The Metro public defender post, which is typically an elected position, opened up tragically last month when Ross Alderman died after a motorcycle accident. Alderman was a revered trial attorney and a beloved public figure.
Alderman’s replacement, Dawn Deaner, is a veteran litigator for the public defender’s office, but she has never been in the political arena. She essentially made her Metro political debut this week when Metro Council appointed her as Alderman’s replacement.
Given Alderman’s reputation and the difficult path it took to get the appointment, Deaner has her work cut out for her. Besides replacing Alderman while entering politics and taking on managerial duties for the first time in her career, Deaner must also unite an office from which she was not the only candidate to seek the post.
In fact, when Metro Council selected Deaner to finish off Alderman’s term, which expires in 2010, she effectively leap-frogged Deputy Public Defender Laura Dykes, who also was vying for the position.
And as if all of those factors weren’t enough, the job opening has also shined a spotlight on the Nashville African-American community’s lukewarm perception of the public defender’s office.
A Lot to Learn
At the beginning of her second day on the job, Deaner said her approach would come with the recognition that Alderman is irreplaceable.
“You can’t replace him. I am the new public defender but Ross is a person,” Deaner said. “The public defender is a job, it’s an office. You can’t replace Ross and I’m not going to try to. I’m not him. I’m not going to try to be him.”
Deaner refuted the notion that the office was divided over Alderman’s successor. Deaner won the Metro Council vote easily with 26 votes on the first ballot. Among the four well-qualified candidates she beat out was Dykes, who has 19 years in the public defender’s office under her belt. Deaner has just 11 years in the office, although she was recognized as a strong litigator having 33 jury trials to her credit.
“This is a closely-knit staff. I think everybody here has a great respect for Laura and everybody here has a great respect for me,” Deaner said, adding that Dykes planned to stay with the office. “I can’t speak for every single solitary person.
“Nobody has walked into my office and said, ‘I’m really disappointed you got this job and not Laura.’ I don’t expect that to happen. My sense from talking to the staff is that everybody is OK.”
Assistant Public Defender Jonathan Wing acknowledged the process of selecting Alderman’s replacement was a difficult one. But Wing also supported Deaner’s assertion that the office was not divided.
“I am very confident and comfortable she is a person the whole office is comfortable with and we will and have united behind her,” said Wing, who has worked in the office 12 years. “I am comfortable with her as a candidate to unify the office and continue the work we’ve done.”
As for learning responsibilities like managing the budget and staffing issues, Deaner said she accepts the fact those are aspects of the job she still has to learn. Deaner said one guiding force would be to ask herself how Alderman would handle a situation.
“Since he died, as I’ve approached things related to this office, I have oftentimes stopped myself and said, ‘What would Ross do?’” Deaner said. “And I think just pausing to ask myself that question is a good thing.
“I have a lot to learn.”
Staying In Touch
While the public defender may fly under the radar in many Nashville political and legal circles, it became clear during the Council selection process that race is a real issue surrounding the department.
Just under half of the public defender’s clients, who are indigent and cannot afford legal representation, are African-American.
At an open forum earlier this week hosted by the Napier-Looby Bar Association, the local NAACP and the Interdenominational Ministers’ Fellowship, at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, several African-American leaders said the public defender’s office needed to improve its community outreach.
“I hope whoever it is we need to stay in touch with the needs of our community and that is, we need someone to stay in tune with our community,”said the Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. “Because right now… I don’t think the public defender leadership knows our community.”
Deaner said it would be her goal to change that “misperception.”
“My take on that is that the African-American community I think has, based upon statements that were made by some of the leaders who were there, unfortunately has a misperception that this office does not provide members of their community who are indigent with quality representation,” she said. “And I think that’s really unfortunate.”
The issue of race played a role in the Council’s vote to select Deaner at its Tuesday meeting. Deaner beat out three African-American candidates for the job, including Metro Human Relations Commission Executive Director Kelvin Jones, who ran for the job in 2006 and got 40 percent of the vote. She also beat out Shirley Corry, who spent more than five years in the office earlier in her career, and Isaiah “Skip” Gant, a federal public defender who had more experience than any candidate.
Jones received nine Council votes, all from African-American members. District 32 Councilman Sam Coleman was among those who voted for Jones. He acknowledged how the Council vote would indicate a racial divide, but Coleman also pointed out that the vote was not purely down racial lines.
Gant received two votes — from At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine and District 23 Councilwoman Emily Evans, both of whom are white. African-American Councilwoman Edith Taylor Langster, from District 21, voted for Deaner.
“Obviously the way the vote breaks down it would look like we voted along racial lines,” Coleman said. “But I think everyone believes Dawn Deaner is overly-qualified and will do a great job.”
Coleman, who is an attorney, said the best way to improve relations within the African-American community would be to increase office diversity. While almost 50 percent of the public defender office’s clients are African-American, just six of its 42 attorneys are black.
“I continue to say we need to reach out,” Coleman said. “One thing Ross told me is many lawyers coming in can’t work for that small amount of money. I understand that challenge, but that’s a challenge they’ll have to continue to work at.
“Dawn’s pledge to me was that she would work to recruit and hire more African-American attorneys. Now that doesn’t mean you want the quality of representation to fall, because that’s what’s important first and foremost.”
Looking at 2010
Deaner, who has vowed to run for election to the office in 2010, acknowledged she has a proud tradition to live up to as Nashville’s public defender.
Besides Alderman, several others have used the office as an unlikely launching pad. Chief among them is Mayor Karl Dean.
It might say something for Deaner that her career has been tied so closely to Dean’s. It was Dean who hired her out of George Washington law school 12 years ago. In 2002, Dean hired Deaner at the Department of Law and he also co-taught a trial advocacy course with her at Vanderbilt School of Law. Deaner still teaches that class.
“[Deaner] is an exceptionally talented attorney with a calm and thoughtful personality,” Dean said. “I sincerely believe that Dawn has all the necessary skills to be an outstanding leader for the office and the criminal justice system.”
Deaner said she was proud to become the first woman to ever hold the office and that her plans were to be there for a long while.
“I never saw myself entering politics,” Deaner said. “But I plan on running in 2010 and giving my best.
“The primary goal is to continue the longstanding tradition of providing quality representation to the indigent and accused of Nashville,” Deaner said.