Democratic candidate Karl Dean appeals to "pragmatic" voters in run for governor

Democratic candidate Karl Dean appeals to "pragmatic" voters in run for governor

PHOTO: Gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean sits inside his Berry Hill campaign office on Friday, June 22, 2018./Brooke Wanser


As Nashville’s former public defender, law director, then mayor, Democrat Karl Dean says he wants to bring the same practical knowledge of Tennessee to the role of governor.

“I believe people do not want a governor who is going to be extremist or hyper-partisan, or look at everything through ideological lenses,” Dean said during an interview with Franklin Home Page from inside his Nashville office Friday morning.

“I think they’re practical, and they want to see the issues that are facing the state dealt with, and they want to see the state move forward,” Dean said.

“There’s no Democrat or Republican way of fixing a pothole, people just want you to fix the pothole,” he said, quoting former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. “That’s the approach I want to bring to the state.”

Dean was born in Sioux Falls, North Dakota in 1955, moving to Gardner, Massachusetts for middle and high school. His father worked for IBM.

Dean graduated from Columbia University, then moved to Nashville to attend law school at Vanderbilt University. “I thought the world needed at least one more lawyer,” he said.

While studying at Vanderbilt, he met fellow law student Anne Davis, whom he fell in love with and married.

His first job was working at the Nashville Public Defender’s office, where he eventually was voted in as the public defender.

Working in the legal system, Dean encountered situations of drug addiction and mental illness.

“I learned a lot about the importance of education,” Dean said. “My clients were overwhelmingly high school dropouts. I saw a direct connection between public safety and education.”

As Nashville’s mayor from 2007 to 2015, Dean said he placed top emphasis on public education, and he hopes to maintain that value if elected governor.

Public education

“You really have to look at it on a statewide basis,” Dean said of public schools, acknowledging some areas, like Williamson County, have better systems than other counties.

To improve teacher retention, Dean said he will advocate for higher pay for teachers.

“Most folks can agree that the key to education is the teacher, and the magic that happens in the classroom is when you have a really great teacher who engages and inspires the students,” he said.

Dean said he applauds Gov. Bill Haslam for the Tennessee Promise program, which focuses on increasing the number of students that attend college in the state, and would continue to support and expand it.

Similarly, he recognizes that some young people choose not to go to college. “If that’s their choice, we need to have really good vocational and technical programs available so that they can pursue a trade or a skill that puts them in a position where they can get a job where they can make a living and support a family,” he said.

In urban and rural areas, Dean also said he wants to tackle school funding disparities.

As Tennessee continues to improve its education system, “we’ll be in a really great position to continue to grow and prosper.”

Expanding Medicaid and improving health care

The Tennessee General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid in the state was, “a very big mistake,” Dean said. “I think that decision was more political than determining what’s in the best interest of the state.”

He attributed the close of ten hospitals in the past eight years partially to that decision.

“We’re not getting our fair share of Medicaid dollars,” he said.

It’s the first issue he would try to tackle if elected, he said. “Tennessee would still benefit dramatically from doing Medicaid expansion.”

Dean said he wants to continue improving Tennessee citizen’s health; it’s the worst state for childhood obesity, and was among the top ten most unhealthy states in 2017.

Funding treatment centers to help alleviate the opioid crisis and creating a comprehensive, public education campaign to inform people about the dangers of prescription painkillers are also priorities.

Curing economic disparities

“I think there are people who feel- parts of the state- that feel forgotten, or feel that they’re not participating in the good news that is happening in different places around the state,” Dean said.

His strategy would be to focus on areas of the state which need the most help, like parts of western Tennessee, for example.

Like other candidates, Dean wants to expand broadband internet access to rural areas. He said he would be willing to utilize public-private partnerships for such a venture, but said that investment of state money would be needed, too.

“You want to have a strong, robust private sector economy that’s creating jobs, creating opportunities for people to get ahead,” he said, and to finance education and reduce the need to rely on taxes for funding.

A blue candidate in a red state

When asked if he had any concerns working with what is currently a majority Republican General Assembly, Dean said he thought the interaction of the two-party system could be seen as a strength.

“You get more ideas, it forces people to the center, it forces people to be more pragmatic and work to get things done,” he said. “I don’t minimize the challenge, but I think it’s very doable.”

Dean said what sets him apart from the other candidates in the race is his background as a leader over a large government entity.

“It’s not about political posturing and about party so much as pragmatism and working for things that matter,” he said. “Basically, I want to work hard and make the state better.”

Occupation: Lawyer, mayor, professor
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, J.D. from Vanderbilt University
Community involvement: Member of Cathedral of the Incarnation, Nashville.
Family: Wife, Anne Davis; two daughters who are recent college graduates, and a son who is an attorney in Nashville; one grandchild.

Visit his website at

About The Author

Brooke Wanser is the associate editor for the Franklin Home Page, and can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @BWanser_writes or @FranklinHomepg.

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