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When Is Conventional Wisdom Wrong?

February 3, 2011

mayor1 This morning it was interesting to see @joeygarrison offer up a piece in the City Paper about the possibility that either Eric Crafton or Michael Craddock might run against Karl Dean to be mayor of Nashville. Garrison did a good job of trying to get these guys to commit before they are ready to announce (if they choose to run, that is), and both did a good job of saying “maybe, but not yet…” At the end, Garrison also includes the obligatory note that any candidacy will be an uphill battle due to Dean’s clear financial advantage, already having bankrolled a half million dollars, and being able to dip in to his family’s personal wealth (to the tune of a million bucks last time around).

I frankly don’t know whether either the two C’s (Crafton and Craddock) pose much of a political threat to Dean. As a guy who tends toward the left I know I will have to think long and hard about these guys as viable options for while we have agreed on some specific issues, more often than not our political philosophies differ and it would be hard for me to have a great deal of confidence that they would make justice issues a priority (although it has to be noted that with the exception of immigrant issues, Mayor Dean hasn’t necessarily kept the needs of poor and marginalized folks at the forefront of his agenda either).

What concerns me however is the continuing narrative with says that mounting a serious campaign against Karl Dean is impossible due to his deep pocketbook. Certainly this has been repeated again and again in the Tennessean, with folks like Gail Kerr all but proclaiming the election over. And in conversations with political leaders I respect, folks that could offer an interesting opposition voice to the current administration, I continue to hear the refrain that Karl is unbeatable and it is a waste of time and energy to take him on given the financial realities.

I am not naive about this. I recognize the power of financial interests in politics. Mounting serious campaigns generally takes money, and the conventional wisdom that the candidate with the most money wins often holds to be true. Anyone taking on Mayor Dean has to recognize that their ability to compete in the financial realm is pretty slim.

But then I begin to think about Jerry Brown’s victory in the California elections.

This past Monday, Jerry Brown, the new (sort of) govenator of California released his financial reports in this past election. He reported that he had spent $36.5 million dollars to seal his victory. It’s a lot of money for sure, representing about a dollar for every man, woman, and child in the state.  But his opponent, Meg Whitman, the former E-Bay exec who lost by almost 14 percentage points, spent at least $177 million in her bid to obtain the office, almost $5 per person in the state. All of the pundits suggested throughout the race that Brown (who had the additional liability of having served in the office before and had amassed a long political record) had little chance to prevail given the financial limitations he faced, and yet in spite of their rhetoric, he won by a significant margin.

There are all sorts of reasons why Jerry Brown won, and certainly his name recognition and reputation were more established in the minds of California voters than the average candidate. However two factors certainly has to come into play – the dissatisfaction with the current approach to governance and the fact that Whitman was simply not the most personable figure in the world. Yes, she had money. Yes, she had some business acumen. But in the end the voters simply didn’t like her and didn’t think that she could lead the state in a new direction that addressed the concerns of residents. Jerry Brown had his problems, but they knew his commitment to the state, and trusted him to do the hard thing.

Yes, money plays a place in politics . . . it always has and it always will. But at the same time, money is not the only factor in determining an election. There is always the possibility that some dynamic figure will arrive on the scene who is able to convince an electorate that it’s time for a change and these figures defy conventional wisdom again and again. That’s a good thing for if we become so cynical that we believe that money is the only factor then we might as well give up and name ourselves the oligarchy that we’ve become.

There is no doubt that Karl Dean has a ton of money, and the support of the business leaders of Nashville who are willing to give more to maintain the status quo. But it in spite of the perception of the news reporting class of our city, Mayor Dean is not necessarily popular outside of certain neighborhoods. This fairgrounds thing has hurt him, and more and more in the regions of the city outside of Briley Parkway I hear person after person expressing frustration with the current administration. Karl is a nice enough guy, I suppose, but he isn’t the most warm and fuzzy candidate, and he can easily appear bored and frustrated when challenged on issue. Yes, he has a bunch of money, but there are limitations that he carries with him as well as he enters the race.

Crafton and Craddock may or may not be the guys to buck conventional wisdom, for they carry a bunch of baggage with them as well. But I’m not ready to write them off yet simply because of Karl Dean’s financial advantage.

Jerry Brown’s story gives me hope.

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