by Sarah Rutledge Fischer
In November of 2018, Tennesseans will go to the polls to choose the next Governor of Tennessee. Karl Foster Dean, former mayor of Nashville and leading Democratic candidate in the gubernatorial race, was recently in town to attend Memphis Pride Fest and sat down with Focus Mid-South Magazine to answer a few questions.
Mayor Dean, most of our readers probably know that the governor is the state’s highest-ranking elected official, but the boundaries of that authority and responsibility may not be clear to everyone. Could you briefly explain how you see the role of governor?
“The governor, obviously, plays a key role in the state. The governor’s role is particularly important because the governor prepares a budget and sets the priorities for the state, which I think is really the most important thing you can do in an executive-type position.
“But the governor also has the bully pulpit. The governor is the leader. When the governor speaks on issues, his voice or her voice is heard. It gives an opportunity for that person to hopefully guide the state in a very positive direction.”
As we all know, Tennessee is a large state and different regions can face different struggles and opportunities. What are some of the struggles and opportunities you see for Nashville in the coming years, and how will your administration approach them?
“I think that for Nashville, it is different in a sense that the boom that has been going on here for 4 or 5 years has resulted in substantial growth which has created issues of affordable housing and has created issues of transportation. This is probably not limited to Nashville. I would think Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga would also be covered by this. I think that as counties and cities are looking for regional answers to transportation problems—and I think you have to think regionally when you are talking about transportation—that the state needs to play a leadership role. I mean, clearly a lot of the initiatives will come from local government, but the state has to be a cooperative partner in order to make these inter-county solutions work. So, I think the state has an enhanced role there that it has to play, and I’d be willing to do that.
“I also think that we can look at ways in which the state can be more helpful on affordable housing issues. That would apply to the other cities also.”
Finally, there have been some great strides towards equality for LGBTQ people over the past decades, but in this political climate, many people are worried about progress stalling or losing ground. What do you see as the biggest state-level issues facing the LGBTQ community of Tennessee and how will your administration confront them?
“I think there’s several things. There has been great progress, but there is obviously more work to be done. I would look at my record as mayor. I supported the ordinance that stated that Nashville, in terms of its city hiring practices, would not discriminate — sort of an anti-discrimination ordinance. I opposed the passage of TN HB 600 in 2011 which would forbid governments from instituting their own anti-discrimination practices. I think I was the first mayor in TN to openly support freedom to marry. I signed onto the Mayors for Freedom to Marry in 2014. During my time as mayor, I certainly appointed people to boards and commissions who were members of the LGBT community. I appointed a department head who was a member of the LGBT community at that time. I have made it a practice to attend events whether it is the pride festival or dinners or other things that show my support for the community.
I’m a big believer in this: There’s a sociologist Richard Florida who is known for the concept of the Creative Class. He talks a lot about how cities that will do well in the future—and I think this applies to states—are the places that are successful in promoting talent, technology, and tolerance. You can look at tolerance, and I think it adds a lot to the quality of life for any place. It’s probably the biggest influence on whether or not a city attracts talented people. If people don’t feel welcome in a city, then they’ll find someplace else to go.
“I think it is also a moral issue of whether we want to be welcoming and open, and that’s just the right thing to do. The most interesting, economically prosperous areas are generally areas that are diverse with evolving populations.”
We followed up with Mayor Dean to ask his position on three specific issues that have been or will be before the Tennessee legislature that are of special interest to the LGBTQ population of Tennessee: 1) the Natural Marriage Defense Act, a bill legally recognizing only marriages between one man and one woman , 2) the transgender bathroom bill, and 3) the natural meaning law passed in May of this year which is expected to prevent LGBT parents from being treated the same as heterosexual parents under the law and is currently under challenge in the courts.
“Although we have not seen any specific information on these bills, I do not support the State Legislature proactively seeking to pass discriminatory laws. We should be doing everything in our power to practice tolerance. In addition, we should work to be a welcoming state to attract talent and business to Tennessee to create more job opportunities.”