Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (left) talks with Tonya Coats.

Karl Dean, who wants to be the Democratic nominee for governor next year, came to Knoxville Thursday to talk to a small but influential crowd at the Knoxville Oak Ridge Central Labor Council.

The former Nashville mayor, who raised a record-setting $1.2 million in the first quarter after he entered the Democratic Primary field, talked about navigating his city through the Great Recession of 2008 and the Great Flood of 2010 and coming out on the other side with a bigger, faster-growing and more prosperous city than ever before. He said the issue he hears the most about is healthcare and he talked about applying common sense to tackling the issues that matter to Tennesseans.

Dean said he believes that there’s a “pathway to victory” for a Democrat, despite the Republicans’ chokehold on power.

“Mayors have to know how to solve problems that have no party labels. There is no Republican or Democratic way of filling a pothole,” he said. “People want good education, good jobs and a good healthcare system.”

He tagged healthcare as the problem he hears most about and told the group that Tennessee ranks second in the nation in hospital closings – “Nine, with several more teetering” – a number exceeded only by Texas, which, like Tennessee, opted not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

This is an economic problem as well as a public health crisis because health care is important to industries looking to relocate, he said.

Dean told the group that labor unions have a positive impact on communities, and he promised to appoint a liaison to work with labor if he is elected. He promised not to interfere with union elections (something Gov. Bill Haslam has done), and he also said he’d reverse Haslam’s policies on privatization of state parks and campus workers.

He defended the practice of offering financial incentives to industry in the process of wooing them to Tennessee as a necessary evil, and he talked about the need to create jobs in rural areas and small towns. His audience seemed satisfied with his answers, with one exception.

Knox County Education Association president Tonya T. Coats gave him a grilling about the proliferation of charter schools in Metro Nashville during his tenure as mayor.

Dean defended his policies by saying that he does not approve vouchers, and said that when he took office, the city was in danger of having its schools taken over by the state.

“We looked at different models, and I don’t think it’s a panacea, but it was the best choice for our situation,” he said.

Coats was unconvinced and said Haslam’s controversial former education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, whose previous job was heading Teach for America, a non-profit that places recent college graduates in teaching positions, was deeply involved in pushing charter schools in Nashville. Teachers’ unions criticize TFA as a vehicle for forcing out experienced teachers and replacing them with novices at the bottom of the pay scale.

Dean said Nashville teacher pay rose from 33rd to third in the state during his administration. Coats said teachers are willing to do “more for less if they are sincerely supported.”

When asked about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., after neo-Nazis and white separatists came town, allegedly to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus, Dean said condemning violent racist agitators is “a no-brainer.”

“To equate Nazis and white supremacists with those who resist them is unbelievable.”

Written by Betty Bean