Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 8, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 8, 2011

CREATED Apr 8, 2011


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

April 8, 2011


The passing of former Governor and House Speaker Ned McWherter at age 80 has me going back through my notes and memory banks to help form some reflections on this great man, who did so much and served the state of Tennessee so well.

Here are my thoughts.

It's odd that I don't remember the first time I met or interviewed Ned McWherter.

After all, he was always such an imposing figure physically you'd think I'd remember.

It surely must have been when I first covered the General Assembly in 1974. He was in the second year as Speaker of the House.

I probably first interviewed him in a group of other reporters and I was too scared or uninformed to dare ask any questions.

Even in his first term as House Speaker, and after being in the General Assembly only a few years (elected in 1968), you could already tell that Ned McWherter was going to be a major figure in Tennessee politics.

He upset Nashville Representative Jim McKinney to take over the Speaker's chair in 1973 and from there began to build Democratic majorities in the State House that over the years were at times even larger than what the Republicans enjoy today.

He also pulled a political coup in 1974 that ultimately paved the way for him to become Governor of Tennessee 12 years later (1986), although I am not sure that was on his radar screen back then.  

Nevertheless, McWherther's political savvy in getting GOP help to override two gubernatorial vetoes (by GOP Governor Winfield Dunn) not only kept the State Supreme Court (along with the Attorney General's post) safely in Democratic hands, it also built a new medical school in East Tennessee, which gained McWherter the lifelong political gratitude of powerful Upper East Tennessee Republican Congressman Jimmy Quillen.

That support (and Quillen's strong dislike of Winfield Dunn) gave McWherter the votes he needed on Election Day 1986 to derail Governor Dunn's efforts to get back in the Executive Chair and to allow McWherter to change his title from Speaker of the House to Governor.

But Ned really didn't leave the House. In fact, through his remaining lieutenants, he still ran the lower chamber by proxy throughout his 8 years as the state's Chief Executive, making him perhaps the most powerful governor of modern times in Tennessee.

He wasn't fooling on the campaign trail when he told voters to just "swear me in at 10 o'clock in the morning. Give me a cup of coffee and four Vanilla Wafers and I am ready to go to work." Nobody knew as much about state government in those days as he did.

There is irony in his dominance as Governor, since it was during McWherter's time as Speaker (a record 14 years, since surpassed by Jimmy Naifeh) that the General Assembly strongly emerged as something of a co-equal partner with the governor in overseeing state government. The rise in power of such agencies as the State Building Commission, the Fiscal Review Committee and others made the Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor the very powerful positions they are today in terms of serving on and/or appointing members of several state boards and commissions along with their vast legislative powers.

Over the years beginning in the late-1970s, I gravitated to covering Metro government and didn't spend much time on the Hill with then Speaker McWherter. I didn't get the chance to have him call me (as he did all reporters) "dog asses," a title that seems remembered now (and even then) much more in affection than in confrontation or disdain.

I first realized that when I left the media and went to work with Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton. He was planning to run for Governor in 1986 and had done his opposition research which included Ned McWherter as a likely primary opponent. Our thick folder of information seemed to indicate the Speaker might be vulnerable because he had made his personal fortune from industries regulated by the state. But that didn't go anywhere with the Capitol Hill Press Corps. They knew Ned, found him very transparent in his dealings, and hadn't found anything they thought worth making an issue in those areas.

The same was true with voters. Our research raised the question if the statewide voters would view McWherter as "Boss Hogg" of the then-popular "Dukes of Hazzard" TV show or as the lovable Hoss Cartwright of another popular TV show, ‘Bonanza"? Once he got out on the campaign trail, the Hoss Cartwright image easily prevailed as McWherter came across as so genuine and down to earth he quickly became the leading candidate and won the primary.

Much has been said about how Ned McWherter tried to do the right thing for Tennessee while he was in office, regardless of party politics. That's true (although that bi-partisan courtesy never extended to appointing House Republicans to chair or have anything close to a majority on any committees). It did extend to major policy issues.

Ask U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. In his statement on Governor McWherter's passing, Alexander once again told the story of how when became governor, Speaker McWherter said, "I'm going to help him, because if he succeeds, our state succeeds." That bi-partisanship help pass Alexander's legislation in major areas such as education reform (Master Teacher) and roads (I-840 among many other projects).

While Senator Alexander didn't mention it in his tribute statement, the first and most significant sign of Ned McWherter putting Tennessee first, not politics, came in January, 1979 when he and Lt. Governor John Wilder, agreed to allow Governor-Elect Alexander to take office 3 days early, deposing out-going Governor Ray Blanton because of increasing questions about possible criminal activity. It would have been easy, and in many quarters politically popular to resist that move, and turn the transition into a political football. But then-Speaker McWherter thought it best for Tennessee to make the early change in governors, and he was right.

During his own time as Chief Executive, McWherter pushed through additional changes in education reform including equalizing funding among wealthy and poor counties. He actually tried briefly to pass an income tax to pay for that, but sensing Tennesseans' opposition to such a tax (which remains today) he quickly settled for another sales tax hike.

Among his other achievements, the Governor regained state control of our prison system after it had been taken over by the federal courts. He also helped pass legislation for mandatory seat-belt use. Remembering his roots, he also tried to improve many rural areas to attract development and jobs by providing 4-lane highways to serve communities cut off from the interstates.

It seemed to work. According to an article in THE WEST MEADE NEWS (April 7), when McWherter left office in 1994, the state had its lowest unemployment rate ever and only two counties in Tennessee still suffered double-digit unemployment levels.  

McWherter was also the father of TennCare, which while much maligned over the years, has probably saved the lives of many of Tennessee's neediest citizens and their children, while bringing the state some badly-needed fiscal breathing room as we still struggle even today with how to handle our health care needs as a society.

Overall, he ran the state with a fiscal iron fist, with his policies getting the state named twice (by CITY & STATE Magazine) as the best-managed state government in America. In 1994, Governor McWherter was named by GOVERNING Magazine as the nation's most outstanding state chief executive.

I got to know Governor McWherter much better in recent years. It was a great thrill to have him as a guest on my INSIDE POLITICS show. When he came, he arrived on set after having some medical treatment on his face and head. He was almost covered with pieces of toilet paper like he had had a very bad time shaving. We worked on making that look better. I was even more honored that he kept the appointment to be on the show that day.

His political acumen was always right on target. It's not a mistake that he became and remained a key advisor to the only two national Democrats who have carried Tennessee in presidential elections in recent years (Jimmy Carter & Bill Clinton). And while his Democratic Party in this state has become just a faint shadow of its once powerful self, Ned McWherter remained its elder statesman and a beloved public figure to almost everyone in Tennessee during his final years.  He was the last of the conservative rural Democratic leaders that once led the Democratic Party, and this state. It appears his like may never be seen again.       

In recent months when I saw Governor McWherter, I was concerned when I would see how frail he was becoming. It was almost heart-breaking to see him Election Night last November when his son, Mike, lost his bid for Governor.  But I'll bet Ned took it OK. He understood politics and it's up and downs. That's why he always counseled when times were troubling to "ease along" and "don't get your gown over your head."

Like the bumper stickers said shortly after he left office, I miss Ned.

May he rest in peace.     


INSIDE POLITICS will focus on the life and legacy of Ned McWherter this weekend. I can't think of three better people to do that than our guests: former U.S. Senator and long-time McWherter aide (Deputy to the Governor) and friend, Harlan Mathews; another long time McWherter friend, confidant and cabinet member, J.W. Luna and, NASHVILLE POST reporter Ken Whitehouse, who was once a McWherter aide.

It‘s a special half-hour, so tune us in. INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. on the main channel, WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5. We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS ,seen on Comcast and Charter cable channels 250 as well as Channel 5's over—the-air digital channel 5.2. Our broadcast times on the PLUS are 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.  


When Karl Dean ran for Mayor four years ago, he did not receive support from organized labor.

That went primarily to his opponents Bob Clement or David Briley.

 But this time around as the incumbent mayor seeking another 4-year term, Karl Dean is getting labor support.

The Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee has endorsed him. The Central Labor Council is perhaps the largest and most influential of union group in town.

It consists of nearly 25 labor organizations including, among others, the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, the International Firefighters Association, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the American Federation of Government Employees, even the NFL Players Association (that could be interesting as their labor dispute and lockout with the NFL team owners continues).

Organized labor does not have major political clout in this area. But it can provide money, volunteers and other campaign materials to get out the vote….and most importantly….it's the kind of support Karl Dean just didn't have in 2007.

The same is true about Karl Dean's support in the minority community.  During the first mayoral vote in August, 2007, Howard Gentry and Bob Clement got the greatest share of the black vote. But with the help of former Tennessee State Supreme Court Chief Justice A.A. Birch that began to turn that around in the runoff race as Dean significantly increased his minority support giving him a key edge in the final voting.

Now the Mayor's support in the black community seems almost overwhelming. His campaign   has announced a North Nashville Advisory Committee that consists of several very influential black political, business and civic leaders who are on his side for re-election.

Add 10 county-wide constitutional officers in Nashville (from the Sherriff, to the Trustee, the Property Assessor, the Register of Deeds, the County Clerk, the Public Defender, the District Attorney and all the Court Clerks), who've added their endorsements to the Mayor today (Friday, April 8) as he formally submitted his qualifying papers.  

That's strong!

We will soon get an even stronger indication of just how broad based the Mayor's re-election support is. On or before April 11, his campaign will be releasing fund raising numbers through the end of March. The Mayor has already had several apparently very successful fund raising events, so expect the $$$ numbers to be large.  The question may be will the Dean Camp release its numbers before or after his main opponent, Councilman Michael Craddock, releases his? 

Given his family fortune, money has never been a problem for Karl Dean. But the figures and the names of supporters will show how broad and deep his support may be and how hard the Mayor is running. All indications he is running very hard.

For example, when Councilman Craddock announced a fund raiser at his home in Madison, the Mayor's team immediately announced its own long list of Dean supporters who live in the Madison area (similar to the support group announced for North Nashville). The Mayor also has held one of his early fund raisers in that community. It seems while the Mayor is avoiding talking about his opponent, unless asked, he's not giving Craddock any slack either when it comes to trying to show any support or momentum.  


After all the last-minute tweaks and changes made by the Planning Commission staff based on community input, it appears the Metro Council is ready to approve the new county redistricting plan in time (by just a few weeks) for the upcoming Council and School Board races.

But some folks understandably don't like all this last minute rush.  In order to keep this from happening again, a state law has been proposed that would move Nashville's city elections in 2015 back a year until 2016. This would remove the problem of Metro's election and the need to redistrict after the federal census from coinciding every 20 years (which it has since 1971), but it also creates new issues.

First, can state law override what the voters approved in the Metro Charter? And, secondly, what about the Mayor, the Vice Mayor and Council members elected this August, having to serve 5 year terms while this new election system is put in place.

I am not a lawyer or a constitutional expert, so I don't have an answer for either of those questions. However, I would be surprised that the General Assembly can override a city's governing charter. It can clearly override a local ordinance approved by the Council (see below about the effort in the Legislature to overturn the new discrimination bill passed by the Council). But changing something the voters approved? I am doubtful.

As for the longer terms, it has happened before. When Metro government was approved by referendum in the summer of 1962, the first mayor, vice mayor and council were elected in November of that year. The next Metro elections were held in August, 1966. But then, that mayor, vice mayor and council served 5 year terms because the third Metro election occurred in August of 1971.

I am not sure how that was authorized (I asked George Cate, the city's first vice mayor and he could not remember). But it has happened before so I guess it could happen again. The argument against it will be cramming in the Metro elections (mayor, vice mayor, 5 at-large council and 35 district council seats) all onto to the same ballot as the state and federal elections being held at the same time. Pity the voters trying to wade through that very long ballot!  

But it appears we may get that choice or decide to continue to work fast and hard every 20 years when the census results for redistricting hit at the same time as the city elections. Stay tuned and let the debate begin!


Supporters of Metro's newly-passed anti-discrimination law say it is an historic moment for the city. Opponents are looking again to the Tennessee General Assembly to nullify the act as soon as possible after Mayor Karl Dean signs it into law (which he did today, April 8).

The bill, which requires anyone doing business with the city to sign a pledge that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference or orientation passed by only the narrowest of margins. It needed 21 votes for final approval and that is exactly what it received. Surely that must have led to some very anxious moments for the bill's sponsors since they had to hold every one of those votes for nearly 6 weeks, which is the time that passed from the second reading vote until final approval on Tuesday, April 5. That's a very long time in terms of legislative politics.  

The council action ended months of controversy and debate which began after Belmont University was criticized for how it handled the dismissal of its women's soccer coach after it was announced that she and her same sex-partner were having a baby.

Ironically, Belmont has since changed its anti-discrimination policies to cover sexual preference and orientation and the new law exempts religious organizations such as Belmont from being covered by the law's requirements (Belmont does have a major lease contract with the city).

Now the focus turns to the General Assembly. That's where an earlier effort to approve legislation to prohibit any such local anti-discrimination laws died in sub-committee. But that version of the bill dealt with more than anti-discrimination. It also would have prohibited any local minimum wage or living wage proposals. That was too much for some lawmakers. So the bill was re-drafted and narrowed to just cover the discrimination issue. The measure has now passed through a sub-committee and will on the agenda of the full House Commerce Committee on April 12. Recent news reports seem to indicate the bill has a strong chance for passage.

As if to respond to that by sending a strong message to the General Assembly, Mayor Dean as a part of his signing ceremony for the new law issued a statement saying: "…Nashville has time and again proven we're a city that doesn't tolerate discrimination, and with this ordinance, we are once again sending the message that we are truly a welcoming and friendly place."

"…I believe the decisions of locally-elected government bodies should be respected by the legislature. The passage of this legislation is consistent with actions taken by a number of cities in all parts of the United States. This is not the time to abandon our belief in local government."

The Mayor was supported at the signing ceremony by Mike Curb, a prominent local music executive, community benefactor (including to Belmont University) and a former Republican Lt. Governor and Acting Governor in the state of California. Said Curb: "The Republican Party has always stood for allowing decisions to be made by local governments…..the argument that this (anti-discrimination) bill is anti-business is no different than the same arguments people made years ago to prevent race and religion from being protected through anti-discrimination laws."

Watch the Hill on this one.


I think Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has a good idea when he asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings on the War Power Act in the light of our current "war" in Libya. Hopefully, it will not result in a lot of finger-pointing and blame, since both parties have had presidents in recent years who have committed military force without even informing Congress until well after the fact.

The Constitution is very clear that only Congress can declare war, but especially since the time of Vietnam, we've been doing so without much advance consideration or debate by our elected congressional representatives.

I understand in our modern technological world, you have to be very careful about tying the hands of our Commander in Chief in times of peril or national security. The War Powers Act has supposed to have been a way to allow military actions to occur if necessary and then get Congress involved as soon as possible.

Is that really working as it is supposed to? I hope that is what the hearings Senator Corker is requesting will do. If it just becomes another political football for the 2012 election, forget it.      


As I write these words on Friday afternoon, there's still time for a very last minute deal that would resolve the budget impasse that has plagued Congress and the White House for several weeks. But frankly, it appears no deal is coming and we are headed for the first shutdown of the federal government since 1995. I have no idea how complete it will be or how badly it might hurt the economy.

But I do find it disappointing and I hope embarrassing for both parties in Congress and the White House. I agree with Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper who says: "Congress should be able to cut spending without shutting down the government."   

 Both parties in Congress know they have messed up here. You can see it in their efforts through the media to assure voters they won't take any salaries while the government is shut down and that they hope all the military and their families will be taken care of. If that's so, then why didn't they write the current laws that way.

And why haven't they dealt with this problem (funding the rest of this federal fiscal year) a long time ago (especially in 2010 when Democrats controlled both houses? As for the Republicans, be careful not to overreach and try to get too many cuts all at one time. Hardballing in 1995 did not work. Pleasing the Tea Party is only a small part of the electorate (although they likely will dominate the GOP primary process in many states). However, the polls indicate that overall, voters, especially independents do not like how this is being handled in Washington.

It's  a witches brew only likely to get worse as Congress soon needs to also deal with raising the debt ceiling and then next year's federal budget which begins October 1.