Capitol View Commentary: Friday, July 16, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, July 16, 2010

CREATED Jul 16, 2010


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

July 16, 2010


As we continue our conversations with those who would be the next governor of the state of Tennessee, this weekend we have Knoxville Mayor and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam as our guest on INSIDE POLITICS.

His appearance comes as the first real votes for the next governor are being cast across the state beginning today (July 16) as a part of the early voting period which lasts until July 31. Primary Election Day is Thursday, August 5.

You can once again see INSIDE POLITICS this weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Friday) as well as Sunday morning (July 18) at 5:00 a.m. You can also watch us on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter cable channels 250 as well as NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2 Our air times on the PLUS are at 7:00 p.m. tonight (Friday July 16), 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday (July 17) and 5:00 and 12:30 p.m., Sunday (July 18).

My conversation with Mayor Haslam is a very interesting one covering the gamut of issues and controversies that have been raised during this campaign. That includes the various purposes of his many different TV ads; how he plans to handle the state's ongoing budget shortfall; his philosophy on how to manage in government; his financial disclosures (or lack thereof); his past political contributions to some prominent Tennessee Democrats; how much money he has raised and spent and how much more he plans to spend of his own funds in the wake of him making his first large personal contribution of $400,000 to his campaign and how he plans to react to being attacked politically on the air in the closing weeks of the campaign.

A couple of notes: We interviewed the Mayor early in the week, so we did not get to ask him specifically about the out of state group that is criticizing him with TV ads about his family's company, Pilot Oil, and the charges made against it in several states including Tennessee, concerning price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Ike back in 2008. (More on this matter later in the column)

We also talked with the Mayor before Governor Bredesen's decision to commute the death sentence of Gaile Owens, although frankly, as far as I can find in looking at media coverage across the state, so far none of the candidates have offered their comments or opinions about that. During a recent TV debate (and before Governor Bredesen acted) all the candidates (including Democrat Mike McWherter) said their policy on pardons and commutations would be only to change a jury's decision for the death penalty if new evidence (particularly DNA evidence). That is somewhat different from the reason given by Governor Bredesen (that Gaile Owen's sentence did not fit the crime). But, for some reason, the candidates so far have not seen a reason to pick a fight with the Governor in this matter. Maybe they don't see any political advantage for them in the race to do that.


As everyone awaited the start of early voting, there has also been something of a countdown among political observers to see if the gubernatorial race would go negative with attack ads on TV. Both of Haslam's challengers (Congressman Zach Wamp and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey) have given broad hints this might be coming. There have even been reports (THE TENNESSEAN) that some supporters of Ramsey have put together an outside group that seem funded to produce and fund the airing of such ads.

But just how organized that group is remains unclear. According to the news article, some of those on the board of the new group, including the man named as chairman, seemed to know or would say very little about it all.

But just as everyone thought any attacks over the air would come among the candidates, instead it came from an out of state non-profit group called the American Future Fund. The Iowa-based organization bills itself as an "advocate for conservative, free market ideals." Looking through news clips, it appears the group has been active in recent months attacking candidates across the political spectrum from Libertarian/Tea Party/GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

Some of those associated with the group also reportedly have past ties to past and potentially future GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney (although Romney has now endorsed Haslam) as well as other previous political advertising campaigns such as the 2004 "Swift Boat" ads and even the "Willie Horton" ad from 1988.

But what makes the group's foray into Tennessee even more interesting is that this appears to be the first time it has ever gotten involved in a state-level contest such as a governor's race. All its previous efforts have in federal races (particularly the U.S. Senate) or issues (such as national health care).

So why does this group have a sudden interest in Tennessee and in the governor's race? I don't know and have seen no comments or explanation for that. The law does not require any disclosure of the sources of the funds for this effort, and the amount of money being committed is considerable with the group planning to spend $250,000 on its spot to air it in the Nashville, Memphis and Tri-Cities markets between now and Election Day.

The law also prohibits anything done by this outside group to be coordinated in any way with any of the gubernatorial campaigns (you'll remember how this issue came up with the "Call Me, Harold" ad during the 2006 Senate race). It is interesting to note that it was Zach Wamp who raised this "Pilot gas gouging issue" earlier in the campaign. But that may not mean anything since this matter is no secret and was extensively reported in the media back in 2008 (including Pilot paying fines in several states).

There is one last thing that about this political ad that I have never seen before. It seeks to drive traffic to a special web site where you can not only learn more about this controversy, but you can also sign up to win free $25 gas cards that are being given away! I wonder if the gas cards are good at Pilot Travel Centers?

To pour more political gasoline on the fire, Ken Whitehouse of NASHVILLEPOST.COM is reporting Friday afternoon (July 16) that the Wamp campaign could begin airing its own negative ads as early as this evening (Friday). According to Whitehouse, who reports the content of a draft script for the ad, it would be similar to the American Future Fund TV spot, except it also would attack Haslam on his positions on guns, raising taxes and trying "buy this election." Late Friday, Wamp issued a news release that challenged Haslam to more TV debates so he can answer the questions Tennesseans have about his record. Don't hold your breath on Haslam agreeing to do that!

Prior to airing this new attack ad (if and when he does), Wamp has been running a positive endorsement ad, as well as announcing through the earned media that he is also getting support from NFIB icon Jack Faris and from former State Senator and GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Bryson.

The size of the American Future Fund buy and what Wamp may now be bringing to the air would certainly seem to indicate the need for Haslam to respond and quickly to these attacks. Haslam did tell me during our INSIDE POLITICS interview that he was ready to defend himself (indicating he had response ads in the can).

And it's not a question of money being available for Haslam to respond. Not only has he given his campaign (for the first time) $400,000 of his own money, when I asked on the show, he refused to set any limits on how much he might decide to contribute of his own wealth even before the primary fight ends on August 5.

Actually, in one way, Haslam might have started the first slight negative tone in the gubernatorial TV ads. One of his latest TV and radio spots say Haslam should be elected because he has "the right temperament to be governor." That's likely a veiled reference to the anger management issues that have been talked about concerning Wamp, including in some media stories.

How Haslam and Wamp handle these TV attack ads could also impact Lt. Governor Ramsey, who's fund raising remains behind the others. Sometimes in a three way race, when one candidate attacks another, the third candidate left out actually benefits as voters are turned off by what they perceive as the race getting down into the political mud.

It is going to be a very interesting last 3 weeks of this campaign.

As for the fall campaign, Mike McWherter sure doesn't seem to be building much of a nest egg to spend against the GOP winner, even with the endorsement of Governor Bredesen. McWherter latest fund raising numbers saw him bring in $313,045. But he's spent almost all of it, $270,000. So, Mr. McWherter, when and where are you going to get the money to go on TV and be a really competitive candidate this fall?


If you live the 21st State Senate District your snail-mail box has been filled to overflowing from all the direct mail pieces being sent out by both sides in the Doug Henry-Jeff Yarbro contest.

The challenger Yarbro continues to show his financial support releasing information that he has raised $250,000, which, according to his campaign is "the most any candidate for State Senate (has raised) this year" and $100,000 more than long time incumbent Senator Henry has garnered.. Yarbro, who is an attorney, is using his money to launch a second TV ad criticizing Henry for his opposition to the new national health care act and, once again, for his record on women's reproductive issues.

Endorsements also continue to play a role in the campaign. Yarbro has received support from both the Tennessee AFL-CIO and the Nashville Building and Trades Council. I don't think organized labor has that big an impact in this particular district in terms of voters, but it could be helpful if its support also includes phone banks or financial contributions. As for Senator Henry, he has won the endorsement (on the day early voting begins) of THE TENNESSEAN, the major daily newspaper in Nashville. Now newspaper endorsements are not what they used to be, but it is not likely to hurt either.

This race still seems to come down to how many of Senator Henry's long time supporters (some of whom are Republicans) decide to stay with him and vote in the Democratic primary rather than entering the GOP primary to help select its gubernatorial candidate. I have heard some concern that statements by the Henry camp that the Senator has a sizable lead regardless of losing any GOP support, could backfire and make some GOP Henry supporters decide it would be OK to vote elsewhere on August 5. But I am also told the Henry campaign is doing some very intensive outreach to hold on to as many of the Senator's supporters, as it can, regardless of party.


I am told the city's Democrats held a major unity rally yesterday (Thursday, July 16). One long time local politician who attended said he was shocked at how large the turnout was. Because of the lack of many competitive races in August, Democrats locally have been concerned about how large a vote Republican (and Metro Councilman) Eric Crafton might get in his race against David Smith for Juvenile Court Clerk.

The purpose of this rally I am told was to gin up Democratic fervor and get enough voters to the polls that Crafton gets under 40% when the votes are tallied on Election Night. Otherwise, Democrats fear this will further energize local Republicans who already think they have a shot to win at least one additional state legislative seat (Councilman Jim Gotto taking the seat of retiring lawmaker Ben West) in the Davidson County delegation. The Democrats also hope a poorer than expected showing by Crafton would hold down other state Republican groups from sending in contributions to help the local GOP effort.

Another part of this question is how strong is Crafton's support among more moderate Republicans who make not like voting for someone who unsuccessfully pushed the English Only referendum last year? Regardless, much like what is happening nationally, Davidson County Republicans on the whole are more energetic than they've been in years. Now what can Democrats do about it?


President Barack Obama has never visited Tennessee as our nation's Chief Executive. But his endorsement of incumbent Memphis congressman Steve Cohen could sure help the white representative's changes to be re-elected.

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton has tried to make his challenge against Cohen a racial one: i.e., Memphis is predominantly black, the congressman should be a black person too. The President may not be very popular statewide, but he remains very much so in the Bluff City and I suspect his nod to Cohen will negate a lot of Herenton's push. Frankly the former mayor has not run much of a campaign anyway from the sources I talk to down in Memphis.


I got an e-mail from the Governor's office late today (Friday) that indicated a series of news conferences will be held across the state this coming week ( the week of July 19) by some of the major supporters of the recent education reforms passed by the General Assembly. That includes Governor Phil Bredesen, Education Commissioner Tim Webb and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. They will be joined by the new First To The Top Coalition, an alliance of more than 30 business, community and education organizations.

The purpose of the news conferences is to explain to parents and other folks the impact that Tennessee's new and higher academic standards may have on student test scores, which are due out again in September.

Why is that a concern? It's simple: these new and higher standards could well mean many more Tennessee schools flunking the test, including lots that have never been in trouble before. That in turn could undermine public and political support for the new standards and the newly passed education push to be "first to top." So we have this pre-emptive campaign to raise awareness about what may be about to happen, so parents (and politicians) don't just freak out.


Vice-President Joe Biden is one up on his boss. Unlike Mr. Obama, he has now been to Tennessee while he's been in office.

The VP is in town tonight (Friday, July 16) to raise money for the state's Democrats (who likely need it). Mr. Biden is apparently also spending some time visiting some areas recovering from the May flood. In this day of gotcha politics, his visit is being "welcomed" by the Republicans (both on the state and national level). This is a standard political technique that Democrats used in the past when the GOP held the White House.

Not surprisingly, the welcomes are also thinly veiled ways to pass on a laundry list of "failures" of the visiting dignitary and his administration. In this case, that includes criticizing Biden's effort to review the flooded areas. The argument is: he planned this trip well before the flood, so visiting the flood zones now is somehow wrong. Huh? You wonder if Mr. Biden didn't plan to go to visit the flood areas, do you think the GOP would criticize him for coming here and then ignoring them?

The national Republican Party through its head Michael Steele even claimed that the federal government flood relief efforts in Tennessee have been "a failure," which frankly is just plain wrong. Who says so? How about the titular head of the Republican Party in the state, Senator Lamar Alexander, who in a news release just a few days ago said: "I think FEMA's response has been excellent." Maybe whoever wrote this "welcome" for Mr. Steele was back out at the strip club while FEMA and the SBA were down here working.

A lot of what Mr. Steele in his "welcome" said about the President's policy concerning his stimulus efforts, etc. may ring true with many Tennesseans, but his flood comments about the federal effort being a "failure" is just flat wrong.

By the way, one of the next big political events regarding the aftermath of the flood comes next Thursday in Washington, when Senator Alexander holds a major committee hearing looking into how some federal agencies like the Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service communicated and acted during the flood itself. It will be the first time for the Corps to release and discuss its first study of what happened with another more extensive inquiry now underway. Look for more congressional inquiries to come as well.

As it's gone lately, the President has had a pretty good week. The oil disaster in the Gulf appears to be easing and may soon be over. The SEC has levied its largest fine ever on a big Wall Street firm and the President has also managed to finally get Congress (with the votes of three GOP New England Senators) to approve Wall Street financial reform. But I am afraid with all of these achievements, they will go down with many voters as being under the category of "it's about time."

So while it is good for the President that the media will likely soon quit listing the Gulf oil spill disaster as in Day 88…89…90 and so on, the clean up to repair the unprecedented damage down there is going to take a very, very long time and leave a big political hangover. As for the financial reform bill, while the President and his administration can, and already is touting it, it will likely take months, if not years (much like health care reform) before anyone can tell whether this will help or hurt. Tennessee's two GOP senators both voted no, including Bob Corker, who worked for months (he probably now thinks in vain) to come up with a more bipartisan bill.

What the President really needs is a quick uptick in the economy and a lowering of unemployment. But that isn't likely to happen soon, which is one of the major reasons he and his party are likely to suffer major losses in the congressional elections this November, some now say likely losing the House.


The fight over who is getting the jobs to build Nashville's new convention center continues to heat up. Now State Representative Mike Turner, the Democratic Caucus Chair in the House, says he believes from a site visit he's made to the project, and some confidential inside sources he has, that many of the construction jobs are going to illegal aliens.

Turner has even filed a formal complaint and request for the State Department of Labor to investigate the matter. That seemed to anger Mayor Karl Dean who demanded Turner offer some real proof before making these kinds of charges, especially given the heated atmosphere in this country over this particular issue of immigration.

This budding feud between Mayor Dean and Representative Turner over the convention center construction has been building a while. It also includes who is getting the contracts for the projects. Turner is a strong union man (he is a Nashville firefighter) and he would also really like to see more jobs go to local people, a concern others have voiced. I don't know what the State Labor folks will do or find if they do an investigation, but I don't think this controversy is over.

One other issue surrounding the new convention center may be making progress towards a solution. The Omni Hotel Group is buying property near the center for a possible convention hotel, something which the city really needs to ensure the new project will be successful. While it is still not clear just what financial role the city will play in the hotel project (and that could be a big issue), Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling says he hopes to have a plan to present to the Metro Council and the community by around Labor Day.