Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 24, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 24, 2010

CREATED Sep 25, 2010


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

September 24, 2010


Ever since Knoxville Mayor and GOP gubernatorial nominee, Bill Haslam, announced some months ago that he would not be following a recent tradition among statewide candidates in Tennessee and release his income tax returns and other personal financial information, his opponents in both the primary, and now in the general election, have been trying to make that decision a liability for him with voters.

And so far, that hasn't worked.

Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey railed and complained about it, to no avail. Now it's Mike McWherter's turn. McWhether has taken a slightly different tack. Instead of just saying Haslam should disclose so the public and the media can see what, if any, conflicts he might have as Governor (Haslam says voters already know about his ties to Pilot and disclosure would invade the privacy of his other family members), the Democratic nominee now has gone to reporters and said that Haslam needs to fully disclose because one of his family business partners in the Pilot Oil Company is an international firm that also does business with Iran.

As best I can tell while the media has reported what McWherter said, the story he is pushing has no legs. It's not going anywhere. So, that means if McWherter wants to push the matter further, he will need to take it to the airwaves and make TV commercials about it. Given McWherter's limited resources (especially compared to Haslam's) that creates some real difficult choices for the Jackson businessman, who has his own potential conflicts from the businesses he and his family are involved in (beer, nursing homes and trucking). But McWherter has disclosed his finances and taxes.

The challenge for McWherter is that going negative this early could miss the mark and backfire, leaving him dead in the water with weeks to go before the November 2 vote. That's a scenario that should also alarm state Democratic Party leaders as a dead-in-the-water top-of-the-ticket candidate likely only spells more trouble for Democrats further down the ballot trying to win or hold on congressional, state senate and house seats.

But McWherter has to do something to change the race, and quickly! There continue to be new statewide polls that should him down by 25 percentage points or more. But I don't think his "guilt by association" attack involving Haslam, Pilot Oil and Iran have enough meat to them to amount to anything.

Haslam, meantime, continues to run a masterful campaign. He has released a list of 105 Democrats and independents now on his side. The listing includes the using the word "former" quite a bit in their titles, but there are some names you'll recognize in this part of the state, even some that might raise your eyebrows a bit.

Craven Crowell, Former TVA Chair & Chief of Staff for Senator Jim Sasser

James Pratt, former TN reporter and aide to Senator Sasser

Regan Farr, Betsy Child, Will Pinkston, Robert Gowan, Lana Seviers former commissioners or top aides to Governor Phil Bredesen

Carl Moore, former state senator

Buck Dozier & Leo Waters, former Metro Council members at large

Vicki Gregg, Chattanooga business leader and   former head of Blue Cross/Blue Shield

Nashville Realtor Richard Courtney

Bill Hudson, Wayne Edwards, Bo Roberts, Nashville PR execs

Randy Rayburn & Mike Kelly, Nashville restaurant owners      

 Here's another example of how well things are going for Haslam.

 I don't know if it is by strategy or just luck, but the GOP candidate has just received a statewide endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police at the same time the Haslam campaign has begun another endorsement ad. This time the spot features a retired Knoxville police officer who talks about what "a good man" Bill Haslam is, in part because the Mayor was at his bedside and with his family every day as the officer recovered from three gunshot wounds suffered in the line of duty. Haslam has done a whole series of these "average citizen" endorsement spots. All I think have been effective in getting voters comfortable and trusting of the candidate, but perhaps never has one of these ads been more effectively timed.


Both candidates for Governor have talked a lot about how difficult the next state budget will be, especially with end of all those federal stimulus dollars coming down from Washington. Bill Haslam says repeatedly on the campaign trail that Tennessee will be at least a billion and a half dollars in the hole, a number Mike McWherter has heard so often he has now accused Haslam of trying to "scare" people with those figures.

Now Governor Phil Bredesen has jumped into the discussion, telling reporters that there will be no need for any tax increase when the new governor takes his place. Of course, there isn't going a tax hike period. Both candidates have been very clear they plan to cut their way out of any deficit, not raise taxes.

I think what Governor Bredesen is trying to say is that he believes he will be able to keep his pledge to give the next administration "a soft landing" monetarily when it takes over, even though Mr. Bredesen says state lawmakers approved about $100 million more in this year's budget than he wanted.

The Governor is also hedging his financial bests slightly by asking state departments to cut their spending by up to 3% in the budget he will submit to lawmakers in January (and which the new Governor will amend after he takes office).

And that's the real problem. While both these candidates for governor talk a lot about how broke the state is, they say very little about exactly what they will do about it. I have had both of the candidates on my INSIDE POLITICS shows three different times, and each time I have asked them to give me and the voters some specifics about what they will propose cutting to make up the state's ongoing budget crunch.

I have gotten no concrete answers. Haslam has said that he believes TennCare has to be a part of any cuts. But he has offered no specifics. Why? Well, the day they start telling you what they'll cut is the day they start losing votes as special interest groups and others who support various state programs and agencies will rally to oppose such efforts.

 So you'll just have to trust our gubernatorial candidates on this critical issue (and elect one of them) before we find out what they'll do.    



In some ways, the timing couldn't be worse.

Parents across the state are receiving notices in the mail that little Johnny and Susie are not doing well in their standardized tests. It's because of new, higher standards that must be achieved says Governor Phil Bredesen and other business and elected leaders, if our young people are going to be able to survive and thrive in the worldwide marketplace.

But how do our children get there? Until a few days ago, many (especially in the administration of President Barack Obama) might have said the way to go was offering pay incentives to teachers who would receive higher salaries if more of their children pass the national tests. But now a study from Vanderbilt University, monitoring a 3-year pilot program here in Nashville, found that doesn't work. That giving teachers more money doesn't necessarily mean their students will achieve any better than being in classrooms with teachers that aren't getting more pay.

So what now? Will the Race to the Top still work to bring Tennessee up out of the low 40s among states nationwide concerning achievement in schools? Or will people see this as another example of how, whatever the government tries to do, it likely fails.

You know, like the jokes going around in recent days concerning the government report that the Great Recession has actually ended….some months ago, in fact….believe it or not, June, 2009! How could we all have missed it? I guess too many folks were busy in the unemployment line or trying to keep their homes from being foreclosed. And what does this report about the end of the Great Recession say about all the government efforts to revive the economy since then?

If money can't do it, what can?


Salon.com writer Andrew Leonard took an opportunity the other day (September 20) to go after, not one, but three different Tennessee elected officials (Senators Lamar Alexander & Bob Corker and Congressman Marsha Blackburn).

What raised his ire is how all three of these GOP politicians "who voted against the auto-bailout (of the Obama administration, which Leonard says has succeeded) yet still had the gall to attend a ceremony celebrating the reopening of an idled GM plant (483 workers at the GM Plant in Spring Hill). 

"Yes, Bob Corker, I'm looking at you," added the Salon writer. The UAW workers at the event also remembered, reportedly booing Corker when he was introduced to speak.

Senator Corker is not on the ballot this year, and neither is Senator Alexander, but Congressman Blackburn is and her Democratic opponent wasted no time in going after he.

Dr. Greg Rabidoux said this about Congressman Blackburn's appearance: "They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, in this case, Blackburn showing up for the ceremony to have her picture taken at Spring Hill is worth one very fitting word….hypocrite."

Rabidoux also criticized Blackburn for showing up after voting against the extension of unemployment compensation benefits for "every one of the Spring Hill workers (as well as 600,000 other Tennesseans) who have been out of work these past several months and struggling to make ends meet."


More and more it appears the 4th District congressional race here in Tennessee is going to be very competitive. And that places Democrat Lincoln Davis as the most vulnerable incumbent in our House delegation.     

The Republican candidate, Dr. Scott Desjarlais claims the race is a dead heat, with his polling showing Davis below 50% support and ahead only 4 points (which is within the margin for error). Democrat Davis claims he is up over 50% in his polling and holds a double digit lead.  

 DesJarlais is already up with ads on TV (at least in the Nashville market) and that's a sign that he is likely to have the money to compete against Davis in a district that sprawls all over Middle and East Tennessee, and which is served by four different TV markets (Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and even Huntsville, AL).

Congressman Davis, because he is a multi-term incumbent, likely still holds an advantage in name recognition in the district. And, at first glance, Dr. DesJarlais' last name is a mouth-full and maybe a tongue-twisting puzzle for voters. And if voters don't know (or can't pronounce) a candidate's name, getting their vote can be very tough.

So trying to turn a potential negative into a positive, Dr. DesJarlais' campaign team has come up with what is the best TV ad I have seen so far this campaign year. It shows the candidate sitting at a picnic table talking with voters (almost all of whom strangely appear to be senior citizens). DesJarlais is introducing himself and trying to explain what he will do in Congress (cut spending, repeal Obamacare) while the voters keep mispronouncing his name by confusing it with Dijon mustard.

This reminds me of the ad done here in Nashville a few years ago by now Judge Dan Eisenstein. Playing off the closeness of his name to Einstein, the famous scientist, it made for a very cute (and successful) way to get voters to learn his name and ultimately vote for him for judge. 

There have almost no ads this campaign cycle that have used humor which is often the best way to cut through the clutter and get people's attention. This ad I think does that. Now let's hope the DesJarlais campaign will discover there are other voters besides seniors to feature in his ads (and who likely still mispronounce his name too).    



As you will be able to tell when you vote in the general election this fall, it's not hard to get on the ballot to run statewide in the general election.  You just need the signatures of 25 registered voters.  

But that lumps you in with all the independent candidates. If you want to run under a party label in the general election, that's a different story. In fact, based on state laws passed back in 1972 (when there was great concern in both of the main parties, the Republicans and Democrats about the strength of George Wallace and his American Party) the rules were made so strict that it's been darn near impossible for third parties to get a place on the Tennessee ballot.

Or at least that's been their argument in a federal court lawsuit, which a local federal judge ruled in their favor in recent days.

It's too late for this to have any impact on this year's elections (the ballots are set). But come 2012 it could make a difference, depending on whether the state decides to appeal the ruling and wins, or the General Assembly passes new legislation in the interim.       


To give us some perspective on what is going on across the state and across the country this mid-term election year, I have invited Vanderbilt political science professor Dr. John Geer and Lipscomb professor  Linda Schacht to join me for a discussion this weekend (September 24-26).

We talk about everything from the Tea Party to the Governor's race as to how all this will impact not only what happens in November but looking to the next election cycle in 2012.

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

Our show times are 7:00 p.m. Friday (September 24), 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday (September 25) and Sunday (September 26) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Don't forget if you don't have cable or over-the-air digital access, or if live outside the Nashville media market, excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows can be found here on www.newschannel5.com. Just go to the site and enter INSIDE POLITICS into the search engine.