Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Oct. 2 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Oct. 2

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CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations

October 2, 2009

A POLITICALLY RESTLESS, CRANKY TIME; INSIDE POLITICS

I take a week off to celebrate my daughter's wedding, and all hell starts to break loose politically around here.

And this is supposed to be a political off-year because we have no scheduled elections? It seems both the natives and the out of town folks are really restless this year.

  • 1. The feud between Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper and national liberal Democratic groups such as MoveOn's Accountability Now PAC, escalates. First, there is a web site launched (www.cooperuncovered.com) which is highly critical of the Congressman (on health care and other issues, including his votes on the Iraq War, veteran's college benefits, the Patriot Act, and President Obama's economic recovery bill).

Second, there is a public search for a candidate to run against Rep. Cooper in the primary next August, with a local visit to Nashville by an official of Accountability Now, proclaiming on THE LIBERADIO show that "Jim Cooper is really the number one target we have in the country right now." Interestingly, so far no one has stepped up publicly to accept the challenge, even though it seems to come with the promise of a lot of campaign funds.  The most rumored name is Metro Councilman-At-Large Jerry Maynard. But, so far, he says he is not contemplating a run. There are some in the blogosphere who say there is a candidate who has said yes, one who will cause Congressman Cooper "to have to change his pants." We'll see about that, when and if such a person emerges.  

Many local politicians understand how tough it is to beat an incumbent congressman in this state and this district. That's not saying it can't happen (it depends on the challenger, the issues and the $$ support). But it hasn't happened in Nashville since 1962, which is close to half a century, if you are not too busy counting your PAC money to add it up.

  • 2. The Dean of the Tennessee Senate, Nashville's Doug Henry, suddenly has a potentially well-funded, well-connected primary opponent, who wasn't even BORN until the Senator was well into his second term in office. Is 32-year old Bass Berry & Sims lawyer Jeff Yabro a real threat to 83-year old and 39-year Senate veteran Henry? Or is the politically active lawyer running for a future race and/or acting as a placeholder or a stalking horse to test Henry's resolve to seek yet another four-year term? For now, Senator Henry says he is still running for re-election.

Nevertheless, lots of prominent Democrats seem ready to back Yabro. One well-connected Democratic source told me the new Yabro campaign raised $50,000 in just one day on Wednesday (September 30). Meantime, the host committee list for an October 12 fundraiser being held for the young attorney, who is a first-time candidate,  is chock full of prominent Democrats, political activists and even a new media mogul who is hosting the affair. The names include Charles Bone, Richard Courtney,  Irwin Kuhn, Waverly Crenshaw, Jerry Martin, Roy Neel, Gregg Ramos, Tom Negri, Katy Varney, Leigh Walton, Townes Duncan (reception host) and new Metro Council member Kristine LaLonde.  

Doug Henry is a political legend in Nashville. No one is running against him. In his opening YouTube video, Yabro (who comes across well on camera) merely says that while Senator Henry has served with distinction "it's time for a change." But is Yabro ready for prime time? He's already been asked by Jeff Woods of THE NASHVILLE SCENE (9/30), if he plans to step down from his job with the high-profile Bass, Berry & Sims law firm if he is elected so as to avoid any potential conflicts-of-interest. That's what Mike Stewart did when he was elected to the House and left his big law firm job.

But so far, according to Woods, all Yabro says is that he hasn't really thought about it, but he doesn't plan to step down. I predict that's a potential issue (at least for Woods) and Yabro will continue to hear about it throughout the campaign. The question is, will the Henry campaign or his surrogates make it an issue, especially since Senator Henry has served in the General Assembly for over four decades without ever taking his salary or per diem?   But Senator Henry may have some credibility issues as well, as party leaders say privately he has promised before (in re-election years) that he only wanted to serve one more term, yet he keeps running for office.     

Frankly, Democrats have been nervous about keeping Henry's seat for years. They made it more Democratic a few years back to keep Nashville Republican Representative Beth Harwell from taking it over. Now with the GOP a strong favorite to remain in control of both Houses come 2011 and 2012 (when the district lines are redrawn), Democratic party leaders have a concern they will be left in a less than competitive position should Henry get re-elected but have to vacate the office due to health or other reasons in the next couple of years. And so, there is a primary challenger placed, either to gently remind Senator Henry of the political situation (and get him to change his mind about running again), or to defeat him.

But beating Senator Henry won't be easy to do. Doug Henry is well-known, well-respected and well-loved by many of his constituents, including Republicans. Even some progressives like Metro Councilman Jason Holleman are sticking with him and declining to join the Yabro campaign. Media reports say Governor Phil Bredesen will be attending a major fundraiser being organized for Senator Henry next month, and I am sure the Senator's supporters are working hard to find a strong host committee list of their own.

Senator Henry has accomplished a lot in his political career and he still seems to have a lot on the ball. If his health holds, age or too much longevity in office won't be enough to defeat him. Meantime, you can be sure the Republicans are watching carefully to see if they have an opportunity here, especially if the primary race leaves the Democrats feuding.

 And with no runoff in a primary race, could there be other candidates now looking at jumping in the race for next August? And what about others in the political community who have fancied thoughts of succeeding Senator Henry one day: Will they decide their best opportunity to run and win will be if the Senator is re-elected, and therefore they won't help Yabro.    

  • 3. For the first time in the nearly 50-year history of Metro Government, an incumbent council member will face a recall election on November 12. 5th District representative Pam Murray lost her court case to stop the vote. A chancery judge rejected her arguments that the 1,000 signature petitions asking for her removal weren't valid. Now the organizer of the petition drive, attorney Jamie Hollin, will oppose her in the election. Murray, a second-term incumbent says there is nothing to the complaints against her. She claims this is just her opponents ganging up on her.

Ms. Murray has come under fire because she allegedly does not return phone calls and is often unavailable because she has a job in Detroit. She also tried to push through some unpopular zoning awhile back, a move that often has fatal consequences for council members. In fact, you can vote for tax increases all day and not bring out nearly the opposition that a hot zoning fight can generate.

Not returning phone calls is another huge no-no for council members. I remember one former council member who couldn't understand why she was getting such a bad reaction from constituents. She thought she was returning her calls, only to learn that because she wasn't cleaning out her voice mail box frequently enough, callers were being greeted with a message saying "This mailbox is full. Thanks for calling, goodbye" and hanging up on them! Talk about unhappy folks....no way to leave their messages, and the phone hung up in their faces!

The council member fixed her problem. The question is: will Pam Murray be that fortunate? Special elections, and especially who turns out to vote, are always difficult to predict. However, those opposed to Murray do seem to be more motivated right now, and that could make a difference, especially in a head-on-head race where the opposition to Murray won't be divided between candidates. The contest could also see race become a factor before it's over as well.

  • 4. Democrats and Republicans across the state have been watching the special election in House District 62 (to be held October 13) ever since Representative Curt Cobb stepped down in July to take a position as a court clerk in Bedford County. His brother, Ty Cobb, ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while businessman Pat Marsh easily won a somewhat crowded GOP primary field (and even got more votes than Cobb in a usually Democratic district that includes Bedford, Lincoln and a portion of Rutherford Counties).

With the State House split all but evenly between Republicans and Democrats, the change of one seat can make a big difference. Republicans feel their candidate has a chance because as one GOP partisan told me, "Pat Marsh can neutralize a lot of Democratic strength in some portions of that district." But Democrats still feel good about holding on to the seat. Governor Phil Bredesen has been on the stump to help Cobb and so have two prominent Nashville Democrats, House Minority Leader Gary Odom and Caucus Chair Mike Turner.

But what really has everyone buzzing is what happened to what could be a very important endorsement in the race. Tennessee Right to Life, the state's oldest and largest pro-life organization, has endorsed Cobb, saying in a news release that "Tennessee Right to Life has concluded that Ty Cobb has the stronger pro-life vision and voice."

The endorsement has seemed to stun, even anger some in the GOP, with one Republican source telling me the Tennessee Right to Life group has made a mistake that it will pay for in the future on Capitol Hill. But Tennessee Right to Life is not backing off. In fact, the group has sent out an action alert to its members now raising numerous questions about Pat Marsh and just how pro-life he is (or isn't)? Again, special elections are always tough to predict because it is hard to know exactly who will turn out to vote. But pro-life supporters are usually highly motivated and active. So if this endorsement fight in District 62 further motivates them, that could be a plus for Cobb. 

  • 5. Nashville's convention center project continues to build as a political issue in Nashville. Now there is a local group called Nashville's Priorities (with some fairly prominent people in its leadership) which plans to hold community meetings to make sure residents understand the project's costs and its impact on Metro's budget. While it may be hard for some to believe, the group says it is not necessarily against the center, but believes a delay for further study is in order.

Meanwhile, supporters of the convention center say it's not a question of choosing one priority over another, that the funds from special tourist-related taxes are in place and it's time to move ahead for a final vote on the project sometime in November or maybe December.   

But while the previous votes in the Metro Council have always been pretty lopsidedly in favor of the project (never less than 25 votes, usually 30 or more), there is a feeling a fight is now brewing. Why else has Gaylord Entertainment hired former deputy governor and political guru Tom Ingram to lobby this issue? Why has Gaylord contributed money to the Nashville's Priorities group?

On the other side, why has the Music City Center Coalition (the pro-convention center group) hired another former deputy governor Dave Cooley to head up its lobbying with Seigenthaler Public Relations handling the p.r.? And who is behind a recent telephone poll that was asking some rather negative questions about Gaylord?

Things like this don't happen unless folks think they need to be gearing up for a fight, even if it's just in case.

Then there is the convention center hotel, a very important component of the project, but something of a side matter until recently. However, it does now appear more and more likely Metro will be funding all or a large portion of the hotel's construction cost. That could push the total dollars required to pay for the full development to close to $1 billion. Can the tourist-related taxes Metro has in place fund the full financing for both the Center and the hotel?

Public hotel ownership (with some concerned the government would then be in competition with private industry) may also split off some of the support for the new convention center from the local hotel-motel industry. It already seems to be one of Gaylord's (Opryland Hotel) biggest concerns, along with the 1,000-room size of the convention hotel. The hotel financing is still far from certain (and the administration of Mayor Karl Dean says it prefers private hotel ownership if financing can be found).

This issue could also resurrect concerns about what happens if the hotel is not successful (as some in other cities have not been). Does Metro make up the difference with property taxes? What about sales taxes?  What about other city fees like those collected by codes or other departments? The Mayor has vowed no property taxes will ever be used for the center. He even placed that pledge in a recent state law. Will that also apply to the hotel?

Will the hotel's size become an issue? While Gaylord reportedly doesn't like a 1,000 room competitor being built, Metro's tourist and convention officials say the hotel must have 1,000 rooms or so to be effective.

What does the Dean administration say? The most recent comments by Finance Director Rich Riebeling seem to indicate no final decision has been made on what is the right size for the hotel. That interesting as Tom Ingram has been quoted as saying Gaylord and the Dean administration are having "a productive dialogue."  Are the size of the hotel and its public or private financing, a part of that dialogue?       

Add all this back into the still-pending council debate over the approval of a new nine-member Convention Center Authority which will build and operate the new facility, and you can see this is an issue that could become  a complicated  game of multi-dimensional political chess.

And just how much more time does the city have to make these decisions before it runs into a potential construction crunch in order to finish the new center and the hotel in time for the groups who've already booked the facilities for meetings and conventions in late 2013?

Mayor Karl Dean has made this project such an important issue that failure to get final council approval or a major delay in moving this matter forward could be a crippling blow going forward into the final two years of his first term as the city's chief executive.

  • 6. The May Town Center project: it's the ghost of Bell Bends, haunting residents and neighborhood activists all across the city for the past two years. Now the Metro Planning Commission is set to possibly reconsider its rejection of the development earlier this year with a vote set for October 12. This is the second time developer Tony Giarratana has sought a do-over. The first time, he withdrew the request at the last minute (because he didn't have the votes?). Now he has come back asking for a re-hearing because he says he has downsized the project.

But if that's the case, why not re-start the rezoning process all over again argue May Town opponents? They make a good point. If the Planning Commission allows this re-hearing based on downsizing the project, it will be setting a dangerous precedent, one that could make a mockery of the city's rezoning and sub-area planning process. If the revised May Town Center project has merit, it ought to go back through the whole rezoning process, no shortcuts.

Since the rejection of the first May Town Center plan, Mayor Dean has repeatedly said he prefers Nashville growing more from in-fill developments than by green field projects. Is that a hint to the Planning Commission and the Metro Council about May Town or even about a possible mayoral veto? Will the Mayor be more out front if this matter is revived?

So is it Maybe-Not Town or Maybe-So Town? After years of controversy, hearings, delays and re-births, it's time to make a final decision and move on.      

  • 7. Word that the Saturn car brand is headed for the scrap heap probably won't cause a lot of political controversy around here. We are way past that, especially since Saturn cars haven't been produced here for a few years now. But disappointment and nostalgia are certainly strong feelings I'll bet among folks in this area. We saw firsthand the excitement and promise of this "new kind of car company" back in the late 80s and early 1990 when General Motors had one of its few out-of-the-box ideas and created the brand. (Full disclosure: My firm, DVL Public Relations & Advertising was an agency of record when Saturn came to Tennessee and worked with the brand from the beginning through its second Homecoming event).

But GM wasn't really worthy of a concept like Saturn because it could never figure what to do with the brand or how to find a second act to follow on its very successful debut. Saturn quickly went from the fair-haired child to the red-headed step-child, and now it appears about to gone for good. If GM is too big to fail (and only exists today because of a bailout by the federal government), Saturn was something worth saving. Too bad it appears it won't be.      

  • 8. Here's one final reason I think everyone around here is a little cranky. Many of our major football teams are off to bad starts....and football in the fall is a religion around here for most folks. The Titans are 0-3, and leaving fans wondering how anyone saw a Super Bowl squad in the making during the pre-season.

After last year's bowl game victory and a winning season for the first time in 26 years, Vanderbilt is a disappointing 2-2, struggling on offense, and with so many injuries (and no bye week) you have to wonder who will be left to play by the end of the season? With a new coach, nobody really expected great things from Tennessee this season. And so far, that's about what they've gotten.

Meanwhile, all the teams still face the toughest parts of their schedules, and there is not that much to be optimistic about. Among area teams, only the followers of Middle Tennessee can feel good about where they are this season, especially their road win over Maryland (the second win in two seasons over the ACC Terps) and their victory over Memphis.

 Otherwise, everybody's cranky.

I guess that now includes President Barack Obama who suffered a rather embarrassing moment when the International Olympic Committee snubbed his unprecedented and high-profile efforts to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago. And to make it worse, the Windy City was the first of the finalists to be eliminated as Rio de Janeiro was chosen to be the first city in Latin America to host the Games.

I am sure the President hopes the vote counting in the Congress on health care is going better than his Olympic try. Add that into another unexpectedly large rise in jobs losses last month (with the national unemployment rate now at 9.8%, the highest in decades) and I am sure the President has had better weeks.

                                   

 INSIDE POLITICS

We plan to talk about several of the issues I've outlined above on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. That's also includes a look at the 2010 Tennessee Governor's race in both parties.

My guests are the dean of the Capitol Hill Press Corps, Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL and Ken Whitehouse of NASHVILLEPOST.com.

You can watch INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.  That includes both Comcast & Charter Cable channel 250 and NEWCHANNEL 5 Plus's digital over-the-air channel at 5.2 on the dial (do they still have dials on TV?)

Fridays (October 2)...........7:00 PM

Saturdays (October 3)......5:00 AM

Saturdays (October 3)......5:30 PM

Sundays (October 4).........5:00 AM

Sundays (October 4)........ 12:30 PM

I am sorry to announce that we no longer air at 5:00 AM on Sundays on the main channel (WTVF-TV).

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