On a recent Thursday afternoon, Mayor Karl Dean’s re-election headquarters was in seasonally full swing, with a crew of green-clad staffers and volunteers, mostly young, working the phones and chatting about. Eyeing last week’s first day of early voting, organizers had posted large sheets of paper on the walls listing all Davidson County voting precincts, a staple of any get-out-the-vote effort.
Indeed, everything about Dean’s ongoing campaign to become the latest Nashville mayor to serve two terms seems fairly normal. The mayor began by hiring three veterans of Tennessee politics to manage his campaign. That crew established steering committees in areas that dot the county’s periphery — Madison and Donelson, for example — where the mayor did not fare so well during his initial election bid four years ago.
Throughout the spring and summer, the Dean campaign has systemically unveiled groups with names like “Young Professionals for Dean” and “Women for Dean.” He’s held voter registration drives and rallies. He’s released two television commercials.
Above all, fundraising has continued from the outset. Dean reported raising $332,000 last financial quarter, giving him $473,000 on hand for the home stretch. Election Day is Aug. 4.
Of course, there’s an overriding dynamic to this campaign, as all Nashville political observers know: Dean faces no serious opposition. The trio of candidates consist of a man hoping to become Nashville’s first homeless mayor, another who owns a small Internet technology business, and a third who apparently doesn’t believe a website is necessary for such a bid.
“There’s no presumed winners in politics,” Dean told The City Paper, sitting at a table in an oversized room at his campaign office. “That doesn’t get you anywhere. You don’t take anything for granted and you can’t assume anything. You have an obligation to work hard and reach out to the voters.”
The absence of competition is a testament to the general goodwill Dean has engendered around town. But the mayor’s easy path to victory has also meant a noticeable absence of public discussion and debate on important issues past, present and future. In particular, Dean’s second-term vision is a subject that has gone largely untouched.
“You look four years ago, with Gentry, Clement, Dozier, Dean and Briley, there were a lot of new thoughts, candidates trying to outdo each other with ideas and priorities, and what-not,” At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard said. “The mayor has stuck to his ‘education, public safety and growth and development’ [message]. That’s the words you’ve heard the few times [he’s] been in a campaign-type setting.”
Councilman Mike Jameson said it’s not surprising that the mayor has been light on details this campaign season. “The surest way to be guaranteed scrutiny and opposition is to be candid and bold on policy discussion,” he said. “So I think there’s a natural instinct toward generalities rather than specifics. And I understand that.”
Dean’s first two television ads, which riff on his slogan “A City Rising,” have touched on the school district’s improved graduation rate (which is expected to drop with new, stricter standards), a re-education in truancy issues, crime reduction, cuts in government spending outside of education, company relocations, and Dean’s upheld promise to not raise property taxes. Some Dean critics have taken exception with a few of these points, but it’s not a stretch for him to hang his hat on those hooks.
Not mentioned in any Dean ads as of last week is the mayor’s past political fight to gain council approval for the financing of a new $585 million convention center, the most expensive municipal project in Tennessee history, which arguably defined his first term. There’s also been no reference to his desire to redevelop the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds, a battle he spent much of last fall fighting but has lost for now.
With early voting already under way, it’s clear Dean has opted against waging a visible “No” campaign to defeat a public referendum to amend the Metro Charter and require a supermajority of the council to vote to change the fairgrounds from the status quo. Still, Dean pointed out that if “yes” prevails in the referendum, he would need to gather only 27 votes from the 40-member council to pursue redevelopment plans by resolution. (The mayor’s office had trouble mustering 20 votes last fall.)
“I certainly believe in the people’s right to make this decision through the referendum process,” Dean said, adding that he worries about amending the charter too frequently.
“If the voters vote for it, it’s fine,” he said. “What it would do is it would essentially call for a higher vote for anything to happen there. I don’t know whether I think that’s the best policy, but I’ll respect whatever the voters decide.”
Regardless of its outcome, the future of the fairgrounds will be just one lingering issue over the next four years. There are plenty of others.
Though Dean has staved off a property tax increase, many wonder how long the city can go without implementing one, having last done so in 2005. Dean notes improved high school graduation rates, but TCAP scores still lag behind the state, and middle-to-upper-class Nashvillians are still flocking to the suburbs or private institutions for schooling. The mayor has also hinted at various large-scale projects — significant advancements in mass transit, a new Nashville Sounds ballpark, and perhaps a downtown music amphitheater. Still, few details have emerged.
During a half-hour conversation, Dean said his top second-term priority would be education, one of the three pillars — along with public safety and economic development — of his broader message since he first campaigned for office. Despite some renewed optimism in Metro schools, many Nashvillians still believe MNPS has plenty of flaws, like its federally deemed “failing” schools, crowded high schools and low teacher morale. Those are inherent to the challenge of educating the state’s second-largest school district.
“That’s the No. 1 thing in this city we have to get right,” Dean said of education. “We are a long ways from being able to say we got the job done.”
During the first half of his first term, Dean considered a mayoral takeover of the school district. That didn’t happen, though, when Metro students unexpectedly met federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks two years ago. Moving forward, it appears he’ll continue to work hand-in-hand with Director of Schools Jesse Register, whose contract was recently extended until 2015. With Register and the school board enjoying autonomy in school affairs, Dean is forced to be creative in how he can help bend the trajectory of public schools.
During his first term, the mayor addressed education most openly by luring teacher-recruitment programs like Teach For America and The New Teacher Project to Nashville; developing a new attendance center to fight truancy; helping launch a teacher recruitment and retention program known as ASSET, or Achieving Student Success through Effective Training; and kicking off the Limitless Library program, which gives schools access to public library items.
Dean also assisted in launching a partnership with Boston-based Building Excellent Schools that aims to help charter founders get started here. Once a concept only Republicans embraced, charters now enjoy broad bipartisan support, and Dean is clearly part of the movement. He said the program would have a lasting positive effect on education in Nashville.
Francie Hunt, the Nashville director of Stand for Children — which endorsed Dean — said the biggest education issue the mayor will likely have to confront is ensuring schools are adequately funded.
“He’s been able to fund what the school board has requested each year,” Hunt said. “I can’t even imagine what it will be like over the next four years. I know in advance it will be something that he’ll have to be very aware of to make sure the progress that we have been making [continues].”
Dean and the Metro Council funded the school board’s request for a $670.5 million budget this year. That represented a sizable increase over the past year, leading the mayor and some council members to tout a “fully funded” district. But the added dollars weren’t able to compensate for depleted federal stimulus and jobs money, forcing the elimination of more than 300 teaching positions. Many affected teachers have landed jobs elsewhere in the district, but slightly larger class sizes have resulted.
There’s also reason to believe the schools budget will balloon even more over the next year. Along with inflation, salary step increases and a growing student-body population, Register is advocating for a new balanced calendar that would add six days to the school year, with students reporting to school on July 25. The proposal, which the board will consider in August, would require an additional $20 million in funding.
Dean was able to offer schools a $37 million budget increase over the previous fiscal year in part because of his decision to tap into the school’s rainy-day funds and reserves. In addition, the mayor’s administration has freed up money in the short term by restructuring — essentially pushing back — payments on portions of the city’s debt. These were the main courses taken in response to dwindling revenue during a recession.
Throughout the last budget cycle, Dean said the time wasn’t right for a property tax increase. But what about next term?
“We will continue working to improve efficiencies and lowering the cost of government where we can,” Dean said. “At the same time, we have to preserve the core level of services provided by the Metro government.”
Others are already sizing up the outlook.
“We’re in a difficult position in that we don’t have as much flexibility because our reserves — certainly as far as schools are concerned — are drained almost as far as they can go,” Councilwoman Emily Evans said.
“So that presents us with a couple of options,” she said. “Either cut expenses significantly for FY13 so that we make it to FY14, and do a property tax increase as part of the reassessment. That would be consistent with how we’ve handled these things historically. But given how fast and furious we’ve spent our reserves, we may not make it. We may have to do it sooner. I’m certainly not advocating for that, I’m just looking at the balance sheet.”
Dean figures to come out of election night riding the momentum of a commanding victory.
On the surface, collecting more than 80 percent of the vote seems reasonable, considering the competition. In 2003, Mayor Bill Purcell finished with 84 percent of the vote when he defeated five long shots. Those close to Dean say 75 percent is a more reasonable prognostication.
However the numbers wind up, many observers will be watching to see whether Dean moves forward with gusto on another major project after his fairgrounds plan was so roundly criticized.
Dean said the fairgrounds fallout wouldn’t make him reluctant to pursue the next big project, although he’s coy about what it might be.
“There are projects that we should consider, and if they’re worthy, move forward with them,” Dean said. He added that the 28th Avenue Connector was undertaken in the midst of the “fairgrounds hoopla.”
But one potential second term undertaking isn’t a road project, but rather a multimillion-dollar endeavor that would require commitment far beyond his administration: adding to the city’s mass transit options.
Mass transit seems like something Dean might address for several reasons. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and others in the business community have rallied around the idea, and a similar formula resulted in the Music City Center. A regional partnership called the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus has organized to advocate a modern mass-transit system that could include light rail. Dean, who plays a leading role in the caucus, openly discusses his desire for Nashville to catch up to other cities when it comes to mass transit. In addition, key studies are in the works.
“There will come a time in the next year, I think, when the city — not just me — will be called upon to make some decisions,” Dean said. “One of the things I think about a lot is that the cities we compare ourselves the most — and we probably compete with most directly — are Austin and Charlotte. Both have started light-rail systems in the last two years. I’m not saying light rail is the answer. It may be buses here. It may be something entirely different. But we need to be serious about the future and serious about transit.”
An ongoing study — conducted by New York-based consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff — is examining the Broadway-West End corridor, extending across the river to Five Points in East Nashville. Options could include an urban streetcar, light rail or bus rapid transit along the stretch. The study is a prerequisite to compete for federal dollars, which would almost certainly be necessary for such a large project.
But to land federal money, Metro likely needs to identify a dedicated funding source as well. Dean hasn’t said what that could be. Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, said he’s looking for two things out of Dean: continue pushing the schedule of the Broadway-West End study, and begin the search for a local funding source.
“I think his leadership will be important, because the dedicated funding contribution may not have to be something real simple like some kind of fee or tax,” Cole said. “There may be a mix of funding options. Take, for example, the added-value concept of real estate, development values up and down the corridor — creating ways to capture that. Other cities, in streetcars particularly, are not reliant just on taxpayers having to put more money into a dedicated funding source.”
Increasingly, after three years of lobbying by the Nashville Sounds and its ownership group, MFP, a new minor league ballpark also looks like something Dean plans to address — perhaps early in his second term.
In late June, Metro agreed to pay $157,000 to hire Kansas City, Mo.-based Populous, a consulting firm that specializes in sports facilities, to conduct a feasibility study on a new Sounds ballpark that includes analyzing and recommending potential sites. The study is to also advise on financing, ballpark amenities and other matters.
According to Metro Finance’s Jim Fyke, the city’s point person on the ballpark, the study should come quickly, perhaps by late fall.
“Obviously, I think we need to do something about the Sounds,” Dean said. “Now, that being said, first you need to go through this process where you look at location studies in terms of traffic, in terms of costs, in terms of the appeal. Then, if you get that done, you still have to look for an agreement with the Sounds that makes economic sense for the city.”
Among sites under consideration are the 11-acre former thermal plant site, where plans for a stadium during the previous administration never came together; acreage northeast of the Capitol that once served as the site of the city’s long-gone ballpark Sulphur Dell; the east bank of the Cumberland River; and properties near Music City Center.
Even before the study commences, Dean has talked about his interest in rejuvenating baseball at Sulphur Dell, while the Sounds owners covet the former thermal plant location along the west bank of the Cumberland.
“The Sounds are extremely pleased that the administration is going to give this some real front-seat priority in the second [term],” said attorney Tom White, who lobbies on behalf of the Sounds. “As far as the group that has been cleared by Metro, the Sounds want to make sure that they are included in the process for their input.
“The Sounds have always said they prefer the thermal site for their No. 1 pick,” White added. “That has not changed.”
Tied to the ballpark discussions are talks of a new downtown amphitheater. The Nashville Symphony, as well as several artist management companies, approached the mayor’s office earlier this year expressing a need for a midsized outdoor music facility. Just like the Sounds, amphitheater backers keyed on the thermal plant location.
“I think the city clearly could support and benefit from having an amphitheater,” Dean said. “We miss a lot of concerts. We’re also Music City. I think we would be able to use it in a way that almost no other city in America could use it. It is in many ways the symbol of a city. But, that being said, the decision is going to come down to: Can we work it out in a way that is financially responsible?”
As Dean wraps up his re-election parade, what role he plans to play in various Metro Council races remains unclear. So far, he’s lent his name as a host for various fundraisers and events, but his face hasn’t popped up on campaign mailers and the like.
In Southeast Davidson County, two of the most outspoken critics of the mayor — council members Duane Dominy and Robert Duvall — are facing challenges in redistricted boundaries. Ostensibly, they seem like two races where Dean could make a difference.
“I may or may not get involved,” Dean said. “I think you’ve got some good progressive, strong candidates in the Antioch area.”
There’s also the heavily watched District 24 West Nashville race between incumbent Jason Holleman and Sarah Lodge Tally, a well-financed challenger who some of Dean’s most prominent supporters are backing. Nonetheless, Dean won’t say who he supports.
There are also murmurs about Dean’s future plans. Does he have another campaign run in him? The Tennessee Democratic Party is in need of a viable statewide candidate for future gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, and Dean’s name frequently pops up. Dean matches the prototype of a popular city mayor with personal wealth, the formula that led to the statewide emergence of Phil Bredesen, Bob Corker and Bill Haslam.
“It’s not on my mind at all,” Dean said. “It really isn’t. This is the job I love. This is the job that I want to do. We as a city still have a lot of work to do, and I want to be part of it.”
Still, he doesn’t rule it out.
“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do four years from now, but I’m certainly not posturing,” Dean said. “People may talk about it, but it’s not me talking about it. I’m not posturing myself for another office.”