Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 4, 2009 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 4, 2009



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

December 4, 2009


With his sudden retirement announcement, long-time 8th District U.S. Congressman John Tanner has created a political earthquake whose tremors are being felt, not only in his West Tennessee district, but throughout the Volunteer State. That includes a major change in the candidate roster for the Democratic primary for Governor next year which is also finally giving the race what appears to be a clear frontrunner in Mike McWherter, the son of the former governor.

In fact, Tanner's retirement politically may be the biggest seismic shock in his area since Reelfoot Lake was formed back in 1811 as a part of a violent earthquake that saw the Mississippi River flow backwards for days to form that unique body of water.  

Already it has State Senator Roy Herron jumping out the Democratic primary for Governor and moving quickly into the race to replace Tanner. Herron, who says he has wanted to run for Congress for many year, put together a gubernatorial campaign which has shown good fund raising abilities and a strong overall organization which helped it win several straw votes across the state. That would seem to make Herron the early front runner in this new congressional race. But he and his team now must approach things a little differently.

First, there is the nearly one million dollars Herron claims he has already raised for his gubernatorial campaign. The Senator says he plans to offer donors their money back, if they want it. But you can be sure he would love to have many of them say keep the funds for the congressional effort. That money is one of biggest things Herron has going for him as he begins his new campaign.

Money talks in politics and a large campaign war chest (especially this late in the primary election cycle) could also help discourage those other prominent Democrats in the district who are probably also being urged to  jump in the race. A list compiled by Ken Whitehouse of included a real all-star cast including State Senator Lowe Finney (who now says he won't run), State Representatives Jimmy Nafieh, Judy Barker, Craig Fitzhugh, Mark Maddox, former representatives Phillip Pinion and Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman.

Congressional seats don't come open in Tennessee very often. So chances are Herron may not be successful in having an unopposed primary. The question is can a political blood bath be avoided? That seems to be on the mind of the outgoing Congressman as well. Tanner told Ken Whitehouse (12/2): "My only interest is that we don't have a divisive primary. Let's see who wants to run and then sit down in January and sort it all out."

Good luck with that, Congressman. I would say you'd have better luck in your negotiations in heading up that NATO parliamentary assembly in which you are now serving than trying to broker this election very much. Although some might speculate that Tanner's late exit from a potential re-election race has already brokered these races to some extent (to help Herron and Mike McWherter?).

Meantime the Republicans need to take a chill pill. Yes, the Tanner retirement gives them the best chance they've ever had to take this congressional seat, if not in 2010, surely in 2012 when the lines will be re-drawn likely by a Republican Tennessee General Assembly. But to suggest (as the national GOP did) that Tanner got out because he feared defeat at the hands of current GOP candidate, farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher, is laughable. John Tanner is an institution in his district, and the district is still a Democratic one (look at all the Democratic officials listed above as folks who might look at running for his seat).

While Fincher has shown some fundraising capabilities, to use a popular phrase in this state, John Tanner would likely have beaten him like a rented mule next November. The real question is, now that the seat is open will other prominent GOP leaders in the 8th District look at jumping in the race?        


The Tanner retirement decision has done more to bring some form and clarity to the Democratic gubernatorial primary battle than nearly a year of campaigning.

Jackson businessman Mike McWherter is clearly the big winner, with Senator Herron's withdrawal making him the clear front runner now, as well as opening up lots of new potential voter and financial support for McWherter in rural West Tennessee.

It's bad news for Senator Jim Kyle who had clearly been hoping that Herron and McWherter would split that vote, and he would benefit from the likely rock-em, sock-em congressional primary in Memphis between incumbent Steve Cohen and former Memphis Mayor Willie Herrington. Now with the legislative ban on fund raising looming with the beginning of the session, Kyle may have to make some tough decisions (resign from office so he could still raise funds?) about whether to stay in.

While likely unrelated to the Tanner fallout, Republican businessman-turned Democratic candidate Ward Cammack has also terminated his gubernatorial campaign, which has been a dead man walking effort for months.

That leaves former House Majority Leader and former gubernatorial (Governor Phil Bredesen) aide Kim McMillian as the only other candidate left in the race with some chance to emerge as at least the alternative to McWherter. But can she get the money and support to do it? Or will there now be another late-entry Democrat join the field (perhaps someone more on the conservative side) especially since some Democrats still complain to me privately that while Mike McWherter has greatly improved as a candidate in recent months, he can never be his father.

Or is Ken Whitehouse on to something when he closed his article (12/3) by quoting an unidentified "well heeled Herron donor" who said when asked who he will support now, said: "I'm going to listen to the first person who calls me, but I might start up a chapter of Democrats for Bill Haslam?" Ouch!

That remains the number one problem for the Democrats. While their race for Governor now finally has some form and clarity, it still lacks very much enthusiasm.   


 After talking about it and promising for over a year it was coming, the administration of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has finally presented a financing plan to build the new Music City Center convention hall downtown. But it still doesn't contain any financing for an adjoining convention center, and that is leaving some council members to say they feel left "in limbo." 

As I mentioned in THE TENNESSEAN a few days ago, watching the Mayor the last few weeks has been like watching a general marshaling his forces for the final battle. First, there was the effort to cut costs in the project, including using special financing bonds as a part of the federal stimulus program that would cost debt service needs by $5 million a year. Then there was a new independent financial feasibility study released which says Metro will have the funds to pay for the project from the new visitor taxes it has imposed.

Then came the "X Factor" I mentioned in this column a few weeks ago: a new first-of-its-kind Medical Mart to provide a use for the current convention center, while also generating new jobs, and potentially lots of new visitors and hotel room nights as the Medical Mart would be like having a medical equipment service convention in town on a near permanent basis.

While the Medical Mart project is still somewhat speculative (and two other cities, Cleveland and New York are seeking to build ones too), no wonder Mayor Dean wants to play this card to continue to hold and build his support in the Council. And from early impressions it appears to be working in terms of the jobs it will generate. The tax numbers in terms of new room nights from the Medical Mart are still too speculative to be included in the city's financial projections.

Now with the final financing package unveiled you would think the project would be a lock to be approved, and it probably is. But the continued uncertainty about the adjoining convention hotel especially how it would be funded, continue to leave some council members with uneasiness.

On INSIDE POLITICS this week, we take a look at the convention center debate from several angles. First, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling joins us to talk about the new financing plan for the center and hopefully an update on the hotel. Then, Allen Hovious of the group NASHVILLE PRIORITIES, which has been raising a lot of questions about the convention center proposal, will then join the discussion to give his group's perspective. Finally, some members of the Metro Council (Emily Evans, Jim Forkum),which will make the final decision sometime in January, will give their thoughts and views on where matters stand and how the debate will develop moving forward.

For now, it seems to me the Mayor still likely has the votes he needs to get the convention center approved, but this continued uncertainty about the hotel (and now even the need for the hotel to make the project successful) is likely to continue to cause council members some heartburn. Now Mayor Dean says he wants a hotel, and that, if financial market conditions improve, he might be able to bring a privately funded proposal to the Council sometime next year. Given the lesser time it will take to build the hotel versus the convention center, it might therefore still be possible that both facilities could open at the same time, which convention and tourist experts have always recommended as a best practice in developments like these.

Finance Director Rich Riebeling says if there had to be a hotel right now, it would have to be publicly financed and that seems to have way too much political baggage to move forward right now. Besides, it is pretty clear Metro flat does NOT have any way to finance a hotel within its current tax revenue streams. 

Frankly, I found it stunning that the city's financing plan estimates that even without a new hotel, the city's tourism taxes will generate a near 10% surplus almost every year as a cushion against hard times  to pay off the annual debt service on the center. Looks for opponents of the center, in both the council and the public to question those numbers, and look for the NASHVILLE'S PRIORITIES group to raise their volume of discussion particularly about obtaining the studies and other core documents the city is using to justify its financial numbers. NASHVILLE'S PRIORITIES says it has asked for such documents, but so far, hasn't received anything, even after filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act. 

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It's a Tennessee tradition that occurs every eight years.

When a governor reaches the end of his second term, and can't seek re-election, his cabinet members slowly begin to leave. For Governor Phil Bredesen, it's now the Corrections Commissioner who has announced he will resign effective the end of the year. Earlier, it was the Education Commissioner.

Given the short amount of time left in his term, it is unlikely the Governor will seek permanent replacements, rather letting those second in command take over the ship for the final few months remaining. I asked the Governor about that recently and he said his team has worked hard to make sure they have strong, capable folks in those assistant commissioner positions, people who can take care of business. In the case of Corrections, he seems to be right as Deputy Commissioner (and former Nashville Sheriff) Gayle Ray has been elevated to Commissioner.

Let's hope he's right about strong leadership in assistant commissioner level in the rest of state government. Given the current financial condition of the state, and the likely deep budget and service cuts yet ahead, this will be unlike any other final year of a state administration, which is usually pretty much status quo, with little or no change ahead.

There is likely to be a lot of change ahead for Tennessee government in 2010, and almost nothing will be status quo or easy.

Our number-twos will definitely have to try harder.


After months of meetings and apparently some personal soul searching, President Barack Obama has decided to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and try to get our NATO allies to send a few thousand more as well.

The idea is to have a troop surge (smaller in size, but similar to what happened in Iraq) with the extra forces cleaning out the Taliban and Al Queda there while we train the Afghans to protect themselves. And if that is successful, we could begin bringing our troops home in 18 months (sometime in mid-2011).

Now I have no idea if this will work even as well as it did in Iraq. I do remember nobody (except President Bush) thought the surge would work, until it did. So it's not surprising to see the usual political suspects on both sides of the aisle be critical of the President's proposal. Public opinion generally is against continuing this war which is now well into its 9th year.

So far it seems our NATO allies are giving the President the best reception. They like President Obama (especially as compared to President Bush), but due to public opinion in their countries, they don't feel they can send a lot of troops. However several nations do seem to be stepping up, and the level of criticism of the plan from NATO leaders seems pretty low (especially as compared to what President Obama is getting from members of his own party and some Republicans).

But what must really have President Obama shaking his head is a headline and op-ed piece I saw in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (12/2). The headline read "Obama Can Win In Afghanistan", and the op-ed is written by Karl Rove. That's right, the Darth Vader of recent Republican national politics, the architect of much of the GOP success in the early part of this decade, a man Democrats love to hate, is saying some nice things about the President's strategy. Go figure.

When I was in Mayor Fulton's office we used to joke that we pretty much knew who in the Metro Council would be against whatever we proposed. Whenever one of those council members fooled us, and voted our way, we were happy, of course. But it also made go back again, one more time, and look  at our legislation to make sure we weren't missing something. 

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