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Capitol View Commentary: January 21, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: January 21, 2011

CREATED Jan 21, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 21, 2011

THE FAIRGROUNDS STRUGGLE; MORE COUNCIL FIGHTS AHEAD; WHO BUILDS THE MUSIC CITY CENTER?; SPEAKING OUT; GOVERNOR HASLAM'S FIRST WEEK; INSIDE POLITICS;

I told you the Metro Council meeting on January 18 would be a doozey with lots of political fireworks…and it certainly was!

It included a nearly four-hour public hearing and debate over the future of the State Fairgrounds (one more time).

In this particular case the focus of the evening was whether or not to tear down the historic Raceway facility at the Fairgrounds. Literally, thousands of people turned out on both sides, showing both a community, and certainly the neighborhood surrounding the Fairgrounds, being sharply divided over what to do.

It was one of the largest crowds in years to come to a Council meeting, perhaps rivaled only by the massive number of people who turned out back in the late 1980s when the city was struggling over where to locate a new landfill (we never did, by the way); or back in the late 70s and early ‘80s when the Council was considering property tax hikes and the city's firefighters were considering going out on strike (which they did for a week back in May, 1980).

At the end of the evening, the results reminded me of some of the major battles of the Civil War: a lot of political blood was shed, both sides managed to find ways to claim at least a partial victory, but the strategic situation changed very little and the final outcome remains still much in doubt.

Let me explain.

For the Raceway and Fairgrounds supporters (including those wanting to keep the State Fair, the Expo Center and the Flea Market where are they are), they defeated (for the second time in recent months) Mayor Karl Dean and his supporters who want to redevelop the Fairgrounds property. That rarely, if ever, has happened in the nearly 50 year history of Nashville's Metro government. But while Raceway supporters won the right to keep the facility from being torn down, the conditions from the Council to do that likely mean there won't be any race car driving going on at the track anytime soon.

As for Mayor Dean, as mentioned before, losing on the same issue in the Council twice in a row is not a good thing politically, especially with re-election time drawing closer (August). But so far it doesn't appear this controversy is weakening his strong prospects to win another four year term. And frankly the Council's decision to require several Metro agencies (including the Fair Board) to come up with a new master plan for the future of the Fairgrounds, may eventually strengthen the Mayor's position to eventually redevelop the Fairgrounds. It might give him the vision or at least some pretty pictures of what the Fairgrounds could be (or needs to be) if it is redeveloped, something which has been sorely lacking from the Mayor's office up until now. So, perhaps for that reason, the Mayor has called the master plan idea from the Council "a positive step forward." And in terms of damage control why not call it that? But anything positive on this for the Mayor, won't likely won't come without a lot more fighting.

I suspect the next move by the pro-Fairgrounds and Raceway supporters will be to push the Metro Fair Board to allow racing to continue. But the Board has shown no interest in that, and will likely use the requirement for a master plan as another reason not to do any racing, at least for now.  The Fair Board will likely say this to Raceway supporters: "You've said the track can't succeed without a 5-10 year lease, but how can we give anyone a 10 year lease until we have the master plan done and approved so we know what the future really holds?"

But that, of course, isn't likely to satisfy Raceway supporters, including Councilman Eric Crafton, who is already threatening to bring back a bill in the Council to oust the current Fair Board members.

And all this says nothing about the pitched battle that is likely to ensue as the various Metro agencies try to put together the new master plan and then present it to the Metro Council for its approval. And here's a question to ponder: Will the master plan be done to be presented for approval by the current Council or the new one (with perhaps close to half being new members) which takes office in October?

And what about the bid request Metro has already sent out to design a new park on property where the current Raceway sits? According to THE CITY PAPER, several firms have submitted bids with a decision due in February. But how do you design a park with the Raceway still there and no approved plans to tear it down? And how do you do that without completion and approval of the new master plan?  

You can see from all this, what a continuing three-ring circus this is likely to be politically. The Mayor had it right after the first round of fighting on this issue (when he dropped plans to move most of the Fairgrounds activities, other than racing, to Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch) when he said he planned to take "a time out" on this matter.

From talking to several council members and other folks in the community, I think they'd welcome a time-out. They appreciate the importance of this matter, but they now feel that perhaps we are spending too much time on this subject, given all the other issues Nashville faces. As for the Mayor, he needs the time out politically so he can concentrate on telling his story for why he should be re-elected.

I heard the Mayor speak a few days ago to the Nashville Chapter of the Public Relations Society. He makes a very strong case for how he has delivered on the three major issues he ran on as his platform four years ago (education, public safety, economic development). The Fairgrounds issue right now doesn't fit well in that discussion and creates a lot of political noise that gets in the way of the rest of his message.

But given all that is still happening concerning the Fairgrounds, don't look for this matter to go away anytime soon.    

MORE COUNCIL FIGHTS AHEAD

Another fight looming in the Metro Council revolves around legislation that requires any company doing business with Metro to have a non-discrimination policy concerning sexual preference. This would extend Metro's current law that involves its own hiring and human resources policies.

But those major players in Metro who helped pass the current law (Mayor Dean and Council member At-Large Megan Barry among others) have been rather quiet about the bill so far. In fact, Mayor Dean told me on INSIDE POLITICS a few weeks back that he would prefer Metro not pass a new law, but rather "lead by example" to the business community through the law already passed concerning Metro's own employee policies.

The bill is pending on second reading February 2. It had to survive an attempt to kill it on what is usually a perfunctory and unanimous first reading vote to get the legislation into committee. But first reading roll call votes are becoming a new bad habit for this Council, and so, led by an emerging group of local conservative business leaders there was an effort to kill it quickly.

That effort failed 22-13, raising some questions about the ability of the opposition to muster the support it needs to kill the measure. But that vote could be a bit misleading. Some council members still have the quaint (but very appropriate) habit of passing all legislation on first reading so it can go through the normal process for legislation. So perhaps its support is more suspect than it appears, and there is still time left for opposition to build by early February.

That's what bothers some of those who are ardent supporters of this type of measure. They say the current Metro law came about only after years of quiet lobbying and relationship building that created the votes and support needed in the Council. That was not done with this new proposal. In fact, many local groups who are usually in strong support of this issue were reportedly not even advised that such a measure was coming. Their strong concern is that a defeat in the Council on this new bill will set back efforts on this issue for many years to come.

And there are other complications. Some conservative state lawmakers are getting involved trying to pass legislation to stop local governments from passing regulations like this. Also some council members are not happy that this is being pushed by two members who aren't running for re-election in August and therefore won't have to face the voters about the issue down the road. 

WHO BUILDS THE MUSIC CITY CENTER?

There was another group of folks who came to the Metro Courthouse in recent days to protest an issue.

This time it was an estimated 300-400 people, largely elected officials and others from labor organizations who are very unhappy with how the construction jobs being generated by the new Music City Center are being distributed. They complain the project was sold by Mayor Dean and many council members as being a jobs program for Nashville which would employ up to 3,000 local folks. But that hasn't come close to happening they claim.

In fact, they cite a Metro audit that says out of 2,100 people who have come to the Workforce Development trailer at the Music City Center construction site and have applied for jobs, only 34 have been hired.

But Music City Center officials say that those local jobs are coming. However, given the staggered need for labor over this three-year long construction period, some of them may not materialize until a bit later.

The question of who builds the Music City Center has come up before. Some of the same folks protesting now (especially State Representative Mike Turner) charged that jobs were going to illegal aliens. An investigation by state labor officials found no evidence to support that, but this latest complaint may stick around longer or at least through the upcoming Metro elections.

Already some council members who voted for the project are saying they plan to look further into the matter. Usually when a major project like this gets well into development, public support and civic pride begins to soar as the new buildings come out of the ground. That seems to be happening in this case, although given the high level of local unemployment who get these construction jobs is more important than perhaps ever before on a Metro project. Also because of the massive size of the Music City Center there is likely more griping than usual about all the infrastructure and road work that must be done. But that's likely the cost of progress even if that has to be endured during election season.       

SPEAKING OUT

It is interesting to note this week how two longtime Tennessee political figures got caught up in the ongoing national healthcare debate.

First, there is former GOP Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist. During the week when the new Republican Congress huffed and puffed and passed legislation to repeal the new national health care law (Obamacare), Dr. Frist spoke out against that idea, saying while some changes need to be made, the law is a good one and needs to be the cornerstone for moving forward on national health care policy.

Even though he is no longer in office (and apparently doesn't plan to do a comeback to politics anytime soon as a Republican) I think it takes guts to speak out as he is doing. He could just as easily been quiet or made a less forceful statement.

Then there is Tennessee Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen from Memphis. During the floor debate in the House over the health care law repeal, Cohen said the charges Republicans are making against the health care law are "big lies" and compared them to the way the Nazis built public support in Germany before World War II that ultimately led to the Holocaust.

Whoa! Not surprisingly the Congressman's comments garnered a lot of controversy and calls for an apology. Frankly, anytime you compare anything to Nazi Germany or Hitler and his henchmen, you are comparing the incomparable and you are asking for a big time push back.

It is also unfortunate to see this happen at a time when, in the wake of the all the harsh rhetoric following the mass shooting in Arizona, some Washington lawmakers seemed to be making an effort to tone down their divisive rhetoric. I know Steve Cohen from his days in the Tennessee General Assembly and I know how strongly his holds his political beliefs and cherishes his Jewish faith. But surely there is a better way to express his convictions about how the health care law is being misrepresented than how he did.

And he didn't help himself with that lame statement of an apology when he said he was sorry if some people were offended by what he said.

GOVERNOR HASLAM'S FIRST WEEK

With the best weather I've ever seen for a January swearing in ceremony in Nashville (sunny skies and 40+ degrees), Tennessee's new Governor Bill Haslam has already started taking action to implement some of the things he talked about in his opening address as the state's Chief Executive.

He also waded into his first controversy when he signed his first Executive Order changing the financial disclosure standards for himself and his cabinet compared to the previous administration of Governor Phil Bredesen.

The new standards no longer require the Governor and his top assistants to disclose the amount of money they receive from any sources outside government. Governor Bredesen always felt this was an important part of his administration being transparent in its dealings.

Despite criticism from Democrats, Governor Haslam claims his standards (which are identical to those applied to the General Assembly) meet the highest standards of ethics and disclosure as well. He claims people don't really care how much officials receive, as long as they know that income is received from various sources.

I not sure I buy that argument, but the new Governor is being consistent about it and so far he seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt from voters. This issue came up repeatedly during Governor Haslam's campaign as his opponents in both the primary and general elections, hammered him to disclose all his sources and amounts of income (especially from the Haslam family business, Pilot Oil), but he refused. Given the size of his election victories, the issue didn't seem to bother the public much.

As usual, the proof will be in the pudding about all this. If there are no conflicts or other issues raised going forward, its' probably no big deal. But if there is, particularly with the Cabinet, then this matter could get revisited.  Already there are questions about the new Economic Development Commissioner and how his blind trust will properly handle his disclosed involvement with a group that receives money from a state program that ECD oversees.

The blind trust the Governor is also setting up will also be under scrutiny, especially since it also excludes Pilot Oil and an outside of Tennessee investment.

Another action by the new Governor may also give us some clues as to how the administration will handle the "top to bottom" review of state government he promised in his opening address.

Governor Haslam has placed a 45 day moratorium on any new state rules and regulations to see what is pending how well (and needed) our current rules and regulations are. All this is in keeping with the push by new administration and the new Republican General Assembly to make state government smaller and more efficient. It is also aimed they say to see if by cutting back on rules and regulations it might encourage businesses to create more jobs.

Could be, but it will be more than a little interesting to see what rules and regulations get the ax and what kind of flap that entails on the Hill.

INSIDE POLITICS

This week on INSIDE POLITICS we present an encore showing of our interview with Rebecca Harris Stubbs, a local author who has written a fascinating biography of former Nashville Congressman J. Percy Priest.

J.PERCY PRIEST & HIS AMAZING RACE not only details the truly amazing way he was elected to office in way back in 1940 but also his tenure in Washington where he touched and shaped many of the issues that still impact our lives today. That includes the efforts to control flooding in the Tennessee Valley, an issue, which obviously after last May, is still a work in process.

You see can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK, including 5 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5. We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. The PLUS is seen on Comcast & Charter cable channels 250 as well as Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. We air on the PLUS at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday. 

We had planned to have a new INSIDE POLITICS show this week, but a combination of a short work week, schedule conflicts, the snow and the sudden last minute illness of a guest we did have booked led to use do our encore presentation, which particularly if haven't seen it or read the book is really worth watching!