Speaking His Mind
Yes, Dean Rice is still a Republican and a Christian. But Tim Burchett’s former chief of staff has expansive definitions of both.
by jesse fox mayshark • May 14, 2019
dean rice, right, with a resident of the zaatari syrian refugee camp in jordan in 2015.
Here are a few thoughts posted to Facebook during the last couple months by a well-known Knox County political figure:
A public embrace of people of different nationalities, religions and orientations.
“[A]re the times really different in any way except that men in positions of power have to take into consideration the comfort-levels of others? Was there actually a time when women in the workplace or in social settings were comfortable with men assuming they had no personal space?”
“A bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate that I hope passes, not because it is Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative but because it is the right thing and it is about damn time that it becomes law – The Equality Act, a bill that would modify existing civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.”
“Congressman (John) Lewis is a person who has inspired me to not just stand against racism but to stand - to choose battles and fight - win or lose, and ultimately to stand ground and choose battles that win the war.”
If you had to guess the overall political leanings behind those words, you might not come up with Dean Rice -- a lifelong Republican who served for eight years as chief of staff to former Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, whose run for Congress Rice enthusiastically endorsed.
But if you’ve been paying attention to Rice’s own voice as expressed in newspaper op-eds and social media posts over the past several years -- and especially since the ascension of President Donald Trump -- you’ll recognize the tone.
As the party he still pledges loyalty to has increasingly accommodated anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and has in large part remained resistant to LGBT rights, Rice has repeatedly challenged those positions, arguing for an expansive conservatism that is willing to recognize and embrace differences of many kinds.
“When you see ideology begin to take precedence over governing,” Rice said over coffee one recent afternoon at the Panera Bread in Bearden, “when you see partisan political wins become more important than moving forward with positive policy, there’s a problem. Whether you’re on the left or the right. We’ve come to a point in our system, the way it’s funded, where interest groups are the driving forces on both ends of the spectrum.”
Now a consultant with the Nashville-based Ingram Group and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee’s College of Communications and Information, Rice is also a painter, photographer and civic scholar. He is troubled by the direction of American politics and discourse.
"I talked to kids who had left in the dark of night after their homes were barrel-bombed. They rushed out of the country with only what they could grab and expected with their parents to be in the camp for two months, they’d been there two years.”– Dean Rice, on his visit to a Syrian refugee camp in 2015
These aren’t new concerns for him. In February 2016, as Trump was emerging as a serious contender in the Republican presidential primary field, Rice and his wife, Natalie, wrote an op-ed for the News Sentinel warning against the candidate’s disregard for freedom of the press and other constitutional norms. (Natalie Manaeva Rice earned a doctorate in communications at UT, with a thesis on “Russian anti-Americanism, public opinion and the impact of the state-controlled mass media.”)
“[L]long after the applause fades, two poisonous ambitions will remain,” the two of them wrote. “First is Trump's apparent desire to cripple the press's ability to inform the public and thereby hold the government accountable. Second is a clear ambition to achieve this, and any other ends, with utter disregard for the constitutional roles of our three branches of government and the powers afforded to each.”
Revelations on the Road
Rice grew up in Knox County and graduated from the Christian Academy of Knoxville and UT. His first political experience came during former Sen. Fred Thompson’s first campaign in 1994, driving the candidate around and distributing yard signs. After the election, Rice was named Thompson’s East Tennessee field coordinator and later spent a few years in the senator's Washington, D.C., office working on policy.
He worked for former Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign in 1999 and then worked in Knoxville for former Congressman Jimmy Duncan. Eventually, he connected with Burchett, whom he had known for years, and managed his campaign for county mayor in 2010. After Burchett’s election, Rice became his chief of staff, a position he held through both of Burchett’s terms.
But Rice’s interests were always broader than Knox County politics. After a 2015 visit to a Syrian refugee camp on the Jordanian border, he returned as a passionate advocate for refugees and a stronger U.S. engagement in the Syrian civil war.
“I talked to kids who had left in the dark of night after their homes were barrel-bombed,” Rice said. “They rushed out of the country with only what they could grab and expected with their parents to be in the camp for two months, they’d been there two years.”
He has a wall in his house covered with photographs of the children he met on that trip. After returning (and recovering from a persistent illness he contracted on the expedition), Rice set about thinking globally and acting locally by fostering greater intercultural awareness in Knoxville.
“We’ve had the privilege of getting to know more individuals from a bunch of communities,” he said. “The Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Indian community.”
This month, for the fourth year in a row, he and his wife will co-host an Iftar dinner with Turkish friends. Iftar is the traditional Muslim breaking of the daytime fast during the month of Ramadan. “We’ll have 80 people from every background you can imagine,” Rice said.
Keeping the Faith
In his March 13 Facebook post about the Equality Act, Rice sought to distinguish between sacred and secular realms, arguing that religious beliefs could not justify discriminating against LGBT people in business, housing or other areas of civic life. That prompted some commenters to accuse him of being anti-Christian. Rice said he remains devout in his faith.
“I’m a fan of the red lines in the New Testament, the words of Christ,” he said. “Start there and work your way out.”
He said his views on gay rights are rooted in the same sense of justice he has long admired in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“When I write advocating for acceptance of people within the LGBT community, I am writing to advocate on behalf of my friends and to hopefully also advocate for making our society stronger, our public square more crowded and our nation a better place for all of us to call home,” he said.
Rice still identifies with the political party he grew up in, even as he finds himself outside its current mainstream. “The Republican Party is going through some growing pains,” he said. “I find myself more rooted in the (Howard) Baker deliberative governing focus rather than the quick and dirty partisan outlook."
There are plenty of Republican leaders he still admires, including Burchett, his former boss and current congressman. “He’s as genuine an individual as I’ve ever worked around or been around,” Rice said. “He has a heart to serve. He’s the first one to pull off the road in the rain and help somebody change their tire.”
Burchett, who ran on a pro-Trump platform, returned the compliments while acknowledging that the two of them aren’t always in sync. “I've known Dean over 30 years and he's always been passionate about various issues dealing with both foreign and domestic politics,” Burchett said in an email. “He is thoughtful in developing his position on issues, and I support his First Amendment right to speak his mind."
Rice seems likely to continue doing so. And listening, too.
“One of the most dangerous things is this whole idea that I can decide truth, and you get to pick your truth, and we can disagree and now what do we talk about?” he said. “There’s nothing to talk about.”