.

Dean said he's happy with where his campaign is positioned.

"We've had good success in our fundraising, we've traveled 60,000 miles and [soon] we'll have hit all 95 counties. We're working on getting our first TV ads ready," he said.

"I think I'm competitive with all the Republican candidates. Consistently, we've always been in the top candidates in terms of name recognition and favorability."

Several Republicans got out ahead of Dean on TV ads. His first television ad went up in mid-May and a second in early June. Dean said both emphasize his positive message for the state.

"I'm confident we'll be where we need to be. I think we're showing we have the ability to put together a statewide campaign that will make us competitive in the fall."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.