This year’s governor’s race is an essential contest for Tennessee. While Governor Haslam has not been a reliable ally to the LGBT community, he has worked a great deal behind the scenes to prevent many damaging LGBT bills from progressing through the general assembly (to be sure in defense of the business community rather than LGBT citizens, but this cannot be ignored). Candidates to replace Haslam on the Republican ticket include notoriously anti-gay lawmaker, Diane Black.
There are, however, signs that at least one of the Democratic candidates, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, could be able to best Black in the general election. Hot off the campaign trail, Dean took some time to speak with us about Tennessee’s political atmosphere and the pragmatic approach he would take to dealing with issues like rights in the much more conservative leaning sphere of state politics.
The LGBT community is fairly legally insecure in Tennessee, and so I wonder what your campaign platform has to say to our community as far as our future here.
Well I think one of the things that I talk about a lot on the campaign trail is the need for Tennessee to be what it is: a friendly state, a welcoming state a state that values diversity. And I think it's sort of a fundamental value to me that we treat everybody with dignity and respect every individual. And that's the way I would act as governor.
You know of course I have a record on this issue. As mayor I had to deal in '09 with the effort to make Nashville an English-only city. I was involved in leading the campaign against that and we were successful.
I signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, and I signed legislation which did the same thing. I was the first the first mayor in the state to come out in favor of marriage equality, joining the Mayors for Freedom in 2014. And I tried in my hiring practices and everything else to reflect those values. And I think that's key.
You know, I'm running on this idea that I think what the state wants is a governor who's going to focus on being pragmatic, have common sense, try to get things done, and try to work on issues that really matter to people. We spend, at the state level, a lot of time talking about social issues or things that they shouldn't control or have anything do with. What we should be focusing on for all Tennesseans is education, job creation and health care.
I think I benefit from having run for mayor in a nonpartisan election. You know, to win I had to get Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to vote for me. And then as mayor, you don't do things on party lines, you do what's going to move the city forward and create a better future. And that's what I would try to do as governor
But I think being a state that starts out with this fundamental value that everybody should be treated with respect, everybody has dignity, and then focusing on things that are actually going to improve the state is what state government ought to be doing.
As Governor, how would you feel about the state interfering with local municipalities. This is something you experienced a lot as mayor.
Well, you know, there were obviously issues. The best example to me is guns in parks. You know the Legislature passed legislation saying that guns would be allowed in parks, but then left in an option for local government to opt out.
So the legislature acknowledged that local governments have a role in deciding what should happen in their parks, and Nashville and some other cities opted out. And then, you know, a year or two later, they came back and said you know we're not having any opt outs. You got to do this.
To me that is overreaching. The legislature clearly has a lot of power vis a vis the local government, but that's got to be exercised with judgment and wisdom. There are things that require the state have uniform policies. And that's fine. But I don't think interfering with local government just physically interfering is the right way to go.
Nashville, along with Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, as well as even smaller cities, rely on tourism and hospitality as a major source of their economy. We also rely on attracting the best people to work in our businesses, to work in our government. And you don't want to put up impediments to being a place where people want to live and you know that that was always a concern of mine.
Currently in Tennessee it's legal to discriminate in terms of housing and other ways against the LGBT community. Given the shape of the state–and I know there's only so much the governor can do– how will you work to mitigate some of the damage.
I think you have to recognize that, no matter how the legislature is comprised along party lines, you have to work with people, and good things happen when people try to talk to each other and try to try to move things forward…
We have to treat people with respect and dignity, and that's important not least because it's the right thing to do. But secondly, if we're going to be a place that is attracting visitors and tourism all over the state is a major sector of our economy, if we're going to be the home to major businesses, that requires expertise and talent. You don't want to discourage people from looking at Tennessee as a place to live and work because they might regard it as unfriendly or unwelcoming. And I think that argument should carry a lot of weight.
So, coming into the primaries, there is a choice for people to make. What do you think that you bring to the table that would mean that people should choose you?
Well, I have nothing to say against my opponent. But what I would say in my favor is that I have the executive experience of running a large government, the city. I like to think that my time as mayor was successful, that the city prospered and advanced.
I was also mayor for difficult times through a flood, through a deep recession, and we got through that and came out of it better than ever
I think that I'm used to working with people with different viewpoints. I'm not somebody who's going to be a real ideological. I'm very much a pragmatist and want to get things done.
The values that I've had–whether it's on English only or whether it's being supportive of all the different communities in the state, there's a record behind that that I've been doing that for some time.
Beyond being mayor you know I spent a lot of time as a public defender of my life. So I think I bring a particular understanding of the criminal justice system, issues around poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, alcoholism…. I've served as a city's lawyers, so I've worked with the city's affairs on both the state level and with the federal government.
And I have a vision for for the state. I've always believed that you've got to create great communities. When you create great communities, that create success, so I'm going to be focused on education, which I think is a top priority, and jobs and health care… making sure that we keep Tennessee a beautiful state, with clean air and clean water, and that we are a state that is friendly and welcoming and again treats people right.
I think this is just a fundamental value. And I think Tennesseans share that value–I dont think I'm going out on a limb or anything, I think that's what people believe.
What would you what would you say to the LGBT community in this state about their future here?
I would be honored to have their vote, and I'd be honored to work together to make this state even better than it is. I mean I really do believe our best days are still to come. Part of that is being a place that people want to live and where people are treated right, and we respect dignity and respect people's rights, and we make sure that everybody feels that they're part of it. And that's what I'll do.
I think one of the good things about being governor is you have a bigger pulpit to talk from and you can deliver that message. And I think that message needs to be delivered and needs to be talked about and stated.
People in the legislature need to understand that these [anti-LGBT bills] may seem like political issues that get everybody all excited, and maybe somebody perceives there's some benefit to them, but they hurt the state. If you start losing business and people start saying "We're not coming there because our employees don't want to live there, or we're not going to visit there, we're not going to hold a sporting event here or a concert there,” that hurts.
Karl Dean faces Craig Fitzhugh in the Democratic primary in August. For more information visit karldean.com.