Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

CREATED Feb 28, 2011


By Pat Nolan, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

February 25, 2011


Tort reform: It is likely to be one of the hottest issues during this term of the General Assembly.

It's a major part of Governor Bill Haslam's first legislative package. He believes it will help keep and bring jobs to the state. But those who oppose major changes to the state's civil trial courts have some star power of their own to push their cause.

This week on INSIDE POLITICS, former Tennessee U.S. Senator, movie & TV star Fred Thompson is my guest. He has joined the lobbying team of the Tennessee Association of Justice (formerly the Tennessee Trail Lawyers). He believes the changes proposed by the Governor will do nothing to attract jobs, or reduce health care costs. It will only hurt those injured or damaged by corporate or medical misbehavior.

Senator Thompson is such a well-identified Republican that seeing him on this side of the tort reform issue seems strange to some. One WALL STREET JOURNAL writer compared Thompson's role in this controversy to Derek Jeter of the Yankees suiting up for the Boston Red Sox or Ralph Nader joining forces with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Senator Thompson points out that he was a trial lawyer long before he went into politics or the movies and TV. He adds this is not a new position for him on this issue, but it may be the most difficult part he's ever had to play or job he's had to perform, given the large Republican audience he will have to convince on the Hill.

By the way, the Senator says he has already had one conversation with Governor Haslam about his tort reform legislation. He says he hopes some kind of compromise can be reached, but he didn't say how or in what areas of the bill. Stay tuned.             

You can watch INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on THE NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5. You can also watch us on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter channels 250 and Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. We are on at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. Sunday.  


A couple of times in recent weeks, I have been teasing Tennessee's remaining few Democrats in the General Assembly that perhaps their major role in the current session is just to show up to keep a quorum.

Well, after what's been going on in Wisconsin and Indiana in the last week or so over legislative efforts to eliminate the rights of public employee unions to have collective bargaining powers, maybe showing up (or not showing up) can be a pretty powerful political weapon after all.

Let's set the scene in Tennessee.

Teachers and other public employee groups are planning a mass demonstration on Capitol Hill March 5 to protest a bill backed by Republicans to ban collective bargaining for teachers.  Add in a rally scheduled on the same day by elements of the Tea Party and you can see this could become one of the most contentious times here in downtown Nashville since the days of the "horn honkers."

So will Tennessee Democrats in either the House or the Senate do a fast fade to the border or to somewhere else when this anti-teacher bargaining bill hits the floor? It's probably too early to tell just yet, but Tennessee is not a strong union state, in fact it's a right to work state. So I am somewhat doubtful of mass-absenteeism by the 13 Democrats in the Senate or the 34 Democrats in the House.

But if they did walk out, it would not be the first time in Tennessee legislative history that something like this has happened. Once in the 1840s, it kept the state from having any U.S. Senators in Washington for two years. Two other times in the early part of the 20th century some lawmakers who didn't like a proposed plan to redo Tennessee's election system went on the lame several times to keep their colleagues from acting.

Here are some of the juicy details.

In 1841, both of the state's seats in the U.S. Senate were vacant awaiting action by the General Assembly to fill them. In those days that meant a vote in a joint session of both the House and Senate. Politically, it meant the Whigs had the advantage because while the Democrats had a one-seat majority in the Senate, the Whigs had a multi-seat margin in the larger House.

To stop any efforts to fill the seats (at least by Whigs), then State Senator (later Governor, Vice-President and President) Andrew Johnson, joined with 12 other Senate Democrats to boycott any joint session arguing that a joint session vote was unconstitutional and that each house should vote separately on filling the Senate seats (which would then result in one Whig Senator and one Democratic Senator).  

That stance led to a deadlock that lasted over two years (1841-1843), as the Senate Democrats known by their supporters as "The Immortal 13" prevailed, not only in this fight but also (according to an article written by Dr. James Jones in 2003) they blocked Whig Governor James Chamberlain "Lean Jimmy" Jones' efforts to appoint "a new board of directors for the state bank as well as an investigation into the affairs of the bank."

Said Dr. Jones about the continuing impasse: "Democrats claimed to be protecting the rights of the minority while Whigs loudly protested that the will of the people was being ignored by the Democrats (the Whigs had taken both the State House and the governor's chair in the 1840 election). Do those arguments sound familiar? 

Many years later, beginning in the early 1900s, Tennessee politics became rather jumbled for a time as the dominant Democrats were split between "Regulars" and "Fusionists" (who wanted election reform and other changes).

The split among Democrats even led in 1910 to the election of Republican Ben Hooper as governor, only the second time that had happened since Reconstruction. Fusionists joined with Independent Democrats and Republicans to put Hopper in office and even controlled the State House.

But the Democratic Regulars still controlled the Senate. According to Dr. Phillip Langsdon, author of the book TENNESSEE—A POLITICAL HISTORY: "the Regular Democrats intended to stop Hooper's inauguration. They made it difficult to establish a quorum by boycotting the (organizing) session."

Even as public sentiment mounted against the Regulars they continued, according to Dr. Langsdon: "The 37 Regular Democrats in the state house refused to take their oaths of office in hopes of preventing the session from progressing (and keeping Governor Hooper from being sworn in)….Since the Regular Democrats still had enough votes to control the State Senate, they indignantly delayed the governor's inauguration as long as they could (past the January 15 date in the State Constitution). Finally after "Hooper threatened to ignore the state senate and house and have himself sworn in…an agreement was reached to allow Governor Hooper to take office after the Fusionists agreed not to seek removal of Regular Democrats who had won disputed elections."

But it wasn't over…not by a long shot.           

A few months later in April, 1911, the changing political tides in Tennessee and within the Democratic Party, led to the Regulars gathering enough votes, even in the House, to pass a bill to take control of the state's election process. To try and forestall a vote to override Governor Hooper's veto of the bill (which in Tennessee does not require a super majority) on April 13, 1911, 34 of the Fusionists House members broke quorum themselves this time and took off for Decatur, AL. Without the necessary two-thirds of its members present, the House was paralyzed.

With a deadlock ensuing, another deal was made by the Fusionists. This time it was with members of the Memphis delegation and Boss W.H. Crump. It gave Crump control of the local Memphis election machinery in return for his delegation's votes to sustain the gubernatorial veto. 

 The Fusionist coalition managed to endure and even reelected Ben Hooper governor in 1912. But the delicate balance of keeping together so many different groups couldn't last (even with another deal made with Boss  Crump to hold off enforcement of the state's prohibition laws in Memphis). Said Dr. Phillip Langsdon: "the (legislative sessions (during Governor Hooper's time in office) were marked by overt chaos, quorum breaking and discord."

Indeed, Dr. Langsdon reports in 1913 after the Fusionists and their allies had lost control of the House (because Crump went over to the Regulars again) the newly powerful Democrats passed a number of bills, including once again to enlarge the state's election commission and give control of that body to the Regulars rather than the Governor.

Not surprisingly, Governor Hooper vetoed the measures. But according to Dr. Langsdon, the only way for the remaining Fusionists and Independent Democrats to sustain the Governor's action was to "break quorum and leave the state (again) on March 30 and 31, 1913. The legislature was unable to act for the next four months. By late June, the state was running out of money, and the Fusionists returned to pass the necessary funding legislation. (However) once back in session, the Regulars immediately overrode the Governor's veto…. The Fusionists broke quorum again in order to prevent any more changes. Finally, everybody gave up and the session was adjourned." Several special sessions did finally bring some resolution to this ongoing political feuding.            

Now all these things certainly occurred a long, long time ago in Tennessee. But I think they prove that while the issues may be very different today, breaking quorums and leaving town is nothing new. Indeed, as always in politics and political tactics, everything old can be new again!                    


Just days after pitchers and catchers reported to Florida and Arizona for spring training, there is new activity in the continuing efforts to build a new professional baseball park in Nashville.

Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told THE CITY PAPER that within the next 30-60 days the city would be seeking a consultant to study the need, feasibility and potential locations for a new stadium to replace the very old and outdated Greer Stadium near Ft. Negley in South Nashville.

The local AAA team, the Nashville Sounds, would love to put the new facility on the riverfront downtown on the old Thermal Transfer site. But that seems taken for a new amphitheater to be used by the Nashville Symphony. That leaves sites such areas around the new Music City Center or the Gulch at 11th and Charlotte Avenue (the site of the old Polar Cold Storage facility). However, the most likely site to be recommended (the Mayor and many Council members are already speaking out in favor of it) is Sulphur Dell, located near the State Capitol and the Farmer's Market in North Nashville. It is also the site of Nashville's original professional baseball park, home of the Nashville Vols.

There are some close to the Sounds who are not crazy about the site because there is not much of anything else in that area except parking lots owned by the state. In fact with most of the property in that area under state control, it is not clear just what role Metro will play in the development. Will it be a transfer entity for the land for the state? Will it invest money in building the stadium, something it refused to do in an earlier effort to build the park at the Thermal site?

Much like the lazy days and warm breezes of summer, those answers still lay some time ahead. But hiring a consultant at least gives Mayor Karl Dean something positive to say about the potential baseball project while he is campaigning for re-election other than he continuing to point out that he is a great baseball fan (and he is a big fan of the Red Sox).  

The timing of the consultant study also means there won't be a final report or any recommendations until after the Metro elections are well over and the new term of the Mayor and the Council begin in the fall . That's when baseball moves from its regular season to the final decisions of playoff and the World Series. So maybe after yet another full season, we'll finally know if Nashville will ever have a new baseball facility and where it will be located. 

Play ball!     


When it comes to good national write-ups in the media, Nashville seems to be on a roll.

Take FORBES Magazine, which recently listed our city as number 4 in a top ten of "America's Biggest Brain Magnets!"

Wow! Nashville has always attracted some of the best and the brightest thanks to having so many excellent colleges and universities here, but the FORBES write-up seems to be about much more than that in describing Nashville:

"A high quality of life, a vibrant cultural and music scene and a diverse population make Nashville a desirable place to live. Low housing costs drive down the cost of living, which is even lower than in other affordable cities like Raleigh, Austin or Indianapolis. Nashville is also home to a growing health care industry."

The Forbes survey compared the nation's top 50 metro areas by gains in residents with college educations between 2007 and 2009 as a percentage of over-25 population. So that seems to mean we are not just attracting lots of college kids here for an education. More of those folks are staying here and are being joined by others who went to school in other cities. By the way, Raleigh and Austin were also on the FORBES list coming in at #2 and #3 respectively. Indy did not make the list.

Another positive write up for Nashville comes from a blogger on THE URBANOPHILE. (Thanks to Craig Owensby of the Metro Planning staff for sending this out).

Under a headline of Replay: Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South, (February 11) the writer says he is updating his impressions after two visits to Nashville, one in 2006, the other in April, 2008. Even though that is nearly 3 years ago now, he seems to like what he sees: "…all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in-city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upward again."

The writer (whose name I could not find) seems to struggle about why Nashville is doing so well, finally coming up with his own ideas, including the city's "extremely high ambition level," our "unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance," and "low taxes and costs (the 4th lowest in the nation according to a recent national study)." The article also says about Nashville: (We've) "embraced instead of rejecting our heritage," "Nashville has done its homework…studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc....I did not note any poor urban design forms", and, finally," Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating."

Now not everything he said was positive.  He said the Germantown area seemed "unimpressive…and I didn't seem much German about it." He also did not like the unnamed restaurant he ate at there. He didn't like the lack of sidewalks on both sides of the street in some areas and he says Nashville has "a long way to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness." But he did say the food at the Pancake Pantry was "pretty darn good" and so was the cuisine at the Watermark in the Gulch.

Overall the verdict was: "Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate (of growth) is very healthy, but probably isn't sufficient to realize civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice."

A couple of things that were not mentioned included the May floods and there was nothing about public education, Nevertheless, I think the article is a very positive, insightful and impressive write up, one any city's chamber of commerce would embrace in a heartbeat, especially to continue to be a ‘brain magnet."