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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 23, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 23, 2011

CREATED Sep 23, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

September 23, 2011

ALEXANDER; MOST CORRUPT; HE-ROE; STATE GOP OWNS ID; GM STEPCHILD FINALLY GETS PRIZE; NOT SO FAIR; COUNCIL LEADERSHIP APPOINTMENTS; INSIDE POLITICS

THE DELEGATION

In a surprising turn of events, Tennessee's Senior United States Senator Lamar Alexander has announced he will step down and will not seek re-election to leadership as chairman of the Senate's Republican Conference (third in Leadership). Nor will he seek (as rumored a few weeks back) being Senate Republican Whip (second in leadership). Alexander says that's not a sign he is leaving the Senate (he says he plans to run for re-election in 2014) nor that he is stepping away from the issues (in fact, he says he plans to be even more involved).

So why step out of leadership? It seems to be because Lamar Alexander thinks he can get more done in the Senate and for the country if he is not restrained by being in the leadership. Isn't that a heck of note? Our nation's Congress has become so partisan so stuck in gridlock that leadership is no longer considered the best path to get things done even by those in leadership? In this particular case on the Republican side of the aisle, the problem seems to be that Alexander is considered too moderate and too willing to work with Democrats.

During his speech on the Senate floor when he announced he was leaving leadership after 4 years, Senator Alexander took pains to point out that he considers himself to be "a very Republican Republican" and that "if I can pass a 100 per cent Republican legislative solution I will."

But then the Senator came to the key point for why he feels constrained and must move out of leadership to be more effective. "The United States Senate requires 60 votes to achieve a result on serious issues and 60-vote results simply cannot be found among only Republicans, or only Democrats."

So it appears Senator Alexander believes he must be able to be more bi-partisan, more flexible if you will on the issues and apparently do so in ways just not possible if he remains head of the Republican Conference or in any leadership.

While I think this is potentially good news for the Senate and the country, it's a blow for Tennessee and its power in D.C. It is also, I think, a blow for the GOP. Senator Alexander has been nothing short of brilliant in performing his leadership duties. It is the role of the Chair of the Republican Conference (as Alexander puts it) "to look for consensus (on the issues) within the Republican caucus, and to suggest our message." And if there is one thing the GOP has been winning on, it is setting the message in Washington.

Senator Alexander has always been brilliant throughout his political career (as Governor, Education Secretary, and as Senator) in crafting just the right talking points to give his issues and his party members the edge in the media marketplace of competing ideas. That will be missed.

By the way, there are some political observers who aren't buying Senator Alexander's assertion that he will run for re-election. While his early announcement to leave leadership certainly is a surprise, some even see it as a sign that the Senior Senator is clearing the decks to leave office early, opening the way for Governor Bill Haslam to appoint a replacement (maybe even himself?) so the new Senator can run as an incumbent in 2014.

Others say Alexander knew his chances to win re-election to leadership were going to be tough and so he is stepping aside early even at a time when GOP chances to capture enough seats to take over and run (if not dominate) the upper chamber look excellent beginning in 2013. There is also this news about Senator Alexander's future. NASHVILLEPOST.COM is reporting plans for a September 30th $1000 per-person re-election fund raiser on Music Row. The invite appears to be coming from Alexander but those being honored also include 6 other moderate GOP Senators all up for re-election in 2012. So is Senator Alexander just helping his colleagues? Or is this a prelude for his own fundraising for 2014? Stay tuned.

By the way, on another Washington note, congratulations to Governor Haslam who got to go to the White House for a education meeting (changes in the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND program) and introduce President Barack Obama. It clearly shows Tennessee's leadership in national education reform efforts even if the Governor and President are in different parties. And hopefully, as Senator Alexander is seeking, it's a sign of some cooperation by Republicans and Democrats on at least one issue in Washington.

No luck on budget as it appears as Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House are again at loggerheads over a new continuing federal spending plan (through mid-November). The impasse threatens another government shutdown the end of this month with FEMA already set to run out of funds to help respond to natural disasters across the nation. Same old, same old

MOST CORRUPT

While Senator Alexander's leadership announcement is front and center in the news, another member of our Tennessee congressional delegation has a much more serious charge that's been leveled against him. First-term 8th District Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher been has named one of "the most corrupt members of Congress" by a group known as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). This is the 7th edition of CREW's MOST CORRUPT REPORT which styles itself as "an annual bi-partisan collection of Washington's worst." This year it includes eight Democrats and 12 Republicans.

Fincher made the list primarily because of inconsistencies in how he has disclosed or failed to disclose his assets (in particular a bank loan) dating back to his election campaign last year. Says CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan: "Rep. Fincher ruthlessly lied and cheated to an electoral victory. Given his track record, how can Americans believe anything that comes out his mouth now that he's in Congress? Members like this give Congress a bad name." Ouch! Say, with Congress' overall approval rating at its lowest level ever (12%) just how low can it go even with the accusations against Fincher?

Frankly, CREW's beef is not just with Fincher. It appears to also be with the Federal Election Commission which deadlocked 3-3 (along partisan lines) on whether to fine Fincher for violating federal campaign finance laws. The GOP members tried to defend Fincher saying first time congressional candidates sometimes are confused or are misinformed about what is or is not covered under federal election disclosure laws.

I have not seen any response as yet from Fincher. He more or less has refused to say much about this in the media. Several times during the campaign, and now that he is in Congress, we have asked him to come on INSIDE POLITICS, but he has so far not agreed to do so.

Nevertheless, you can bet this "most corrupt" label is bound to show up again next year when Fincher seeks re-election. But he's used to attack ads against him from his first campaign when his primary and general election opponents went after him about the disclosure issue and his acceptance of federal farm subsidies. The CREW MOST CORRUPT REPORT points out that among the 71 members of Congress named to its list over the year, 32 of them are no longer in office. But you can also expect for Fincher to be favored to win re-election especially after GOP state lawmakers get through redrawing all the congressional lines in Tennessee early next year.

HE-ROE

One of our Tennessee congressmen is also a hero. Upper East Tennessee Representative Phil Roe performed CPR and used a defibrillator to save the life of a man in cardiac arrest in the Charlotte, NC airport on September 20. Roe knew what he was doing. He has a medical degree from the University of Tennessee and practiced as an obstetrician before running for office. He also spent two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

One of his congressional colleagues, Mick Mulvaney of a Republican from South Carolina, saw Roe in action and told THE HILL: "They guy was dead. There's no question. This guy is alive because of Phil Roe and a couple of other very important people at the airport."

Well done, Congressman.

STATE GOP OWNS ID

GOP leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly have been insistent. To protect the sanctity of the ballot box, they passed legislation requiring everyone to have a picture ID to vote beginning in 2012.

That's seems fine on the surface. Almost all of us have our Tennessee Driver's License and that contains our picture. But a recent article by Andy Sher of THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (9/20/11) raises some troubling facts and questions.

What about the 230,000 people in our state, 60 years and older, who have opted under state law to get non-photo ID licenses? Sher's article indicates 160,000 of them are registered to vote, about 4% of the total people registered in the state. What are they supposed to do when they go to the polls? And what about others who are poor or lack other types of officially sanctioned state or federal issued IDs?

The standard Republican answer up until now is that all of them need to go to the Drivers License Bureaus and get an ID. Have they been to the Drivers License locations lately and seen all the endless long lines there? These government offices are (and have been for years) completely swamped just trying to handle all the people who need driver's licenses, especially all the young people getting their restricted permits and then their regular licenses. And not all 95 counties in Tennessee have drivers' license bureaus. Is it just too bad, a quirk of geography that they have to drive many miles to another county to get the ID they need to exercise their precious right to vote?

Last year, Democrats in the General Assembly tried to stop this foolishness. But when they saw the train wreck coming they at least tried to amend the Voter ID bill to let the Election Commissions (located in all 95 counties) give out these free voter IDs. Flexing their political muscle, the Republicans rejected that idea.

Now House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick is changing his mind. He is now telling Andy Sher that he thinks it is "not unreasonable" to let county election commissions provide the service. What a concept! Election officials handling election matters and let the State Safety Department handle drivers' licenses!

But Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey is not convinced and says letting the Election Commissions get involved is too expensive. So making sure up to 160,000 people get what they need to exercise their hard-earned right to vote costs too much, huh? That may sound good now, but when thousands of Tennesseans are disqualified from voting next year because of all this mess, I wonder if he will be singing a different tune? At least he is reportedly willing to offer rides to those who need to get these IDs and need transportation. He may be busy.

GM STEPCHILD FINALLY GETS THE PRIZE

It's a state of the art auto assembly plant located in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Yet, General Motors has allowed it to lie all but vacant the last two years destroying the economy in southern Middle Tennessee.

Why? Some say it's because GM‘s leadership never liked the Saturn car concept once used here and therefore didn't care what happened to the facility.

But now the red-headed step child finally gets an inheritance as GM has signed a new agreement with the United Auto Workers (still subject to ratification) that will invest almost $420 million in upgrades to the old Saturn plant to built two new unnamed vehicles here creating up to 1,700 jobs over the next couple of years.

This is like manna from heaven for this part of the state, especially when you consider how the multiplier effect will work to generate still more new jobs and businesses in the area. In fact THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL reports that according to economists it could mean up to 6,000 new jobs.

The announcement of the potential new jobs at the old Saturn facility was some interesting timing politically. State House and Senate Democrats are touring the state talking about the need for more jobs and how government needs to play a role in that in terms not only of creating a positive business climate in the state but also providing education, job training and infrastructure.

Governor Bill Haslam has had some positive things to say about the Democrats' tour, believing it's important for everyone to keep a focus on jobs for Tennessee. But most other Republicans have panned the tour believing government doesn't and shouldn't create jobs. Maybe so, but it should be pointed out that if the federal government hadn't intervened to take over and "bail out" GM a couple of years ago there probably would have been no car company to come in and create these new jobs at the plant in Spring Hill.

As usual the truth in politics lies not in what each party says but somewhere in between.

NOT SO FAIR

It's disappointing but certainly not surprising.

The 10-day-long Tennessee State Fair has finished its latest run and it didn't do too well….again.

Some 43,273 Nashville voters cast their ballots to preserve the Fairgrounds during the city's recent August 4 election.

But apparently not enough of them could even find a friend to come out to the Fair because reportedly (CITY PAPER 9/29/11) only about 58,000 to 60,000 tickets were sold. That number is also way down compared to last year when 66,000 to 75,000 tickets were sold.

In fairness, those putting on the Fair didn't get nearly enough time to get organize and market the event appropriately. In fact they got only 65 days lead time or a little more than two months to do the job which usually taking all year to plan.

So maybe things will be better next year (assuming the Tennessee State Fair Association or whoever gets next year's contract) will get the approvals they need from the Metro Fair Board early enough to be more effective.

The voters have decided that the Fairgrounds is an asset which Metro ought to utilize and maximize and it's pretty clear we still aren't doing that. It is also pretty clear the in-fighting and feuding between the Fair Board and its users is still well underway with the latest squabble being about efforts to charge more rent for the use of the expo center and charge for parking.

Some things just never seem to change. By the way, what's ever happened to that Master Plan study for the Fairgrounds ordered by the last Council? It was put out for bid but no consultants wanted to touch it. Now that the charter amendment vote is over, it's probably time to put out another bid for the study and see what happens now.

COUNCIL LEADERSHIP APPOINTMENTS

The new Metro Council has now been sworn into office (Friday morning) and will hold its first business session on Tuesday, October 4.

This appears to be the final roster for the 40-member body. Challenger Mary Carolyn Roberts has dropped his lawsuit challenging the re-election of her opponent 20th District Councilman Buddy Baker. Roberts had alleged irregularities in the August 4 balloting such as state prisoners voting. But now she tells THE TENNESSEAN (September 21) the challenge was too costly including paying up to $10 a day to pay downtown to go to the Courthouse.

Meanwhile, the new leadership of the Council came into focus the other day when Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors released the names of her committee chairs.

Every year, the most anticipated chairmanship is the one for the Budget & Finance committee. It is by far the most powerful and significant committee (because its handles all money bills). So its chairman is always considered the "greater among equals" in term of the 15 committee chairs.

Another reason the Budget & Finance chair may become so important this coming year is the possibility that a property tax increase may be requested by the administration of Mayor Karl Dean next spring. The chairman of Budget & Finance will be the sponsor of those bills (the budget & the tax levy) in the Council.

For all those reasons, Vice Mayor Neighbors' choice for Budget & Finance chair seemed to be a bit of a surprise with Green Hills Councilman Sean McGuire (25th District) getting the nod. McGuire was not a member of B&F last year and has not chaired the powerful committee before. He did serve on B&F before, but had to drop off because of attendance issues due to his job.

It had been thought the B&F chair would be an At-Large member such as Tim Garrett or Ronnie Steine both of whom have chaired Budget & Finance several times in the past with Steine also having done so in a tax-increase year.

Nevertheless, the Dean administration reportedly seems comfortable with the choice of McGuire and you will remember the Mayor made a strong last-minute endorsement of the Councilman to help him win re-election handily.

While McGuire may not have previously chaired or served on Budget & Finance, the rest of the committee has strong experience, including all 5 At-Large members. The only rookie Council members to garner the plum committee assignments on B&F are Anthony Davis (District 7), Jacobia McDowell (District 32) and Peter Westerholm (District 6). However, if and when a fight over any tax increase gets intense next spring, they might wonder if their committee assignments are such a plum posts.

The overall makeup of Budget & Finance would seem favorable to the Dean administration although one new member this year is District 24 Councilman Jason Holleman whose opponent (Sarah Lodge Talley) the Mayor strongly endorsed in an effort to unseat him. Another Dean critic in the past Council term, Emily Evans (District 23) is not on Budget & Finance (she wasn't last year either), but interestingly (given her past criticism of the administration) she is on the Convention, Tourism and Public Entertainment Committee which oversees the city's Convention Center.

Other interesting things to note about the committee appointments: The Education Committee has only 8 members this year as opposed to 13 last year. Also while former school board member now Councilman Steve Glover is on the committee, another former school board member, now Councilmember Karen Johnson is not. Zoning and land use are one of the greatest powers of the Council and lots of new Council members will get to learn that with 8 of the 13 members being rookies.

Another committee appointment to watch is At-Large Councilmember Megan Barry to chair the Personnel Committee. Normally this is not a very active group, but this year the committee could get involved in the changes that might be coming for future Metro employees adjusting their benefits. Metro is required to review benefits every few years and the feeling is some changes may be in the offing. Council Lady Barry does mediation work and she may get to put her skills to good use if the benefit changes are significant.

It will be a sharp and quick learning curve for all 17 new members, none of who have any previous Council experience. It appears they will not have any sudden, unexpected crisis to deal with (such as the NHL Predators possibly leaving town 4 years ago). But you can be sure they will be put to the test one way or another, either in their districts or on some citywide issue, soon enough.

For now it's always fun to watch the spouses and other family and friend come down to the Courthouse and enjoy that day when their loved ones get sworn into public office. It's a tradition almost 50 years old now in Metro as we continue the local edition of that great marvel of American democracy, the routine and peaceful transfer of political power in our city.

INSIDE POLITICS

Mayor Karl Dean has also been sworn into office for his second term. He, along with some Council leaders, will be our guest on INSIDE POLITICS. Nashville has weathered our national economic downturn somewhat better than many parts of the nation. But many challenges lies ahead during the next four years I talk with the Mayor and Council members about that. Our Council members on the show include Councilman McGuire, 1st District representative Lonnell Mathews (Joelton, Bells Bend) and the city's first Latino Councilman, Fabian Bedne of the 31st District in the Hickory Hollow area.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on THE NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5. We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS several times each weekend. Our show times are 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

You can see THE PLUS on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. If you don't have cable or live outside Nashville, excerpts of this and previous INSIDE POLITICS shows can be found here on www.newschannel5.com.