Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 28, 2014
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
GAIL; INSIDE POLITICS; A PERSPECTIVE ON THE MAY BALLOT; HEADING TO THE LAST ROUNDUP ON THE HILL; MORE COMMON CORE; AMP'S FUTURE
March 28, 2014
Over the 12-plus years I have produced this column, I have written a number of tribute pieces when significant members of our community passed away.
But never like this one. This one is really hard for me to write. It hurts a lot. Gail Kerr, the long-time, beloved TENNESSEAN reporter and columnist, was my dear, dear friend of more than 30 years.
I, like most of us, knew she was once again facing a life-threatening challenge when her cancer returned last fall. But maybe hoping against hope, I thought she might beat that terrible disease again and stay with us a while longer.
Then maybe she and I could go back to our favorite (if not healthiest) place for lunch (Rotier's) where we could exchange tips and gossip about Nashville politics, especially with the 2015 Metro elections (including an open mayor's seat) coming up. What fun that would have been.
I already miss Gail. But I don't think it will really hit me that she's gone until she's not there the next few months as the political races for both 2014 and 2015 begin to unfold.
I first met the then Gail McKnight in the early 1980s when she was a cub reporter coming on the Metro Courthouse beat and I was at NewsChannel5. We fiercely competed on stories but also became good friends. How could you not like Gail?
She and I also worked together on the annual Gridiron Show. Gail loved being involved as a cast member, then as a songwriter, and even as General Chairperson of the show over the years. She took pride that she had received one of the college journalism scholarships the show funded. Those of us who worked on the Gridiron should be so glad what we did helped people like Gail become a journalist. It may have been the best thing we accomplished in over 40 years of putting on that show.
By the way, while Gail more than repaid the Gridiron for the help she received, she got something back in return. She met her loving husband, singer/songwriter Les Kerr, in one of the casts. Prayers go out to Les and Gail's family during this difficult time.
One of the first times I saw how tough Gail could be was when she was President of the local journalism society which sponsored Gridiron. That year a prominent local family took offense at how they were portrayed in the show (during dress rehearsal) and put on a full-court press on to have the bit removed the night of the actual show. Gail and others stood firm and the show went on without change. The skit brought down the house in applause and laughter.
Long before she became a three-times a week columnist, the power of her writing was on display through some of the stories and a Sunday Metro column she had in the Opinion Section of the paper each week. There she took to task a local County Clerk who publicly and repeatedly referred to his female employees (and other women) in the most vulgar and tasteless ways. It ultimately led to a major lawsuit and the Clerk's defeat at the polls.
Gail was never afraid to openly speak truth to power and over the 13 years she was THE TENNESSEAN's columnist she became our town's voice and conscience. She was and remains a Nashville treasure and one we will all dearly miss. As a native, Gail loved Nashville so deeply. Based on what I seen in reaction to her death, Nashville loved her too, whether you were born here or not.
Now just because she was my friend, Gail was never an easy touch. She never held back criticizing my clients if she thought it was warranted or if she thought the story we discussed wasn't her cup of tea. But she was always fair and helpful. She'd also suggest who at the paper she thought might be interested and she became the "go to" person at that publication. I don't see how she got her work done with the calls and e-mails she got.
Gail wrote two stories about me that I will never forget and for which I will always be in her debt. One was a Sunday politics column she wrote in May 1985 when I went to the Mayor's office. I told her it likely contained the nicest things ever said about me that I could read while still upright (or probably even when I am in my grave). I still have a framed copy of it hanging above the desk in my office.
The other article was a short factual one Gail filed the day I had my stroke in June, 2012. What made it remarkable was what she told me later. She said she was so afraid for me that day she was crying at her computer terminal when she wrote it.
Now I am the one who is crying. Rest in peace, my friend.
While Gail Kerr and I often talked politics, we only worked it out for her to be on my show once (last December). That's when she and Michael Cass came on to discuss the recent Nashville history book she, Cass and others on THE TENNESSEAN staff wrote entitled NASHVILLE RISING: HOW MODERN MUSIC CITY CAME TO BE.
This weekend on INSIDE POLITICS we've decided to re-air the interview with Gail not only because NASHVILLE RISING is a good book about a topic (Nashville) Gail truly loved, but because she also spent some time during our interview talking about how she picked topics, wrote her columns three times a week, and most importantly how much she loved her job and Nashville.
Gail also disclosed that the next book project she had started on was going back through her hundreds of columns to pick the best ones to be included in a compilation manuscript of her work. I sure hope she finished all or most of that selection task and I can't wait to read again the columns she thought best.
But before we all do that, please tune in this weekend to see the very special conversation I had with Gail and Michael that December day last year. It's become an even more special moment to me now.
INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday; and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. Portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also later posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.
As a reminder, our long time 5 a.m. Sunday morning showing on the main channel (WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5) is no longer listed as an INSIDE POLITICS broadcast. The Weekend Morning News program is starting an hour earlier, so we are looking (we hope) for another Sunday morning timeslot soon on Channel 5.
And don't forget you can now watch INSIDE POLITICS in real time with live streaming video on NewsChannel5.com. That means if you have a computer and internet access, you can see INSIDE POLITICS anytime it airs on the PLUS. So it no longer matters what cable or satellite service you have or where you live. It's very easy to see us now live! Log on and tune in.
A PERSPECTIVE ON THE MAY BALLOT
With all the state judicial offices up for election this year, it is likely to be a long and confusing ballot for many voters in the May Democratic primary here in Nashville. Even with a number of races uncontested for incumbents, there are still several (usually with an incumbent retiring) that attract a passel of candidates. There are no runoffs so whoever gets the most votes wins with little or no opposition from Republicans here in Davidson Country for many of the races for the follow-up August general election.
So how can voters start to educate themselves on who is running? The Nashville Bar Association has released a survey of its members (more than 1,100 participated). No part of the Nashville electorate is more involved and interested in who runs our courts or who practices law in them. So the opinions in this survey could offer some interesting insight on who is running and who (they think) would be best to be or stay on the bench.
Of course the highest profile race is the one to be the next Nashville District Attorney. It's the first time in close to a half century anyone remembers the position being strongly contested. There are three first-time candidates in the race and it appears from this survey the race is shaping up as a major fight between attorneys Glenn Funk and Rob McGuire.
Funk has a combined favorable number (highly recommend and recommend) of 48.2%, while Rob McGuire, the former assistant and endorsed candidate of retiring longtime D.A. Torry Johnson, comes in with a combined favorable number of 46.3%. Both Funk and McGuire have pretty similar unfavorable marks (do not recommend) 11.4% for McGuire and 9.5% for Funk. And both garnered 42.3% of Bar survey participants offering "no opinion" on their candidacies.
Given Funk's perceived "challenger" position when the race began a few weeks ago, I suspect his campaign is thrilled with his showing, although it should be remembered this is not a voter poll, just a survey of the Nashville legal community.
As for the third candidate, former mayoral aide and victim's rights advocate Diane Lance, she has a combined favorable of only 11.6% in the survey and the highest do not recommend number of 20.5%. Her no opinion number is also highest at 68%. She got into the contest later than her two opponents but is trying to boost her chances after receiving high profile endorsements from former Mayor and Governor Phil Bredesen and his wife, Andrea Conte. Both of them hosted a major fundraiser for Lance just a few days ago.
As for what incumbent judge might have trouble based on the Bar survey: Circuit Judge Carol Soloman got a 50.7% "do not recommend" number and she has lower favorable numbers than one of her opponents (Jon Peeler 38.8% to 25.1%). There is also a third candidate in that race (Kelvin Jones), and it should be noted as well that Soloman has had less than strong numbers in this survey in previous judicial races which she's won.
Finally, the Nashville Bar Association makes it clear. The survey is, in no way, an endorsement of any candidate. It says, according to a news release, the Bar Association "maintains complete neutrality" and does the survey "to encourage the selection of qualified judges and public officials in the judicial system and to have attorneys who are likely to know these candidates, both personally and professionally, provide an opinion on their qualifications."
You'll be sending more of these survey results (especially the positive ones) in the weeks to come as candidates send out their mailers and other campaign materials.
HEADING TO THE LAST ROUNDUP ON THE HILL
With about two to three weeks to go before the General Assembly adjourns for good (sine die), there have been more than a few developments surrounding the major bills and other state political issues we've been following in this column. Here's a brief overview:
OVERRIDE: First, a surprising new development that came up while I was out last week. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey told reporters he was thinking of having lawmakers come back for a special veto override session later this year. What? That's the kind of stuff that happened back when there was there was split government in Tennessee between the parties, not the GOP dominance of all facets of state operations. Given how relatively easy it is to override a gubernatorial veto, why make this threat to Governor Bill Haslam? To show him who's really in charge? What bill(s) does the Lt. Governor have in mind to override a veto? I couldn't find anyone who seems to know for sure. But it's most likely legislation still being negotiated between the Haslam Team and the GOP super majority. In some order of possibility that could be Common Core restrictions (more on that later), Vouchers, anti-AMP legislation, even the "guns in parks" bill, if the Speakers find common ground about local government veto rights and get the measure out of committee where it's set to stay "behind the budget" which usually means it's dead.
METH: Lawmakers and the Governor seem close to a deal to make it harder to buy cold medications without a prescription. But the new restrictions are much more lenient than what the administration and many law enforcement officials originally wanted. So, if something passes, will it make any real difference in stopping the scourge of meth in Tennessee?
VOUCHERS: Again another compromise seems close, this time with the Governor getting something resembling the smaller sized voucher program he's wanted, targeting at-risk children in failing schools in urban counties rather than the more expansive and expensive plan some lawmakers have been pushing. But any coalition on this still seems at best fragile and therefore uncertain.
STATE CHARTER DECIDER: House Speaker Beth Harwell's bill to make it clear the state can order local school boards to accept new charter schools has now passed in both Houses. Governor Haslam is expected to sign it. That means the next act in Tennessee's on-going, multi-faceted "education war" could be Metro Nashville schools taking the new law to court.
TIME: Keep planning on "springing forward and falling back" in setting our clocks in Tennessee. Efforts to set a single permanent time in the state (always Standard or always Daylight Time) got so confusing in committee that lawmakers just finally gave up and killed the measure. Good riddance to a bad idea.
QUALIFYING DEADLINE: It's next Thursday, April 9, with the withdrawal date the following Thursday (April 10). Knowing for certain which lawmakers do or do not have opposition for re-election may further help which remaining controversial bills have a better or worse chance for approval or defeat in these waning days of session.
BUDGET: This is really the only annual legislation lawmakers must approve. The last few years with revenues booming, it's been fairly easy to get it done. But with tax collections continuing their slump (or not growing as fast as projected), there are indications there may not be enough money to go around to fully-fund higher education (meaning larger than planned tuition increases at some state schools) and maybe no promised state employee pay raise. Governor Haslam is set to make his revised budget recommendations next week as lawmakers begin their final push to get the budget through committees as well as through both houses. This year things could get stickier.
MORE COMMON CORE
The furor over delaying the further implementation of the new Common Core education standards and the new student testing it mandates seems to have subsided a bit publicly. But behind the scenes it's still creating quite a stir.
The Governor pleaded with state business leaders at a meeting I attended to get more involved and make their support of Common Core known to lawmakers. That's because he says it will make a big difference. The Governor and State Chamber leaders reminded the businessmen that just because Republicans have a reputation of being pro-business there were those in the Republican super majority who were not poised to vote in their "best interest (meaning against Common Core).
The House bill to delay further Common Core implementation and the testing for two years appears dead. As we speculated, putting off the testing is just too expensive for the state. Besides Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey supports less drastic measures to change the Common Core, ones which have passed the upper Chamber. Ramsey's moves also saved the Governor from having to use his veto pen to stop the Common Core revolt, although what kind of "compromise" gets worked out seems unclear.
One interesting suggestion came from a strong Common Core supporter, Metro Schools Director Jesse Register. It's something I heard him first mention when he was on INSIDE POLITICS a few weeks back. He suggests making the first year of Common Core testing a "hold harmless" for students, teachers and school systems. Because there will be new, higher standards under Common Core, test scores are sure to be down. So give everyone something of a mulligan the first year to set a new base line and then hope scores go from there (they usually do).
But any Common Core compromise is likely to take a lot more than to satisfy conservative Tea Party state lawmakers. I was told the GOP leadership knew for over a week that rebellious House Republicans and Democrats had a plan to hick jack a bill on the floor and make it an anti-Common Core poison pill. But as hard as they tried, Speaker Harwell and other GOP leaders could stop it.
So are the bad feelings coming from anti-Common Core and other legislation being bottled up in committee still there? I think they are. Then what are the repercussions of that, both in terms of a Common Core compromise (if any) and in the House GOP leadership holding on to their power when the next General Assembly (again with a likely GOP super-majority) convenes in January, 2015?
Metro's Pro-AMP supporters may have some nervous times ahead in the waning days of the Legislature. A bill that would outlaw a mass transit system the way the AMP is designed (using the center lane not the curb to board or depart the system) has passed by a large majority (27-4). A national libertarian group (Americans for Prosperity) has also joined in the Anti-AMP fight which even got a vote for its bill from retiring Nashville Democratic Senator Doug Henry.
A somewhat similar bill is pending in the House, although fortunately for AMP supporters, it does not have the design ban adopted by the upper body.
So which one, if any of the bills, will pass? The Pro-AMP folks surely hope it will be House bill which sets up required approvals from agencies and legislative bodies which already have to sign off (especially for funding).
If the Senate bill passes both Houses, then things get dicey for sure. The Governor has expressed his concern that (while he has not decide if the AMP is a good idea or a bad one) legislation like this, setting up design standards he says is not a good way to run a railroad (or in this case) a mass transit program for Tennessee. However relying on a governor's veto to rescue a mass transit system may not work very well either, given reasons we've discussed before.
The key person in this struggle appears to be House Speaker Beth Harwell. She continues to maintain she is not an "AMP fan." But she seems to be resisting tying local government's hands by passing the middle lane design ban. So will she hang tough when the House bill passes and, more importantly will she do the same if the bill goes into a conference committee?
The future of the AMP may rest on it.
As always, it is going to be a very interesting last couple of weeks of session.