Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has been making the circuit this fall — of Rotary Clubs and American Legion posts and small-town diners — trying to tackle an ambitious task: Convincing voters to elect a Democrat for governor for the first time in more than a decade.
His pitch: That if he's elected he'll spread some of Nashville's good fortune to them.
It's a stump speech that he's taken on the road throughout this campaign. Including, a few weeks ago, to an old school building in Nolensville, where roughly 60 supporters crowded around kid-sized lunch tables to hear the Democratic nominee — though that's a label Karl Dean does not want to be pinned down by.
"I don't think folks are looking for somebody who's going to be a party hardliner or an ideologue or an extremist," he says.
Dean rattles off what he sees as his major successes as Nashville mayor: thriving tourism, a growing economy, national praise for his administration's handling of the 2010 flood.
"When you do the job, you don't do it on party lines. You know, there's not a party position on sewage or roads."
Being governor, Dean contends, works kind of the same way. You look at situations pragmatically. You solve problems. You see the big picture.
And not just as it impacts major cities like Nashville. The small ones too.
"What does it mean to a small town when a hospital closes? Well, number one, you lose one of the top employers in the county. I mean, generally the hospital's in the top 5," he says. "And then it means that people are going to be less likely to stay in those places. They're going to be less likely to move to those places. And businesses are going to be less likely to invest in those places."
Economic development, education and health care. It's a trio of issues that polls show resonate with voters. But, so far, the combination doesn't seem to be working for Dean. He's trailing far behind Bill Lee, the Republican nominee.
"I think Karl's trying to find something that sticks," says Tom Ingram, a longtime political strategist who's worked on the winning campaigns of Senator Bob Corker, Senator Lamar Alexander and the current governor, Bill Haslam.
"All things being equal, if you took two candidates with identical faves/unfaves, identical likeability, identical skills and presentations, in this state right now, the Republican is going to win almost every time."
Of course, Dean doesn't want voters to see Bill Lee and him as identical. He frequently touts his experience as mayor — a job that has been a springboard to statewide office. Corker, Haslam and Phil Bredesen, the former governor and current Democratic candidate for Senate, all served as mayors.
"When we ran Corker's campaign, we bragged about Chattanooga," says Ingram. "Bredesen did the same when he ran for governor. ... I think that's [Dean's] greatest credential."
Another reason for the Dean campaign to have some optimism is the energy among voters who lean Democratic.
Jen Yamin of Hendersonville turned out last month for another forum organized by Dean — specifically on Medicaid expansion. She says the past two years have awakened what she calls "closet progressives," Tennesseans who've previously kept quiet about their politics but are now eager to make their presence known.
"It's all about voter turnout," she says. "Knock the doors, send out postcards, get them on the phone. … We've seen more and more blue dots come out in our district."
Yamin says the payoff could be a Democratic governor. Which means no matter how much Karl Dean may see himself as nonpartisan, his success may ultimately hinge on convincing Democrats that he has a shot.
Tomorrow we'll be profiling former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean's opponent, Republican businessman Bill Lee. And you can read all of our coverage, including their positions on more than a dozen issues, by visiting wpln.org/nextgovernor.