Yankee Doodle Dean 

Karl Dean is the third in a string of nerdy underdogs from the Northeast bidding for Nashville’s top office

If Karl Dean prevails against longtime political figure Bob Clement in the runoff, now just under two weeks away, he will be the third mayor in a row to hail originally from the Northeast, settling here as a young man for love or work or both.

It’s a little after 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning and Karl Dean is going door to door on East Nashville’s Russell Street, writing “Sorry I missed you” on his campaign leaflets and sticking them in the door jams of homes where no one answers. (His campaign staff insists he only stop at the homes of frequent voters, as there’s no time to waste on people unlikely to cast ballots.) The guy who self-financed $1 million in television advertising to help him make the Sept. 11 mayoral runoff is wearing a pair of New Balance running shoes that should have been retired about a decade ago, the rubber soles yellowed with age.

When somebody answers a door and asks Dean whether he supports a new baseball stadium downtown, the candidate says, “I would like to see it downtown. I can’t promise that. I love baseball, and I think it will be great for downtown, but we’ll just have to see.” The conversation eventually morphs into a discussion of downtown’s vibrancy, and Dean says something about development being “compelling.”

After the voter shuts the door, Dean walks back toward the sidewalk, critiquing himself out loud: “I don’t think saying construction downtown will be ‘compelling’ is really the right word,” he says, shaking his head and smiling self-deprecatingly about the awkward utterance.

While Dean was elected three times as Davidson County public defender—there are still a few campaign matchbooks around his home on Hampton Avenue, which date his first foray into elective office—he was never contested and until announcing his race for mayor at the end of last year never really experienced the day-to-day rigors of retail campaigning.1 He acknowledges that it’s foreign to him but doesn’t seem to view it as too much of a liability—at least not one that can’t be overcome.

“It doesn’t come naturally,” the 51-year-old Dean says of campaigning, as sweat starts to run down the side of his face on this 99-degree day. “I don’t, like, walk into a room and immediately think that people are just dying to hear what I have to say.” At this point, Dean’s press secretary, Janel Lacy, pipes up, saying what a long way the shy Dean has come in matters of pressing the flesh.

But Dean’s case of political ineptitude may not be a complete handicap, as some voters may well view a neophyte politician’s insecurities as somewhat endearing. And there’s a precedent for similar gawkiness among Nashville mayoral candidates, the poster child for this syndrome being Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who served as mayor from 1991-1999 and was given more to doodling in physics problems than chatting it up with voters at backyard bean suppers. Like Dean, he used personal wealth to help get elected.

If Dean prevails against longtime political figure Bob Clement in the runoff, now just under two weeks away, he will be the third mayor in a row to hail originally from the Northeast, settling here as a young man for love or work or both. And like both Bredesen and Mayor Bill Purcell, Dean is well educated, bookish and wholly unassociated with any of the trappings of, as Dean puts it, Nashville’s “old-style politics.”

It was at Vanderbilt Law School where Dean met the woman who would become his wife, the Nashville native who would reel him in and convince him to settle here.2 On a recent morning, the petite Anne Davis strolls into Atlanta Bread Company for an interview with the Scene dressed in a T-shirt, spandex athletic pants and sneakers, wearing not a smidge of makeup and having just come from walking the couple’s two golden retrievers, Dizzy and Lucky.3

She’s not shy about defending her and her husband’s choice to use money inherited from her late uncle, coal mining businessman Joe C. Davis, in this election.4 Her husband’s opponent has criticized that decision loudly, most notably on election night Aug. 2, when he read a speech zinging Dean for relying on the inherited wealth. “Our city is not for sale to the highest bidder,” Clement bellowed.

“I think a couple of things about that,” Davis says, clearly comfortable with what she’s about to say. “First of all, I don’t think of it as my money; I think of it as our money. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that Bob Clement was born with this name that is instantly recognizable throughout a lot of Tennessee and certainly through Nashville and has run for office so many years. He has something he brings to the table, which is his name, and Karl brings something to the table, which is the ability to do some advertising to get some name recognition. So I just think it evens the playing field.”

Davis—who at one time practiced law at Bass Berry & Sims and later at Neal & Harwell before retiring from corporate law after the couple’s third child was born to teach legal writing at Vanderbilt part-time—says she occasionally has bristled at the barbs leveled by her husband’s opponent(s) during the more than eight months he’s been campaigning, but that her husband always talks her down.

“Something might be said that I don’t like, and Karl’s like, ‘They’re good guys.’ ”

Dean says he makes a point to remind himself that these repeated swipes are just part of the process. Of Clement’s election night harangue, he says, “It bothered me a little bit, but I didn’t get real angry—I tried not to. I don’t take it personally in the sense that it’s directed at me as a political opponent, not as a person…. [Clement’s] an easy person to talk to. We’ve gotten along all during this process.”

Along the way, though, Dean has become more aggressive in defending himself. During the first week or two after the general election, Clement cast aspersion after aspersion on Dean—hammering on his work as public defender5, on his legal opinion saying a charter amendment requiring property tax increases to be approved by voters is unconstitutional, etc. Lately, Dean has begun to fight back, noting, for example, in Saturday night’s televised debate that Clement voted many times to raise taxes when he was a congressman. And earlier this week, Dean held a press conference to denounce Clement’s latest ad campaign essentially claiming that Dean is a Taxachusetts liberal (our words).

“My opponent has run for six different offices 13 times over the past 35 years, and he has a history of going negative when he’s behind,” Dean said Tuesday. “But I encourage him again to go back to talking about what the people want to talk about in this campaign and not to use the attack ads or the vicious politics that is common in Washington. I think the way candidates conduct themselves is a good indication of the way we’ll behave in office. This ad is a clear indicator of old-style politics. I hope the voters share my disappointment with this and urge him to get back to the discussion of the issues.”

On his public defender service, in particular, Dean is particularly animated as he rides around East Nashville scouting addresses for a swath of homes his staff wants him to reach. “I’m proud of it,” he says. “I’ve put it in all of my commercials. I’m not going to run from it.” He describes it, in fact, as the most rewarding work of his professional life. “I don’t think people realize that, you know, most of the cases you do are not high-profile publicized cases. And most of the cases you do, people have committed a crime and they’re being punished for it but they have no one in the world who’s supporting them, or if they do it’s family who’s just doing their best to get by. In many of the cases, substance abuse is obviously a part of it, making wrong decisions is a part of it, so really, on a day-to-day basis—this is where I don’t think people understand how rewarding the work can be—you do interact with people who need your help, you try to gear the case where they’re getting the help they need, be it on probation or if they’re sentenced to jail, a chance to get out and have treatment while they’re in jail....”

He characterizes a 1992 audit of the public defender’s office, which interest groups opposing Dean have tried to pass off as offering a devastating portrait of his management, as routine. The audit, released in October of that year, is 11 pages long and found some deficiencies in the way the department handled petty cash, internal assets, employee time off and personnel records. “Several individuals at the 1990 year-end had more vacation time accrued than is allowed by Metropolitan government,” the audit noted, for example.

“All audits make recommendations,” Dean says. “I don’t think there were any significant findings. I can’t remember what they were, but it was mostly procedural type issues. I don’t think the public defender’s office had been audited ever until they did that, and whatever they recommended we did. And the citizens re-elected me twice after that.”

Asked about his opponent’s prolific flak about Dean’s time as public defender, he launches into a primer about the criminal justice system. “I guess my response would be, it’s a criminal justice system where your job is to represent the client and do what’s best for him, and they’re guaranteed that by the Constitution. They’re guaranteed a vigorous, zealous defense. You give them their defense, and the district attorney’s job is to prosecute them and do what they think is in the best interest of justice and protecting the public.... And then the judge is like the moderator or the person in between who actually decides whether the person gets probation. A district attorney and a defense attorney may say we’re recommending probation, but a judge ultimately has to accept it.... So everybody does their part, and the system never entirely works perfectly, but it works as well as it can.”

Meanwhile, if offering capable representation to accused criminals who have a constitutional right to receive it is bad for society, as Clement has suggested, somebody needs to tell Davidson County’s top prosecutor. District Attorney Torry Johnson, who’s not publicly supporting anyone in this race,6 says—implicitly—that Clement’s criticisms are unfair.

“It’s in some ways a thankless job, but somebody has to do it in the system, and if they’re going to do it they need to do it well,” says Johnson, who first knew Dean when both were assistants in their respective offices, then when both held the top jobs. “Generally speaking, [the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office] have had a very cordial relationship—both at the top level and beyond—but at the same time having to do our respective jobs. Dean was very effective…and gave the people he represented high-quality representation, and that’s what you want.”

Jim Weatherly, former public defender who first hired Dean, confirms Clement’s accusation that Dean’s nickname was “Magic.” “I had heard the expression in describing Karl because of a seemingly magic quality he had representing people in jury trials,” Weatherly says, “certainly not smoke and mirrors or anything.... Karl 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’s having to advocate against, and that’s kind of a hard concept to put into words.”

Karl Foster Dean was born on Sept. 20, 1955, the same day his beloved Boston Red Sox7 lost a doubleheader to the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Though he was born in South Dakota and lived for a time in Wisconsin, he spent his formative years in Gardner, Mass., a small suburb 60 miles west of Boston whose primary industry is chair manufacturing. The middle of three boys, Dean was by most accounts a pretty typical kid, though he always had a tighter relationship with books than most of his peers, and certainly his brothers, George Brian and Mark Wallen (both of whom also became lawyers).8

“He would walk home from school reading, and I would have neighbors saying, ‘I wish he would look up once in a while and watch where he’s going,’ ” recalls his mother, Marlo Dean, who retired to Winston-Salem, N.C., with Dean’s father while their son was at Vanderbilt Law School.

He was a junior high student council member, on the Gardner High School debate team and participated in the Gardner Junior High School Dramatics Club, acting in the comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen.

Dean began Vanderbilt Law School after graduating from Columbia in New York, where he majored in political science and played on the rugby team. Though he’d had a comfortable life—his father worked for the time recording company Simplex (which has since been bought by Tyco and is called SimplexGrinnell) and his mother stayed home with Dean and his two brothers—he mostly paid his own way through college, working the night shift and overtime hours during summers at a paper mill in Gardner.

“It was labor. I saw it just once where they have these gigantic rolls of paper and…they wanted young arms and strong backs to lift those,” says Dean’s mother, who notes in a conversation with the Scene that he also worked over the Christmas holidays.

“I could make $4,000 in a summer,” Dean says, because he worked seven days a week, earning time-and-a-half on Saturdays and double-time on Sundays. To bankroll law school, he says he had to take out loans.

Once he and Davis graduated from law school, she took a federal clerkship in New York and he a job with a law firm in Worcester, Mass. They weren’t married then and took turns commuting on the weekends to visit one another. “That’s when we had our long conversations about the merits of industrial New England vs. Nashville,” Dean says. “I liked where I grew up and I still like that area, but you know, I will admit that she was right. Nashville has been great. It’s been very easy for both of us to have our own careers.”

It’s also where Dean, who grew up Lutheran, decided to convert to Catholicism as an adult to share his wife’s faith. “After the third child, I figured I ought to join the club,” he jokes. “I pretty much put the reformation in reverse.”

Being in Nashville has also meant being close to Davis’ family, which made at least one protracted part of Dean’s legal career particularly difficult. After Harding Academy, a small private school not far from the Belle Meade Plantation, spent a dozen years assembling parcels of real estate, including eight houses, to convert into green space, Metro balked at the development several years ago. In cahoots with neighborhood groups, Metro enacted a historic zoning ordinance that blocked the school from obtaining demolition permits. Two of the major players in the expensive and prolonged legal battle that followed were Karl Dean, then Metro director of law, and Bill DeLoache, then chairman of the Harding Academy board and—wait for it—Anne Davis’ cousin. (DeLoache’s mother and Davis’ late father were siblings.)

The city fought the school for several years before a chancery court and ultimately the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals acted “in excess of its authority” when it decided to revoke a permit that Metro officials had earlier issued to the school.

Critics thought Metro acted much too aggressively in fighting to keep the homes, many of which were in disrepair, especially given that Harding Academy was willing to share the fields it wanted to build with the public. “It is truly difficult to fathom how blind animosity of a cabal of neighborhood zealots can influence this administration toward such continued, uneven and targeted aggression against Harding Academy,” the school’s attorney, Bob Walker, wrote at one point in a letter to Metro officials.

Dean describes Metro’s unsuccessful battle with the school as one of the most unpleasant experiences of his career. “I did my job,” he says, clearly uncomfortable talking about it. “We were put in the position—when that decision was made—of defending the government. I did my job. Other lawyers did more of the work, but it was not a fun thing. I learned that it’s better to work those things out than end up in court…. But the lines get pretty much drawn in those things.” Dean also says, without much elaboration, that he “believes strongly” that “everyone should know the rules on the front end and not change the rules.” His thoughts seem to be an implicit disapproval of the way Metro pursued the Harding Academy matter.

Reached by the Scene, DeLoache says he’s supporting Dean for mayor despite the well-publicized legal melee between Harding and city officials. “I have given money to his campaign—the maximum amount—and I have a sign in my yard,” he says. “In private conversations, I’ve talked to him about my feelings, but I don’t really want to talk about those publicly.”

Back at his small West End campaign headquarters, in the strip where Vandyland used to be, someone hands Dean a stack of letters two inches thick that the candidate is supposed to sign. As he does, he fields questions about everything from his small-town upbringing to what book he’s reading (The Sportswriter by Richard Ford) to what he listens to on his iPod (sports talk, Chris Matthews—“he’s got a great voice”—and interview host Charlie Rose—“the only thing I pay to download”).

He remembers with clear fondness his high school world history teacher, who “made us memorize every country in the world,” he says. “She was tough.”

His wife Anne says she wouldn’t have predicted when they were back in law school that her reserved beau would ever run for this sort of elective office. “But he is so interested in history and what’s going on around him, in politics and just in everything, you know, it’s good that he’s doing it.”

Dean says he’s actually thought about it for years, dating back to his public defender days when friend and attorney Leigh Walton, now his campaign treasurer, first encouraged him.

“I went into it knowing that it was certainly not a sure shot for me,” he says. “But it was the right time in my life to do it. I like the job and the idea of the job in the sense that I think you really can do more as mayor than any other type of job.”


1. In almost every way, Dean and opponent Bob Clement are a case in contrasts. Clement, 12 years Dean’s senior, began this race as a well known Southern politician with a host of both statewide and local campaigns under his belt. Dean began his bid as a Northern transplant and virtual unknown. Both, however, seem to be in touch with their inner teenagers. Clement drives a forest green Mazda Miata convertible with tan ragtop, Dean a cherry red Ford Mustang convertible with black ragtop. “I guess when I turned 40 I thought it was cheaper than other ways of testing a midlife crisis,” Dean says.

2. On their first date, Anne Davis and Karl Dean attended Vandy Law School’s annual dance, The Barrister’s Ball. They were two of a kind that night, as both second-year law students were hobbling on crutches. Dean had broken his leg at a company picnic after working all summer at a Massachusetts paper mill, and Davis broke her knee and hip in a bad car accident.

3. Dean’s mother, Marlo Dean, says her middle son was always an animal lover. “We have three sons, and all three brought [stray] cats and dogs home,” she says. A family photo and scrapbook that Mrs. Dean assembled for her grandchildren shows numerous pictures of the Dean boys with various four-leggeds. (Incidentally, Lucky, who appears to weigh more than Davis, can carry three tennis balls in his mouth at one time.)

4. Dean has told the Scene that he and his wife are worth “quite a bit.” His annual financial disclosure filed last year when he was director of the law department shows that he earned an annual salary of $150,257 and that he and his wife have 100 percent interest in a family partnership management company called Hampton-Davis Management Inc., located in North Captiva Island, Fla. The disclosure, required for certain Metro employees, also shows Dean earned $6,300 lecturing at Vanderbilt Law School last year but donated the money back to the school.

5. Clement has repeatedly criticized Dean for defending “the worst of the worst” criminals when he was public defender from 1990 to 1999. In a recent interview with the Scene, Clement said on the one hand that he was supportive of public defenders but then offered, “Well, you gotta use some common sense and good judgment. These people are a threat to society. Aren’t you doing them a favor by keeping them incarcerated and locked up? You’ve got cases where certain people should not be back on the street because of their record and the number of their crimes. That’s where the public defender and the prosecutor and all should come to the table and say, ‘If this person gets out, we’re going to have trouble. This person is going to do it again, and how many more lives do they have to destroy?’ ”

6. For a few months last year, Torry Johnson himself flirted with the idea of a mayoral run. A small klatch of influential Nashvillians were egging him on (as was the Scene), and their number included local attorney and lobbyist Dick Lodge. When Johnson ultimately announced he wouldn’t make the race, Lodge, a partner at the law firm Bass Berry & Sims, signed on as a fundraiser for the Clement for Mayor Campaign.

7. Davis says that when the Red Sox are on TV, “there’s no argument about what we’re going to watch.” Dean, she says, also loves The Simpsons, which he watches with the kids. “The only real downtime that he’s had during the campaign was he took the girls and Rascoe to The Simpsons movie the other night,” Davis says. Rascoe, named for Anne’s late father, is a sophomore at Sewanee, and Frances, 13, and Wallen, 12, both attend Harpeth Hall. (Dean also watches South Park, though he spares the kids from the subversive comedy.)

8. Marlo and Les’ first child, Charles David, died at just a day old in June 1952.


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