Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 1

"Magic" in the Mayor's Office

Karl Dean's service to Nashville as Public Defender and director of the city's legal department proved an ideal preparation for the city's top job.

by Grace Renshaw Mayor Karl Dean, '81

Karl Dean, '81, was a virtual unknown outside of legal circles when he announced his candidacy for mayor of Metropolitan Nashville on December 19, 2006. Within Metro government (Nashville's city and county governments were combined into a single entity in 1963), Dean was the well-known and respected director of Metro's legal department, a position he had been tapped for eight years before by fellow Vanderbilt Law alum, then-Mayor Bill Purcell, '79, and before joining Purcell's staff, Dean had been elected Nashville's public defender three times during the 1990s.

But he entered Nashville's mayoral race at the end of 2006 knowing he faced an uphill battle to gain the name recognition he would need to defeat a slate of better-known opponents, several of whom had been fixtures in local politics for much of their careers. His principle opponent, former Democratic Congressman Bob Clement, was also the son of enormously popular former Tennessee Governor Frank Clement. Another opponent, city councilman David Briley, was the grandson of prominent former Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley, a judge who was elected the first mayor of the newly formed Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (commonly called "Metro" by locals) for whom a major local thoroughfare and a downtown building are named. A third, Buck "The Buck Stops Here" Dozier, was an at-large city councilman, lifelong Nashvillian, and a graduate of local David Lipscomb University who had a solid base of support among Lipscomb alums and city firefighters (Dozier was a member of the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association). Vice-Mayor Howard Gentry, the only African-American candidate, had served as vice mayor under Bill Purcell and had strong community support.

Dean was a transplant from Massachusetts who had earned his undergraduate degree at Columbia University before attending Vanderbilt Law School, and he openly admitted he had settled in Nashville in 1983 mainly at the urging of his wife, Anne Davis, '81, a Nashville native with deep roots in the community whom he had met when the two were classmates at Vanderbilt.

As a well-known former congressman, Clement was the clear frontrunner, with Gentry close behind him. Briley was widely seen as the candidate most similar to Dean and thus most likely to siphon off votes, but was also perceived as young, inexperienced, and in some quarters, much too liberal.

Dean had privately agonized about whether to enter the race, knowing the campaign would take a toll on his family (he and Davis have son in college and two daughters in high school) and that he would have to leave his job as head of the city's legal department to devote himself to campaigning full-time. "I knew the campaign would be an overwhelming time commitment," he says. "I couldn't be a candidate and be the city's lawyer, and I saw serving as mayor as the best way to accomplish the things that are important to ensure a good future for this city."

Once Dean finished what he calls his "Hamlet phase of deciding whether I was going to run or not run" and threw his hat in the ring, he committed himself to the campaign with his characteristic energy and affable intelligence. He also committed a good deal of money, both from campaign contributions and his personal coffers. To introduce himself to Nashville voters, Dean and his savvy campaign staff rolled out a television campaign in which he addressed a litany of important issues facing the city, including education, crime and economic development, which ended with Dean saying, "I'm Karl Dean, and I'm running for Mayor." It didn't hurt that Liz Garrigan, the usually sardonic and sharp-tongued editor of the Nashville Scene weekly newspaper and an active blogger on local politics, had introduced Candidate Dean to her readers as the "51-year-old pretty boy of Metro government, whose cerebral gifts exceed his good looks" with nary a negative comment on his mayoral candidacy.

Throughout Dean's campaign, he emphasized the priorities he has set about addressing as mayor: public education, public safety and economic development. He believed his background in law - both as a public defender and as Metro Nashville's law director - was a real asset, and flatly refused to apologize for any aspect of his service as a public defender when Clement repeatedly criticized him for "defending the worst of the worst." Dean incredulously told an audience of Vanderbilt law students last November that, during the campaign, "It was suggested that I was perhaps doing my job as a public defender too well. What kind of argument is that? I'm as proud of that service as I am of anything I've done in my life. My attitude is that this is a good thing I did. I think people are smarter than you give them credit for, and they get that public defenders are important. They understand that just because I'm defending a person accused of arson doesn't mean I agree with arson."

Jim Weatherly, the former public defender who first hired Dean, confirmed Clement's accusation that Dean's nickname in the Public Defender's office was "Magic," but Weatherly emphasized that the nickname articulated Dean's skill as a trial lawyer. "Karl had a seemingly magic quality when he represented people in jury trials," Weatherly told Nashville Scene editor Liz Garrigan in an interview during the campaign. "He had that special quality where he could be a very ardent advocate for his client, but at the same time not lose the respect of those he was having to advocate against, and that's kind of a hard concept to put into words."

Dean's well-orchestrated campaign touted his accomplishments on behalf of the city as its legal director, including a successful campaign to shut down illegal adult businesses. After the Tennessean, Nashville's single daily paper, endorsed Dean's candidacy, his status as a frontrunner was confirmed. By mid-July, three weeks before election day, poll results indicated that Clement, Gentry and Dean were tied in a statistical dead heat. When Nashvillians went to the polls on August 7, Dean and Clement, each with 24 percent of the vote, edged out Gentry to qualify for a run-off, which Dean won handily with 52 percent of the vote on September 7. He took office September 21, nine short months after launching his mayoral campaign as a man unknown to most Nashvillians.

The quality of Nashville's schools was a burning issue long before a Johns Hopkins report released in October 2007, right after Dean was sworn into office, identified eight Metro high schools as "dropout factories" due to their poor graduation rates. The Johns Hopkins report followed close on the heels of another report revealing that 70 percent of children attending Nashville's schools qualified for free or reduced lunches. Immediately after taking office, Dean launched a series of "Town Hall Meetings on Education" at school auditoriums all over the city, at which students and parents were invited to express their concerns, disappointments and hopes for the city's struggling school system. By the end of the school year, Dean had held nine meetings at schools in every part of the city.

On other hot topics, his understanding of the city's contract with its NHL hockey team, the Predators, gained him high marks for negotiating an arrangement with the team's new owners, and his work as the city's Public Defender informed his decision to support city funding for a dedicated DNA laboratory for Nashville's police department to promote speedier trials with more definitive evidence. The police department currently relies on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing, but as Dean noted in his "state of Metro" address in April 2008, "so do more than 400 other state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies in Tennessee," which overwhelms the state lab's capabilities. An updated, upgraded convention center is now in the works. Dean works actively with the city's Chamber of Commerce to recruit businesses to the area. He is also building on a program to expand Nashville's parks, greenways, sidewalks and bikeways that was vigorously promoted by former Mayor Bill Purcell.

Dean is enjoying what he views as an opportunity to serve his adopted city as its mayor, but he frankly relishes the fact that some Nashvillians will always remember him more as their public defender. A month after he was sworn in as mayor, Dean left his car at a garage for servicing one morning and started walking the short distance from the garage to his office. As he passed a bus bench, a man sitting there greeted him. "Hey, Karl, remember me?" the man asked. Dean, who spent months meeting people from every part of Nashville over the course of his mayoral campaign, admitted he didn't. "You represented me back in the 1980s," the man told Dean. "I was accused of stealing stuff. You got me probation, and I have a good job now. You changed my life."

"I couldn't remember him from Adam," Dean told an audience of law students at Vanderbilt last November. "But he remembered me as his lawyer. This shows you how important a public defender's job is. This guy is working - he's working, he's not in jail. He's got a life and a family. Whatever else happens, I know I helped that guy."