Nashville’s lone legislative Republican exits stage left
Steve Dickerson, left, talks with the late Sen. Douglas Henry. (Photo: votestevedickerson.com)
Sen. Steve Dickerson’s November loss to Democratic Senator-elect Heidi Campbell meant Nashville and Davidson County’s legislative delegation has no Republicans fully representing the county. Dickerson, elected in 2012, became known for supporting issues typically thought of as progressive, including voter registration and medical marijuana —as well as his guitar playing and tweets about “The Mandalorian.”
But Dickerson’s career faced controversy when the U.S. Department of Justice sued him and two business partners in 2019 for defrauding government health programs. Dickerson, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, was cleared in June 2020.
Dickerson recently sat down with writer Rob Dobie for the Tennessee Lookout to discuss his loss, how having a Republican in the delegation helped broker wins for Nashville in a super majority Republican legislature, his status as a “Mitt Romney Republican” in a Trump-dominated party and his relationships with Nashville’s Democratic mayors. The interview has been edited for length.
Dobie: I’ll just cut to the chase. What happened? Why did you lose the election?
Dickerson: Having had time to reflect on it, when I ran in 2012, I think that Romney won the district by about 12 and a half points. Then Hillary Clinton won by a point (in 2016) and we had such an influx of voters. Such an uptick, I should say, of absentee voters. The Davidson County election commission doesn’t report those in a precinct by precinct way so that you can really get a granular look at it. But I think President Trump probably lost the district by about 15 points or more. And so the district swung dramatically. Whether that’s a permanent swing (I think some of it is), or whether it’s just reflective of the personalities involved—only time will tell. But there’s been an influx of new voters and a lot of folks have switched parties. And I think within the district, I’m not sure of the extent to which people really dig down and know what their state Senator is doing. But I think I had a great run. I think I reflected the district very well. And I think I continued to reflect the district well, but the district changed its political identity.
Dobie: When you lost in 2010, you lost to long-time democratic state Senator Douglas Henry. But then in that same year, there was redistricting. How much did that help in 2012?
Dickerson: Well the census took place in 2010 and the redistrict actually took place in 2012 to be precise. So they released the new map in early 2012. And then I decided to run again. And if you actually look at the shape of that district in 2010, it was a different district than it is now in a lot of ways. It had parts of Antioch and some other areas. And this district, the current 20th, is sort of a hybrid between the district that Joe Haynes used to represent, which covered the Madison and Goodlettsville area, and the district that Doug Henry used to represent, which was sort of the West Nashville and Belle Meade area. Plus the district that Jack Johnson used to represent, which was forest Hills and Oak Hill. And they took those. And to be frank, that was done by a Republican legislature looking for Republican seats.
So when I ran in the 21st district in 2010, I frankly had gone in with the expectation that Douglas Henry would probably lose his primary. All indications were that Jeff Yarbro was going to win. We thought the district could go either way, so I jumped in not thinking I was running against one of the most popular, seasoned, respectable politicians to ever hold office in Nashville. So I ran against him. He was as gentlemanly and courtly and polite to me as his opponent as he was to his colleagues when I served with him for a couple of years at the end of his career. And so I gotta be blunt—running against Doug Henry and getting to know him was one of the real formative experiences I had. It was like, that’s how you’re supposed to be a statesman.
Dobie: Do you think that sort of attitude is over? Do you not feel you received the same sort of cordiality?
Dickerson: I hope it’s not over. I have never gone into an election, nor would I ever go into an election, expecting an opponent, whether it’s the primary or general, to treat me in any particular way. I don’t mean to pat myself on the back by saying that I aspire to be a statesman. How other people treat you is their business. But I made the pledge to not engage in negative campaigning and not say anything bad about my opponents. That’s where I was. And a lot of that I learned seeing how Douglas Henry comported himself.
Dobie: All the information about the lawsuit is public, so I’m not interested in relitigating the details of the case. But I am curious what effect it had on your last year and a half or so in office. Describe how things changed after that headline dropped in April 2019.
Dickerson: When you get that sort of publicity it has a sobering and chilling effect all at the same time. On the one hand I’ve tried to lead a life where I live by the rules, and try to lead by example. When I’m working with my staff in the Senate office, or when I’m working in my medical practice or with my children, you try to teach everybody and you try to live by the rules. You try to live within the framework that there are things you do, and things you don’t do. As I’ve told my legislative staff a hundred times over, there’s black and there’s white and there’s gray. And in our world, there’s no gray. If we’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, don’t do it. We’re not here to cut corners or finesse or try to play fast and loose with interpretations. I want to teach my staff and I want to show my family that you live by the letter of the law and by the spirit of law. And when the lawsuit came out, and it basically opened up Pandora’s box about whether my medical practice had been run by the rules—it was absolutely distressing to them.
Dobie: So back to when you came into the state senate in 2012, or even in 2010 when you first ran, you ran as a libertarian. You were a principled libertarian and a principled conservative, sort of running on the back of an anti-ACA and pro-Romney wave. How would you describe yourself now? Are you a libertarian? Are you a moderate? What exactly are you in the context of the state Republican party?
Dickerson: I’m not sure that I easily fit any sort of definition at this point. I’m a Republican with libertarian leanings–would be how I describe myself. But I’m not sure if my colleagues and other people within the party describe me the same way. I believe in a small but efficient government, because any government that has the power to do everything for you has the power to take everything away from you. And the bigger it grows, the more risk there is involved with it. So I think we need to have a restrained state and federal government limited by the constitution and by the laws we set.
I would describe myself as a civil libertarian, pretty staunchly, and I think those dovetail very nicely. I’m a big believer—and this is not something I came into politics with or that I ran for office with—but I’ve realized that where you stand on civil liberties depends on where your issues are. A lot of folks will beat their fist on the table saying, “I want the second amendment.” That will defendant to the end. Then somebody will say something that offends them and they’ll try to silence it. But then, well, what about the first amendment? And so a lot of folks are civil libertarians when it suits their personal wishes and needs, and I try to be consistent. I call myself a sort of a Mitt Romney. A traditional Republican with some libertarian leanings.
Dobie: So in the context of your party, you say it is hard to fit you to a mold. Was that to your benefit politically? Or is it important in politics right now to fit to a traditional mold or at least to the party itself?
Dickerson: That’s a great question. And the answer doesn’t mean anything to me because what I realized early on from some of the bills and the anguish that I felt early in my tenure, was that when I tried to bend my vote to the will of the caucus…[pause]…The bills that I was most anguished over were the ones where I tried to take my personal beliefs and sublimate them. Where I felt compelled to fit my round peg within the square hole of the party. And I really quickly, just after one or two sessions, realized that whether they agreed with me, whether it hurt me politically, whether it helped me politically, whether they disagreed with me, whether it cost me a chairmanship, whether it cost me some sort of political advancement—it was much more important to me to vote in keeping with my philosophy and that of the district. And I’ve always thought that those aligned pretty well.
I talked with an elected official before I ever ran and asked, “what do people in this part of the city want?” Basically, left alone is what they want. They want the government to do what the government does efficiently, but they don’t want to be told how to raise their family. They don’t want to be told how to spend their money. They don’t want to be told how to live their lives. They want the government to do what the government has to do, and let them make the other decisions within the context of their family or their church or their schools or whatever it may be.
I think that’s still very reflective. It’s a pretty heterogeneous district. It has parts of Madison, where the grade school and middle schools—I believe the last statistics I saw were that 90% of the kids come from impoverished backgrounds. And then on the other extreme you have Belle Meade, which is probably the richest zip code certainly within Tennessee, and maybe one of the top few zip codes in the United States. What they all believe is if the government is going to do something, do it efficiently. Let it provide its services, whether that’s education or police or whatever it is, but let me lead my life. And that’s where I come down on a lot of things.
Dobie: Well, your district is obviously a strange shape. If you look on the map it makes a three-quarter perimeter around Davidson County. So like you said, you’re representing two very different experiences. You say that for the majority of the time, these people just want to be left to their own devices. But at some point, if people are struggling, or if, as you mentioned, the poverty rate is super high amongst young students in Madison—there does come a point at which you have to step in against the will of this other group living in Belle Meade. How do you weigh these two groups?
Dickerson: So I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. So if you look at somebody who comes from an impoverished background, what’s important to them? There are three things that come to mind right off the top. One is education, because they want to make sure that their kids can live the American dream. So you want to have a functional, successful public school system. Two, you want to have access to healthcare. It’s funny, I’ve rarely gotten asked about this, but I’ve been a supporter of Medicaid expansion since that was introduced. I was very public about it over the last couple of years. But, what that means is you need an efficient way to provide those folks with access to meaningful healthcare.
And last, you want to make sure that they have access to the basics of living well, and that can be through an EBT card. You make sure they have access to food. If you take the wealthiest person and the poorest person in our district and look at them, they’re looking for the same efficiency of government, but they’re looking for different levels of service from government. And I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I think if you went the person in Belle Meade or Forest Hills or Oak Hill, or wherever it may be and said, “we’ve got people in Nashville who have jobs so they can’t really qualify for Medicaid, but don’t have enough money to buy health insurance. What do you want to do?” Most of those people are going to say, “let’s change the standards for Medicaid. Let’s expand it through some function, some form of insure Tennessee, and give access to those folks.” But they want it done efficiently. They want it done fairly.
Dobie: You mentioned some of the anguish you experienced early on. Are you voting with the party or against the party? Are you voting with your conscience or against it? It seems like to some extent your party carved out room for you to vote your conscience while still being part of the team, right?
Yes. I think they were very tolerant. I think they saw me as sort of their eccentric, crazy uncle.
Dobie:Okay. So you were given space as a moderate. But this has been a rough year for moderates and certainly for people under your brand of conservatism as the party has moved further to the right. You drew a comparison to Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney is not well-liked by the Republican party as it stands today. In our own state, many Republicans have refused to recognize the outcome of the presidential election, they’ve denied Medicaid expansion, they’ve criminalized Black Lives Matter protests at Legislative Plaza, and now Tennessee is one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the world and the governor seems unwilling to do much about it. So how do you feel about your party right now?
Dickerson: Obviously there’ve been significant changes in terms of where we are as a party. Historically, what were our priorities? Fighting the deficit, strong national defense, free trade, economic vitality. And I hope that we get back to those basics over the course of the election cycle, or two cycles, or whatever it may be. Because I think there’s a real need to have people who want to govern from that philosophical perspective. You mentioned criminalizing the protesters. I got up and railed against that on the Senate floor. The first part of taking stock as a party and considering where we are and where we’re going, I think is to be tolerant of diverse opinions. And I can tell you from the lieutenant governor, both Lieutenant Governor (Ron) Ramsey and (Randy) McNally, to the state chairman, to the two governors I’ve worked with, they’ve always welcomed, if not encouraged my input because they don’t want to be a monolithic party. They believe in some diversity and they believe in that sort of internal debate. That friction builds a better party.
But clearly we’ve had a bit of a hiccup in terms of what I think the core values are in the party. And I hope we get back to those because again, I think it is important to hear that voice. And frankly we’ll see how that plays out over the next couple of years. I remember the first time I ever voted against the caucus and I remember how anxious I was about it. I knew I couldn’t vote with them. It was Senate Joint resolution 467 and it was an immigrant and refugee resolution that dealt with the way relocation was being funded in Tennessee and whether we were spending state tax dollars without having them properly designated by the state, and because the federal government was moving immigrants and refugees in the state. And I got up and argued against that and lost. And the resolution passed. I think I was the only Republican to vote against it. And I’ve never slept better the night after I made that vote. Because I knew that I was doing the right thing. I think that was a really revolutionary experience in my own political life because I obviously was opposed to my caucus on adoption equality, on counseling. There have been a bunch. Obviously I was the first person to step out and advocate for medical marijuana, which at this point, I’m like the face of medical marijuana in the state which I never would have guessed.
Dobie: That brings to mind another instance in which you were the lone dissenting Republican vote. In 2019 the state Senate famously passed a bill that penalized groups for submitting incomplete voter registration forms. As a leader in the state Senate, how did you deal with that blow? How did you deal with being that lone voice, and having to return to caucus meetings with the same lawmakers you stood up against?
Dickerson: I thought that bill was a solution looking for a problem, because I don’t think that the issue of widespread voter fraud has ever been proven to occur and certainly not widespread voter fraud by that mechanism. And if we’re going to see widespread manipulation of the ballot box and our nation or state, it’s going to be by outside actors on a grand scale, done in a very subterranean manner. We have enough trouble getting people to vote. We’re not going to see a group of people come in and fill out a bunch of fake registration forms and try to manipulate the vote that way.
On the topic of voter rights, you worked with Congressman Cooper on an initiative to improve voter registration. But in the 2020 election we’ve seen attacks from the president on the democratic process, on mail in ballots, on voting machines, you name it right. How is Tennessee going to respond? Are we people going to continue to vilify some of these measures that increase turnout?
Dickerson: Hard to predict, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we continue down that path. And to actually drill down on that specific topic, I think that there are two really important points. One is that in the United States, one of the things that has separated us from other countries is the peaceful transition of power. And the way you get to peaceful transition of power is that people on both sides of the aisle at the end of the day, whether you win or lose, look at the process and say, well, the process was fair. I lost. It stinks. I should’ve won. I should have beaten the other person, but I lost. Let’s move forward.
So the key thing for voting moving forward is to continue to try to come up with ideas that allow people across the political spectrum to have confidence in the ballot box. I said this a lot. I think I posted YouTube videos on this. There are a lot of folks who want to have same day registration, stuff like that, that would drive a lot of people in Tennessee crazy. They say “this is just an open season for [election] manipulation. You’re going to get truckloads of people, drop them off at the polls, they’re going to register and we don’t know who they are. So, short of that, we need to have certain processes in place that make registration and voting as easy as humanly possible while still giving folks in my party some level of confidence that the ballots cast are legitimate. And there is a middle ground I’m convinced. And I hope that folks seek it.
The rhetoric right now is pretty acrimonious. And I worry that we may not get there, and may not be moving in the right direction. That was one of the big reasons I wanted to run for reelection was to try to continue to improve on that issue. There were two or three issues that I felt were sort of my meat and potatoes. Voting, criminal justice reform, and medical marijuana. Those were sort of my core issues that when I went into work in the morning, those are the ones I got excited about. One that was sort of bestowed upon me that I never really anticipated was defending Nashville. I know this is a little nebulous, but the bills and the times that Nashville was singled out—a lot of the sting was taken out because I was in the caucus. I was able to kill some bills outright. I was able to kill some bills quietly or to defang some bills and try to protect Nashville. And I felt that is was incumbent upon me to run, in no small part, in order to continue to be a voice for Nashville within the general assembly. I don’t know how we got on those, but with voting we’ll try to find that sweet spot.
Dobie: I’m interested in the way you phrase your ability to speak for Nashville. Do you mean that you were a representative of a more liberal area within your more conservative party?
Dickerson:Yeah. So if you look at the breakdown between who represents Democrats versus Republicans, the breakdown is rural and urban. I think that’s fundamental. So I spent some of my professional time working in Maury County. I give anesthesia in Davidson County and Maury County and have practiced a lot in Sumner County. When you step outside the Davidson County line, the culture changes rapidly. Once you get out of the ring counties, their opinions are equally valid, but their opinions are just different.
And so I was in the unique position of representing a Democratic county where I was a member of the majority caucus and was able to help deal with Mayor Cooper or Rep. (Jim) Cooper or their predecessors. I had a really good working relationship with Mayor (John) Cooper and (David) Briley and (Megan)Barry and (Karl) Dean. I had a really good working relationship with all four of them, and whether it was transit or whether it was the police oversight board, whether it was Airbnb, whether it was—there were all sorts of weird areas. So I was in a unique position of being the sole Republican, after Beth Harwell retired, representing Davidson County and Nashville. There was every reason to not run, from where I am in my career, the age I am. But I thought there was some unfinished business that I really needed to take care of. And I’m sorry that I won’t be there to do so for at least four more years.
Dobie:That role you speak of as sort of a bridge between Nashville and your party. Do you worry what will happen without someone of your political persuasion there to fill that role?
Dickerson: Yes. How about that first easy answer? And again, there are folks that are out there taking pot shots at Nashville, whether it’s over vouchers or whether it’s over the way that the police department is set up, or whether it’s the way they deal with charter schools, whether it’s the way they deal with same sex couples and benefits within Metro or contractors. I share enough core values—limited government, libertarianism, civil liberties, fiscal responsibility—with the rural Republicans that when I sit down and go, “hey, you guys are off base on the issue of same sex marriage or you’re off base when it comes to immigration.” I’m speaking their language on other issues, so they at least give me some credibility. They’ll go, “well, we’ll at least listen to these.”
And if I’m in the room with the bills being written or I was in the office when we were coming up with the language, and I said, think about Nashville there. Can you back off and take out this sub paragraph. Or, this is really going to hurt our public school district disproportionately, this is going to hurt our police department disproportionally. Since I was in their caucus, I was given a lot of opportunity to have those discussions. And I worry that those discussions aren’t going to take place.
Dobie: More opportunity than Heidi Campbell will have, for example?
Dickerson: I hope she’s the most successful Senator to ever be elected in Tennessee. I hope she has a long and successful career and is able to pass bills and make her philosophic imprint for the betterment of our mutual constituents. But I think I was uniquely positioned to accomplish some of what we discussed.
Dobie: Last thing. Did you ever consider running for a different office? And now that you’re out of the state Senate, would you consider running for a different office?
Dickerson: I can assure you as one of the physicians (in the legislature) that practices full time, there are only so many hours in the day, and right now I really enjoy my time. I feel like I’ve been given about six extra hours every day. My phone doesn’t ring it all hours. I don’t get texts persistently. I don’t have to go in for meetings. I haven’t put on a suit in probably three or four months—I would have put on a suit during the campaign, but there was no campaign. You weren’t going to debates, you weren’t going to be with editorial boards. And so I didn’t put on a suit. I did post my campaigning on YouTube wearing a t-shirt.
So I have to admit, I’m really enjoying the free time I have now, but I still feel like there’s a lot that I have to offer. So I’m not ruling anything out, and they’re going to redistrict again in just a few months after the census is over. So I’m going to wait and see what the districts are like, and I’m going to wait and see what my professional life is like. And based on that, I may run for the state Senate again, or I may run for something else.
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