District 20 showdown: Dickerson, Campbell in their own words on eve of election

By: - November 2, 2020 5:33 am
Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell and Sen. Steve Dickerson are in a close race for Senate District 20.

Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell and Sen. Steve Dickerson are in a close race for Senate District 20.

Steve Dickerson emerged on the political scene in Nashville as something of an afterthought.

Dickerson was the Republican primary winner for the District 21 Senate seat in 2010, the same year upstart Jeff Yarbro challenged the stalwart incumbent Sen. Douglas Henry.

Following a confusing series of counts and recounts by the election commission, Henry defeated Yarbro by a mere nine votes in one of the most watched Davidson County Senate races in decades. The result spelled doom for Dickerson, the anesthesiologist with libertarian political leanings.

Henry won re-election 56 percent to 44 percent, but when Republicans redrew the district lines the next year Dickerson found himself in a newly drawn District 20 that spanned much of the county and included the affluent country club Republican neighborhoods of Belle Meade, Oak Hill, Forest Hills and Green Hills.

Dickerson won the newly drawn district in 2012 and then earned reelection in 2016, carving out a reputation as a moderate voice.

State Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Insiders on both sides of the political spectrum say Dickerson faces by far his toughest test since being elected to the Senate in the form of former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell.

Faced with a competitive primary of her own, Campbell fought her way to a victory, defeating progressive challenger Kimi Abernathy in a race that turned on Campbell’s campaign’s strategy around absentee voting. Abernathy actually won the most votes from early voting and on election day. But Campbell cleaned house with mail-in ballots and won the election. 

Campbell entered politics organically, helping lead her Oak Hill neighborhood’s opposition to a commercial real estate zoning proposal. That neighborhood win led to a run for Oak Hill council, and Campbell, a former music industry executive and entrepreneur, gained traction with Democratic donors in Nashville.

The same national dynamic that has made the suburbs the battlegrounds in the race for the White House has put Dickerson’s Senate seat in play. District 20, in particular, has moved to the left, with Karl Dean and Phil Bredesen winning the district in their races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2018. That same year Democrat Bob Freeman won the state House seat long held by former House Speaker Beth Harwell.

If Dickerson loses, Davidson County will be completely represented by Democrats in the legislature besides a puny sliver that is represented by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile. Should Campbell unseat Dickerson, it would mark the first time Tennessee Democrats have defeated a Republican incumbent for a state Senate seat since 2006.

The race has veered away from policy debates over healthcare and education in the closing days. A political action committee funded by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s donors has paid for attack ads against Campbell highlighting decades-old misdemeanor criminal charges.

Campbell’s campaign has run ads highlighting Dickerson’s settlement with the U.S. government in a federal lawsuit over fraudulent billing practices by the CEO of his pain clinic.

Against that backdrop, the Tennessee Lookout interviewed both candidates in the final days of early voting. Here is where the race stands in the candidates’ own words.

Tennessee Lookout: Many Metro insiders who I talk to regularly say it’s advantageous for Nashville to have a Repulican within the Senate’s supermajority. Can you give an example of when you think it paid off that you were representing Nashville in the Senate?

Republican nominee incumbent Sen. Steve Dickerson: I do think there’s value. To be frank, when I was thinking about running for reelection, I knew it was going to be a tough race. I’m in a position within my party, and the district is a very moderate district, I never went into this expecting not to have a tough primary and not to have a hotly contested general election. And I obviously had my lawsuit out there and I knew that was going to come up. 

I said to myself, ‘Where’s the greatest value in terms of public service?’ I decided to run with the largest reason being I wanted to represent Nashville. When you go outside of Davidson County and certainly when you go out of Middle Tennessee, folks just have a very high regard for Nashville. And the rural people think that Nashville, and the Nashville sort of elite, and the Vanderbilt and urban elitists, sort of look down their noses at them and (view them) as a punching bag.

Certainly on a lot of policy issues, whether it’s carry permit and issues like that where they’re very different in terms of perception than we are. And they really come after us. So I thought having a voice in the supermajority and having been a committee chairman, which I still am – maybe being state and local (government committee) chairman or maybe another of my choosing should I be fortunate to be reelected – I think I can make the argument for Nashville.

One of the biggest dilemmas was the (Community Oversight Board) ballot initiative that came through. It didn’t pass in my district if you look at it precinct by precinct. It actually was defeated in my district, but it passed citywide. So as an individual I did not support the initiative, I voted against it. I was public about that. But as a Senator who was serving my community and the mayor, whether it be David Briley or John Cooper or their predecessors, I felt it was my job to go in and fight for Nashville and make sure the will of our voters is not overturned wholesale.

(Photo: Dickersonfors20, Facebook)
Sen. Steve Dickerson, center. (Photo: Dickersonfors20, Facebook)

If you look at the end product compared to the bill that did pass, it was a significantly different bill and much less punitive to Nashville than was originally envisioned. And I literally sat in the room with the bill sponsor, the lieutenant governor, the majority leader and made that pitch. The will of the Nashville voters should not be overturned wholesale by the fiat of the General Assembly. And they heard it and frankly they bought into it. I can tell you the trajectory there was shaped dramatically by that.

Going forward, I think one issue we may tackle is Nashville’s financial peril. As you may be aware Comptroller Justin Wilson sat down with all Metro Council before the session started, so this was before the pandemic, and said, “Just to put you on notice, the finances in Nashville are in such a perilous situation that we are keeping a close eye on it.” As you know, the state is the guarantor of last resort basically for the cities. They also have the authority to step in when cities have become insolvent or are in peril of doing so. And so I think we are in a pretty tenuous spot now that the pandemic has hit, you can see that the revenues are so tumultuous. The bars have closed, and now are sort of open, the music venues are closed. If you look at the tourist volume, it’s really gone south and Music City Center is basically sitting empty now.

So I think the next few years for Nashville are going to be important in terms of how the property taxes play out, and how other revenue sources play out and about how the fiscal management of Nashville is either handled locally or by the state. I think that’s one going forward where I would have a big, big hand in making sure Nashville’s interests are represented. To be clear, I don’t want to do anything that would imperil Nashville’s finances. So I’m not here to be an unrelenting advocate for just whatever the mayor or the Metro Council says. But, I will be a voice between them and the state to make sure the rural legislators do not come in wholesale willy nilly and do something drastic or draconian for the city.

How much is the gist of this race decided by President Trump and you making your case to anti-Trump voters?

For sure the turnout is going to be related to the presidential race. I’m sure the polling and whether people for President Trump or Vice President Biden is going to play a role. If you go back four years, I actually got more raw votes in my district than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

I think what we saw then was three or four things that coalesced. There were some Republicans that went in and voted in the U.S. House race for Jim Cooper in his race, and or for whichever (state) House race whether it’s Bob Freeman or Bo Mitchell, and still vote for me in my race. And I think I got some Democrats, and I think independents tend to split my way. So to be sure, it is an important part of the picture. But I think over the last eight years I have honed or crafted my own identity. So I’m running on my past record and the three or four things that are high on my list to accomplish in the future.

I thought having a voice in the supermajority and having been a committee chairman, which I still am — maybe being state and local (government committee)chairman or maybe another of my choosing should I be fortunate to be reelected — I think I an make the argument for Nashville.

– Sen. Steve Dickerson

What is your comment on the most recent ad from your opponent that makes issue of the lawsuit against your business?

There was a lawsuit. Just to be clear, because there’s been a lot of confusion whether intentional or otherwise, but there were no charges. This was a lawsuit. It was a civil lawsuit that has been settled and dismissed that was a spinoff of the CEO we hired, who had a side business and he was siphoning money from our practice. And in that business, he had a partner and they were committing fraud.

To be clear, the government had me come in and testify as a witness on their behalf against the CEO. When they started looking at his business they said, “We’re going to look into the practice. Because where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” Basically they spent several years looking into this. Never found anything.

We tried to have the suit dismissed about a year ago. Basically the judge sat all of the attorneys in the room and said, “The government has followed the rules so I can’t dismiss it. But, there’s not really anything here so you all need to make this go away.” So negotiations started. And frankly I made the decision not based on my political future, but on my family’s future. My attorney said, “Here’s what it’s going to cost to defend it to get you through the process where the suit gets dismissed. Or you can just pay them a fraction of that and it’ll go away.” So that’s what happened.

That’s something that’s in my rearview mirror personally, professionally. But of course politically it’s certainly become the clutch hold that’s being used to beat me.

Many people who have interactions with you, from both sides of the aisle, routinely say what a nice person you are. The negative ads that have come up against your opponent – and I understand your campaign is not paying for them – does it bother you to be engaged in a race with those kinds of ads? Because it doesn’t seem in line with your reputation.

I don’t like negative campaigning of any kind, whether it’s directed at me or whether it’s directed at my opponent. I find it personally just really very troubling. It gives me a slightly nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach.

If I have a key to my success as a legislator so far, whether it’s groups I agree with or disagree with, I try to treat them with respect. I try to treat interns with respect. Somewhere deep within my inner workings, I like to make people feel at ease and try to make them feel comfortable.

And, negative campaigning is the antithesis of that.

Tennessee Lookout: What is the focus in the closing days of your campaign? How has it changed because of the pandemic?

Democratic nominee, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell: That’s a complicated question, because the pandemic has played a part in the hyper-polarized environment we’re in. I feel like – actually, I don’t just feel like, the numbers bear this out – already there’s a baked-in race up and down the ticket for the most part.

So our persuasion universe is a lot smaller than perhaps it usually is in this type of a race. So what we’re trying to do is target the persuasion voters, the undecideds, doing it with mail, doing it on the phone, doing it with texts. We’re not knocking on doors, I know Dickerson’s campaign is. I’m really unhappy with the leadership on the pandemic. I really think it’s not ethical to go knock on people’s doors right now.

Your campaign did such an amazing job on the vote-by-mail in the primary, and that was an amazing thing how you pulled ahead as the absentee votes were counted. Obviously we’re limited in Tennessee, but absentee voting is more opened up a little because of the pandemic. How has absentee voting and getting out the vote through the mail affected your strategy?

We’ve already had a significant number of people vote by mail in the general as well. We did not drive as hard with that in the general because we were concerned about the changing landscape in terms of the rules for vote-by-mail. So we didn’t want to make ourselves vulnerable.

Heidi Campbell, Mayor of Oak Hill and Democratic nominee for Tennessee Senate District 20. (Photo: Heidi Campbell for TN Senate 20)
Heidi Campbell, Mayor of Oak Hill and Democratic nominee for Tennessee Senate District 20. (Photo: Heidi Campbell for TN Senate 20)

So we changed in this race and encouraged people to early vote more.

How much does the president’s apparent unpopularity in your district hang over your race?

Absolutely completely and totally dominates it. Just like everything else on this planet, Trump dominates everything. The conversation about our race is no exception. Dickerson knows that too. With a lot of things in this campaign, they’ve been playing both sides of the fence.

They have people sending out mail on his behalf tying him to Trump. And then they have people who are advertising that he’s a never-Trumper. So he’s trying to get both sides of that. I think that Trump has a huge bearing on this race.

When we look at the polling numbers, it’s a race. It’s a tight race, but we’re a little bit ahead.

We have some women, older college-educated women who have jumped ship. Our polling, our data is not that useful because for one thing we polled this race right after the primary. Of course things have changed a lot. And, for another thing we don’t really have the money to do a deep dive into that. But, from an anecdotal perspective in terms of what we’re seeing on the ground, people in this district who don’t like Trump, really, really don’t like him. And they’re energized to get out and vote. So when we look at the daily voter returns, we’re a little bit ahead.

Democrats have not defeated a Republican incumbent in a state Senate race since 2006. How much of Nashville wanting to project that it’s getting more progressive as a city, and how much of the statewide dynamic of Democrats really having a tough decade in Tennessee plays into your race? 

I think this is this more (at play) than people realized, certainly than I realized. The microaggressions that we experienced – and I’m not complaining, because I knew what I was getting into. But I didn’t know how much Republicans run this state and by proxy run this city. 

Heidi Campbell. (Photo: Submitted)
Heidi Campbell, Democratic nominee for State Senate 20. (Photo: Submitted)

There were little things, like the Secretary of State left my name off the ballot. Then, they put two of the Republicans including my opponent’s name in all caps. The Repulican is listed first (on the ballot). So there are little things like that.

Then, of course the money. Everybody in this town obviously does what the Republican party tells them to do, because they’re in charge of the Senate. There are people who have said, “Look, I’m really, really pulling for you,” and they even donated to me quietly, because they want me to win, but they don’t want to (upset) the Republicans. 

Running for Oak Hill council and mayor is nothing like what you’re in the middle of now. You have these ads that are bringing up things from your past. What’s this race been like personally? And do you want to respond to the attack ad that came out this week?

I know Dickerson says, because I’ve heard him say to other people, that he hates this kind of negative campaigning. Obviously that’s disingenuous. This was a choice that there was going to be a good cop, bad cop. Had he wanted the Repulican Party to give the $800,000 to him so he could run a positive campaign, they certainly would have done so.

To be the unwitting benefactor of that kind of campaigning, and then to eschew it seems kind of convenient. But, you know, it’s gross. It’s disgusting. And my goal if I get elected, my goal will be to try to change the way we do that.

Really a lot of that comes down to money and politics, and money and campaigning. It’s kind of crazy that I have to raise, and I should have probably raised more, $450,000 to win this state Senate seat.

There are people who have said, 'Look, I'm really, really pulling for you,' and they even donated to me quietly because they want me to win, but they don't want to (upset) the Republicans.

– Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell

Let’s say you win next week. What will your top three priorities be in terms of what you’ll focus on as a state Senator?

First and foremost we have people who are hurting financially really, really significantly because of COVID as well as decisions that were made in the past regarding our city and the tax situation. So first and foremost I’m going to focus on seeing how we can help those people. That includes, we should have done a cost-of-living increase for teachers.

We have got to take better care of our teachers. A budget is a moral document. We really need to step up to the plate and show our teachers and our schools that we care about them.

Expansion of Medicaid is something that maybe after this election we can get some bipartisan support for, and I’d really love to work on that too.

So economic recovery, education and Medicaid expansion.


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.