Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 24, 2012
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
February 24, 2012
A NIGHT FOR THE AGES; WAITING FOR OUR CLOSEUP; INSIDE POLITICS & THE TENNESSEE GENERAL AT THE HALF WAY POINT
A NIGHT FOR THE AGES
I have attended and observed many Metro Council meetings over the last nearly four decades (my first was way back in July, 1973). Most are routine, sometimes even boring affairs.
I used to joke that the intro to my story on the air when I covered the Council at NEWSCHANNEL5 could sometimes be: "In other action, the Metro Council…"
That was not the case at the most recent Council session on February 21. In fact, it dealt with the lives and political futures of two local elected officials who both seemed to once have unlimited potential for what their careers could be in politics. Now you can openly wonder if they have much future politically.
John Arriola has been battling for his political life the last few months after a series of shocking stories by NEWSCHANNEL5's Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams (and recently confirmed in a scathing audit by the State Comptroller). They both charged the Clerk had pocketed over a hundred thousand dollars the last few years through charging an unauthorized cash fee (Arriola claims the money was a tip or a gratuity) to perform weddings. There are also serious concerns raised about Arriola's employment of one of political aides and how he has used his office to do political work.
The Davidson County District Attorney Tory Johnson has been looking into the matter as well as reviewing a report he asked to be conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Add it all up and the heat has been on Arriola big time. The temperature has also been rising because some Metro Council members believe the Clerk ought to resign. Arriola worked hard before the previous Council went out of office to stop any resignation action (even though passing any such resolution would be non-binding).
The issue has continued to fester in the new Council which has 17 new members. It particularly came to a head again after the State Comptroller's report. But after the first round of committee hearings on the matter a couple of weeks ago, it looked like the resignation resolution was going to be put off again as members of the committee invoked an automatic two-week deferral upon the committee's request and said the full Council ought to wait to see what D.A. Tory Johnson does.
But when the matter came up on the full Council agenda last Tuesday night, the 40-member body thought differently and was ready for action. Council committees cannot bottle up legislation such as can be done in Congress or at the Tennessee General Assembly. It appears almost no one outside the Council's Rules and Confirmation Committee was ready to defend the Clerk and his actions. In fact, nobody spoke up on his behalf during the full Council debate and the resignation resolution sailed through (25-5) just two votes short of a two-thirds majority. To add further insult to injury, the Council also overwhelmingly passed another resolution urging Arriola to seek out and make refunds to any couple he's married who wants one.
Why was the Council vote so resounding? Perhaps because the previous Council had already set the precedent, approving a similar resignation resolution last year against embattled former Metro Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence, who was under fire at the time for admittedly not coming to work and performing his duties. And just as it did with Arriola, the Council took its stand prior to the District Attorney taking action in the case (Torrence eventually agreed to resign to avoid an ouster proceeding by the D.A. to remove him from office)
With these two "clerk problem" cases at the Metro Courthouse coming up within mere months of each other, you can bet a number of council members have been receiving e-mails and complaints from their constituents to take whatever action they could and certainly not appear to be protecting the clerks by deferring action or putting things off (even though, again, the Council's action has no force of law).
And so John Arriola's political fate continues to lie in the hands of D.A. Tory Johnson, who along with the Metro Legal Director, could start ouster. D.A. Johnson could do even more if he decides the case against Arriola is a criminal matter.
That brings us to other major political drama at the most recent Council meeting. Very quietly, while the Council debated the Arriola affair, one of its members, 4th District Councilman Brady Banks, slipped off the floor and went home after coming to the Council meeting a few minutes late and spending only about 15 minutes at his desk during the Council meeting. (In fairness, the full Council session didn't last much more than a half-hour).
Councilman Banks likely didn't want to draw attention to himself because of his recent arrest during a police prostitution sting. In fact, no one was sure he would even come to this first Council meeting after his arrest, and he has spoken to no one publicly about the matter.
With a wife and a new baby, and having been just elected to office last September, obviously Councilman Banks has a lot of issues to deal with as his case also comes up in court on March 6. While he should be commended for at least showing his face at the Council meeting, he obviously can't keep slipping in and out of the Chambers to avoid having to talk with the media and his constituents. However, given the old political proverb about people living in glass houses and throwing stones, it was probably wise that Councilman didn't vote on the Arriola matter.
Some of Brady Banks constituents are already saying it's time for action. They are taking the first steps towards a recall effort to remove him from office. It will take gathering around 2,000 voter signatures on a petition to trigger the recall and hold another election in his district. It might take a few months to do that, not only to get the signatures, but also because the Metro Charter does not allow recalls until a councilmember has been in office at least 180 days (in this case that's after late March). By the way a recall has happened before. In fact just last term, 5th District Council Lady Pam Murray was removed by her constituents.
If Councilman Banks wants to stay in his office ( not just to avoid a recall but to get re-elected in 3 years), he needs to step forward soon and explain himself. He needs to admit he made a stupid mistake and ask for forgiveness. The news reports by Michael Cass in THE TENNESSEAN that according to his minister, the Councilman is seeking counseling help, is a very good sign. But that alone is not enough.
Politicians always need to remember you can only receive forgiveness from the voters if you ask for it. Many voters will forgive. Ask Councilman At Large Ronnie Steine. Asking for forgiveness is still not completely enough however. You have to show moving forward in your words and deeds that you mean it, no more sneaking in late and leaving council meetings early.
So far, his fellow Council members don't seem ready to pass a resolution asking Banks to resign. In fact, many are already talking about the need to forgive. That may strike some as odd, given how they've asked two Metro clerks to resign. But Banks is one of their own and council members seem to like him. Maybe that's the difference or maybe they hope this is just a one-time mistake by the Councilman, not a part of a pattern of behavior that a majority of the Council seems to see in the clerk's activities.
WAITING FOR OUR CLOSEUP
With Tennessee's March 6 Presidential primary now just over 10 days away, we are still waiting for our close ups from the candidates and their campaigns. Only Mitt Romney's Super PAC is spending any money on TV and radio ads here, while the other major candidates (Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) are so far making only quick cameo trips to the Volunteer State.
Santorum is speaking to a Tea Party gathering in Chattanooga Saturday (February 25) while Gingrich (who once said Tennessee was a critical part of his "southern strategy" to get back in the race) is holding a rally, a health care forum and a meeting with the media on Capitol Hill in Nashville on Monday and a fund raising appearance in Chattanooga next Thursday. It's not much, but then again, Romney hasn't been here at all in recent weeks even though he has raised more money than any other presidential candidate in Tennessee.
Gingrich's campaign nationally has not been known for its strong organization and there's already been a goof in Tennessee. According to an Associated Press story (February 24) which cites THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS, an invitation has been sent out inviting guests to a fundraising reception to be held at "the Chattahoochee Choo Choo Hotel" in that city.
Uh, maybe not, I think that's the landmark Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel named after the famous big band hit of the Glen Miller Orchestra, and not the much more recent country hit by Allen Jackson entitled "Way Down Younder on the Chattahoochee" (which is I think a river that flows through and along the borders of Alabama, Georgia and Florida).
To further compound the gaffe, the AP story quotes the Gingrich campaign's Southeast communications director who claims the Chattanooga Choo Choo "is one of Gingrich favorite spots in the South." I'll bet it is, and maybe if his staff had vetted the invitation with him, he might have caught the mistake.
Meantime, there is a report by the KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL's Michael Collins (February 22) that Santorum has opened campaign offices in Knoxville and Johnson City with sign distribution and phone banking underway. Door-to-door voter canvassing by campaign volunteers will also begin soon in that very Republican part of the state. But I am surprised that while Gingrich is also holding a fund raiser in Franklin while he is here on Monday, very little activity seems underway by any of the campaigns in the bedroom counties surrounding Nashville which have been critical areas in making Tennessee such a deep-red Republican state.
Clearly the potentially crucial Michigan (Romney's home state) and Arizona primaries on February 28 could do a lot to reshape the race and that along with the other states holding delegate elections and caucuses on Super Tuesday (including Gingrich's home state of Georgia) there are plenty of distractions for why the candidates aren't spending much time or money here (some likely just don't the money such as Gingrich and, to a lesser extent, Santorum).
Maybe that will change in the final days, but it may not. It is interesting to note that Romney's Super PAC has upped its TV buy. Does that mean its comparative (many would call them negative) ads against Santorum are working and eroding the lead in the polls one survey a few weeks back found for the former Pennsylvania Senator in the Volunteer State? And if Romney loses, what kind of push back and loss of face will that create politically in the state for Governor Bill Haslam (Romney's honorary campaign co-chair) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (who has endorsed Romney)?
The latest Rasmussen polls show Romney back ahead in Michigan by six points and ahead in Arizona as well. If that's how it turns out Tuesday, that should quiet all the loud whispers concerning the meltdown that could occur if somehow Romney does falter in Michigan or perhaps in other upcoming states such as Tennessee. The whispers are about the possibility of a brokered convention where Romney would drop out and party leaders would come up with a new candidate to back at the convention without that person going through the primaries and caucuses. There could also be, so the scenarios go, multiple ballots taken to select a candidate, something that hasn't happened in many years in either party.
How would that go over with Republicans in general? Not very well says the results of a recent USA TODAY/ GALLUP poll (February 20). 66% of Republicans surveyed say they want one of the four candidates still in the field (including Congressman Ron Paul) to be the GOP nominee. But oddly over half (55%) say they still wish someone else was in the running for the nomination.
57% think the ongoing battle for the GOP nod is not hurting their party, but they weirdly are split about how they think the fight will turn out. Rich Santorum is currently their choice 55% to 44% over Romney but 85% still think Romney is likely or very likely to be the nominee with only 13% saying flatly Romney won't be the Republican standard bearer this fall.
If this poll is accurate, you can see why this GOP race remains so wacky and unpredictable.
President Barack Obama's re-election campaign meantime seems to be tilting slightly in its long held belief that Romney will be his opponent. Now the Democratic National Committee is sending out e-mails attacking Santorum too. And in Michigan there are Democratic TV ads attacking both of them for their opposition to the government's financial support a couple of years to bailout and save General Motors and Chrysler.
Meanwhile to protect his own political flanks, the President is out making his case for why it's not his fault that gas prices continue to skyrocket, closing in on $4 a gallon and zooming some say soon to as high as $5. The President is right that U.S. domestic oil production is at an all-time high and that the cost of gas is being pushed by the ongoing uncertainty over Iran and its nuclear efforts in the Middle East. But Americans love to grumble with gas prices go up…and the President, no matter of which party, always gets a lot of the blame, even if it isn't his fault. But at least Mr. Obama can take some solace in the fact that the overall economy continues to show improvement, and that's likely the reason his potential Republican opponents have now had to change their line of fire a bit and focus more on the rising price at the pump rather than unemployment numbers.
INSIDE POLITICS & THE TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY AT THE HALFWAY POINT
Tennessee lawmakers have been working on Capitol Hill for almost two full months now. If they still intend to finish their work and adjourn (sine die) by the end of April, they are also about half way through their session.
So what has this General Assembly done so far (redistricting is about it), and what's likely to happen before they leave town for good and go home to run for re-election? On INSIDE POLITICS this weekend, we will talk with a couple of seasoned legislative reporters who can tell us. They are the Dean of the Capitol Hill Press Corps, Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL and long time reporter Joe White of Nashville Public Radio.
Certainly one of the fascinating developments this session is a much more involved Governor Bill Haslam, who no longer seems afraid or reluctant to express his viewpoints, even on bills not a part of his legislative package. That includes most recently trying to broker a compromise on the highly controversial "guns in work place parking lots" bill, which has state business leaders at odds with the National Rifle Association and many GOP lawmakers looking for the backdoor. There's also the "Don't Say Gay" bill which the Governor believes lawmakers have better things to do than consider passing. That's clearly a thought the Governor never got anywhere close to even hinting at saying a year ago.
We'll also talk about the Governor's failed efforts to allow larger class sizes and teacher merit pay, along his civil service reform bill which seems to have run into a problem with veterans who would no longer get preferential hiring treatment with the state. What kind of timing is that? How did that get proposed at a time when soldiers all over the country are being mustered out of the service with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but are having trouble finding work?
These are just a few of the items we will discuss. Join us. INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on THE NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. one the main channel, WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5. We also air on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Our 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. THE PLUS can be seen on several cable TV systems throughout Middle Tennessee including Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2.