Republicans aren’t supposed to be wild about Mayor Karl Dean, the Massachusetts transplant who cast himself as a liberal years before he arrived at the mayor’s office.
Nonetheless, with just over 100 days until the Aug. 4 election, there’s no evidence of a budding conservative insurgency to defeat him. In fact, a survey of Davidson County Republicans found mixed opinions on the mayor, whose friendliness to the business and development communities might thumb the scale just enough to counter his pro-gay-rights, green-loving postures for some in the GOP.
“I think it’s split,” Davidson County Republican Party chair Kathleen Starnes said of her pary’s support for Dean. “I really do. I think it’s very split. It is a nonpartisan race, so it’s just how you feel.” She added that she’s not sure whether the party will endorse individual Metro candidates this summer.
Gauging Republican impressions of Dean during his first three-and-a-half years in office is a useful exercise for a couple reasons. Dean’s main challenger, Metro Councilman Michael Craddock — a conservative but not a Republican — would have to overcome a substantial financial disadvantage to pull off an Election Day upset, and he’d likely need to capitalize on a seismic right-wing revolt against the incumbent to find victory.
Moreover, with some calling Dean the Democratic Party’s best shot at reclaiming statewide office down the road, Nashville Republicans could seemingly organize to stand in his way.
Though Dean is far from a right-wing ideologue, some of his actions during his first term have made even National Review subscribers smile. Dean hasn’t raised property taxes. The city’s budget has increased only marginally since his election, with a slight decrease over the past two years. Dean has maintained close ties to the city’s business community, tight relations with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and has shown himself to be generally pro-development. Dean has also supported the growth of charter schools, which have historically drawn the ire of hard-core Democrats.
“I don’t think Mr. Dean was their first choice last time around,” said Tim Skow, conservative organizer of a monthly Republican meetup called the First Tuesday Club. “But he has some Republican supporters. I think in some ways, he has been — and I couch that, in some ways — he has been a pleasant surprise to Republicans in the city.”
Republicans who respond positively to Dean’s politics, according to Skow, are typically conservatives who believe the mayor has tried to “foster an increased economic environment in the city.” Skow also pointed to Dean’s decision to tap Republicans Paul Ney and Alexia Poe as his first two directors of economic development. The position has been empty since March, when Poe left for Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling has assumed some of the responsibilities.
On the flip side, though, some Republicans have “sharp misgivings” regarding Dean’s “social agenda,” Skow said, not the least of which is the mayor’s decision to sign into law a bill that requires Metro contractors to include employment protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers. In addition, some fiscally conservative critics say Dean has put the city in long-term financial risk with his decision to use $585 million in tourist-targeted tax revenue to bankroll a massive new convention center. And Dean’s flopped attempt to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds remains the subject of much criticism from conservatives and liberals alike.
Nashville isn’t the ideal political universe for Republicans. Though local politics aren’t officially partisan, Republicans have had to live with Democrat after Democrat entering the mayor’s office since Metro’s inception. It’s the reality of living in an urban county that historically votes blue.
“Obviously, Mayor Dean is a liberal, and I am a conservative,” said Metro Councilman Randy Foster, a Republican who’s opted not to endorse anyone for the upcoming election. “We have substantial differences in our partisan lives and in our approach to many things in government. That being said, I think his performance has been very much like that of other mayors who have gone before him.”
Though Foster said there are “some social issues that may have popped up where we’ve had strong differences of opinion,” he noted that Dean has decreased the size of the government’s budget in recent years. Dean’s administration has been able to avoid substantial cuts as a result of his administration’s decision to restructure the city’s debt, freeing up revenue in the short term. Some critics say that could create financial complications in the future.
“In the last two years, we have [seen a] shrinkage of the size of Metro government and expenditures that are made,” Foster said. “That’s a very surprising but gratifying set of events, understanding that’s come with some pain and some problems.”
Four years ago, some Nashville Republicans — led by former party chair Jon Crisp — rallied around former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Clement’s candidacy, warning that Dean would be disastrous for conservatives. Clement enjoyed the support of renowned GOP fundraiser Ted Welch. Dean, meanwhile, brought on Republican fundraiser Kim Kaegi, who helped Bob Corker during his U.S. Senate run. In ramping up his re-election campaign a few months ago, Dean again tapped Kaegi as his finance consultant.
Craddock, who campaigned across the county last weekend, said he has both “ultra conservatives and ultra liberals” supporting his candidacy, adding that he’s discovered “widespread discontent” with Dean among “older, traditional Democrats” — although he offered no evidence of such — and Republicans.
“The Republicans are upset with him over fiscal items, the convention center and refinancing the debt, having to pay for that later, and just kicking it down the road a ways,” Craddock said.
Outspoken conservative Councilman Robert Duvall, who supports Craddock’s mayoral run, shares the belief that dissatisfaction with Dean exists among citizens who affiliate with both major parties. But he believes some of Dean’s actions have turned off Republicans in particular.
“I believe the Republicans in this area see him as a liberal Democrat, and they wish they could have a conservative Republican in that office,” Duvall said. “The office is a nonpartisan office, and it’s got to govern all of the people. I think that you would find Michael would be a better candidate because he would be for the people.”
But attorney Tom Lawless, the former chair of the Davidson County Republican Party who has donated to Dean’s re-election bid, said he estimates Republicans support Dean by a 70 to 30 percent margin. He said Republicans who back Craddock are some of the far-right members of the party — as well as those who were galvanized by the convention center and fairgrounds issues— but he’s convinced Dean has been a pleasant surprise to Republicans overall. (Lawless supported former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry’s mayoral campaign four years ago, but backed Dean in the runoff.)
“He overcame that reluctance when he ran last time that he would be a spend type,” Lawless said of the mayor. “He’s proven that he’s just the opposite. And frankly, I’m tickled to death. He’s been one of the better mayors we’ve had. I think I speak for a large number of Republicans on that one.”
But Kay Brooks, a region chair for the county’s Republican party who served briefly on the school board, has a much different take.
“As a Republican, what can I say?” Brooks said. “I fundamentally disagree with his whole vision of what Nashville should look like. I’m frustrated that we don’t have more emphasis on neighborhoods. We have a great need in our neighborhoods, yet he keeps pouring money downtown.
“He’s a Democrat,” Brooks continued. “He’s big government — government is the answer. That’s completely opposite of what a core Republican is.”
Conversely, Mark Rogers, an active Davidson County Republican supporter, said he believes some social conservatives have been turned off by some of Dean’s actions, but believes he gets high marks from conservatives for not raising taxes. He said Dean reminds him of the city’s mayor during the 1990s.
“A reason I like him so much is he did not come from the perspective of being a career politician like Bill Purcell,” Rogers said. “He’s more in the Bredesen mold.”