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Gail Kerr May Be Right, but Is Still Wrong

December 12, 2010

This morning, Karl Dean’s personal columnist Gail Kerr wrote a piece in the Tennessean that has generated much commentary, both on the web site and among neighborhood types on Twitter. Kerr continued her unbroken trend of never writing a critical word about our Mayor, suggesting that it is hopeless for any “serious” candidate to take him on due to his overwhelming popularity and deep pockets. The consensus on Twitter was that the piece was: 1) likely constructed at the direction of and with the assistance of the administration; and 2) was especially critical of Councilwoman Emily Evans, using language that feminist Kerr has criticized in other situations. Much of the conversation this morning focused on the latter concern, with many recognizing it as a hit piece toward a councilperson who hasn’t been afraid to take on the mayor, and a warning that her support in the district might be at risk if she were to consider a run. Yet, what has been talked about far less is the substance of Kerr’s assertion – that it is an exercise in futility to run against the Dean machine, and that the only persons who would do so are “also rans” (her words, not mine).

In point of fact, Emily Evans has been quick in the past to make similar arguments in regards to her own unwillingness to run against Dean. Dean’s financial resources are pretty much limitless, and it’s clear that his willingness to do the bidding of the Nashville Chamber and the development community in town makes him a formidable candidate. Anyone who wants to have a political career that lasts beyond Karl’s tenure knows that they would be facing a group that has been quick on the draw with personal attacks, willing to do pretty much anything to win the battle, and the chance of being spit out and left in a puddle on the ground is pretty great. Certainly, many of the traditional, establishment political class of Nashville – the Daron Hall’s, John Arriola’s, and Jo Ann North’s aren’t willing to take the risk, and Emily Evans doesn’t seem willing to sacrifice family and friends to taking on what may indeed be a losing task. And of course, with the Tennessean in Dean’s hip pocket (so much so that Mike Byrd now calls it the Deanassean) the task is even harder.

So Kerr may indeed be right . . . no one may have a chance to unseat Karl Dean . . . especially when they are they are told by a local pundit that the race is over and we should go ahead and have the coronation today. It may be true that no one except local talk radio hosts and local neighborhood activists will be willing to take on The Dean due to the survivalist instinct that is always present in career politicians. It may be a done deal, a futile effort, and Karl may indeed win the whole kit and caboodle, using his incumbency and that bottomless treasure chest to obtain an overwhelming victory.

And yet Kerr is absolutely wrong and dangerous to our city in setting forth the narrative that no one should challenge Karl.

The genius of our political system is based in part in the ability of an electorate to make a choice between competing visions of governance. Candidates need opposition to keep them honest, to hold their power in check, and to force each side to listen to the other. It is especially important that incumbents are forced to be accountable for their record, something that is impossible without and active and engaged opposition. Karl Dean’s vision may indeed be something that the majority of Nashville supports and is willing to keep in place. But without a reasonably strong opponent who is willing to challenge that vision, then our ability to make a choice is lost.

A journalist – even an opinion columnist like Kerr – should recognize the need for checks and balances in the system, and be hesitant in proclaiming a victor before someone else has the opportunity to make a challenge. She certainly has the right to gush about how much she supports Dean, how great she thinks he is, and most importantly (and most often missing in her writing) specifics about why Karl is the man for Nashville. But to write a column that so clearly warns off others from considering a challenge undermines our democracy and fails to offer the objective critique that is supposed to be a part of quality journalism.

As I have read Kerr’s columns she generally points to two things as symbols of Dean’s strength as a leader – the development of the Music City Center, and his leadership in flood relief efforts. However she conveniently forgets that many Nashvillians (a majority according some some polls) opposed the Music City Center project feeling that it put the city at financial risk in a down economy. As for flood relief, I can tell that Kerr has never sat down with the folks on the ground involved in doing relief efforts at the neighborhood level for I can attest that the mayor’s leadership is not seen as particularly stellar among the relief community. Kerr conveniently ignores the strong opposition that Dean had to his suggestion to close Metro General Hospital, a suggestion that he quietly let die in the face of that opposition (and the gaining of support for other projects by Jerry Maynard); or the administration’s unwillingness to address the Tent City situation, especially in the days after the flood, ultimately willing to pit my Antioch neighbors against homeless advocates without a willingness to seriously address the problem. Kerr forgets that one of Dean’s victories, the defeat of the Eric Crafton’s English Only charter amendment, was very close to being a failure, with some 40% of the electorate disagreeing with the mayor’s position. And it’s clear that Kerr doesn’t read the email lists of local neighborhood activists, who are frustrated with a mayor focused on development in the inner core at the expense of needs in the suburbs.

I don’t think that Karl Dean is as popular as Kerr makes him out to be, and with little or no public polling there is no way to know for sure. So it becomes important to create a narrative of invincibility early on, trying to suggest that opposition is futile when it fact it may have some legs after all.

The people of Nashville NEED someone to take on Karl and push back on the narrative of invincibility. Someone needs to stand up and suggest that the emperor’s clothes aren’t nearly as fine as Ms. Kerr makes them out to be.

If no one will, then we are pretty much stuck with the status quo, our choice of a different vision taken from us.

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