Putting in the legwork in his bid to win the Democratic Party nomination for governor, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean recently visited the office of The New Tri-State Defender. It was his second visit, with this one yielding this conversation with the TSD’s Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku.
Karanja A. Ajanaku: So, let’s just jump right in, OK? Does the Democrats’ victory in the Senate race in the historically red state of Alabama give you any enhanced feeling about the possibility of victory for Democrats in the Tennessee governor’s race.
Karl Dean: I think it’s certainly good news. I would have to acknowledge that the situation in Alabama was extraordinary. It might not be something that is going to be held up as a guide to other elections. But Virginia I think more so. Obviously that was the more straightforward, normal election and I think the strong showing by Democrats up and down the ballot is encouraging. …
KAA: …We see that there was a really strong turnout by women, a really strong turnout by African Americans (in Alabama). … How much do you look to have that kind of a sub-group support here in Tennessee? How important is that for you?
KD: I think it’s vital. One of the things we learned in the presidential cycle in 2016 was that Tennessee finished really … last in voter turnout. And I think for us to be successful, you need to see significant turnout and you need to have voters who I think would be sympathetic to our candidacy voting. I think the indications of … whether it’s women, African Americans, others … being more mobilized and wanting to turn out because of the importance of the elections, I think that’ll hold true in 2018. And I think there’s lots of reasons for people to be mobilized or to be interested in seeing change.
KAA: …Do you realize and recognize the depth of the division between West Tennessee and the rest of Tennessee, racially, politically and economically?
KD: Yes, I think I do. I’ve been to Memphis and other parts of West Tennessee many times over the course of the last six or seven months. Been here before that, but obviously a lot more intensely in recent months. And when you’re here, you hear about it a lot. And you hear about people’s frustrations with feeling forgotten or neglected. I think it’s important for us in a variety of areas.
Number one, let’s look at the economic development issue. … I think (Memphis) is really on the verge of moving forward. I feel a certain sense of optimism here. The city’s got so much going for it. … But one of the things that I think we need to recognize as a state is that Memphis faces unique challenges. …
It’s so much different here. … (I)n terms of the tax base, you’re competing for residents (with Mississippi and Arkansas), you’re competing for businesses, you’re competing for jobs. I think in terms of working on economic development, the state should recognize that additional challenge Memphis faces and respond accordingly.
I also think it’s appropriate for the state to recognize that there are certainly major challenges with poverty here. The poverty level, whether it’s 26 or 28 percent, is significant and it is certainly in the state’s interest – and it’s the right thing to do – to try to address that. … (W)hen you have a significant percentage of the population that is not really engaged in the economy, it’s not good for them but it’s also not good for anybody else. It’s not good for the tax base of Memphis and Shelby County and it’s not good for the state’s tax base. Recognition of those unique issues is key. …
KAA: … Would there be (a) benefit of having an economic development director on the state level that was from Memphis?
KD: I think certainly having an understanding of the unique issues here would be a benefit. … I’m confident but I’m not appointing the cabinet yet. … I certainly have heard – and get – that people do feel that their voices aren’t being heard in the capital as it should be, and I would want to change that. …
KAA: Education plans, talk to me about those.
KD: …I would give credit to (former) Gov. Bredesen, and Governor Haslam, for making progress. And I think we have made progress, we still have a long ways to go. … For me, education is so tied to economic development, so tied to public safety and to health; that to me is the number one thing. I think that we want to be a state that is producing more college graduates, but at the same time, I think we need to be a state that recognizes that all young people are not going to go to college and that we need to have the technical apprentice, vocational programs that are going to put those young people in a position where they can get a good job and where they can raise their family. …
But I also think that for us to succeed economically you’ve got to … not only at the college level, you’ve got to be producing workforce in all those other fields, whether it’s trades or particular skills. And if you don’t have them, it’s gonna hurt you. And it’s gonna hurt the young people who aren’t given the opportunity because it takes them out of a market where they can earn a good living. …
KAA: I’m hearing – more and more – a call for support on multiple levels for STEM education. What are your thoughts about that?
KD: … (It’s) a national issue … an area we have been weak in for some time. I think efforts to correct that are important. I’d be fully supportive and am fully supportive of that (more support for STEM) education. … (O)ne of the big challenges … that people in rural Tennessee face is they have a hard time recruiting teachers and I think a lot of rural communities have a hard time keeping teachers. … And I think urban challenge is there too. So that’s part of my support for increased teacher pay. …I think as a state, we have got to be paying our teachers more and have got to be continuing to try to attract the very best and keep them. And that’s key for STEM… A really good math and a really good science teacher is a hot commodity.
KAA: I think it might be fair to say that (the Achievement School District) hasn’t met its goals … Why keep it?
KD: I think that’s one of the things we need to look at. To me, all these educational issues that are controversial or create debate amongst adults … ultimately the goal should be that every young person in Tennessee is in a quality school with a quality seat in that school, and is getting a good education. What the labels are, how you get there, is less important than the results. I think you always want to look to see whether you are achieving what you set out to achieve. …
Now I am an opponent of vouchers … I think vouchers just directly take money out of public education. I think that for-profit charters, which are illegal in Tennessee … I would not be in favor of those. Again I think that’s taking money out of education.
I think charters have played a positive role in urban areas, Nashville and Memphis, and I don’t think it’s the sole solution or a panacea … but it’s one more choice, it’s one more approach to things that I’ve been supportive of. But again, I think … what we need to do is have open minds, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is quality seats, quality education, and our kids achieving what we want them to achieve, and not become locked in to any set philosophy. …
KAA: What is your plan relative to creating more technology-based jobs in Tennessee?
KD: … (G)overnment doesn’t really create the jobs. That’s created by the private sector. What the government does best … or what it can do, is create the environment where that type of job creation can take place, where you’re encouraging entrepreneurship, where you’re working to create an atmosphere where entrepreneurs can succeed … or where businesses that already exist are looking to relocate and have a technology bent, or are offering good jobs.
Tennessee is a very attractive place to do business. … (L)ots of good things have happened; more need to happen. But I think one of the most serious issues we face is to make sure that we’re doing the workforce development work that puts us in a position where … when we have the opportunity to either appeal to entrepreneurs or to new companies, or to attract existing companies, that we have the workforce available to get those jobs and to persuade that business to be in Tennessee.
… (W)hen you talk to companies, there are a lot of things that Tennessee has that sells itself: relatively low tax state, relatively mild climate, great location right in the center of the country, accessible to all parts, great culture, great natural beauty … but having the work force is vital. And that ties back into my emphasis on education
KAA: …Can you talk more … about just what your approach would be to doing something about poverty.
KD: Fundamentally, I think … two critical things … need to occur; number one … education (is) vital. … (T)o stop the cycle of poverty, people need to be put in a position, or be able to be in a position where through their education, they’re able to hold down and advance in jobs; and earn a good living. I also think that it’s important to have the business climate where the private sector is producing jobs and opportunities for people.
I think a job is probably better than any government program. A job gets a person to really advance themselves and to move forward in their lives, and to more their kids forward. I think if you emphasize those things, good things will happen. You will not only be addressing the issue of poverty, but you’re also … creating a tax base, or creating the revenue that is necessary to make the investments in education that you got to do: investments in health … or whatever.
KAA: …(W)hat’s your assessment of the healthcare situation here in Tennessee? What do you see doing there?
KD: You start with the caveat that there’s so much been happening in DC around healthcare. And sort of the efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act or to take actions through … tax reform that is going to have a negative effect on the Affordable Care Act. You don’t know for sure what the next governor will be looking at in January 2019.
But I think it’s pretty clear right now, based upon what I thought was a huge mistake … when the legislature didn’t do the Medicaid expansion, that the next governor of Tennessee has got to fight for us to get … advocate for us to get a fair share of Medicaid funding. … (B)y not doing the Medicaid expansion, we’ve lost over $3.5 billion in money that could have been used to give insurance and access to healthcare to people of low incomes, people with disabilities, people with pre-existing conditions, people who are aging. And as a result of that, you see people making decisions not to go to the doctor, because they don’t have insurance and they think, “I can’t go,” or, “I shouldn’t go.”
Or, you have people going to the doctor, the hospital, incurring medical bills that put them in financial ruin perhaps. Or, you see people going and there’s no reimbursement possible for the medical services. And then as a result of that, you’ve seen 9 hospitals close in Tennessee, which has affected largely rural and small towns … but it has a devastating affect on them. …
The MED (Regional One Health in Memphis) is a great hospital but certainly I think it faces financial pressure because of lack of Medicaid expansion. I think the same holds true in Nashville.
… If you’re a private sector, for-profit hospital company … if you’re going to make a $500 million investment in a hospital, you’re probably gonna make it where you’re going to get reimbursed for your services and where you have a chance to break even. And that puts Tennessee at an extremely uncompetitive position (with) the states around us … whether it’s Kentucky, Indiana, that did the expansion. … That (healthcare) is probably the issue that is most on the voters’ minds right now, and then I would say that is the issue that is going to be there for the next governor to deal with.
KAA: Let’s say that I took you to Orange Mound … and it’s a special day … at a high school. Each of the students … in the auditorium … could only get in … if they brought their parents with them. So they bring out Karl Dean to tell them who you are and what you’re about. What would you tell that audience?
KD: Well, I think I would tell them a little bit about my background; (how) I grew up … I had a good family. I was lucky in life having very good, supportive parents. But I grew up in a small town and I worked hard. I put myself through college and part of law school by working the summers, seven days a week, in a paper mill. … (B)ut … (that was) in the 70s. … (W)hen you worked on Saturdays, it was time and a half; you worked on Sundays, it was double-time. And so you could make more money during the summer on that job … (T)o me it was just a blessing that they gave me the job, but it was a lot of work.
… (I would tell them) that I value education. … That I really believe in the future; and I believe (in) investing in the future. And I believe all those young people in that auditorium – wherever we’d be – and their parents can have a better future. And part of it is … a state having enough confidence in itself, which it should, to invest in itself, and to invest in the future of its people. … (I)f you invest in schools, if you invest in people, they’re going to do better and that’s going to help with the economy. And that’s going to help in making the place more appealing, that’s gonna make it better … I mean, you don’t get anything for free in life. You gotta work and you gotta invest.
I think that’s the same thing with government. You got to be willing to say, “The future matters, we’re going to build toward the future.” And if you do that, you get a better present too, because it’ll start getting better over the years while you’re still around.
KAA: Anything you want to address that I have not asked you?
KD: No, but I would say this: … I’m very optimistic about the state. Obviously, there are enormous challenges. You can say that about any state, any place. But I think Tennessee has so much going for it in terms of natural beauty, wonderful friendly people … great diversity that we should acknowledge as a strength. … I think people who look at Tennessee from the outside think, “This is a good place to be because there can be a good future here.” I think that applies to Memphis; that applies to the rest of the state. I think if we take care of the basics – education, health, public safety, economic opportunity … then good things will follow and this is the right place to be. Because the future … our best days are still to come.
KAA: … (I)n Memphis, I don’t hear that consistent drumbeat of optimism. I hear it in spurts, but I don’t hear it consistently. And I really don’t hear it in an overall (way) relative to the African-American community.
KD: … I think there are real issues. Like I mentioned, the poverty levels … that is the thing that I think the state government should be concerned about and should be taking steps to address. I look at it that we’re all in this together; we’re all Tennesseans. And it certainly would be to the benefit of the state if the poverty issue in Memphis … and other parts of the state, is addressed and that the area is able to give people more opportunities, create more jobs, give kids better futures. … (T)hat’s what we need to do. And I think we can. …
And so when I look at Memphis … as I mentioned, you’ve got … a lot of things, really positive, going for the city. I think there’s a lot of energy here. I think there are a lot of people interested in technology and entrepreneurship. I think people are going to increasingly see Memphis as a city… that is a good place to live and an affordable place to live. And those things we – … meaning the city, the county, the state – should be working on together to emphasize.
KAA: It seems to me (that) in order for Memphis to be successful, obviously it has to help itself. And I got that. But it seems as though it would take a governor who is really adept at being able to get the other parts of the state to see that it is in their best interests to help Memphis because it helps everybody. …
KD: … (I)f you eliminated half of the poverty level (in Memphis), that’s gonna help the whole state. But at the same time, I think as a state, a whole state, not just west Tennessee but the whole state, we should say, “Poverty levels in Memphis at 26 to 28 percent, is unacceptable.” It should be unacceptable to us as a state, because that is something we can and should address.