Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 15, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company
September 17, 2017

REFLECTIONS ON AN EARLY GUBERNATORIAL ROUND ROBIN; BLACK RESTLESS IN WASHINGTON AND UNDECIDED ABOUT STAYING IN CONGRESS; UNDECIDED IS IN THE LEAD; INSIDE POLITICS; CORKER PRIMARY CHALLENGE GOES FROM TALK TO REAL; THE POLITICS IN WASHINGTON ARE A CHANGING REFLECTIONS ON AN EARLY GUBERNATORIAL ROUND ROBIN

I had the honor this week to facilitate one of the first gubernatorial round-robins among the 2018 candidates. All the major candidates were present except Congressman Diane Black. She made a 5-minute videotape presentation from Washington where she is dealing with her duties in the House of Representatives (more on that later).

The round-robin was organized by THE TENNESSEE BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE. Each candidate individually got 20 minutes with the audience of about 100 business leaders from across the state. Each made a 5-minute opening statement. All then answered the same 4 questions from the business group on topics such as K-12 education, healthcare, the state budget and spending, along with workforce issues. Then they each answered questions from the audience on a variety of topics.

We got quite a bit of news coverage as you can see from the media outlets and story links below. When I moderate something like this, it’s kind of hard for me to take notes or get a real good feel if any big news stories break out. As I suspected before watching and reading these clips, the round robin was very informative and a good introduction for folks who might have never seen or heard some of the candidates in action. For me, that was Randy Boyd and Bill Lee. But some of the news headlines came more from what the candidates said to reporters afterwards, not during the round-robin. 

Still I think you would enjoy reviewing these links. 

  • AP - https://www.apnews.com/590cdf2c0aab4682bb7ee771ef70f5a6/GOP-candidates-for-Tennessee-governor-uneasy-about-gas-tax
  • WATE - http://wate.com/2017/09/12/7-candidates-for-tennessee-governor-pitch-business-leaders/ 
  • NewsChannel 5 - http://www.newschannel5.com/news/gubernatorial-candidates-meet-with-business-leaders?autoplay=true
  • NBJ - https://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2017/09/12/what-your-choices-for-governor-are-saying-business.html
  • Tennessean - http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/09/12/gop-gubernatorial-candidates-lee-boyd-oppose-state-tuition-undocumented-students/642858001/
  • Nashville Public Radio – http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/democrats-make-pitch-expand-pre-k-nashville-gubernatorial-forum#stream/0
  • Chattanooga Times Free Press -
    http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/politics/state/story/2017/sep/13/harwell-rules-out-tennessee-parks-systems-out/448722/
  • Lebanon Democrat - http://www.lebanondemocrat.com/Government/2017/09/12/Governor-candidates-speak-with-business-leaders.html?ci=stream&lp=1&p=
  • The Oklahoman - http://newsok.com/gop-candidates-for-tennessee-governor-uneasy-about-gas-tax/article/feed/1415303 (AP story)
  • Smithville Review - http://www.smithvillereview.com/section/1/article/11083/preview/
  • Tom Humphrey - http://humphreyonthehill.tnjournal.net/gubernatorial-candidate-doings-9132017/

Just a few brief reflections of own on the candidates and the round-robin. All of them made credible presentations, even if you did not like or agree with what they said. They were all on their best behaviors. Nobody attacked an opponent or a current elected official. If past is prologue, that will come soon enough. For now, some of them (Beth Harwell, Craig Fitzhugh, Karl Dean among others come to mind) even had nice things to say about each other and past gubernatorial administrations.

I was struck by how many of the candidates talked about how much they hear over and over from voters about the horrible opioid crisis now ravishing our state. There have been efforts to address the crisis on Capitol Hill in Nashville. But it has been far from a top-of mind issue. I sense that will change during this campaign and in the next gubernatorial administration along with the next session of the General Assembly. Already Randy Boyd has issued a 10-point plan to combat the opioid crisis, a level of candidate involvement I do not remember in past statewide campaigns. Others I am sure will follow. 

The opioid crisis not just a public health and law enforcement dilemma. It is increasingly hampering Tennessee’s workforce availability and readiness and therefore our continuing economic growth.
I also sense from what I heard from the gubernatorial candidates that Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive for 55 and his Tennessee Promise program will continue in the next administration (lottery surplus monies permitting) . But there may well be some shift away from getting a college degree to pushing for more technical training in areas such as manufacturing, IT, health care and other professions where there is a growing shortage of qualified, trained workers, even though quality, high paying jobs are available in an abundance. 

In the meantime this week there was more good educational news for the outgoing Haslam administration. Just as unemployment in the state has been at an all-time low in recent months. Now Tennessee’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 89.1%.That’s a half a percentage point higher than last year and up 3.6% from the 2010-11 school year.
I look forward to having all these candidates who seek to take Governor Haslam’s place on INSIDE POLITICS in the weeks to come to discuss these and other issues impacting Tennessee.

BLACK RESTLESS IN WASHINGTON AND UNDECIDED ABOUT STAYING IN CONGRESS
I mentioned earlier that Congressman Diane Black was not at the gubernatorial candidate round-robin because of her duties in Washington. In particular that includes her work as House Budget Chair. She has passed a budget out of her committee, but it seems to be having issues getting enough support among her fellow Republicans to pass it through the full House. According to POLITICO via Tom Humphrey’s blog, it’s leaving her “restless” and on a personal crusade to get her budget passed…
http://humphreyonthehill.tnjournal.net/restless-black-pushing-u-s-house-budget-vote-no-assurance-passage/

One of Congressman Black’s key campaign messages is that the success she has achieved in Washington she can bring home to Tennessee when she is elected governor. But that hasn’t happened on health care as the “repeal and replace Obamacare” effort has failed (so far).  In her five minute video made for the BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE event, Black talked quite a bit about Washington at the beginning of her remarks. So much so it seemed to me, that if you didn’t know she was running for governor, you might have thought the Representative was running for re-election before she finally transitioned to concentrate on Tennessee in her video comments.

It has long been thought Black would have to step down as Budget Chair. House Caucus rules reportedly require it. Resigning from her seat in Congress has not been talked about as much, although perhaps Black is realizing, much State Senator Mae Beavers did in resigning her post the beginning of this month, that running for governor is now increasingly a 24/7/365 task.

But Black’s exit would raise some interesting questions. When will she leave? Federal law is clear about how quickly a special election must be called to fill the seat for the remaining (in this case) months of her term. Will the voter’s choice be a caretaker not seeking to hold the seat after the next regular election in November, 2018? Or will the special election be a political battle over who gets a leg up on being the new power in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional district, even if the winner will have to run for the post twice in just  a few months’ time?

One positive development for the Black campaign this week. Noted economist Art Laffer has endorsed her race for governor. Laffer advised President Ronald Reagan on “supply side” economics as well as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on economic affairs. Laffer has been a Tennessee resident the last few years and active in the repeal of the state’s inheritance and Hall Income taxes among other state levies. 

UNDECIDED IS IN THE LEAD

I don’t think this should surprise anyone.

As reported by Tom Humphrey on his HUMPHREY ON THE HILL blog: a poll conducted by a group that calls itself Tennesseans for Conservative Action has issued a poll (taken August 28-29). It reflects the views among 822 likely Republican voters for the August 2018 gubernatorial primary.
It shows undecided not only in the lead, but in the majority (54.7%) about those not having a candidate to support in the race at this point.  The poll does show Congressman Diane Black leading among the actual major candidates running (13.9%) with the rest of the field shaping up this way:

Knoxville businessman and former ECD Commissioner Randy Boyd is second at 11.6% (and versus Black within the reported margin of error in the poll of 3.42%). Third is House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville at 7.4%. Fourth in the poll is former State Senator Mae Beavers at 5.6%. Franklin home services businessman Bill Lee is 5th at 3.3% and candidate Kay White comes in sixth at 0.7%.

Tennesseans for Conservative Action says it is a “voter education” group which stands for “constitutionally conservative principles.” 

The group’s survey also found these interesting (if some are a little strange) results as reported in the Humphrey’s article:

“82 percent view President Donald Trump favorably and 54 percent think Butch Jones is doing a good job as University of Tennessee football coach.

Only 7% of voters who approve of President Trump also disapprove of Butch Jones job performance
85% of self-identified beer drinkers, 79% of self-identified wine drinkers and 81% of self-identified liquor drinkers approve of President Trump.”

The Humphrey article speculates the liquor questions may be related to possible efforts next year in the General Assembly to allow Sunday liquor sales. 

Humphrey also related these poll results on the issue of the government deciding when businesses should be opened or closed:

“Big Government Bad, I’ll Have A Drink: Over 95% of Tennesseans who had a drink in the last week believe government should not be involved when businesses are open and closed.
Big Government Bad, I’m Good With Sweet Tea: Over 92% of Tennesseans who stated they had not had a drink in the last week or don’t drink believe government should not be involved when businesses are open and closed.”

So take the poll for what it’s worth. Perhaps its bottom line is “I’ll drink to that” (sweet tea or whatever), while the GOP gubernatorial candidates obviously have a lot of work to do.
There was one other bit of endorsement news this week…Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd got still more local government endorsements. This time it’s 33 East Tennessee city mayors who say the Knoxville businessman is the best choice for jobs, education and rural communities in Tennessee. Boyd has made a particular push to enlist this kind of (what some would say old-timey) political support and he now has well over 50 local officials publicly on his team. 

INSIDE POLITICS

Since we are talking so much about the governor’s race, this week on INSIDE POLITICS we are presenting an encore airing of our recent interview with Governor Bill Haslam. This show first aired back on Memorial Day weekend right after he had scored major legislative coup by passing THE ACHIEVE ACT, a major transportation plan that also included a hike in the gas tax. We talk a lot about how he and his administration maneuvered the bill through a political minefield of challenges to get it approved.

While some the Republican candidates seeking to take his place say they have some reservations about the new law, especially the tax hike, they can likely learn a lot by listening to the person who currently holds Tennessee’s highest office. Watch us!  

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; along with 1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday. 

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on

NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2. 

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITIICS interviews are also posted on NEWSCHANNEL5’s website for your viewing. 

CORKER PRIMARY CHALLENGE GOES FROM TALK TO REAL

I was out last week but one topic stayed close to the political front burner. That would be efforts by GOP and other conservatives to find a primary challenger to run against Tennessee Senator Bob Corker next year. 

Reports POLITICO early in the week about a Corker primary opponent:

“The effort is being led by Steve Bannon, (President) Trump’s bomb-throwing former chief strategist, who is launching an all-out war against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment. Bannon has begun holding private meetings with insurgent challengers, vowing his support. He’s coordinating with conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attacks on GOP incumbents. Bannon has also installed a confidant at an outside group that is expected to target Republican lawmakers and push the Trump agenda.

Behind the scenes, Bannon has proposed the possibility of targeting Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker…Corker had long been considered a Trump ally and had been in the mix to become secretary of state, but has since angered the president’s supporters with recent comments in which he questioned Trump’s competence. Shortly after Bannon left the White House and returned to Breitbart last month, the site published a story promoting a potential Corker challenger, state Sen. Mark Green.”

Another potential Corker opponent is former State Representative Joe Carr who last month was forming a federal political PAC, Stand Firm America, which could be a means to attract support and financial backing. Report NASHVILLE POST POLITICS:

“Carr is the designated agent of Stand Firm America, the paperwork for which was filed with the Federal Election Commission late Thursday. Carr’s daughter, Maddie, is the PAC’s treasurer. The PAC’s website was registered Thursday through a proxy.

“We’re in the formative stages of this whole thing. We’re putting this together, and once everything is put together — what we’re trying to do, what the mission statement is, what the purpose is and what it’s directly going to address — we’ll have a press release on that,” Joe Carr said Friday. “We’re not ready to make any announcements on the purposes of the PAC just yet.”

…The former state representative’s annual conservative gathering and fundraiser, T-Bones and Politics, will be held Sept. 14 in Lascassas, featuring Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. Carr said he won’t announce his own plans for a possible 2018 campaign until after the event.
So stay tuned. Carr ran a competitive primary contest in 2014 against Tennessee’s senior Senator Lamar Alexander. But he had a poor showing when he challenged Congressman Diane Black for re-election in 2016.  

But one other potential Corker challengers are no longer being as coy about running as Carr. The now former head of the Tennessee Chapter of Americans for Prosperity (a Koch brothers group) has announced this week he is running for the GOP Senate primary against Corker.  Tennessee AFP twice stopped efforts to expand Medicaid in Tennessee although it lost a fight with Governor Haslam over increasing the gas tax last spring. Ogles also was unsuccessful in his previous efforts to run for Congress and the General Assembly. Now Ogles says there’s need to be a major change in Washington among the Republican majorities there.

“Over the past several months it has become increasingly clear that too many of our elected officials in Washington are failing our country, failing to fulfill their promises, and failing our future,” Ogles said. “Sadly, Republicans who promised to govern as conservatives if we would just ‘give them a majority’ are letting us down the most, including our Senators from Tennessee.”

“Republican majorities in the House and Senate have not been able to repeal and replace Obamacare, balance the budget, or cut taxes. Our nation has racked up a 20-trillion-dollar debt, any career politician who has spent more than 12 years in DC has helped create the problem. Congress now appears more focused on providing amnesty to illegals to placate so-called Dreamers while refusing to build the wall and secure the American Dream for American citizens.”

Ogles continued, “We will not change what we are seeing IN Washington until we send new, strong conservative representatives TO Washington. Our problem isn’t the shortage of Republicans in the Senate, it is the shortage of the RIGHT Republicans in the Senate.”

And so the GOP civil war rages.  

As for Senator Corker himself, his office issued this statement on Monday (September 11):
“After spending a lifetime in business, I ran for mayor of Chattanooga as a civic endeavor, and I continue to do what I do because I wholeheartedly believe in public service. That approach allows me to truly throw myself into the job and make decisions based on what I believe is best for Tennessee and our country without thinking about the next election or the next potential opportunity.

“It is a tremendous privilege to serve Tennesseans in the Senate and much work lies ahead, including passing tax reform, strengthening our national security and getting spending under control, but I think everyone in the Volunteer State knows, as they did in 2012, that running for re-election has never been an automatic for me.

“While we are in a strong position, I am still contemplating the future and will make a decision at the appropriate time.” Later in the week, Senatir Corker added his decision will come soon.

Also in a CNN interview Senator Corker seemed to confirm that part of President Trump’s tweet about him has some truth to it:

“Asked if he had spoken with the President about his election plans, Corker said he believed the topic came up when they played golf together.

“Oh, I mean, I talk to the President about almost everything,” Corker said. “We spend a lot of time together. We play golf. We, you know, they talked to me about being potentially vice president, secretary of state, so I’ve had multiple conversations about the future with lots of people. So, I’m sure when we played golf, the topic came up.”

CNN also reported that a source close to Senator Corker’s thinking says he is “legitimately torn” about whether to seek re-election. 

And so the curious nature of this 2018 Tennessee U.S. Senate race and Senator Corker’s seeking re-election continues. There could be still more candidates entering if State Senator Mark Green decides to jump in (he says he is “now seriously considering it”). Things could get even more up in the air if Senator Corker retires. Might that entice others in our present congressional delegation to abandon planned re-election efforts or even from leaving other current races to jump in? And who will the Republican establishment in the state look to support in Senator Corker’s place?

Finally today (Friday), for the first time since their most recent falling out, Senator Corker and President Trump have a meeting. As of writing this in the early afternoon, there is No word on what’s happened or was discussed. But wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall instead of waiting to read some early morning tweet from the President or a statement from the senator’s office? 

THE POLITICS IN WASHINGTON ARE A CHANGING

While I was out last week, the party politics in Washington got stranger than ever.

It appears the Republicans have broken out in open political civil war pitting President Donald Trump versus the GOP congressional leadership.

The ill feelings have been building for months through tweets from the President and occasional comments from congressional leaders. 

But broke out in a big way last week beginning when President Trump publicly embarrassed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan by announcing he would back the plan of the Democrats to (temporarily) pass an appropriation bill, raise the debt limit (both measures to keep the government function) and approve a $15 billion “down payment” to provide relief for those (mainly in Houston and other parts of the Texas Gulf Coast) impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Of course they will be still more hurricane relief that will need to be approved after the terrible damage done by Hurricane Irma in Florida (especially in the Keys) and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The deal between President Trump and his new best political friends “Nancy and Chuck” (Democratic leaders Pelosi in the House and Schumer in the Senate) will likely be subject to future further review as there will be a need to again address the debt limit and ongoing appropriations before the Christmas recess. 

And there were still more signs that politics are a changing in Washington and the GOP Civil War is widening.

There’s the DACA or Delayed Action for Child Arrival (Dreamers) legislation. It would allow undocumented illegals who came to this country with their parents (when they were children) to stay here permanently if Congress passes such a law in the next 6 months. The President sought to eliminate the DACA program (established by President Obama under executive order) immediately but then granted the possibility of a reprieve if Congress approves a new law.

Not many folks thought positive congressional action was likely. But then early this week that outlook began to change. According to THE HILL, a top Trump aide said the White House will not require DACA legislation to also include funding for the President’s Trump’s controversial Border Wall with Mexico. 

If the wall is included, almost every Democrat would vote no, dashing any chance for DACA passage. However with Wall funding out, it could well be that more enough Democrats will support the bill (and be joined by Republicans) to make passage likely. Once again, the President seemed to be ready to make that happen by taking a position that favors the Democrats. Oh did he?

“Chuck and Nancy” met with the President for working dinner at the White House Wednesday night. The two Democratic leaders emerged to issue a statement that Mr. Trump would support the Democrats’ version of the DACA/ Dreamers bill and he would not demand it include funding for the Wall (just additional border security).

Within literally minutes, all political hell broke loose in Washington with the White House denying first, any deal on the Wall, then denying full support for DACA. The President’s base also went ballistic throwing the Capitol into yet another round of political turmoil never seen before the Age of Trump. The President even got a new derisive nickname from some of his past strongest supporters: “Amnesty Don”:

http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/350755-trump-stuns-washington-with-immigration-moves
http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/350775-amnesty-fight-threatens-pursuit-of-immigration-deal

And so the political chaos continues in Washington. It’s not just the Republicans versus the Democrats. Sometimes it’s Republicans with President Trump but sometimes not? The same for the Democrats, often opposing the White House but sometimes with him as well. But do any of them trust each other? I doubt making for one of the strangest political power situation I can ever remember inside the District.

Nevertheless, the Republican congressional leadership is not quitting. Both chambers this week, all but unanimously passed resolutions that challenge and criticize the President for his lack of leadership and not speaking out by name against the white supremacist and other groups involved in the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA.   

Reports THE HILL about the Senate action:
http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/350170-senate-approves-resolution-condemning-white-supremacist-groups?rnd=1505175262

The resolutions now go to the President for his consideration. Will he use his veto power? Much like the recent new sanctions on North Korea, Iran and Russia, these Charlottesville measures passed with overwhelming support on the Hill, a veto effort would be easily overridden by both houses, further embarrassing the President and keeping the Charlottesville controversy active. It’s an issue which has not gone well for the President in his approval polls. And he made it even worse this week on Thursday when he reasserted his false equivalency that it wasn’t just the white supremacist groups that had bad guys present in Virginia.

There is another unmistakable message to the President in these most recent resolutions passed by the Congress.  The Charlottesville resolution is the type of legislation that would never see the light of day, much less come to the floor of both houses for a vote, when the White House and the houses of Congress were controlled by the same political party. And they get along well with each other.

Obviously while both institutions are controlled by the GOP, they don’t get along at all anymore, and neither side is afraid to show it.

What might that mean as the Russian investigations continue to unfold? That issue, while moving to less top headline prominence in the news recently because of these two devastating hurricanes has by no means gone away. As this political civil war rages in Washington and the trust of Congress, from both parties  in the President, seems to be eroding, how many of them on the GOP side will keep downplaying his actions as the seemingly never ending controversies emerge? How much longer will they keep having the President’s back?

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