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BU Has a Mayor: Nashville’s Karl Dean

Music City’s former two-term leader in residence at IoC


During a recent class for his College of Arts & Sciences seminar The Contemporary American City, Karl Dean, former mayor of Nashville, shared with students the wit and wisdom of one of America’s most effective and colorful mayors, New York City’s legendary Fiorello LaGuardia. Credited with guiding New York through the Depression and World War II, LaGuardia has been a constant inspiration to Dean, who devoted the greater part of the lecture to his legacy.

“When I was mayor I quoted him two or three times a month,” he told the class. Like LaGuardia, the feisty son of Italian-American immigrants, who once famously said, “There’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up trash,” Dean learned in his time as mayor to steer clear of partisan politics while finessing the demands of progress versus preservation, economic development, and a high regard and respect for the common citizen.

The inaugural Mayor-in-Residence at BU’s Initiative on Cities (IoC), cofounded by Boston’s late, beloved five-term mayor, Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), Dean is also a CAS visiting professor of political science for the spring 2016 semester. He was elected Nashville mayor in 2007, easily won reelection in 2011, and served until this past September, when a term limit forced him to step down. Before becoming mayor, he was the city’s public defender and then director of law.

IoC defines its mission, through teaching, symposia, and outreach, thus: to “research, promote, and advance the adaptive urban leadership strategies and policies necessary to support cities as dynamic centers of economic growth and development.” As Mayor-in-Residence, Dean engages with the University community and the city of Boston to study and seek solutions to urban issues and hosts open forums on topics ranging from urban arts and culture to immigration policy.

A South Dakota native who grew up in Gardner, Mass., and earned an undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Dean found his way south via law school at Vanderbilt University. He wears Tennessee state seal cufflinks, but the lifelong Red Sox fan has adjusted comfortably to life in Boston.

While it faces challenges similar to nearly all of the nation’s urban centers, Nashville is thriving. A national leader in the education and corporate sectors, the city is seeing steady population growth while remaining comparatively affordable. Home of the headquarters of Firestone Tire, Nissan Motors, and the Country Music Association, Nashville is spread over 533 square miles, making it one of the largest cities, area-wise, in the United States. (Nashville proper has a population of about 656,000, compared with New York City’s 8.5 million residents packed into about 306 square miles.) While most visitors head straight for Broadway, Nashville’s famous district of dance halls and the Country Music Hall of Fame, the city draws most of its income not from the hospitality industry, but from education (the area has 21 four-year colleges and universities) and health care, which account for a quarter of its economy.

Like much of the South, Tennessee’s legislature and governorship are controlled by Republicans, but most of its large cities—Nashville included—are run by Democratic mayors. Dean is credited with using tax incentives to generate corporate growth and overseeing a number of civic projects during his mayoral tenure. His name is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for either the US Senate or the governor’s office in 2018.

BU Today spoke with Dean about what he learned as mayor of a major city, and what he hopes to impart to students and colleagues during his time at BU.

Karl Dean

Karl Dean, former two-term mayor of Nashville, Tenn., is the first Mayor-in-Residence at Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. Photo courtesy of Karl Dean

BU Today: How would you describe your style of running a city?

Dean: The way I approached the job is, there are three pitches you have to hit every day: public education, public safety, and economic development. The schools are the number one issue for every city in the country. You have to have good schools, morally it’s the right thing for kids, and the cities that succeed will be the ones that attract the most students and produce the most graduates. Public safety is self-evident; that’s why governments are created—to make a city safe. Nothing will work if a city isn’t safe. As for economic development, we want people to live in a city where there are good jobs and a solid tax base supporting a good police department and parks.

What powers Nashville’s economy?

Nashville has been called the Athens of the South. It is very much a university city, with 10 major colleges. That’s a huge plus for the city in that you have thousands and thousands of students and faculty who energize the city and give it an appeal that you can’t put a price tag on. It brings in so many new people. I live in Nashville, but I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Vanderbilt University, where I went to law school. In the private sector, health care and health care management lead the economy, followed by tourism and hospitality.

Is tourism on the rise in Nashville?

We’re a major convention destination, and tourist numbers are going through the roof. I think it’s because people just recognize it’s a special place, increasingly known for all types of music. You look at lower Broadway, which is one of the most unique entertainment corridors in the country, and it’s authentic. There’s the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s just a fun city to be in. Even the honky-tonks have amazing talent. It’s a big rock city, too. And we’ve become a real food town. We woke up one day and everyone was talking about Nashville’s restaurants.

You’ve said mayors need to be pragmatic. Why was your support of gay marriage good for Nashville as well as a victory for human rights?

I was publicly for gay marriage, but I think that’s basic human respect. But it’s also important for a city to be diverse, welcoming, and friendly. Cities benefit from diversity, and inclusiveness is an easy call. Major businesses are not going to a city that’s not inclusive. It’s a bad business model.

We read a lot about racial tensions in Tennessee, including Nashville and Memphis. How can mayors work to ease these tensions?

We recognize that tensions exist. The whole country has been shocked and outraged about some of the police shootings nationwide. As a mayor, the best thing you can do is have the best police department you can have. I worked with a great police chief who was good at communication, and good about wanting to learn what to do better. One danger is you can’t assume that things are okay and you can’t assume that things are being done right. Ferguson, for example, was a shock to the system; it opened people’s eyes.

Is Nashville becoming a magnet for young people priced out of major cities like New York and Boston?

Nashville has a real appeal for young creative people. Compared to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the quality of life is enormously high. It’s an easy place to live, naturally beautiful with lots of green space, lakes, and rivers. It’s a challenge to maintain that affordability. We’re a low tax city in a low tax state.

Is the city destined to follow a path of gentrification and soaring real estate prices?

The market will drive most of that. If Nashville is prospering and people are staying in the city, we will see market forces affect prices. But ultimately I’d rather have the problem of dealing with too much prosperity. I was mayor during the recession and during the boom, and I’d rather have the boom.

The press reported on your efforts to bring a high-speed bus lane connecting Nashville’s less prosperous east to its more prosperous west. The White House earmarked $75 million for it, but it was never built. Did west Nashville residents oppose it?

Nashville covers a big geographical area, east of the river, and west Nashville. The issue of public transit connecting them involved use of a right of way. East Nashville is very diverse and fast-growing. The issue was more about transit money than not-in-my-neighborhood. People are surprised at how diverse Nashville is. It is one of the most attractive cities for immigrants. An English-only referendum failed to pass. You can always do better in terms of breaking down divisions, but we are a city that values diversity. That transit project will happen eventually.

Cities are increasingly being run by Democrats, state legislatures and governorships by Republicans. What kind of challenges does that create for a mayor?

It is always useful to look for areas where you can work together. During my time as mayor I had very good relations with two governors, a Democrat and a Republican. Education and economic development were areas of mutual interest and our work together produced results.

You’ve been mentioned as a possible candidate for Congress or for governor in 2018. Are you contemplating a run for either?

No formal plans at the moment. But I tremendously enjoyed my time in public service, and I guess we will have to see how things unfold. Lots of factors to consider.

What advice would you give for someone interested in entering politics?

Volunteer in campaigns and work with nonprofits that are interested in the issues you care about. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading the newspapers and keeping up with public affairs.

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