At a roundtable interview in May with editors and reporters from the Scene and The City Paper, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean was asked if he felt that Nashville's ability to self-govern had been somewhat under siege over the past year. His answer suggested more than he said.
"A little bit," Dean said, laughing. While he diplomatically described Gov. Bill Haslam as a "friend of local government," he nevertheless affirmed the importance of the government closest to the governed. The subject then turned to a matter of constant speculation — whether Dean will run for higher office once he leaves the mayor's office.
As he has done consistently whenever the question comes up, Dean avoided a direct answer. Instead, he cited the job at hand, and the three years he has left in it.
But if ever a situation were to raise those two concerns at the same time — local autonomy and Dean's statewide political ambitions — it would be the state House District 60 race between two men the mayor is well-acquainted with: state Rep. Jim Gotto, a former Metro councilman, and Darren Jernigan, a current one.
Should Dean help Jernigan to victory, the thinking goes, he would show his political potency as a warm-up for broader aspirations — while delivering a payback to Gotto, an arch-conservative who has challenged the city's self-governance and opposed the mayor at key junctures. But if Gotto wins, it would demonstrate — again — the limits of Dean's popularity as mayor.
Through a spokesman, Dean declined to comment for this story.
The question of his ambitions isn't a parlor game. With their elected numbers thinned to a historic low, Tennessee Democrats have been lamenting the fact that they lack a true statewide standard-bearer, particularly after the debacle that resulted in Mark Clayton's disavowed U.S. Senate candidacy. Party insiders point to urban areas as perhaps their last remaining source of strength.
Tennessee's five largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Clarksville — all have Democratic mayors. In that way, the TNDP mirrors the image projected by the national party, which spotlighted various progressive mayors at their national convention last month — as opposed to the GOP, which paraded a phalanx of governors in Tampa.
In a somewhat rare step from behind the nonpartisan facade of Metro Nashville politics, Dean was at the convention in Charlotte with fellow Democrats. Now the state party is clamoring for Dean to fill the void and more prominently take up the party's mantle.
"Mayor Dean is one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party," says the state House Democratic Caucus chair, Rep. Mike Turner of Nashville. "I think he's got a gubernatorial run in his future. So I would definitely like to see him more involved. And he has been involved. Anything more he can do to help, I would of course appreciate it."
Turner says he hasn't spoken to Dean about the District 60 race in particular. But he acknowledges that the mayor has had warmer relations with Jernigan than Gotto, with whom he has been at odds on several occasions.
That Dean would support Jernigan, a Democrat, over the Republican incumbent is not in question. What remains to be seen is the degree to which he will get publicly involved on behalf of Jernigan and the party — if he gets involved at all. Dean's recent forays into local campaigns — an attempt to unseat West Nashville Councilman Jason Holleman last year, and an effort in support of (very) well-funded school board candidate Margaret Dolan in August — have failed. A Gotto win, against visible involvement from the mayor, would further unravel Dean's already dubious coattails.
As Dean is fond of pointing out, his primary obligation is still to the mayor's office. But the faceoff between Jernigan and Gotto is a potential opening in that respect as well. Whatever political ambitions he may have for the future, there are those who see the District 60 race as an opportunity for Dean to stand up for the city now.
Gotto served eight years on the council. And yet in his two years as a state legislator, he has been on the front lines — and sometimes in the back rooms — of repeated challenges to Nashville's autonomy.
It was early 2011 when Gotto and fellow arch-conservative Rep. Glen Casada emerged from a closed meeting at the downtown LifeWay building with business leaders and Christian conservatives. With press barred from the room, the group plotted how to defeat a Metro Council bill that would have applied Metro's nondiscrimination policy to vendors that do business with the city.
At the time, Gotto told The City Paper the bill was a "serious, serious problem" for businesses that would have a "chilling effect." Eventually, the council passed the ordinance over the objections of Councilman Gotto, thus protecting the rights of gay city workers.
But Gotto wasn't finished. In his dual role as a representative in the state House, he backed a Casada-sponsored bill that prevents municipal governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that go further than the state's, effectively nullifying Nashville's.
In the end, Gov. Bill Haslam signed it into law. That made Gotto an unusual figure: an official who essentially used his power in one elected body to overrule the other in which he served.
Dean supported a Democratic push during this year's legislative session to overturn the state law and restore Metro's nondiscrimination ordinance. In a letter of support, the mayor said he had been "proud to sign it into law," and that it deserved the respect of the state legislature. But the repeal effort ultimately failed. The ordinance was dead, and Gotto's fingerprints were on the weapon.
At the same time, Dean and many Metro council members were playing defense against what they saw as another unwelcome intrusion by state government. A trio of bills, introduced by Gotto, would have significantly reduced — or as critics charged, gutted — Metro's ability to enforce certain zoning regulations.
As with the law nullifying Metro's nondiscrimination ordinance, Gotto argued, and still maintains, that the bills were aimed at eliminating unnecessary government regulation. Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said in a statement at the time that the mayor could not "support anything that limits the power of local governments to protect neighborhoods and the quality of life of our residents." This round went to the mayor. The bills eventually lost the support of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and died in committee.
In an odd twist, though, the mayor finds himself more or less aligned with Gotto on the latest issue to rekindle the debate over local autonomy: the contentious fight between state and local education officials over a charter application from Great Hearts Academies.
The mayor publicly supported Great Hearts and essentially went along with the state's line that the Metro school board deserved the $3.4 million punishment it got for rejecting the charter operator. While Gotto did take the state's side in the Great Hearts fight, however, he says he's not yet inclined to support a statewide charter authorizer.
Like many Democrats, Jernigan describes such meddling from the GOP-controlled state legislature — which can often be seen passing resolutions decrying the overreach of the federal government — as blatant hypocrisy.
"You know what's interesting is, if it was the federal government telling us — they'd be screaming," Jernigan says, during a recent interview at his Donelson-area campaign headquarters. "And I've heard Jim say before that the charter is governed by Tennessee's legislature, and I say well, if you want to take over a $1.7 billion budget, go right ahead. Who's going to run that?"
Jernigan, who is currently serving his second term on the Metro Council, says he thinks the nullification of the nondiscrimination ordinance was "clearly out of bounds" and an example of the state legislature selectively intruding on local government. As for the zoning bills, he says they contained "a few good things" but "terribly overreached." On Great Hearts, he sides with the defiant Metro school board.
Asked about Jernigan's insinuation that it's hypocritical for supposedly small-government conservatives to usurp local authority, Gotto says that the country's founders squared that circle for him.
"Well, in the U.S. Constitution, all power resides with the states," Gotto says. "The states created the federal government, the states created the local governments. So whether you like it or not, the state government is the seat of power, according to the U.S. Constitution."
On that basis, Gotto contends that the state is within its rights to denounce federal overreach, while occasionally stepping into a local body's jurisdiction. But he dismisses the idea that by doing so, he has fatally damaged his relationship with the mayor.
"Well, you have disagreements with everybody," Gotto tells the Scene during a break from door-knocking in the district. "While there are some things that the mayor disagrees with me on, I still have a good relationship I believe with some of the folks in his [office] and have worked with them on a couple of issues."
Jernigan has been, for the most part, a reliable Dean supporter during his time on the council. He did oppose the mayor during the fairgrounds debate — the same offense that got Holleman in hot water — and more recently on the property tax increase. The latter, however, was no surprise, given Jernigan's statehouse ambitions. A vote for a tax increase would be a glaring political liability for anyone hoping to join the deep-red state legislature. The three other council members running for state office — Bo Mitchell, Robert Duvall and Jason Potts (who lost in the Democratic primary) — joined him in voting against the tax hike.
It's no secret that the mayor is a Democrat, Jernigan says, adding that the mayor's office is supportive of his efforts. Dean attended the campaign's kickoff party in August. But other than that, Jernigan says, Dean hasn't been involved "financially or otherwise."
"If I felt the mayor could bring a strong muscle to me, I'd probably call him up and ask him out here everyday," Jernigan says, noting the large conservative constituency in the new district, which includes all of Gotto's old council district. "It's not that I wouldn't welcome him at all, it's just that I'm focused on other — if I did a robocall, it'd be Gov. [Phil] Bredesen I'd ask to do one for us out here. He still is extremely popular in this area."