Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 9, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 9, 2011

CREATED Dec 9, 2011


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

December 9, 2011



Since he took office last January, Governor Bill Haslam has developed a little bit of a reputation for "being with his friends" when a controversial issue comes up. That's been particularly true regarding hot button legislation in the General Assembly, with the Governor always seeming to want to be sure not to offend anyone by taking a strong stand.

But now on the issue of changing the state's Open Meetings Law, kudos to the Governor for speaking out against the change being proposed. The proposal would allow secret meetings by local and state lawmakers as long as no votes are taken and the number of members attending is less than a quorum.

Now what could be wrong with that? A lot of bad things could happen if you know anything about government and its ever-expanding quest for secrecy. The public's business needs to be just that…public… and not decided behind closed doors in secret sessions even if the final vote is taken later.

The Governor, who is a former Mayor of Knoxville, seems to understand that concept and he told reporters (according to an Associated Press story on December 8) that he sees little reason to overhaul the current rules which require any meeting of two or more lawmakers to be open and advertised in advance through a public notice (chance meetings by lawmakers are excluded from the law).

Local governing bodies in Williamson, Lewis and Obion Counties have asked for the new law, while others have rejected it in Anderson and Rhea Counties. What has been concerning up until the Governor spoke out is that state lawmakers have been rather quiet in their responses, leaving it mostly up to media groups to sound the alarm and speak out against more secrecy in government.

Maybe now that the Governor has been the adult in this matter, others will join him to speak out against this very bad idea.

The Governor did add when he spoke with reporters that it's difficult to explain why local governments are covered by the Open Meetings act, but the General Assembly is not. Actually, it's not that hard to explain. The framers of our 1870 Tennessee Constitution gave lawmakers an exemption with a strangely worded provision in the constitution that says "all meetings of the General Assembly shall be open unless lawmakers decide otherwise."

So, if anyone tells you that the days of political double talk are a recent invention, don't believe it!

Also don't believe any lawmakers who tell you that changing the current Open Meetings Law would be a good thing to do.


With Herman Cain suspending (basically quitting) his Republican presidential campaign in the wake of continuing accusations (which he denies) of sexual harassment and a 13-year extra marital affair, the race is on for his remaining supporters to come over to other candidates.

Cain is no longer on the ballot for the March presidential primary here in Tennessee. As for his future 2012 political involvement, he indicated he might endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Others in the former Cain campaign are disputing that. Ah, the Cain campaign, confused and confusing until the end and beyond.

Based on the polls even before Cain bailed out, it appears Gingrich is already getting the lion's share of the former would-be Cain voters. He seems to be the runaway winner of the continuing contest to be the "anybody but Mitt Romney" candidate. In fact, Romney's own poll numbers are beginning to show a little bit of erosion in both national surveys and some polls in the early caucus and primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But that hasn't seemed to bother three Tennessee Republican congress members who have just come out to endorse Romney. Jimmy Duncan, Diane Black and Phil Roe all say they are for Romney even at a time when others in the state like GOP Governor Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Congressman Marsha Blackburn continue to sit on the sidelines.

While Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey came out early for Rick Perry, most GOP elected leaders in Tennessee have sat it out until now. Will the three Tennessee GOP congressional endorsements bring some others into the fray? While the politics of folks like Governor Haslam and House Speaker Harwell are moderate enough to fit well with Romney, I am not sure he would win any polls here in Tennessee right now.

In fact, you can look for some of the Congress members who have endorsed Romney, particularly Black and Roe to take some heat about their announcements. Jimmy Duncan will too, but he's been known as something of a political maverick for years (even opposing the war in Iraq when that was tough for a Republican to do), so he knows the territory of controversy well.

But other former or current GOP state elected officials are now stepping up to endorse Romney. According to a release from the Romney campaign (December 8), that includes former governor Winfield Dunn (1971-1975) along with 13 state representatives. In that list is Majority Leader Gerald McCormick; Steve McDaniel, Deputy House Speaker; Charles Sargent, Chair of the powerful House Finance Ways & Means Committee; Barrett Rich, House Republican Whip; Curtis Johnson, Chair of the House Ethics Committee; and Richard Montgomery , Chair of the House Education Committee.

Meantime back on the national scene, one major controversy in the GOP race has been a pretty silly one in my opinion. It revolves around who will or will not attend a debate being moderated by New York billionaire Donald Trump. That's right it's the same THE DONALD who was once the front runner in this campaign earlier this year, and the man is who is still threatening to run himself as an independent if he doesn't like who the Republican Party picks.

Visiting Trump has been part of the quest for the Holy Grail for some GOP candidates, including new frontrunner Gingrich who "kissed his ring" as another candidate, Jon Huntsman, put it (Huntsman has refused to do so or to kiss "any other part of Trump's anatomy" he added). While Gingrich plans to attend the Trump debate along with Rick Santorum, Romney is saying no along with Huntsman, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Michelle Bachman.

The stage is going look kind of empty don't you think? Does the frontrunner Gingrich really want to do this especially in light of the results of the latest Rasmussen poll which shows 42% of the public believe the GOP presidential candidates are paying too much attention to Trump? Maybe it's time for Trump to pull the plug on this circus before it becomes a ratings bust rather the boon he's been orchestrating. GOP presidential candidates don't need to make themselves look like apprentices to THE DONALD.

There are a couple of other debates coming up in the next week or so, the final ones before the votes begin in Iowa and New Hampshire. Given the continued rise of Gingrich in the polls and Romney's slight decline you can look for some verbal fireworks to go off among all the candidates. You can already see it coming in some of the new TV ads now running and some of the more personal and political attacks being launched by the candidates and their surrogates.


Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend.

Washington seems to remain as dysfunctional as ever these days and the Democratic congressman's comments may give you some additional perspective compared to what we heard from Republican representative Marsha Blackburn a few weeks back on the show.

Actually Congressman Cooper has been taking some flack in recent weeks over several pieces of legislation he is pushing including one to allow the Internal Revenue Service to fill out our tax forms each year to speed up that often painful process. The ever unpopular IRS? That agency likely has job performance numbers so low they rival Congress itself? Is that the way to go?

Of course, we'll also talk some regarding the Congressman's concerns about how his district may likely be carved up by the General Assembly in time for next year's elections. And whether or not he thinks his GOP opponent in November, 2012 election might be Nashville GOP state representative Beth Harwell. Harwell is also Speaker of the House and is playing a major role in pulling together the overall redistricting plan lawmakers will approve.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5. INSIDE POLITICS also airs on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS which can be seen on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air 5.2 digital channel.

Our PLUS air 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.

If you live outside the Nashville area, you can see excerpts of this and previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here on www.newchannel5.com.


It will be in January before state lawmakers decide the boundaries of our new congressional districts. But that is not stopping current lawmakers and potential candidates from testing issues and raising money.

First-term 4th District Republican congressman Scott DesJarlais is in the political gun sights of both parties. Given how the district lines are drawn, he could get a strong primary opponent. He's already gotten a Democratic challenger who is getting some help (at least indirectly) from the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The DCCC is accusing DesJarlais of trying to kill off Smokey the Bear, that long-time symbol of an ongoing government public awareness campaign "that only you can prevent forest fires." DesJarlais says the campaign is an unneeded use of federal funds and he wants to eliminate it as a part of budget and deficit reductions.

Opponents say with an overall national deficit now over $15 trillion dollars, the reduction of a few million dollars spent on "Smokey the Bear" is of no real help in deficit reduction. Besides they claim, taking out Smokey the Bear could well wind up causing more fires as the public forgets about how important it is to combat human-caused wildfires. They say such blazes occurred some 36,108 times in 2010 and that's in the southeastern United States alone.

Do I see Smokey the Bear featured in a political attack ad against Congressman DesJarlais next fall? Well maybe not, as according to an on-line story by Chaz Sisk of THE TENNESSEAN late Friday afternoon (December 9), the Congressman has decided not to submit any legislation on this topic after an on-line survey conducted by Republican congressional leaders found axing Smokey didn't poll well. Well, what a surprise!

Meantime, in another Tennessee congressional district, the big bucks are rolling in. Even though he's still not old enough to hold the office, 24-year Weston Wamp of Chattanooga, the son of former Congressman Zach Wamp, has already set a record by holding the largest fundraiser ever in Tennessee's 3rd congressional district. The event raked in more than $250,000 according to an article in THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES-FREE PRESS.

In case there was any remaining doubt, the funds collected by Wamp are a clear sign that another Tennessee first-term Republican congressman, Chuck Fleischmann has a serious challenge on his hands for re-election. The young Wamp's fundraising event topped a similar one held by Fleischmann back in October which netted more than $200,000 after bringing in U.S. House Speaker John Boehner for the affair. Fleischmann has raised another $352,000 according to the NEWS-FREE PRESS, so he remains in the fund-raising lead overall, as both candidates appear they will be very well armed financially for the race ahead.



One of the major legislative achievements of the Obama Administration has been the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, and in particular, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's an effort to try and better regulate some of the financial institutions and activities that led directly to the economic meltdown in 2008 and the Great Recession.

But Republicans have never liked the new law and have actively tried to scuttle it by refusing to allow a vote on a confirming someone to run the new agency. The latest nominee of the President (former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray) has been rejected in the Senate because an ongoing filibuster could not be broken.

The White House tried a last-minute major public relations push to get Cordray over the top. For some reason, they thought they might be able to turn the votes of our Republican Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. I am not sure why they thought there was an opportunity there. Sure, both Alexander and Corker have been known to be relatively open to working or at least talking with the White House and Democrats (at least compared to some of their GOP colleagues), but Corker has always been outspoken in his opposition to Dodd-Frank (after a brief failed effort to draft a compromise bill).

As for the effort to approve the new agency director, Corker said it was a ‘political game" by the White House (with critics responding that Republicans are playing political games as well by trying to cripple a new federal agency, duly approved by Congress, before it even has a chance to operate).

That White House's efforts didn't sway Senator Alexander either, saying whoever the new director might be, he or she would be a "czar….who would answer to no one." Alexander wants the law changed to provide more accountability through a board of governors or some mechanism before allowing the agency to begin its work.

The effort by the White House did draw some support in the state. Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton drafted an op-ed piece (circulated by officials of the Tennessee Democratic Party), urging Senators Corker and Alexander to vote yes because "we need (the new agency)… to get our economy back on track…adding "blocking its progress undermines consumer protection and enables financial industry special interests to keep harming families and decimating neighborhoods throughout Memphis and across Tennessee."

Another supporter is Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper, who (according to an article on line by Elizabeth Bewley of THE TENNESSEAN's Washington Bureau on December 5) joined 36 other AGs across the country to confirm Cordray as "an honest broker and strong advocate for both businesses and consumers."

Right now the only way Condray can do that job is for President Obama to make a temporary recess appointment of Condray after Congress leaves town later this month. It's something the administration has done before during other appointment impasses. It could well happen again. But all this political fighting is yet another strong sign of how the system just doesn't work in Washington and, for very different reasons, both parties want it that way.


Congratulations to Criminal Court Clerk (and former Vice Mayor) Howard Gentry. It appears he will be running unopposed for election next year. Gentry just took over the office through an appointment by the Metro Council following the forced retirement of David Torrence. Gentry will now be serving out Torrence's term through 2014.

The lack of opposition is a clear sign of what a strong and popular politician Gentry remains. Potential candidates also no doubt remember how close he came to being in the mayoral runoff with now Mayor Karl Dean back in 2007. Now the speculation will continue about whether Gentry will try another race for Mayor when that seat is vacant again in 2015?

Another recent Council appointment, General Sessions Judge Mike Jameson, will face opposition to serve out the rest of the late Judge Leon Ruben's term (until 2014). Jameson, a former councilman, will face attorneys Rachel Bell and Jack Byrd in the March Democratic primary. Bell was one of several lawyers who Jameson edged out in the Council vote while Byrd is a first time candidate along with independent Michael Rowan. Rowan will be on the August general election ballot (if his qualification petitions are OK). My sources at the Metro Courthouse say Byrd is likely the strongest challenger to Judge Jameson.


Anyone who knows me is aware I am a big Vanderbilt sports fan.

So you can imagine how much fun these last few weeks have been as the Black & Gold football team has earned its first-ever berth in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis for New Year's Eve. It's only the fifth time in school history the team is going to a bowl (although it's the second time in the last four seasons).

First-year coach James Franklin has captured the imagination of the VU campus and Vandy Nation like no one I can remember since the days of Steve Sloan back in the early 1970s. But it took Sloan two seasons to get the Commodores to a bowl (before he left for Texas Tech) and Franklin's recruiting looks even more exciting for the future.

As I watched Coach Franklin address a crowd of over a thousand happy fans (many chanting his name) at a special bowl announcement celebration on campus last Sunday, I couldn't help but reflect back on the first time I met him. It was at the Nashville's Sports Council's annual awards ceremony last spring at the Grand Ole Opry House.

While I was walking through the crowd I saw Coach Franklin standing all by himself, literally not a soul around him. He had been on the job just a few months and I guess not many folks recognized by sight. He had no one with him from Vanderbilt or the Athletic Department to introduce him around. I thought that was odd since this was the type of audience he needed to get to know (along with star high school football recruits and their parents).

I went up to the Coach, introduced myself and welcomed him to Nashville. He was very personable and energetic during our brief conversation but I left wondering a bit just how much support he was really getting from the school despite claims by University Chancellor Nic Zeppos that Vandy would hire a rocket ship to moon if that is what it took to get Franklin whatever he needs.

Well, I don't have much doubt now. For one of the few times, if ever, in its football history, Vanderbilt officials have stepped up after Franklin's successful first season; torn up his old contract; given him a sizable raise and promised similar raises for his coaches. They are also committing to improvements in the school's football and other related facilities to make them comparable to all the other schools in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference where Vanderbilt plays.

In short, the school seems ready to commit millions of new dollars to finally compete in the SEC in football. Maybe we should have sensed it was coming when we saw the news stories earlier this fall about Coach Franklin renting a helicopter to go to Friday night high school football games to recruit players. But that's kind of a fad thing. What does it mean long-term? Vanderbilt has had brief, limited success on the gridiron in the past, only to see the coach leave for a job at a bigger school who can pay more.

Franklin and the University it seems are now looking for something more permanent: the change in culture that Franklin has been preaching since he arrived on campus. Now in a sport like college football where hundreds of millions of dollars ride on the whims and talents of 18-19 and 20 year-olds, nothing is certain. Expectations will ride high for the Commodores to do even better next year or once again hear taunts of "Same Old Vandy", not "Brand New Vanderbilt."

But this time it feels different. Coach Franklin and his staff have taken and motivated a team that was 2-10 in each of the past two seasons and inspired them to a 6-6 record and a bowl game (and with some luck, this team could have won up to 4 more games this season, all of which they lost by 6 points or less). This is also the highest scoring Vanderbilt team since 1948. That's 63 years ago, which is even before I was born!

While I normally discuss government and politics in this column, not sports, the achievements of the 2011 Vanderbilt football team and its coaching staff do remind me of that famous quotation of Margaret Mead when she said (and I will paraphrase): "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens (or football players and their coaches) can change the world (or a school's culture). Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."