Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 17, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 17, 2010

CREATED Sep 17, 2010


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

September 17, 2010 


It was a significant and historic night last Tuesday (September 14) in Cookeville.

That's when, for the first time outside one of our major cities, the two candidates for governor of Tennessee met on the same stage for a statewide television debate and town hall forum. It was also the first time these two had ever squared off alone in a debate forum and the first such debate for them as a part of the general election campaign.

The program got a very good rating according to Channel 5 (9.5), and the station did a great job producing the show. But I doubt it made much difference in the race. The decided underdog, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, tried to go on the attack against GOP front runner Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, but it didn't seem to work.

While McWherter has definitely improved his campaign speaking skills, his attacks seem to come across to me as "warmed-over Wamp." That is the same issues Congressman Zach Wamp raised against Haslam in the primary and which didn't seem to work then either (since Haslam got nearly 50% of the vote against the Congressman and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey). In fact, Haslam counter-punched effectively several times back at McWherter in responding to his questions and barbs.

There had been some who expected McWherter to try and go into some new directions during the debate to raise doubts about Haslam, including the Mayor's comments made during a Nashville Rotary Club speech on September 13. That's when Haslam seemed to position himself as being ready to be a "dashboard governor", a chief executive who would daily keep a dashboard of statistics and studies at the ready on his desk to monitor daily on how the state is doing in key areas like education and economic development. It is a model that many businesses try to use, including apparently Haslam's own family business, Pilot Oil.

As you might expect, this was a theme that seemed to go over well with the largely business audience at the Rotary. But at least one questioner raised doubts about the accuracy and timeliness of much of data the state generates and the media peppered Haslam with questions afterwards, asking for more specifics about what goals a Governor Haslam would try to achieve on his dashboard, which the GOP candidate declined repeatedly to do.

So why didn't McWherter see an opportunity here? Why did he just let it go? Why not talk about how sometimes when you watch the dashboard in your car (the state) you can only see where you've been and maybe not where you are or where you are going, especially if the data is outdated or flawed. For that, it takes leadership to be looking not only at your dashboard, but looking at the road that lies ahead, and so you can tell when to make turns, to speed up or slow down or make other course corrections.

Another sign of how this governor's race is going can also be seen on TV. Haslam has begun two new TV ads while McWherter seemed to have been off the air (or running at much lower levels) since his first and only round of ads right before and after the primary. Does he have enough money to stay on the air?

And what about the Bill Clinton rally here in Nashville? Did he attract the thousands reported by the McWherter campaign or just the few hundred reported by the media? And did Clinton leave any lasting impacts, like agreeing to do a TV ad for McWherter later on?

The two new Haslam ads are quite interesting. One is a reprise of his ongoing "halo" spots where the candidate, showcased in a very tight face shot, tells voters how strongly he opposes a state income tax. This is a defensive position for any candidate in Tennessee. If you want to be elected in this state, you must oppose any income tax for Tennessee.

The second Haslam ad goes more on the offensive. It's another in a series of ads that the campaign has done which feature average citizens who know and endorse Bill Haslam. This latest one features a black woman who appears to be a band director at a high school in Knoxville. She talks about how supportive the mayor has been and uses some ethnic expressions to show how much she likes and supports the GOP candidate ("The brother is real," she says, for example).

It's an ad that might not work as well during the primary season (because there are fewer minorities in the GOP), but in the general election this spot  appears to be an outreach by Haslam to go after another potential strength of the McWherter campaign and the Democratic base, much like Haslam did in his first round of general election ads trying to align himself as a "strong leader" by comparing himself with McWherter's two strongest supporters, current Governor Phil Bredesen and former Governor Ned McWherter, Mike's father.

About the only problem the Haslam team has faced in recent days has been some damage control after the University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who strongly endorsed and campaigned for Haslam during the primary, became embroiled in a scandal for lying to the NCAA about potential rules violations.  UT agreed to cut Pearl's pay by several million dollars because of the incident, while the men's basketball program remains under investigation (along with the football program).

For now, Pearl still has his job, and Haslam has not asked him to rescind his endorsement, for whatever it is still worth.    


The 2010 primary season is over. And while the results of the final contests seem to only reinforce the trends that have been developing throughout the year (throw the bums out, all of them!), the defeat by a Tea Party candidate of Delaware's longtime Republican congressman who was running for the U.S. Senate, seems to have an impact nationally much larger than the size or normal political influence of this small state.

Now the pundits are claiming the Tea Party candidate can't possibly win against the Democrats this fall, and so the Democrats will likely keep narrow control of the upper chamber next year. Maybe, but many of these same pundits were saying just a few weeks ago that there was no way the Tea Party candidate could win the primary, but she did. So maybe it's still a little early to predict what is going happen in Delaware or across the country this fall.

What is certain is that the Tea Party remains both the best thing and the worst thing that has happened to the GOP since the 2008 election cycle. It's the best thing because it has re-energized the party and in particular its base. It's been the worst thing because in their zest to change things that has also included many establishment GOP leaders who didn't seem to be Republican-enough (RINO). But has it opened up an opportunity for the Democrats to win some races they otherwise seemed destined to lose because the GOP/Tea Party-backed nominees are so far right now, they can't win the general election. Not only Democrats, but a lot of Republican are beginning to think and say that. I had two different, long- time Tennessee GOP leaders come up to me at a recent civic gathering here in Nashville and ask me: "So what ‘s so wrong with being a moderate?"

Good question and one that may decide several elections come November, although probably not so much here in Tennessee, where we appear to be a state, as former Senator Howard Baker put it some years ago, full of "raging moderates."  We have had more than our share of Tea Party events and rallies here. It just has not translated to the races and the candidates who are on the ballot here for the GOP as it has in several other states.          

This continuing voter anger also translates into problems for the Democrats. Here are two examples:

The first one involves 6th District Democratic Congressional candidate Brett Carter. He has become so concerned about being tied to controversial House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he has now taken the extraordinary step of asking her to step down from her post. Many Democratic candidates are trying to distance themselves from her as much as they can (saying things such as "I won't commit to vote for her next term"), but few, if any, have gone so far as to ask her to resign her leadership.

But Carter's efforts to avoid voter anger are just making some Democrats in his own party mad.  I know of at least one major labor group which is furious about what Carter has said and it might just hurt him in the campaign pocketbook!   

 Then here's a second example. It involves Nashville Democratic congressman Jim Cooper. This is normally a very safe Democratic seat. No incumbent has lost re-election since 1962. But Cooper's campaign signs (the first he has sent out in large numbers since his first election) only contain his name. No words like "Democrat", or "Re-Elect" or any mention of "Congress."

Is that any indication of how it's every candidate for himself or herself out there this election cycle? I think so.

One more note about Congressman Cooper. He is still considered the favorite to win and he will soon begin TV ads I understand.

Cooper had very good TV when he first ran, featuring his young children. They've gotten older now, so he may need some new stars for his talent. But the fact that Cooper feels the need to do TV is again a sign how, even in the most-blue or red of districts, no incumbent seems to feel very safe this fall.

Maybe that's why when Congress recently returned to Washington, they actually seemed to start doing a few things to get something done. For us in Tennessee, that meant a long overdue confirmation to fill a vacant judgeship and to confirm some long pending appointments to the TVA Board which has been operating with well less than a full roster for some time. But don't fret there are still plenty of issues left for our leaders to fuss about and deadlock on between now and the election.           


Mayor Karl Dean is my guest this weekend on INSIDE POLITICS (September 17-19).

I teased him before we went on the air about how he felt being "Nashville's real estate developer-in-chief" with all the capital developments he is proposing these days.

It is an amazing and extensive collection of projects that will impact all parts of the city. That includes along with the ongoing development of the new convention center and its hotel: buying and/or leasing Hickory Hollow Mall and the old Peterbilt Plant, new roads, fire halls, libraries, parks, community centers, along with a new DNA lab and new police precincts. This is not a new role for a Nashville mayor (I made a living covering all the development projects Mayor Fulton did back in the 1970s and 1980s) but this may be the longest and most expensive list of projects I've ever seen.

We talk about how we can afford all this, and why it is good thing for Nashville. We also talk a lot about projects not yet in the funding phase. That includes the redevelopment of the old State Fairgrounds (although the mayor is ready to fund a park on part of the property). What about the rest of the acreage? Will it go to Vanderbilt or HCA as rumored? The Mayor says he hasn‘t decided a process on that just yet. What about the State Fair, now in its final days at the current Fairgrounds? Does it have any future in Nashville?

Then there is also the Sounds downtown baseball stadium. They still want to go to the old Thermal property on the riverfront, but the Mayor now wants that for a amphitheatre which is being strongly pushed I understand by prominent Nashville business leader and philanthropist Martha Ingram and the Nashville Symphony. How that will be funded and who will operate that facility? The Mayor says that has not been determined as yet.

 As for baseball, the Mayor says he is not interested in putting both the ballpark and the amphitheatre together even though the Sounds think it will work and are ready to pay for the design work for it. The Mayor think the baseball park needs to go to the Jefferson Street/Bicentennial Mall area in North Nashville where historic Sulphur Dell ball park used to be many years ago.

But some find that choice odd because the Dell site includes, and is surrounded by, parking lots owned by the state. Why put it there instead of downtown where it can support and increase existing developments the way the convention will do?

Mayor Dean says he thinks the baseball park will work well there although he does not seem to be in any hurry to approach the state on the matter, even with the Bredesen administration thought to be supportive, about to leave office. It seems the city may have some time it can wait. The Sounds just signed a new two year agreement with the Milwaukee Brewers to keep a team here even though they will continue to play in an increasingly aging and outdated Greer Stadium.

Watch our show. It is a jam packed half-hour of very interesting conversation, especially if you are interested in the future development of Nashville. As usual, we are on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter Cable Channels 250, as well as Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. We air at 7:00 p.m. Friday (September 17), Saturday (September 18 at 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. and Sunday (September 19) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.                 


Upon further review (especially legally) Governor Phil Bredesen admits he did not follow state law in recent years in the way he made appointments to the Tennessee Board of Regents which governs all of Tennessee's higher education institutions outside the UT system.

There are apparently state laws, even though never enforced, that require Regents appointees to be confirmed by the General Assembly and that the board's composition reflect the political makeup of the Legislature, Republicans versus Democrats.

All this has arisen because of the ongoing controversy, especially among GOP lawmakers, over the selection of John Morgan, the current Deputy Governor, to be the next Chancellor of the Regents Board. There may still be harsh words coming if lawmakers hold hearings later this fall about the matter.

At first the Governor said he found questions from reporters about this matter "offensive," Now he says according to an article by Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL (September 13) that he is "resigned to having his image tarnished in the waning days of his administration…if they want to give me a hard time, fine. I'm a big boy."

The Governor says what he wants to focus on is keeping his plan for higher education reform intact. But even though that was approved by lawmakers by an overwhelming majorities back in January, now it appears a real political blood bath is coming as schools and lawmakers fight over who keeps or gets ongoing programs at various schools, which may be moved because the criteria for state funding is now to be based on graduation rates, not enrollment. This fight over Regents appointments and how its new Chancellor was chosen is likely to only complicate that fight in some ways.