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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 6, 2014

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 6, 2014

CREATED Jun 6, 2014

CAPITOL VIEW

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

June 6, 2014

THE MAYOR’S RACE; A PLACE TO STAY; JUNE; IN THE MIDDLE OF IT; IT’S OVER; CHRISTIE; POLITICAL ENTERPRISE; SHOWING THE MONEY; VW UPDATE; EDUCATION WARS ON INSIDE POLITICS

THE MAYOR’S RACE

You can expect a heightened amount of activity in the next few weeks as potential candidates to be Nashville’s next mayor make the final decision about whether to run in the August 2015 election. One potentially strong candidate, Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry (who missed the mayoral runoff by just a few hundred votes in 2007) recently volunteered to me: “My life is about to get crazy.” I am not sure that’s an announcement one way or another but he had previously told me his phone had been ringing off the hook since the May 6 Democratic primary when the rise of countywide minority political power was clearly demonstrated.

Another candidate who won his race May 6 was Sheriff Daron Hall. He told NewsChannel5 immediately after the vote that he was seriously looking at a mayoral race. Just how seriously became apparent at my house the other day when a pollster called with questions that clearly indicated the survey was being paid for by the Sheriff. (FYI, my wife took the survey not me). When potential candidates starting committing the kind of resources it takes to run a major poll, things are serious, although the High Sheriff may need to be careful about announcing he’s running for another job before he’s officially re-elected (in August) to the one he already has.

Some others rumored that they might run for mayor have made it plain they won’t (retiring District Attorney Torry Johnson and State Economic & Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty), while others now remain a bit quiet and mysterious. Those includes businessman and Democratic fund raiser Bill Freeman along with charter school founder Jeremy Kane . Freeman has made the rounds going to events and acting like a candidate (along with writing several op-ed pieces in THE TENNESSEAN). But he doesn’t seem as active now.

Meanwhile, Kane actually told me at an event back in March he planned to announce his candidacy not long after the May primary. It’s a month after that date, and so far, I hear only crickets. And where is David Fox, former School Board chairman? Several times there have been media reports that his entrance into the mayoral sweepstakes was imminent but so far not yet.

“Who’s going to be the next Mayor?” is still the number one question I get (even from total strangers) as I go about town. I wish I knew and I’m not ready to guess. The rumor mill is still churning (At Large Councilman Charlie Tygard’s name came up the other day). It’s an indication some folks are still searching because they don’t like the current field of potential candidate options nor has anything close to a consensus candidate emerged.

In fact, and as if on cue, THE TENNESSEAN reports (June 3) that business leader Linda Rebrovick says she is thinking about running for mayor after “some people I have a lot of respect for” recently asked her to consider it. Rebrovick has never been a candidate for office but she did manage Alan Coverstone’s successful race for Metro School Board a few years back. If she gets in, she would be only the second woman in the race, perhaps muting an advantage some have seen for At-Large Council member Megan Barry who announced she was running about a year ago.

But based on an article I found on Facebook the other day, here’s an important new element all those already running (Barry and attorney Charles Robert Bone) and those even still remotely thinking about running need to keep in mind as they make a decision.

It’s pretty clear the present Mayor, Karl Dean, is pretty well thought of and has set a high standard for his successor to match. But did you know that according to a group called the Health Fitness Revolution, Karl Dean is ranked #3 among the “10 fittest mayors in the U.S.” Actually Mayor Dean could be considered the fittest active mayor since numbers #1 and #2 on the list are former mayors (Mike Bloomberg of New York City and Cory Booker of Newark, NJ, now a U.S. Senator). But the makers of the list, including noted fitness trainer Samir Becic, say this ranking is in no particular order. Whatever

The survey lists city leaders (past and present) who “not only lead healthy lifestyles themselves, but promote it within their leadership roles to their constituents.” Specifically concerning Mayor Dean, the article says he is “waging a steady battle against an unhealthy crisis and trying to make Nashville, known for its fatty southern cooking and high obesity rate, a healthier place. His strategy he says is simple—to expand opportunities for exercise and good nutrition and lead by example.”

So there you have it, mayoral candidates, lace up those running/walking shoes, pick up your weekly exercise activities and watch that diet on the campaign trail (which is not easy). Running for mayor of Nashville may now be not just a political marathon or a sprint, but a survival of the fittest.

A PLACE TO STAY

The NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (June 3) cites another interesting survey that says great things about our city. According to PolicyMic, we are one of the Top 15 places in America for creatives (that aren’t named New York and Los Angeles).

The article proclaims Nashville, and in particular East Nashville “has firmly established itself as the creative enclave of Tennessee’s capital.” It adds our “food scene is on the rise” and the “music scene is almost unparalleled…. With scores of restaurants, bars and art galleries, and the fact that rent prices are still affordable it’s time to move to Nashville while the getting’s good.”

Meantime, some prefer just to visit for now. In fact, based on hotel rooms purchased, a record number are coming. According to Hendersonville based Smith Travel Services and stories by the Associated Press and THE TENNESSEAN (June 2) Nashville set a record in March for selling hotel rooms. The 640,000 room nights breaks the previous record set in October 2013 by almost 7%. Also compared to the Top 25 markets in the nation for March this city reported the second largest increase in rooms sold and was in the top five for occupancy growth.

With a growing number of hotels opening, under construction and/or being planned for Nashville, it makes you wonder how long this new room sales record will last, especially if you tried to find lodging anywhere in greater Nashville for this week or next with the Country Music Festival (Fan Fair) in town and Bonnaroo not far away.

With the convention market not growing or as robust as projected when the Music City Center was approved, tourist spending may be saving our bacon to generate the dollars needed to start paying off that massive building. The city’s hotel motel (occupancy) tax was up a whopping 34% in March compared to the same month in 2013.

But with success come doubts (several articles, NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL on-line, June 5) about sustaining the pace of growth and whether, because of possibly overbuilding new boutique hotels downtown along with rising room rates and increased competition, the city can keep outdoing itself in the hospitality area.

No, such increases of this size are never sustainable. But we are on one heck of ride right now and growing in ways no one would have predicted even a few years ago. However there is reported concern among local tourist officials about the rising use of internet services for folks to rent out all or parts of their homes to visitors for brief stays (and avoid paying the room tax).

Of course for some of us this past week all this “success” translates into issues about how to get around downtown with most streets from the Music City Center north to Broadway and up to Union Street closed or with limited vehicular access to handle the crowds for the CMA Festival. I guess that’s also contributing to why we are now ranked 33rd in the Western Hemisphere for traffic congestion (NBJ, June 5).

Ah, the price we pay for being the “It City!”

JUNE

June is always the busiest month for the Metro Council especially since its budget approval time. This year’s there’s also a proposal backed by Mayor Dean which would grant same-sex domestic partners of city employees, full health insurance and other benefits coverage.

This week (Tuesday, June 3) that bill passed the second of three readings (25-6). The vote is clearly another sign of how support for gay rights related issues like this have changed so dramatically from just a few years ago (WPLN, Nashville Public Radio reports June 4, Metro Schools will likely follow Metro in changing its benefits program too). There is still opposition however, and now that the Council is on record with this second reading vote, the heat may get further turned up to undermine support.

Based on the second vote, opponents only have to change 5 yes votes (to no or abstain) to stop the measure. That’s still pretty tough to do, so maybe the opponents will wait until the General Assembly returns in January to get the Republican super majority to veto the new law statewide (cities such as Knoxville and Collegedale have already passed similar measures). Remember, state lawmakers voided a Nashville anti-discrimination law a couple of years ago.

After a public hearing, the Metro Council Tuesday night also approved Mayor Dean’s proposed $1.89 billion operating budget on second reading. It came despite tearful pleas by some representatives of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police to increase their pay raise from.5% to 3.0%.

Because they have a separate pay plan (approved through a charter amendment in 1986), the Council can give officers a higher raise, along with Fire and Ambulance personnel. But would the Council do it for all of them or just Police? That would surely anger all other city workers and where would the money be found for extra raises for any or all of them? It’s an especially touchy situation with Council elections looming about 14 months away.

The Council also decided it doesn’t want to place any more Metro Charter changes on the ballot for now. That includes a proposal to decrease the size of the body from 40 members to 27 while liberalizing term limits restrictions from two-four year terms to three. Councilwoman Emily Evans who is pushing the Council changes says she will now seek to get the matter before voters through a petition drive.

IN THE MIDDLE OF IT

Our area is caught right in the middle, possibly taking the brunt of the impact of several major stories in the news. First, there is the Veterans Administration’s service crisis which (according to the latest government figures and a story in USA TODAY) is producing wait times for medical service for our veterans here in the Nashville/ Middle Tennessee area which are the worst in the nation and over twice as long (65 days) as the wait for help in other parts of the country (27 days). It’s also nowhere close to the goal veterans’ officials have set for the agency itself of 14 days to schedule an appointment for care.

Now since it’s known that the VA has been “cooking” or falsifying its records in several cities it’s not clear if the Nashville numbers are really not as bad as they seem or worse (especially if we learn the local numbers are phony too).

Our local elected leaders are reacting. Both Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are co-sponsoring legislation to broaden authority to fire top officials and clean house at the VA. Alexander is sponsoring another bill that would allow vets to see private doctors if the V.A. can’t do it in a timely manner, something which local V.A. officials already say they will now allow to reduce the backlog.

Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper has a different concern. He thinks the VA problems are institutional and not just a matter of bad personnel or leadership. He is worried that the resignation of the VA Secretary last week will leave a void that will further weaken the agency and further hurt service delivery, especially if the President’s nominee get bogged down in a confirmation fight or a filibuster in the Senate (and who likely wants that job with only about two years left in this administration?).

By the way, speaking of a veterans’ related matter, you’d think if a President managed to free the only known Prisoner of War from our Afghanistan conflict, he’d be getting lots of kudos. But instead Mr. Obama is being taken to task (and the White House is apologizing) for not following the law and informing members of Congress in advance that such efforts were underway, especially since it included an exchange of Taliban prisoners. So now, still more congressional hearings are being called, to look into this second administration of President Obama which sometimes resembles more the Keystone Cops than representatives of a country that is still the world’s leading Super Power. But late in the week (June 5) the President is making it clear he offers “no apologies” for making the POW/Taliban prisoners deal.

And here’s what is even odder. While polls I’ve seen (Rasmussen, June 4) show only 40% approval for the POW/Taliban prisoners swap (and 43% opposition), the daily presidential job performance numbers by Rasmussen show Mr. Obama ‘s ratings improving, now at or bumping 50%, after being down as far as the low to mid 40s.

Another major story in the news this week that could have a major impact in Tennessee is the new EPA regulations. They seek to cut carbon emissions some 30% by 2030 in an aggressive effort to fight global warming. But given our state’s (and TVA’s) reliance on coal for electricity what will that do for power rates and jobs?

Republicans such as Congressman Marsha Blackburn say it amounts to a “new tax” on citizens while supporters say it could result ultimately in new jobs down the road. And then there’s the possible impact just up north across the border in Kentucky.

The Bluegrass State has a U.S. senate race where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has already been trying to distance herself from the President and what her opponent, incumbent and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls his “war on coal.” These new EPA regulations are not likely to make it any easier for Lundergan at a time when the most recent polls show her falling behind (after running neck and neck or slightly ahead of McConnell).

A poll released by Rasmussen (May 30) shows the incumbent with a seven point lead (48% -41%) which is perhaps an indication the GOP is uniting behind McConnell after a Tea Party primary challenge fizzled. Rasmussen shows 76% of Kentucky Republicans back their candidate along with 27% of Democrats . For Lundergan, her support is only 67% in her own party with just 18% of Republicans backing her. There’s still lots of time for that to change before the November vote, but the trend is not a good one for Lundergan, who recently came to Tennessee and helped state Democrats raise a record amount of money. McConnell, meanwhile, is trying to show the clout he has in Washington by introducing legislation (Senator Alexander is a co-sponsor) to block the new EPA regulations from going into effect without numerous other approvals and reviews.

One final issue Tennessee is grappling with (and it has national implications) is prescription drug abuse. The Volunteer State nearly leads the nation in painkillers sold (2nd) and now its estimated one out of every 20 people in Tennessee is misusing such medication. Prescription drugs now even outrank alcohol as the drug of choice for abuse by our state’s residents.

Governor Bill Haslam this week began to outline strategies he and his Cabinet plan to use to deal with what is clearly a “widespread epidemic.” But while everyone agrees on the size and seriousness of the issue, there does not appear to be a consensus about what to do. Legislation in the General Assembly earlier this year to narrow the leeway physicians have to prescribe pain relievers ran into opposition from some in the Tennessee Medical Association/ They say more restrictions on doctors could lead patients to pain clinics who (they say) might not prescribe drugs appropriately.

For now it does not appear the Governor is seeking a legislative solution (other than a new law that would allow abusers to turn themselves in for help without facing prosecution). His seven goals include: decreasing the numbers who abuse and/or overdose on controlled substances; decrease the amount of controlled substances dispensed in the state; increase access to drug disposal outlets in Tennessee; increase access and the quality of early intervention, treatment and recovery services; expand collaborations and coordination among state agencies and with other states.

According to media reports (TENNESSEAN, June 4) the Governor couldn’t give a figure for how much all this might cost and or what funds will be diverted to deal with the issue. He says the state is working on that number. It’s odd that’s not already known given Tennessee’s tight budget situation.

With the TMA split over limiting prescriptions by doctors, let’s hope we are not looking at another critical statewide health and medical crisis (like meth), where everyone agrees on the scope and seriousness of the problem, but can’t agree on the right solutions.

Maybe the Governor’s strategies, entitled “Prescription for Success,” will do the job and be enough to curtail the problem. Something better work if we ever want to shed the image of being the prescription pill popping capital of America.

IT’S OVER

After four years of litigation, the Murfreesboro Mosque issue is finally over. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up an appeal from opponents of the mosque who said Rutherford County officials did not give enough public notice before approving construction of the facility.

The opposition actually won their case initially in the local Chancery Court but that decision was overturned by the Tennessee Court Appeals. Then the State Supreme Court basically upheld that ruling by declining to hear an appeal which the U.S. Supreme Court has now affirmed.

The Mosque itself has been built and has been open for almost two years, and while there is a separate lawsuit still active challenging a cemetery mosque officials want to operate nearby, the presence of the religious facility itself (which also includes an indoor pool, a gym and a weekend religious school) is dead. “It’s in God’s hands,” said one of their lawyers.

A lot of folks will tell you that’s where it’s always been and should have been left there rather than proceeding with a protracted lawsuit and efforts by others that included vandalism, attempted arson and bomb threats. It all created a poisoned political atmosphere in that area and opened the whole state to ridicule periodically from national comedy shows in particular.

CHRISTIE

I warned you a couple of months ago that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s appearance in Tennessee (it happened this past weekend) would stir up Republicans. And it did…. although perhaps the back and forth exchanges that were generated by his visit were a bit more than expected in some ways.

Christie, who’s rumored to be a GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has already visited 15 states since December (according to Nashville Public Radio, June 2). But while he told reporters here in Nashville he’s thinking about a race for the White House, it will be at least 2015 until he decides, adding: “It’s a lifetime away until 2016. My mother taught me a long time ago, ‘stupid people make decisions before they have to.’ And I’m not stupid.”

But Christie did state Republicans when he spoke to them last Friday (May 30) at the party’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner, that it would be “dumb” for Tennessee voters to elect GOP Tea Party candidate and State Representative Joe Carr to replace Lamar Alexander in the U.S. Senate. According to an article by POLITICO (May 30), Christie put it this way: “We don’t need people in Washington who stand for divisiveness, so let’s not send anybody like that up there. Let’s not start getting dumb.”

That led candidate Carr to unleash his own response, going directly after Governor Christie, saying his time in time in office “might be considered successful governance in New Jersey, and in Washington, but here in Tennessee, that’s the definition of dumb governance.” Carr specifically called out what he claimed was New Jersey’s $2.7 billion budget deficit, along with six downgradings of the state’s bond rating. Carr also charged that Christie has “become a fixture of controversy and scandal” related to the numerous ongoing probes surrounding alleged politically motivated lane closures which caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge leading into New York City.

Besides the GOP fundraiser, Governor Christie also appeared at the opening of Senator Alexander’s Memphis campaign HQs earlier in the day Friday as well as going to dinner late Friday afternoon with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at Nashville’s popular Puckett’s Restaurant on Church Street.

Still some Tea Party leaning GOP elected officials here in Tennessee did not extend much Southern Hospitality. State Representative Andy Holt said he would much rather have a “truly conservative team player” swing through the state and keynote the fundraiser (POLITICO).

“Really, Tennessee GOP? Governor Chris Christie? What an absolutely terrible idea? Why would we want to cloud Tennessee’s conservative Republican Party with this questionable political figure?” Holt later added in a post on his Facebook page (TENNESSEAN & POLITICO).

Caught in the middle of this political food fight? How about Congressman Marsha Blackburn, who has strong ties to the Tea Party, but who was also was the honorary chairman for this year’s Statesmen Dinner. Ouch!

But don’t feel too bad for the party. The event reportedly raised $700,000 and attracted more than 1,700 folks.

Governor Haslam says he expects Governor Christie to return to Tennessee later this summer and join him on the campaign trail. Haslam began his own re-election bid this past weekend (May 31) with a free outdoor event at another of Nashville’s famous culinary landmarks for Southern food, the Loveless Cafe. Governor Haslam seems to have little more than a walk in the park to garner a second four year term with no serious opposition expected either in the August primary or the November general election.

Meanwhile back in the Senate race, Senator Alexander got a major state business group to endorse his re-election. Officials of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) said in a news release (June 2): “Tennesseans need Lamar standing up for us in Washington. He has a strong record of fighting job-killing regulations like Obamacare.”

Alexander’s leading primary opponent State Representative Joe Carr may have new problems to handle. THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (June 5) reports the Federal Elections Commission is asking questions about whether the campaign has received an illegal corporate contribution.

POLITICAL ENTERPRISE

When Governor Haslam said something the other day that was quite interesting, maybe even quite unusual for a GOP elected official, Nashville Democratic State Senate candidate Mary Mancini saw an opportunity to break into the news cycle and try to capitalize on it to promote one of her big issues.

The Governor told a local GOP luncheon group that the rising gap in income inequality in this country is real and Republicans (along with Democrats) need to take the matter seriously. The Governor believes the best way to do that is by providing better and equal educational opportunities to all.

But Senate candidate Mancini believes there is a better and more immediately effective way to address the income gap issue: establish a minimum wage in Tennessee and set it at $10.10 per hour. Now don’t hold your breath about that happening. We are one of only 5 states that don’t have any kind of minimum wage and there is likely little interest to move in that direction by either the Governor or the GOP Super Majority in the Legislature which think such a policy would kill not create jobs or more income for workers. Mancini believes that’s wrong. But give her campaign credit for seeing a way to raise the issue in an enterprising way to re-focus the debate after what the Governor said.

Now House Democrats have a suggestion too (June 5) for the Governor to address income inequality: “quit stalling and accept the federal funds” to expand the state’s Medicaid/ TennCare program under the Affordable Care Act.

I wonder if Mr. Haslam is beginning to wish he’d never mentioned the topic.

SHOWING THE MONEY

It looks like those predicting (and lamenting) the advent of high dollars judicial election campaigns are fulfilling their own prophecy.

The Keep Tennessee Courts Fair organization, a bi-partisan group backing the retention (vote yes) of three State Supreme Court justices on the August ballot, says it has already collected $600,000 and has done so in just a few weeks’ time.

Now it’s up to Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and the business groups he’s reportedly organized (to build a no vote to oust the Democratically-appointed Justices) to show the color of their money in a contest that appears the most hotly contested matter on this summer’s ballot.

Hold on to your wallet on both sides!

And then comes the state constitutional questions up for a vote in November. They include another hot judicial matter (the appointment and retention of state appellate judges) as well as another amendment that strips the constitution of any right to an abortion and gives the state legislature more powers to regulate those procedures. Both issues could attract and pump hundreds of thousands if not millions of additional dollars into Tennessee’s political economy (and likely generate still more controversy).

In the meantime, there’s another sign of how contentious and potentially partisan this ouster effort is becoming. It occurred this past week when Republican State Senator Mike Bell (Lt. Governor Ramsey’s roommate during session) announced his Senate State Government Operations Committee will be holding hearings soon about why an ethics complaint he filed against Chief Justice Gary Bell (one of the justices targeted for ouster), was dismissed by the state’s Judicial Performance Commission.

Senator Bell claims says positive comments made by the Chief Justice to a Knoxville newspaper about the other two Supreme Court judges up for the August retention vote (Connie Clark and Sharon Lee) amounted to a candidate endorsement and therefore violated judicial ethics standards. Justice Wade denies that and says he commented only on the overall work product of the judges and was not telling voters how to cast their ballots.

Members of the Judicial Performance Commission sided with Wade and dismissed the complaint 9-0 meaning charges by Lt. Governor Ramsey that the body reprimanded the Chief Justice over the issue are apparently not true.

VW UPDATE

It’s a story that gotten right quiet in recent weeks.

Now THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (June 3) passes on a report from THE DETROIT FREE PRESS that says the General Secretary of the Volkswagen Global Works Council “has promised to help the United Autoworkers continue the push” to organize the automaker’s Chattanooga plant.

THE NBJ also reports from Reuters that VW’s decision to expand its facilities to produce a new line of SUVs is being held up “as (both) Mexico and Tennessee jockey to present the most attractive incentive package.” Last week Governor Haslam confirmed the state was back at the bargaining table with VW. Asked whether Tennessee’s offer was contingent on union representation, the Governor reportedly said no.

EDUCATION WARS ON INSIDE POLITICS

Tennessee Public Schools may out for the summer, but the political fights (wars) over education in this state and here in Nashville continue to escalate. To talk about the myriad of issues bubbling up on this topic, our guests on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend are Andrea Zelinski of the NASHVILLE POST/ NASHVILLE SCENE and Joey Garrison of THE TENNESSEAN. Both of these reporters do a great job covering the education beat and they bring a lot a lot of insight and knowledge to our conversation. Watch us, you can learn a lot eve if you haven’t been a classroom for years.

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