As you likely know by now, Mayor Karl Dean has been re-elected to another 1,461 days or so as Nashville's CEO.
Of course, the only real question Thursday night as the polls closed was just how easily Dean would beat his three invisible opponents. According to the latest election commission results, the answer is “very very easily.” Dean received 80 percent of the votes cast, a rout of biblical proportions.
Despite that impressive vote total, his Honor actually lost "the war" last night.
Between losing the Fairgrounds referendum, Council members Jason Holleman and Duane Dominy overcoming Dean-supported challengers, and the loss by incumbents Jim Hodge and Anna Page in District 30 and 16, the Dean administration saw any hope of a constructive relationship with the new Council crash and burn.
I start by acknowledging up front that few incumbent mayors have ever won a second term by such a wide margin nor racked up Dean's share of the vote cast. His performance almost put him on part with his friend, mentor and former employer Bill Purcell’s record-setting 2003 effort of 84.8 percent.
So if you are reading this and thinking that Mayor Dean is wildly unpopular, I would respectfully suggest that you are wrong. His campaign handlers have been telling the press for weeks he had approval ratings "in the 70s." They were wrong; it's higher.
If you don't get that, I'm sorry. People seem to love the man. He is a genuinely nice guy and that comes through if you meet him on the street, see him on TV or listen to him talk. Average folks in this town get that, understand that, and really like that.
The man is in fact likely the most "popular" mayor we have ever had in the city and — my fanatical racing friends notwithstanding — nothing that happened yesterday proves that more than his vote total and the absolute butt-kicking the Fairgrounds referendum gave to — well, to everyone other than the person responsible for it, Dean himself.
He badly mishandled the Fairgrounds matter from day one, did nothing at all to lessen its effect on the election generally or the re-election of his “friends” specifically. He sat back and watched as those people’s campaigns and political careers crashed and burned like a tricycle in turn 3 at the 500. Did it affect him? Nope, not in the least.
No, last night's results do not reflect that the mayor is “unpopular.” But they do indicate that Dean's political instincts appear to be lacking something. It is this perplexing lack of political judgment that could — I will go so far as to say will likely — result in the mayor having a considerably more contentious second term at the Courthouse.
In a pre-election piece the other day, The Tennessean’s Gail Kerr had the understatement of the decade when she called Dean’s handling of the 2011 Council races “extremely risky business.” This morning, with the benefit of hindsight, we might choose the words “impulsive” or “foolhardy” to describe the debacle he suffered at the hands of voters yesterday.
A historical parallel
Old political hands like to say that there are only two emotions in politics: love and fear.
Last night, Dean generated neither. Like FDR in 1936, Dean and his camp read his unbelievably high job approval numbers and believed that the people of Nashville were with him no matter what the issue. As Roosevelt found out the hard way in 1938 when he attempted to purge the Congress of New Deal and mostly conservative “Dixiecrats,” purges don’t always work and sometimes even backfire.
Yes, Dean won the battle of his re-election. A popular persona beating up on three guys whose names I can’t even remember and who didn’t have campaign websites is hardly cause for celebration. Roosevelt’s misguided attempt to rid the Congress of members he and his advisors considered to be problem children resulted in the collapse of the New Deal majority. In Dean’s case, we now have a more conservative-leaning Council in a majority progressive city.
From 1938 until his death, Roosevelt and the New Dealers were on the defensive. In fact, some argue that the New Deal era ended with their failed purge. In perhaps the most famous line ever muttered by a jilted politician, Dixiecrat Sen. Walter George, whom FDR had tried in vain to defeat, responded to someone saying FDR was his own worst enemy with the matter-of-fact “Not as long as I’m alive, he’s not.”
Dean has managed to create a bunch of 2011 versions of Walter George who will be gunning for him. Sadly, they will likely also try to end his political career by making Metro government less efficient and effective and more like the petulant debacle that has been D.C. of late.
I have the extreme luxury of reading this piece months from now and saying, "Oh well, I was wrong" if my crystal ball turns out to be a little off kilter. Crystal balls can be like that sometimes.
I really hope, for all our sakes, that I will be wrong.