Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Sept. 4 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Sept. 4



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

September 4, 2009


With the coming of September and the Labor Day holiday weekend, it won't be long before our national lawmakers head back to Washington.

And as far as national health care reform is concerned, what a vastly different political landscape they will face upon their return.  While often noisy and downright rude, the Town Hall forums held by congressmen and senators across the country have changed the entire health care debate. They relayed a clear signal that voters are not comfortable with, and some are downright hostile about what they see and hear concerning pending health care legislation in Washington.

Instead of setting deadlines for when Congress should act to approve a health care reform plan as he was doing before the congressional recess, President Barack Obama is now likely scrambling to figure out what kind of bill he can get passed at all. So to kick-start and rebrand his efforts as well as to lay out a more detailed vision of what he wants in a health care overhaul (something that maybe he should have done several months ago), the President has scheduled an prime-time nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday (September 9).

That's a pretty rare move for a President outside of his annual State of the Union address. By the way, President Bill Clinton did this kind of speech back in the early ‘90s when he tried to push his health care plans through Congress. That didn't turn out so good, so President Obama will have to hope for better luck this time. Things don't look that promising especially since the President's own job approval ratings have been declining and have now gone into negative territory on the subject of health care.

So what can he do?

 The President and Democratic congressional leaders could put together a proposal they can push through the House (maybe even without some of the conservative Blue Dogs Democrats such as those here in Tennessee). And they can also manipulate the rules in the Senate so they don't need a 60-vote majority to get it through the upper chamber. But without any House Republican support and maybe just one or two Senate Republicans on their side, do Democrats want to roll the dice on a policy issue this volatile and stake their political futures, both personally and collectively for the 2010 election, on this matter?

If you want to get a taste of the debate ahead, look at what Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is saying. I watch what our senior Senator says, not just because he is from Tennessee, but because, as Conference Chair for the Republicans, it's his job to come up with the talking points for his colleagues.   

The latest from Mr. Alexander says Congress should start over on health care to "get it right" rather than continuing "good faith efforts to find the best way to go in the wrong direction." Saying that the President has "promised" to look for a bi-partisan solution, the Senator maintains: "The only thing bi-partisan about these proposals (now) is the opposition to them." In that regard Senator Alexander even cites Tennessee's Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen who has expressed his concern that, according to Alexander: "it's not health care reform to just dump more people into TennCare (Medicaid) and force that cost on the states, and I think he's exactly right."

Senator Alexander also says it would "touch off a minor revolution in this country" if the President and the Democrats seek to move health care legislation through by suspending the 60-vote requirement. Funny, he didn't feel that way a few years ago when Republicans controlled the Senate and Senator Alexander voted to get around the 60-vote requirement on legislative items such as tax cuts. 

But, regardless of how that turns out, will Senator Alexander's comments about needing to "start over on health care reform" be echoed by his Republican colleagues? Central to what the Senator is saying is the belief that health care needs to be reformed, that the current system needs major change. But do Republicans really believe that? Or will they be tempted to stonewall and try to stop any legislation as a way of defeating the President on his number one domestic issue (creating his "Waterloo" as one Republican leader put it a few months ago).

The debate among Republicans about what to do may be just as interesting to watch as what the President and his Democratic supporters decide about their tactics.

There is a school of thought emerging that some more moderate GOP lawmakers (could that include Senator Alexander or even Tennessee Senator Bob Corker?) might be open to finding a way to craft a compromise that certainly would not include anything called "a public option" but might include other health care changes that allow the same kind of competition that many Democrats want to offer to the current private insurance system.

Could there be some political horse trading involved? A revised "public option/health co-op plan" in exchange for medical tort reform legislation that is something less than caps on what could be recovered in a malpractice lawsuit?  What about allowing small businesses to join insurance buying pools across states lines to get better rates in return for some limited kind of "public option" opportunities (although I doubt anyone would call it that). Both major parties know something needs to be done, that the current system is not working. But what kind of health care reform will that be?


Meantime, the pressure continues on Nashville Democratic "Blue Dog" Congressman Jim Cooper. There's apparently a recent story in THE HILL that quotes a Blue Dog staffer as saying some Blue Dogs (moderate to conservative Democrats) "are planning on committing political suicide."

Say what?

Here's what the article says about the Nashville congressman: "Cooper is in a 25% minority district that would be a 45% minority in a Dem primary. He could easily lose a Dem primary if he votes against a public option. And even if he survives, a depressed Dem turnout in a general election could doom him as well."

What? Have any of the people in this article ever been to Nashville? Do they know our political history, our voting patterns? I think a lot of these comments about the Congressman are way overblown. This "public option" debate is sure making things very sticky for Mr. Cooper, but to quote Mark Twain (who Nashville is honoring with a number of public events over the next few months), rumors of the congressman's impending demise are "greatly exaggerated," I think. Defeating him is not "a fool's errand" as has been suggested by one local commentator, but it's far from a slam dunk as might be suggested by some in THE HILL article.

In a recent e-mail to constituents (September 3), Congressman Cooper says he hopes the President's speech on Wednesday "will break the logjam in the current debate." The Congressman continues to maintain that the bill he is co-sponsoring, The Healthy Americans Act, could be legislation that would rally bi-partisan support. He also says his bill has been characterized by the Congressional Budget Office as deficit-neutral for at least the next decade. But so far the Congressman has had trouble being heard on this topic over all the hue and cry about the other pending bills, some of which have actually passed committees or even the House. Congressman Cooper says he is even more hopeful after NEW YORK TIMES columnist, David Leonhardt called his bill "the best-known proposal for giving people more choice."  That's great, but how much influence does the NYT carry here in Middle Tennessee?   

Meantime another Democratic Blue Dog, Tennessee congressman, Bart Gordon, who's been under fire about his positions on health care, is getting a little love on the airwaves.  A TV ad is running locally urging voters to call the Congressman and thank him for "continuing to fight for bi-partisan health care reform...and to keep fighting until the job is done." There's also an ad urging folks to call and thank Congressman Gordon for his continuing support of stem-cell research.

But the sponsor of the TV ads may itself cause some questions. It's a group that, from its name, appears to have ties to the pharmaceutical industry. 


Remember when the Metro Nashville School Board approved a new rezoning plan for the system a few years ago? Despite strong doubts from the NAACP and other community groups, the Board promised it would not re-segregate our classrooms. To make sure of it, the Board committed millions of extra dollars to support the schools, largely in the inner city, that would be most impacted by the change (loss of white students). This would also make sure, they said, we would not go back to "separate but unequal schools."

Well, guess what? Three weeks into the new school year, and some students at one of the effected schools still didn't have their textbooks.

No textbooks? What a joke! While school officials blame the principal for not knowing how many books to order, it didn't take a local federal judge but a single brief hearing to order Metro schools to get with the program and provide the needed textbooks within 24 hours.

That's been done.

But it raises the question: What other Metro school children still don't have their textbooks almost a month into classes? I am told that's definitely an issue and it's a problem spread out all over the city, not just the inner-city schools impacted by the rezoning. That sure doesn't excuse Metro's actions in its preparation for the rezoning. Of all things, how could you not have all the resources necessary for these schools after promising all the extra monies that would be provided as a part of the rezoning? 

The NAACP says it now has four more families joining its court case as a part of a more extensive lawsuit challenging the new rezoning plan as racist. You can't say based on this ruling about the textbooks, (which also allowed the student filing the complaint to go back to her original school), that Metro will lose its case.

But the school system sure isn't off to a great start. After struggling for over 40 years to achieve a unitary, desegregated status for our public education system, the last thing this community needs is to get bogged down and divided in court again. But when you can't even provide simple things like textbooks three weeks after classes begin, who can blame parents or anybody else with legal standing for going to court to get their grievances addressed.

One more note about schools that relates back to President Obama: I see there are parents and others objecting that he plans to address students (via C-SPAN) this coming week all across the nation week about the importance of staying in school and doing well.

Why on earth would that be an issue? Well, it seems some parents and conservative political pundits (what a surprise) are concerned the President will try and use the address to make a pitch for his health care reform plan or, as one conservative Congressman put it, try and spread his socialist platform among our students.

If the President planned to do that, I can see that those types of criticism might have some validity. But the White House says that's not in the speech. So what's this really all about?

Not surprisingly there were some complaints (this time from Democrats) when President George H. W. Bush made a speech to students back when he was in office in 1991. News reports say President Reagan also made a speech to students while he was in office back in the 1980s.

So what's the big deal? Why do we have to make a political football out of everything these days, especially as it relates to schools?

It's time our hyper-critical society and political system takes a chill pill.    


Usually when an elected official issues a statement marking the passing of an important person, it doesn't contain much that is insightful or memorable.

But that wasn't the case when I got the statement of Governor Phil Bredesen and what he had to say regarding the recent death of former State Senator Anna Belle Clement O'Brien at the age of 86.

He put it this way: "With her passing, we've lost another link to a more generous and collegial political world."

The Governor recalled how he first met Miss Anna Belle when he ran, and lost, a special congressional election to her nephew, Bob Clement back in 1987. "She was definitely and firmly on the other side, but always gracious and kind. In the years after that, she took me under her wing and went out of her way to help me along with advice and unqualified support. I confessed to her many times that her "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" was just what a young outsider needed to break into Tennessee politics..."

Ms. Anna Belle's signature comment was: "Politics is a beautiful word." She sincerely believed, as Ken Whitehouse of NASHVILLE put it: "it was how jobs got created families were fed and the less fortunate were given a hand needed to move forward and up in life." In a day, when "politics" has now become a full-contact, no-holds-barred blood sport and the word itself has almost become a dirty word to many, Senator O'Brien's mantra should be remembered, honored, and practiced.

When Senator O'Brien was coming up in politics it was clearly a man's world. But, in partnership with  her brother, former Governor Frank Clement, she made her own way to become "the first lady of Tennessee politics," becoming the matriarch of modern Tennessee's most prominent political family, while also serving in the General Assembly as a state house member from 1975 to 1977 and then a state senator from 1977 to 1991. It was in the Senate that she became the first woman to ever chair a senate committee, heading both the Senate Education and Transportation committees during her 22 years in the upper chamber. She was also the first woman to ever head the Democratic Caucus in the Senate.     

From her days as Chief of Staff for her brother during his second stint as governor, she knew something about running that office, and she remains (unfortunately) one of the few women in the state's history to make a credible run for our highest office back in 1982.

She didn't win the Democratic primary and ultimately Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander gained a second four-year term. With her passing, now Senator Alexander retains fond memories of her, remarking how "she worked across party lines to help Tennessee become the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well.... She was a delight to work with. I will miss."

So will we all.

But don't get the wrong idea about Senator O'Brien. She could be tough as nails if she thought that was what was required. The story goes that for years when she worked in the Governor's office, she kept a map of the state right behind her desk, marked with the election results by state legislative district of the last governor's race. And when lawmakers came to ask for assistance or favors, she would often make a point of looking back and reminding those folks just exactly how much help they were or weren't in the last campaign. More than once, it made a sobering point for lawmakers.

It's wonderful that in the months before she died, Miss Anna Belle got the chance to be honored for her work at a gala event here in Nashville last spring, and then to see her brother's birthplace in Dickson made into a museum.

Let's hope the legacy of service she gave our state and her profound, yet simple understanding that "politics is a beautiful word", which can accomplish beautiful things, never passes away.


The poor Tennessee Democratic Party

Just when it seemed the group finally had its act together and might be building some long-needed momentum for the 2010 campaign, there is an embarrassing gaffe to try and overcome. 

 It all began when state party leaders managed to land former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore (the last national Democratic ticket to carry Tennessee 13 years ago in 1996) as speakers for their Jackson Day Dinner last weekend (August 29).

The response was so great the event had to be moved to another venue. Lots of money came in, perhaps enough to pay off many of the state party's debt.

But then came the goof.

Party leaders put buckets on the tables to get contributions for State House candidate Ty Cobb who is running as the Democratic nominee in a special election in southern Middle Tennessee next month. They also put out the paperwork necessary for folks to comply with state law on who is giving what to whom.

So what's the problem? There were no reminder announcements about filling out the paperwork, so the funds collected (several tens of thousands of dollars) will be going to charity rather than to help Cobb's bid.

That's bad because based on the results of the primary elections, Cobb appears to have a strong Republican candidate to defeat and this is a seat Democrats desperately need to keep, especially since it includes a least a couple of counties that have traditionally been Democratic strongholds. 


As you take time off from your labors this holiday weekend, take a moment to watch (or record) my INSIDE POLITICS show.

We have a great topic: The changes going on in the local print media and what it means for political discourse in our community. My guests include Chris Ferrell, the CEO of SouthCom, which recently purchased THE NASHVILLE SCENE and already owns THE CITY PAPER and NASHVILLE among other publications. Joining Chris, are long-time political activist, lawyer and campaign advisor Larry Woods and Tom Lee, another attorney, who has also worked as a political aide, a TV and newspaper reporter and he was a media critic some years ago for THE NASHVILLE BANNER.

When you add in Chris Ferrell's political background as former Councilman-At-Large and candidate for Vice Mayor, this is quite a panel. Our discussion also elicits a bit of news about the future of both THE SCENE and THE CITY PAPER, which will soon be combining their Thursday print editions. You can hear some discussion about how some bloggers are beginning to set the political agenda in Nashville which used to be done exclusively by the daily papers.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.

Fridays, (September 4)..........7:00 PM............NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, COMCAST CHANNEL 250

Saturdays, (September 5).....5:00 AM...........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Saturdays, (September 5)......5:30 PM...........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sundays, (September 6).........5:00 AM............WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5

Sundays, (September 6).........5:00 AM.............NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sundays, (September 6).........12:30 PM........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Don't forget, if you have an over-the-air digital TV, you can now see NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS on channel 5.2. And, if you live outside the Nashville area, you can see excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here at


It's ironic I think that at time when some people doubt the future of print journalism, there's a terrific new paper in town whose motto is "All The News That's Fit To Reprint....And More."

It's THE NASHVILLE RETROSPECT, which each month publishes stories about local history from the archives of THE NASHVILLE BANNER and other previous Nashville papers. The September edition is the paper's third and features an in-depth look at the devastating 1965 fire at the State Fairgrounds, as well as other articles.

If you are a history buff or just want to know more about the city you've grown up in (or moved to) it's a great publication, which I am reading from cover to cover.

You can get a home subscription to the paper for $24 for 12 issues or you can pick up copies for free. I know it's available at the Downtown library and perhaps at other library locations as well. For more information go to


So the Metro Council thinks Nashville has gotten too urban for folks to keep chickens on their property unless the land is zoned agricultural.

I would go a bit further and suggest we've gotten so urban we ought to live under the same property rate (the higher urban service rate) unless the land involved is agricultural.

When Metro Government was founded nearly 50 years ago (1963) the two-tier property tax rate (Urban Services and General Services) was instituted as a transition until the day when Nashville was a true urban center. We're there. Keeping the two-tier system just penalizes urban service taxpayers by having them subsidize services like police and fire protection for their general services neighbors (in areas like Madison, Bellevue and Brentwood).   

Politicians understand the phrase "when the chickens come home to roost." And, in a time when property tax hikes are becoming harder and harder to be approved (even requiring public referendums) this single tax rate is something that needs to examined, even if it too might require a county-wide vote to change the Metro Charter. It's become a matter of justice and equity.

My guess is this issue, at best, is a second-term consideration for the administration of Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Council. But regardless of when it comes up for debate, it needs to be done.

Or is everyone "too chicken?"

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