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Capitol View Commentary: May 14, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: May 14, 2010

CREATED May 14, 2010

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

May 14, 2010

POLITICS AFTER THE GREAT FLOOD; COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS; OMOHUNDRO; UP ON THE HILL; EAT BREAKFAST;

For a while at least, everything in these parts, particularly in the Nashville area, is going to be marked by the very recent Great Flood.

We are all still a little bit in shock and tend to date things now by whether they occurred before or after the deluge (if we can remember or if we still care). There's a new "normal" settling in that is both troubling and challenging.

That challenge extends to our political leaders and how they act. Everybody on the local, state and federal level have been working in overdrive since the flood, joining with our huge volunteer community to try and bring help to the many in need.

FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has often quickly become a four-letter word in many of the communities where it has been summoned to deal with a major natural disaster (think New Orleans, the Gulf Coast & Katrina). But so far, here in Nashville, it seems the agency is trying to earn a new reputation for moving in quickly and starting to get things done (especially approving money for victims).

And that seems to apply as well to the entire administration of President Barack Obama which has almost daily sent one or more high-level (often cabinet) officials here to review the damage and bring more help. While the relief efforts, so far, have not become partisan (thank goodness), it is not by accident that these announcements, first of federal disaster aid coming to Nashville and then the announcements of the visits of all these high-level officials, have come through Congressman Jim Cooper's office. 

Cooper is a Democrat like the Obama administration, and represents a large part of the Greater Nashville area in Congress. He is joining with Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and the rest of the Tennessee delegation to get an additional $200 million in supplemental appropriations through Congress to assist our flood-stricken state. They are using a bill already going through the Congress to fund our ongoing foreign wars. These bills sometimes tend to get bogged down because of last minutes amendments or riders that lawmakers try to add. But the word is this aid could be approved by Congress before its Memorial Day recess later this month, which would be very fast indeed.

One other interesting aspect of the supplemental bill: it raises the amount the feds will pay for relief projects and repairs from the traditional 75% to 90%. That could be very helpful to government officials all across Tennessee struggling with how they are going to pay their share of the local recovery effort.

(INSIDE POLITICS note: Congressman Cooper is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week. More on that later in this column)

In my view, it is disappointing to have not seen the President himself visit Tennessee. I think it's correct that what's happened here is the largest single non-hurricane related natural disaster in recent American history, particularly in terms of the damage which is well into the billions. While President George W. Bush's administration did such a poor job handling Katrina (from which he never recovered), at least he made frequent visits to that area to try and show he cared, even if his administration's actions sent an entirely different message.

 The President has become our Comforter-In-Chief. And we could use some comfort down here. Politically, Tennessee is about as Red a state as it gets these days, but the President could score some points by his presence, even if they never show up in his Electoral vote totals in 2012. Besides, Nashville/Davidson County was one of the strongest areas of support for Obama in 2008.

His presence could also help salve the wounds Tennesseans are still carrying (although it is about time we started to get over it) concerning the failure of the national media to pick up and cover this story, especially early on. I have always thought Nashville and the rest of the state had a little bit of an inferiority complex. The national media snub of our disaster probably only added to that. But I think we are looking at it the wrong away. If anything, our state and local response to this tragedy ought to give us great confidence that working together, there is almost nothing we can't accomplish or overcome!

Getting back to the President, It is always a difficult situation for politicians and elected leaders to deal with disaster situations like this. They need to be seen as present, in charge, and providing leadership. But they need to do so in a way that doesn't create logistical issues or make their flyovers resemble some kind of traveling political/media circus. But I still think the President needs to come, if nothing else, not only to comfort those in need, but to pay tribute to the extraordinary volunteer efforts that have marked the local and state response to this disaster.

If handling disasters is difficult for elected officials, it is a real political mine field for candidates. Suddenly, their campaign ads and rallies seem rather silly and unnecessary, especially when people are hurting. And this certainly isn't the time to launch any political attacks against your opponents.

That leads us to Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who has been running his campaign with a strong anti-Washington theme. Given the pre-Flood political climate surrounding so many issues such as health care, it made a lot of sense. But "giving Washington the boot" may not play as well in the weeks to come if FEMA and the other federal relief efforts in this state are seen as positive and effective. 

Of course it could play very well for Ramsey if things go south for relief efforts like they did after Katrina. As we discussed in the last column there are already questions being raised about how well both The Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service did in communicating to the public and other officials as the flood waters rose.

So what will Lt. Governor Ramsey do as he plots his campaign strategy and themes moving forward, especially for his TV ads? It looks like he's already decided.  His campaign is hosting an on-line event May 15 (Saturday) at which he will be unveiling a special "Give Them the Boot" logo for his campaign. I guess the Lt. Governor decided to keep pulling them up tight and keep booting away for the duration.

In the wake of this (and Ramsey's long delay and continued problems with getting together and passing a Republican budget package on Capitol Hill), I found it quite interesting that fellow GOP gubernatorial candidate, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, came out with a new TV ad stressing the need for "civility and the right kind of leadership" (read: Haslam's leadership, not Ramsey's). The message of the ad is commendable. It would be great (although probably a little boring) if campaigns always focused on a discussion of the issues. But this TV ad almost anticipates attack ads are coming soon.

Are they?

Another GOP gubernatorial candidate, Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp has just come out with three new regional TV ads. But there's nothing negative about them. They are all about Wamp's jobs plan as Governor, tailored to four different parts of the state (Middle, West, East and Northeast Tennessee).

So is the Haslam's ad about something else? A subtle rebuke of Ramsey's "Give them the boot" theme or the earlier statements by Wamp, that he would "meet them (the federal government) at the state borders" if they try and enforce some of their new mandates such as health care?   

The Haslam ad is also significant because it marks the first time he has actually spoken on camera in his TV spots. All the other GOP candidates have done it, but all of Haslam's previous TV efforts have utilized an announcer voice-over while video is shown of the candidate in action. Given how good Haslam is on his feet and on camera, it is interesting his campaign waited this long.

It is also interesting to note the other new TV ad the Haslam campaign has started running this week (it has been a busy week for new ads). This one is a testimonial from what appears to be a long-time family friend, with Tennessee drawl and pickup truck prominently featured. Much of the information in the ad is not new (Haslam marrying his college sweetheart and "raising his kids" right). But the ad does deliver these new messages, seemingly aimed at GOP conservatives. That would be statements about how strongly Haslam supports 2nd amendment rights and opposes any state income tax. "He's the real deal,"  the ad concludes, perhaps trying to reassure those in the Republican right wing of the party who have some concerns about Haslam and his reputation of  being "the moderate" in the primary race.            

Getting back to the aftermath of the flood, it is commendable that all the GOP candidates and their campaigns seem to be lending their assistance to relief efforts for the victims of the flooding. It is also crucial since they are all from East Tennessee while the hardest-hit parts of the state are in the Middle and West. A failure to help with aid efforts would likely not leave a good impression when voters get ready to go the polls in August. But unlike their elected counterparts, the last thing these candidates should do is starting touring these disaster areas. That would be dimly viewed I suspect as someone trying to politicize the relief effort.

Local candidates in Nashville/Davidson County are in a real quandary as well. The May 4 election was postponed two weeks (until May 18) leaving them with an unexpected (and perhaps unfunded) 14 days to try and campaign in a time when the last thing the community is thinking about is an election.

Interest in these county constitutional races was already near record-lows based on early voting which ended just before the floods came. Who will remember to vote this Tuesday is anybody's guess and now candidates have to be careful about how they remind voters so they don't look insensitive. Also of concern for some candidates is that the hard-hit Bellevue area is a part of their political bases (Vic Lineweaver, Eric Crafton).

Crafton, in his role as council member in that area, has rightly been very prominent and active in organizing community meetings and other efforts. But he has to be careful how he tries to turn that into immediate votes. Being so involved in Bellevue has also likely given him little time to campaign anywhere else in the county for the Juvenile Court Clerk's nomination in the GOP primary.

The problems facing incumbent Juvenile Court Clerk Vic Lineweaver are even more daunting. The Metro Juvenile Court Center on the East Bank was underwater during the height of the flooding, with many of the Clerk office's critical records damaged. Lineweaver has been in trouble before on this topic (even went to jail briefly on contempt of court charges) for how he was NOT properly handling court records. In fact, he couldn't even find them at one point.

Not surprisingly, Lineweaver now needs to likely spend all his time salvaging his records and getting his office operations (presently scattered across town) back into shape. That's probably the best (and only) campaigning he'll have time to do.      

There's one last area of local politics that has changed since the Flood. Just four days before the waters rushed forth from the Cumberland and other creeks and rivers to engulf downtown and several other parts of town, many in the community's business and political leadership gathered at Riverfront Park to hear Mayor Karl Dean's annual State of Metro address. No could imagine what a disaster was looming just ahead for our city. At the time, the focus was on what a wise, "third-way" proposal the Mayor had made to refinance some of the city's capital debt in order to avoid more budget cuts or a property tax increase.

In the wake of the flood, that proposal looks even better, although Metro may now need to take some of the money it planned to spend on new capital projects and direct them instead towards making major repairs to city infrastructure (roads, bridges and greenways) badly damaged in the floods.

Everyone is likely to agree that needs to be done. What will be politically difficult is deciding which new projects might have to be axed for now. Many Council members are really counting on some of these new projects (the Bellevue Library, the 28th Avenue Connector among others) as key things to point to as accomplishments while running for re-election next year.  

The flood could also wreck some havoc on the ongoing equipment needs of some city departments. Under the Metro Charter, 4% of all city funds are put aside each year to be spent on equipment and building needs, including repairs and renovations. City Finance Director Rich Riebeling is clearly eyeing this fund to pay for some of the repairs Metro will need to make. That's understandable, but what happens to some of the major purchases made out of this 4% fund every year such as buying new police cars or other equipment for departments? Even though federal and state disaster funds could now pay up to 90% of the cost for many of these needed flood repairs, will these other annual purchases have to wait?

Despite these difficulties, Mayor Dean's political prospects have never looked better. His strong and resolute leadership during the flood combined with his budget and tax plan likely put him in a nearly unbeatable position to win re-election in August, 2011, perhaps without any serious opposition. However, the election is still well over a year away, and if we have learned anything in the last couple of weeks, it is that sometimes the unexpected can occur. 

Finally, during crisis times like these, age-old political ploys don't work so well. One GOP Congressional candidate in the 8th District (Dr. Ron Kirkland) decided now was the time to challenge his main opponent (Stephen Fincher) to a series of debates in every county in the West Tennessee district. That's an age-old political maneuver, but this time his opponent had a bit of a trick up his sleeve.

He responded that rather than a debate between just the two of them, all the candidates in the race ought to come together in every county and raise flood relief monies to help those in need, which I'll bet is not what Dr. Kirkland had in mind. But can he now refuse the idea? Checkmate.

You see, everything is different after the Great Flood, even our politics. I mean, who would have ever thought that driving a dirty, nasty looking car or truck around town would become a status symbol and a sign of how much you care about Nashville. We Are Nashville!

INSIDE POLITICS                 

As the massive flood recovery effort continues in our city and across our state, one of the people at the center of it all is Congressman Jim Cooper. He is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

If I can give you a headline from our conversation it would be that he believes there needs to be a complete and full investigation what happened before and during the Great Flood to see what could be done better. It sounds to me like the Congressman believes that investigation ought to be conducted at least in part by Congress. Representative Cooper also has some revealing information he shares about how the Corps of Engineers was handling the level of waters in its local dams BEFORE the flood. He also gives some insight into exactly what a 100-year or a 500-year flood actually means…and it is lot different from what I, and I think many of us, think. It is a fascinating and informative discussion. 

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS on Comcast and Charter Cable channels 250 as well as Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

We are also on the main channel (WTVF-TV, Channel 5) twice, first tonight (Friday, May 14) at 6:30 p.m. and then again at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Our NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS airtimes are:

Friday (May 14)………..7:00 p.m.

Saturday (May 15)……5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m.

Sunday (May 16)………5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m.

Join us!     

OMOHUNDRO

Let's face it, we've been clueless.

We never thought about what an important role it plays in our community.

We didn't even know where it was located.  

And pronouncing its name correctly? Yeah, right! Forget about that!

But Metro's Omohundro Water Treatment Plant (pronounced oh-ma-hun-dro), which is located just off Lebanon Road, literally saved this community during the Great Flood.

By just a couple of feet

That's how close rising flood waters came to getting into the plant and shutting down the city's only remaining facility to provide clean water. The K. R. Harrington Plant on the Stones River was an early casualty of the flood (and will remain off line until at least the end of May). For many days, this left Metro officials in a real bind, having to request we all cut back water use by at least 50%. 

We can also thank the heroic work of the city's Water Services personnel who kept the Omohundro plant up and operating during our hours of peril, as well as the labors of Nashville's jail inmates, who filled thousands of sand bags to help keep the water out.

Bottled water was the only alternative if the worse had occurred and both water plants had been sidelined. With over a half-million people to serve, I am not sure how well that would have worked. I suspect anarchy would have ensued (not just in the flood damaged areas) but throughout the city. I am pretty sure we would have needed the National Guard here (and not just to hand out the water).

Omohundro was an investment made by this community way back in the 1880s. Until the late 1980s, when the Harrington plant was added, it supplied all of the city's potable water. Almost 130 years later this investment in the Omohundro facility is still paying off…. big time!

While for security reasons access to visit Omohundro is limited, it is an architectural beauty and right now it has never looked better. Not only did it just save our community from an even greater disaster because of The Flood. Metro has also been spending funds to renovate, restore and preserve this historic gem. May is Historic Preservation Month nationally, and every year the Metro Historical Commission has an awards ceremony to recognize those who are working to keep our architecturally significant structures.

The Omohundro Plant was selected for an award in the Industrial/Engineering category long before the flood waters rose. But how appropriate the timing! When Mayor Dean heard about it, he made a special effort to attend the awards ceremonies (held Tuesday, May 11at the beautiful Downtown Library) so he could present the award himself. And when the crowd rose to its feet in applause, you just had a feeling that maybe they were cheering for much more than just the Omohundro's historic appeal.

In fact, because of that plant, we can all drink to that! J       

UP ON THE HILL

I mentioned earlier in the column the delays and difficulties Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey has had putting together a budget alternative to Governor Phil Bredesen's spending plan. Ramsey doesn't like the Governor's plan because it raises a few taxes and fees on driver's licenses and cable TV bills as well as removing the sales tax cap on the purchase of some big ticket items.

At first, the Lt. Governor told me on INSIDE POLITICS he thought he could have his plan together within a week and he added he thought his plan would be one that would get the full support of the Republican majority in the House as well as the Senate.

Well, not so fast, my friend. It has taken Ramsey until just the past few days (at least two weeks longer than he predicted) to pull his budget proposal together and so far, reviews are mixed at best.

As expected, Democrats don't like the plan. It contains over $140 million-plus in cuts, deleting the proposed 2% bonus for state workers (who haven't had any pay adjustment in several years) as well as making cuts in agriculture, public safety and teacher pay (scrapping the old Career Ladder program of then-GOP Governor now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander). It also makes us of a lot one time money out the state's rainy day fund and other sources to pay for recurring expenses.

While it appears the Lt. Governor has strong support from his fellow GOP Senators, House Republicans might be a different story. How about this quote given to Tom Humphrey of the KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL by GOP House Speaker Kent Williams (who, by the way, is no big fan of Ramsey to begin with): "If the Senate passes a budget, and it's a good budget, we'll pass it. If we don't think it's a good budget, we'll give it the boot!"

Ouch! That sure doesn't sound promising. In fact, there's a report from a newsletter distributed by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry that says Williams has already pronounced Ramsey's budget "dead" in the House. Uh-oh.

But there is good financial news on the Hill. The latest state revenue figures finally show an increase for the first time in nearly 2 years (May, 2008). The extra $51 million above state projections will sure help (especially if the next couple of months continue that trend) but I doubt it is going to settle the fight now brewing on the Hill about next year's budget.

While it might be the better part of valor for Ramsey to work out a deal with the Governor, lessen some of his more onerous cuts and accept a few of the tax and fee hikes of the Governor, there is no way he can do that, and remain a viable candidate for Governor. He's stuck. He's got to "win" this battle, or loss face big time in his race to be the next Governor. After all, his TV ads say he thinks the state can be run with a third less departments than it has today. Problem is, he can't seem convince enough of his fellow lawmakers to make the cuts he is now proposing, much less something as radical as cutting state government by a third. 

Meanwhile the current Governor is heading off to China, where along with trade discussions he will likely be spending some quiet time deciding what to do with the latest "guns in bars" bill passed by the General Assembly.

The measure, given final approval during a recent week when large parts of the state were trying to survive record flood waters, would allow those with a state approved gun permit to carry their firearms into any establishment that sells alcohol (as long as they don't drink). The Governor vetoed a similar measure last year which lawmakers overrode, although the courts ultimately ruled the law unconstitutional.

This new bill supposedly fixes that problem, although the Governor has told reporters that in his opinion: "It hasn't been made any better." That sounds to me like another veto is coming. In most states that would be the kiss of death for controversial legislation like this. Unfortunately for Governor Bredesen, the framers of our state constitution back in 1870 didn't like a strong governor. They liked a strong legislature. So instead of taking a 2/3 vote of both houses to override a veto, it just takes constitutional majorities in both houses to do that. So if there is another veto, it likely means another override. Then we will see if this bill fares any better in the courts, when it is challenged….and it likely will be.

Finally to prove Tennessee is not completely the Arizona of the Southeast, a House subcommittee has killed a bill to force folks to take the state's driver license test in English-only rather than in the four languages it is offered in now. State business and tourism leaders banned together in opposition to the measure saying it would make Tennessee look unwelcoming to foreigners and other visitors.

Maybe they are also watching what is happening to Arizona, especially to its tourist and convention business, after passage of that "Papers, please" immigration bill in that state. For whatever reason, for once this term, lawmakers, at least the ones on this House panel, listened and decided to kill the bill. I guess the proponents just don't have as good a lobbyist as the NRA.  

EAT BREAKFAST

House Speaker Kent Williams is a diabetic. He forgot to eat breakfast last Thursday and not only did he collapse while leading a floor session, his fall has led, at least temporarily, to a nasty little fight between some lawmakers and the Capitol Hill Press Corps.

Already concerned about the Speaker's condition, some legislators apparently became quite indignant when they saw an Associated Press reporter trying to take some photos of the Speaker prone on the floor. That led to some harsh words and to the reporter leaving the House floor escorted by some state troopers.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail here. I believe a lot of the unpleasantness that occurred was frustration about other issues that have built up during the session between some lawmakers and reporters, which suddenly boiled up to the surface when the Speaker collapsed.

The AP reporter was just doing his job which is simply covering the news. When the Speaker of House collapses that is news and you try to document it with the journalistic tools you have available. I have seen no reports that the news coverage hindered the Speaker getting medical aid. So everyone take a deep breath and let's move on towards the end of the session (please, Lord, soon!)

Oh, let's also all do as our mothers told us….remember to eat breakfast!

It can avoid a lot of unnecessary complications.