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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 23, 2014

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 23, 2014

CREATED May 23, 2014

CAPITOL VIEW

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

May 23, 2014

THE TRICKEST ISSUE; COMMON CORE AND THE STATE ATE MY REPORT CARD; IN A FLASH; CARR STILL IN THE DITCH; GILL AND WOODS ON INSIDE POLITICS; AND THEN THERE WERE 5; MOVING ON UP; STAR POWER; ANOTHER CONGRESSIONAL CHALLENGE; WEST RIVERFRONT

THE TRICKIEST ISSUE

For Tennessee GOP candidates it seems the trickiest issue to discuss this primary season is the controversial Common Core school curriculum and student testing program (and as you’ll read later in this column, it got even worse this week). Common Core is anathema for many in the conservative and Tea Party wings of the GOP and any kind of support for it, past or present, makes a candidate (or public official) suspect in their minds.

Even the usually very verbally sure footed Senator Lamar Alexander (apparently jokingly) told reporters recently (WPLN) that he “has to choose my words wisely” on this topic. That led his primary opponent, State Representative Joe Carr to seek to exploit the statement by demanding Alexander give voters a clear statement on where he stands on Common Core.

But Carr himself admits he once voted for what became known as Common Core a few years back when Tennessee was successfully pursuing federal dollars in the “Race to the Top” effort. He says he now regrets voting that way and wishes he could take it back.

One of Carr’s Senate colleagues, Jim Tracy voted for the same legislation. The 4th District congressional candidate now explains himself by claiming: “I have always been against Common Core. We voted for Race to the Top, but we never voted for Common Core.”

Indeed the bill in question never used those words. But when the measure was sent along to Washington in support of Tennessee’s Race to the Top application, the words Common Core were mentioned a lot.

But not everyone is running away from the new educational standards. Controversial State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman recently told an Urban League gathering (KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL, May 16) that the General Assembly vote earlier this year to delay testing on Common Core was “a terrible, terrible decision.”

Of course that decision was supported in part by Huffman’s boss, Governor Bill Haslam, who signed the delay bill into law on May 14. But the Governor likely did that as a compromise hold off much more negative legislation to derail Common Core. Nevertheless Huffman seems to want to rally the troops and fight…” We need people in this room to stand their ground and say that we want an excellent assessment. We want it now. We don’t want to hear any more excuses about how we need more time. We’re ready, so let’s move forward.”

Even the Governor himself chimed in (sort of), telling the national Education Writers Association meeting here in Nashville this week (NASHVILLE SCENE PITH IN THE WIND, May 20) “We’re a state that has come too far to back up and settle for less.”

But I guess a year’s delay on Common Core student testing and bidding out who does the tests is OK. And so the tricky issue of Common Core continues. One last sign of how touchy this issue is: the statewide Vanderbilt poll that came out this week (May 21). It found 58% overall public approval for Common Core, but only 44% among Republicans surveyed and just 42% among Tea Party supporters. There’s much more on the VU poll coming up later in the column.

COMMON CORE AND THE STATE ATE MY REPORT CARD

Here’s how Common Core got even more controversial in Tennessee this week.

It’s a snafu that State Education officials ought to be very ashamed has happened. Remember those TCAP tests students and teachers worked their backsides off to try and do well on earlier this school term? Well, the end of year scores from those tests, which by state law are supposed to make up 15% of a student’s final grade, will not be available for the state’s public school systems for at least another ten days or so. That means it will be too late to factor in the scores so they are included with end of year report cards going out now (at least for students grades 3-8).

What’s the problem? The Tennessee Department of Education didn’t get the work done it wanted to narrow its assessments related to the test so they are better aligned with Common Core standards. Actually the delay could have been worse. The state did manage to get this work done in time for high school students so they could graduate and so final grades could be sent to the colleges and universities many of them will be attending (and which those institutes of higher learning require or admitted students won’t be able to come there in the fall). Of course, parents and students in grades 3-8 could be in trouble trying to figure out if students need to go to summer school.

The State is also telling local school districts it will grant them a waiver if they want to skip factoring the TCAP scores into their students’ final grades. Several systems such as Metro Nashville, Sumner County, Knox and Murfreesboro City schools have already applied. Expect others to follow suit. But doesn’t that also make all the hard work so many did to do well on the TCAP test something of a waste of time? What a disaster, especially coming in the same week that not only all were all the national education writers in town, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Nashville to praise the state on how well we are doing with “education reform” and how we ought to keep doing more of the same.

IN A FLASH

When the State Legislature was in its waning days a few weeks ago, it passed a bill to crack down on vandalism and theft by flash mobs which has allegedly become an issue for some retailers and businesses.

That’s what was discussed while the bill was for the floor for debate. But the bill itself had unintended consequences and Governor Haslam has issued a rare veto (only his third in four years) to kill it. What was unintended? Well, the section of the bill that was changed to create the new offense of aggravated vandalism also would reduce the already existing penalties for certain types of polluting in the state.

In his veto statement, the Governor explained that would include “rural farm land and farm property (which) can be occasionally be used by non-property owners as dumping grounds for garbage.” To protect the state’s “unparalleled natural beauty” and “to protect our land and water for future generations” the Governor nixed the measure. He urged lawmakers to reconsider the proposal. But that will have to be in 2015 as lawmakers are done for the year, killing the proposal through what is known as a “pocket veto.”

Ironically, until this particular rationale for the veto of the bill surfaced, most of the complaints about the measure (and calls for its veto) revolved around Freedom of Speech restrictions it might create.

This week the Governor also signed a bill bringing back the electric chair as a means for state executions if it can’t obtain the drugs needed to perform lethal injections. The measure passed with strong majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and the Vanderbilt poll showed strong statewide public support (56% approval). But Tennessee may be the first state to reintroduce the electric chair alternative without giving condemned prisoners an option. And so anti-death penalty advocates say a court challenge is likely. The whole death penalty issue is moving back onto the front burner politically in Tennessee as the state has scheduled several executions in the next few months.

CARR STILL IN THE DITCH

Another week with more bad polling numbers for GOP U.S. Senate candidate and State representative Joe Carr. Last week it was a memo released by the campaign of incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander showing he holds at least a 4 to 1 lead over Carr or any of Alexander’s August primary opponents. The survey also claims 67% of respondents still don’t know who Carr is. And that’s down just 3 points from the last survey the campaign sent out in February.

Now internal campaign polls are always a little suspect on their face. But the Vanderbilt statewide survey I mentioned before actually makes the Alexander poll look credible. In fact the VU poll numbers are in some ways even worse for Carr than Alexander’s latest numbers.

It shows 75% of GOP voters surveyed say they don’t know Carr, again down just 3 points from the university’s last survey in December. Alexander’s favorable numbers are not stellar (49%) but they didn’t go down from last time and that would indicate Carr’s campaign isn’t hurting him. The Senator’s favorable numbers among Republicans also remains pretty strong at 56%.

Earlier in the campaign, Carr appeared on INSIDE POLITICS and made it plain that one of his strategies was to attract national conservative (Tea Party) groups to help him, in particular to come into the state and run negative TV attack ads against Senator Alexander. That’s much like what has occurred in Kentucky, although Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin got creamed in this week’s GOP primary in the Bluegrass State by Senate Republican leader (and Senator Alexander’s good friend), Mitch McConnell.

The national groups have never come to Carr’s party (probably because of his polling numbers and in- state fundraising has never shown much success.) Even Carr now seems to be second-guessing that kind of strategy. Appearing on THE RALPH BRISTOL show this week (May 21) he said: “It’s obvious now that Kentuckians never latched onto the Matt Bevin campaign. At the end of the day…all the outside help, if it doesn’t generate voters inside that state going to the polls and pulling the lever for that candidate, it really doesn’t matter, and that’s apparently what happened in Kentucky.”

So what now for Carr? He says: “We got an entirely different strategy and a result of our strategy, we’re doing extraordinarily well.” Really?

The Carr campaign did pick up endorsements this week from three Tea Party-leaning state representatives (Andy Holt, Bill Sanderson and Tim Wirgua). They go along with State Senator Frank Nicely in saying Senator Alexander is “out of touch” and needs to be replaced. But frankly none of the supporters are much of a surprise while Alexander still has endorsements from all the state’s other top Republicans (including Governor Haslam, Senator Corker, both legislative speakers and all the Tennessee GOP Congressional members except Scott DesJarlais whose support was not sought by Alexander’s campaign due to the problems the Congressman is facing to be re-elected).

There are some other very interesting findings in the Vanderbilt poll. 44% say they support the use of medical marijuana with another 32% supporting legalizing recreational use in the state. They don’t support the proposed constitutional abortion ballot “to give the state legislature more power to regulate abortion.” The result was 71% in opposition only 23% in support. I don’t how much it will matter, but the actual ballot wording of the amendment says the state constitution will not provide any specific right to abortion. It doesn’t mention giving the Legislature more power although it does.

There also appear to be some warning signs to me in the poll regarding another constitutional amendment issue on the November ballot. Only 22% of those surveyed support the Governor appointing judges (as the amendment allows) while 53% say judges should be elected by voters. That would not seem to show support for the amendment overall although another 22% surveyed said they hadn’t thought much about the issue.

The pending amendment also requires approval of gubernatorial judicial appointments by both Houses of the General Assembly. The Legislature is not very popular in this survey with just a 49% approval rating, down from 53% in the last survey. The Republican super majority shouldn’t feel too bad. 62% of Republicans say they like what lawmakers are doing while 43% say they don’t even know which party controls the Hill.

GILL AND WOODS ON INSIDE POLITICS

Conservative radio talk show host Steve Gill and Democratic strategist Larry Woods are my guests on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend.

We discuss the TCAP/Common Core report card snafu, the national V. A. scandal and the Vanderbilt poll results and all the other national, state and local politics going on. Our two guests don’t often agree on much. But that’s just makes the conversation even better and they’re both great talking politics. Watch us!

By the way, we tried to have someone from Vanderbilt on to discuss the poll. But we were told schedules were just “too tight” for someone with knowledge about the poll to appear.

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.

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.

AND THEN THERE WERE 5

The local Republican Party’s strategy to make inroads in 2014 to take over judicial and constitutional offices in Nashville/ Davidson County (positions they’ve almost never held) has been to target a few key seats, have their candidate run unopposed in a May primary (if you can call six unopposed candidates a primary), then see who might pull of the upset in the August general election.

But just a couple of weeks after the primary vote has been conducted, already one GOP candidate has decided he’s dropping out. Local attorney Rick Dumas’ name will still appear on the August ballot (it’s too late to remove it). But Dumas told THE TENNESSEAN (May 17): “My heart isn’t in it. I think to make this happen you have to be fully committed, and you have to desire it greatly, and I just don’t.”

Dumas now says he urges voters to support incumbent General Sessions Judge (and Democrat) Rachel Bell for a full 8 year term on the bench and he adds he looks forward to working with her at the Courthouse.

Bell’s uncontested re-election all but assures the number of county wide minority office holders in Nashville will swell from 5 to 8 after the August voting is done. Only County Clerk Brenda Wynn has a challenger (Toni Eaton) and her opposition is not expected to be serious.

An historic number of minority candidates (13), and more importantly, a strong turnout of black voters was one of the main themes of the May 6 primary. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the large number of votes Judge Bell received (she easily defeated a primary challenger, Blake Freeman), probably didn’t encourage Dumas from continuing his candidacy either.

Meanwhile after a week of controversy, the Metro Election Commission unanimously approved the results of the May 6 election. The certification came despite blunders that allowed thousands of early voters to vote again on Election Day if they’d wanted to do so. Apparently 6 people did just that and their cases will be sent to authorities for further review. According to news reports (TENNESSEEAN May 20) during their meeting, members of the Commission still argued among themselves about how the public was (or was not) informed about the problems. But for now, they are moving on to August and hoping (again) for no screw ups.

MOVING ON UP

The President of Pilot Flying J, Mark Hazelwood, has abruptly left the family-owned firm of Governor Bill Haslam. The move came without explanation but does follow 10 other Pilot employees who have departed and entered guilty pleas as a part of a federal rebate fraud investigation which became public 13 months ago.

Hazelwood’s name was among those mentioned in court documents of transcripts of secretly taped conversations. The tapes made of Pilot employees claim Hazelwood had knowledge of the scandal as did Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam, the governor’s brother.

Pilot’s attorney, Aubrey Harwell did tell WBIR in Knoxville (May 21) that “Hazelwood’s exit is not connected to a federal investigation.” And while he wouldn’t go into further details because of “company policy”, he added: “It would be wildly inappropriate and would be wildly speculative to infer or conclude anything at all from his departure.”

Not to continue be wildly speculative or conclude anything, but it does seems to be a fact that Hazelwood is not alone in being gone from Pilot in recent days. Citing sources, THE TENNESSEAN (May 20) reports another Pilot Vice President of National Accounts is also no longer with the company. And THE CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER (May 21) says its sources tell them three other high level employees “were terminated Monday (May 19)” while two others “were placed on administrative leave. That means seven people (including Hazelwood) have left the company’s employment in recent days.”

While these developments may have nothing to do with the federal probe, they do seem to move the turmoil enveloping Pilot another step closer to the top of the company. In fact it seems to be now on the level right next to the firm’s highest leadership.

Jimmy Haslam, who also owns the NFL Cleveland Browns franchise, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the fraud.

STAR POWER

As the August state legislative primary races begin to fire up, one Nashville Senate candidate is bringing some Hollywood star power to his side. Movie star Ashley Judd will be the special guest at a big fundraiser ($250 per person, $1,000 per sponsor) for Jeff Yarbro next week (May 28). But that’s not the only thing that caught my eye when I saw the e-mail invitation from Yarbro. It’s the list of Friends of Yarbro, which is more than 100 strong on the page.

It is filled with former mayors, councilmembers, even a governor. There’s also current and former vice mayors, state legislators and present councilmembers (I counted at least 15); as well as lots of other Nashville Democratic political big wigs and elected county officials. Certainly it’s much more of an in-crowd list than four years ago when Yarbro challenged (and also upset) longtime incumbent Doug Henry. Now Henry is retiring and Yarbro is facing activist Mary Mancini for the Democratic nomination. The Republicans are not fielding a candidate in the race.

ANOTHER CONGRESSIONAL CHALLENGE

Of Tennessee’s nine members of Congress, only Republican Scott DesJarlais seems to be in danger of losing his seat. There has been some speculation that Chuck Fleischmann might be in for fight too down in the Chattanooga.

But what about Steve Cohen over in Memphis?

There’s not been much talk of an upset but one of Cohen’s Democratic primary opponents, Ricky Wilkins did manage to bring together more than two dozen folks (a number of whom are ministers)to endorse his campaign. Wilkins, former chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority and a lawyer, says he “humbled… and I will be forever grateful.” THE MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL (May 19) also reports the pastors laid their hands on Wilkins and prayed at the end of the event. One even offered this rather interestingly worded endorsement:

“If you like Steve Cohen, you’re going to love Ricky Wilkins.”

WEST RIVERFRONT

Most people would best identify this downtown site as the former location of the city’s ugly, trash burning (now defunct) Thermal Transfer Plant. But when Mayor Karl Dean unveiled drawings this week of $35 million in park facilities under construction along the Cumberland River, the words stunning and beautiful come to mind.

It’s now to be called West Riverfront Park, as opposed to just the just the plain old Riverfront Park next door (where Mayor Richard Fulton jumpstarted downtown redevelopment almost 30 years ago). The new Park will include multi-use greenway trails, the first dog park downtown, ornamental gardens, a 1.5 acre event lawn called The Green, and a 6,500 capacity amphitheater with a terrific view of the Nashville skyline.

You can already see this facility as being heavily used (surely it will be programmed for concerts during the annual Country Music Festival and throughout the warm weather months). A news release from the Mayor’s office says it will “accommodate multiple forms of performance events and musical genres, including country, rock and symphonies, as well as community events.”

But as Nashville builds out its re-embrace of the Cumberland River (on both sides of the water), what about another emerging part of downtown, The Gulch? (Full disclosure: DVL has its offices there). As the Gulch continues to fill up with new office high rises, condos, restaurants, shops, etc., I don’t see much planning or money being set aside for green space or park elements there. In fact, the only city funded element to enhance the area’s connectivity to the rest of downtown is the bike and pedestrian bridge to SoBro that got shot down (at least the land acquisition) by Metro Council members concerned about too much attention being focused downtown as opposed to building sidewalks throughout the county.

But if something isn’t done about preserving some “greening in the Gulch” or establish recreational space in the area, there may soon not be much land left or green grass to keep.