Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 18, 2009 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 18, 2009



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

December 18, 2009


It's hardly been a December to remember for leaders of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Like Santa Claus delivering two lumps of coal as early Christmas "presents", the sudden retirements of the two senior members of the Tennessee Congressional delegation (John Tanner and now Bart Gordon) are stark reminders of what a gloomy election year 2010 is likely to be for Democrats here in the Volunteer State.

And while nobody is focusing on it much up here in Nashville, down in the 3rd District (Chattanooga area) all the Democratic candidates have dropped out of the open-seat congressional race there, ensuring continued GOP domination of that district which was last represented by a Democrat almost 16 years ago. That's 8 House election cycles.

In fact, while none of the four incumbent GOP Tennessee congressmen look like there will have a tough fight in 2010 (except maybe Phil Roe in his 1st District primary), all the Democratic seats (except for Jim Cooper's and Steve Cohen's) look like they will be in play, including Lincoln Davis in the 4th District, although geography and Davis' conservative voting record may help him win out again.     

Holding the governor's chair and a 5-4 majority in the state's congressional delegation have been about the only things Democrats could crow about politically the last few years, as first the State Senate and then the State House came under the control of the Republicans (the two U.S. Senate seats have been safely in GOP hands since 1994). Looking ahead the future seems even less optimistic for Democrats. They have a lackluster field of gubernatorial candidates and now, with the retirements of two of the party's long-time Congressmen, the ability of the Democrats to keep any major source of political power in the state seems pretty unlikely. That's especially true since the loss of the General Assembly means the GOP controls the state constitutional offices (Secretary of State, Comptroller, Treasurer) as well.

With State Senator Roy Herron running for Tanner's seat in the 8th District, I still like the Democrats' chances to keep that seat in 2010 (although it will be a tough fight). Gordon's seat is likely a lost cause. And frankly, with the Republicans redrawing the district lines in 2011 (after the U.S. Census) I believe the 8th District seat will go to the GOP as well come the 2012 elections, as the Republicans seek to further solidify their control of the federal and state government in Tennessee.  Here's another question to think about: Will Tennessee keep 9 congressional seats after the census? Or will the legislature be re-dividing the state into just 8 districts again?

The Gordon retirement has gotten quite a bit of national media, mostly because some reporters believe his exit is the beginning of a massive Democratic office holder defection similar to what happened before the Republican Revolution in 1994. So far, the numbers are not that big, and I am not sure in the case of Gordon and Tanner that the national reporters really fully appreciate the impact of the pending reappointment change coming in Tennessee in 2012, and how that may be impacting the retirement decisions here, perhaps in some ways even more than the popularity issues now facing the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration.

While both Congressmen Tanner and Gordon cited family concerns for why they are stepping away, I have to think redistricting played a major role in politics behind their decisions. I think both could have won re-election in 2010 (although they would have been in much tougher races than usual). Come 2012, I doubt they would recognize their districts, except to know their chances of winning again would be slim to none. So why not cut their losses and exit now? 

 It's not that easy for the State Democratic Party which is still looking for some way to stop the death spiral the party has been in (with the exception of Governor Phil Bredesen's races) in statewide races. Since 1994, Bredesen is the only Democrat to win a major office, while the stranglehold Democrats used to have on the legislative branch and the rest of state government is quickly becoming a memory.       


While much of the post-Bart Gordon retirement speculation has State Senator Jim Tracy as the leading GOP candidate to win the nomination for the congressional seat (with his colleague in the State Senate, Diane Black of Hendersonville now perhaps a co-front-runner since she has entered the race), some of my sources say not so fast.

And already you can see some in GOP circles may not like Senator Tracy. Why else do you see news stories surfacing about how he hasn't always voted in the GOP primaries? That is clearly an effort to hurt him with Republican activists who increasingly want their candidates to be without any taint, past or present, of being aligned in any way with Democrats.     

Even though there are now 6 GOP candidates announced for the 6th District race, some of my sources tell me a there is still another potential candidate to watch, if he decides to enter the Republican field. It is Shane Reeves, a long-time GOP activist, who is a pharmacist and runs a medical supply business. Reeves is the former President of the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce and he is also the son of a former mayor of Murfreesboro, Richard Reeves.

While he has what one source says is "impeccable Republican credentials" Reeves also has cross party appeal I am told and could neutralize some elements of the Democratic Party, especially in Rutherford County, while attracting independents to his cause. I am told there is an 80% chance Reeves will decide to run. He is due to make a decision in the next two weeks (maybe sooner given how many candidates already are in the field?).

I have also found some doubters that Reeves can compete in this large field, especially with Senators Tracy or Black due to his relative lack of name recognition and governmental experience. Of course, not being involved in government could be seen as a plus by some. J

This is a time for quick decisions with the primary election less than 8 months away. That's what makes the lack of any Democratic candidates jumping into the race so interesting and perhaps telling. As always, money and fund raising will be major keys to success and here some of the leading GOP candidates such as Senators Tracy and Diane Black along with some of the Democratic representatives eyeing the race such as Hank Fincher won't be at the disadvantage that some of their colleagues running for governor are. I have been told that apparently the ban on legislators raising money during session (which starts in less than a month) applies only to state races, not to federal campaigns.

Frankly, the one way the Republicans could lose in the 6th District would be a large and divisive primary. The large part is already apparent as former Rutherford County GOP Chair Lou Ann Zelenik (who is capable of self-financing her campaign) and political activist Dave Evans were already in the field even before Congressman Gordon made his decision to retire. Do they resent all the other candidates now jumping in? Will that impact the tone of the primary?

Even those who don't like his politics admit the absence of Bart Gordon in Congress will be a blow to his district and to the state in terms of lost political clout. Gordon was the only member of the delegation to chair a congressional committee (Science and Technology) and that his departure could spell trouble for some large institutions in the district such as Middle Tennessee State University.

And nobody else in the Tennessee delegation can make up the difference. The Republicans for now are out of power, while the remaining House Democrats (Cooper, Cohen, Davis) either lack the seniority or the favor of the powers-that-be to replace Gordon's clout.

Meantime it is interesting to watch the new lame-duck congressmen. Despite being Blue Dog fiscal conservatives, both Congressmen Gordon and Tanner voted in favor of the latest economic stimulus that just barely cleared the House (before the members cleared out of town for the holidays). In fact, given how close the final vote was, the margin of victory more or less came from our retiring Tennessee congressmen and one other lawmaker from another state who is also not running for re-election.

Would they have voted differently if they were seeking another term? I don't think anybody can say for sure, but you can be sure there will be still more controversial votes ahead (health care reform comes to mind if the Senate can ever find 60 votes for anything) as Gordon and Tanner serve their final year in office. Meantime, the new stimulus vote will be an additional issue for Republicans to try and use against Congressman Davis during the upcoming campaign.


We've been trying to book him to be on INSIDE POLITICS for a while, so our timing is pretty good to have State Republican Party Chair Chris Devaney as our guest this weekend (December 18-20). 

We'll be talking about everything relating to state (and some national) politics, from the Congress to the governor's race to control of the State Legislature. That includes where things stand about having State House Speaker Kent Williams re-admitted to the good graces of the GOP. And what about Republican GOP gubernatorial candidate and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam not disclosing his sources of income as the other candidates have done?

On the Kent Williams matter, here's something of a scoop. Chairman Devaney told me if the State Republican Executive Committee decides to take up the issue of re-admitting the Speaker, he would recommend it be done at a special meeting of the Executive Committee in April (not at the next regular meeting in March).

But an April session would likely be after the qualifying deadline for Williams to run for re-election, meaning there would be no way he could run as a Republican under any circumstances in 2010. On the other hand, Devaney says he is not seeking GOP candidates to take on Williams, so you can see handling this hot issue within the State Republican Party is a real balancing act for the GOP Chairman.  

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, which is on Comcast and Charter Cable Channels 250 as well as NewsChannel5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2

Here are our air times:

Fridays (December 18)……..7:00 PM

Saturdays (December 19)….5:00 AM

Saturdays (December 19)….5:30 PM

Sundays (December 20)…….5:00 AM

Sundays (December 20)……..12:30 PM 

The following weekend (Christmas weekend December 25-27) we will be presenting an encore showing of our interview earlier this year with Nashville author Lee Dorman concerning his history of NASHVILLE BROADCASTING. If you've lived in Nashville or grew up here, it is an excellent read that will bring back many memories about the TV and radio business in this town. And you will probably learn a few things you didn't know as well. While it won't re-air until Christmas Day, I strongly recommend the book as a great stocking stuffer for the Holidays.

Our plans for the following week (January 1-3, 2010) are still unclear. We are working on a potential interview with Congressman Gordon or perhaps a panel of state journalists to take a look back at 2009 and a look ahead for what 2010 holds. Stay tuned.


It seems pretty apparent that those opposing the construction of the new Music City Center convention facility downtown have not made much headway in turning around the Metro Council.

While the final decision isn't scheduled to be made until January 19, it appears Mayor Karl Dean and his supporters have the Council votes they will need for approval. So, looking to take the fight to a larger audience, the Nashville Priorities group, which is spearheading the opposition to the convention center, is launching a voter petition drive to try and convince the Council to postpone the matter until the public can have its say through a referendum (which would cost about $300,000 by the way). The hope is to gather at least 25,000 signatures.

Now let's be clear. This is not a similar situation to the vote we had back in the 1990s when Nashville built what is now LP Field. Given the different way this project is being funded (revenue bonds, not general obligation bonds), state law does not allow for a voter referendum on this. The Metro Charter apparently does allow for advisory votes, but I can never remember that happening over the past half-century, and I am doubtful this Council will seek to invoke that charter provision. Remember the Council has already indefinitely deferred a very similar effort by Councilman Eric Crafton to approve a charter amendment to require public votes on large $$$ civic projects.

 But while the votes to approve the new convention center remain in place, I can imagine that the Dean administration remains a bit nervous. The axiom in politics is: "When you have the votes, vote." While all of the council question and answer sessions, the community meetings and the January 11th city-wide public hearing are a necessary part of the process, delay can often be the enemy of approving pending legislation. I bet the Mayor and his chief advisors wish it was already January 19.

You can already sense some of the frustration and anger building up over this issue when you see reports on NASHVILLEPOST.COM (Ken Whitehouse) that one of the leaders of the pro-convention center forces, lobbyist and former Deputy Governor Dave Cooley, is trying to organize a petition drive of his own. The purpose would be to tell President Barack Obama not to appoint one of the leaders of the convention center opposition (Kevin Sharp) to the federal bench (he's applied for a vacancy). Temper, temper.  Does anybody think the President is paying any attention or really cares about the convention center battle down here?   

One other word about how many votes are needed for final council approval. Under the rules, ordinances must be approved on three readings and receive at least 21 votes on third and final reading. But the convention center legislation now before the Council is a resolution, not an ordinance. Believe it or not, resolutions don't require a 21 vote majority. There is just one vote, and as long as it gets more yes votes than no votes, a resolution is considered approved. That's true even though the convention center project is the largest public project undertaken in the history of Nashville.

I don't think it will come to this (because I believe there are more than 21 yes votes for the convention center proposal), but it is legally possible for it to be approved by a vote of 15-13, 20-18, 18-12 or even 1-0. It's a loophole in the rules that needs to be changed before the city embarrasses itself one day by approving some large expenditure that clearly lacks the support of a majority of the Council.  


Metro departments are getting nervous. They know that the city's budget kickoff for the next fiscal year (beginning July 1, 2010) is just a few weeks away. They can tell from their current financial situation and from watching what is going on at the state that next year's budget may be even leaner.

So it is surprising to see Finance Director Rich Riebeling be somewhat critical of Metro Library officials for beginning some advance planning on how the department would handle additional cuts of up to 3%, 5% and 10%. It's not a pretty picture. But perhaps Library Board members remember what happened to their colleagues on the Parks & Recreation Board and how they were criticized (again by the Dean administration) for not being more hands-on with their budget last year, allowing the Parks budget to go deep into the red.

So who can really blame the Library Board for trying to be prepared? Sure it may not be the message in the media that the Dean crew wants to see and hear, especially when the convention center project is still hanging in the fire in the Council.  But whether the convention center is approved or not Metro's budget chickens are going to start coming home to roost in January regardless. 


Speaking of chickens coming home to roost in January, Governor Phil Bredesen has called the General Assembly into special session next month. It seems that to qualify for a multi-million dollar federal grant program (Race To The Top) the state needs to change its laws to make teachers more accountable for the progress their students make in test scores, and the state needs to be involved earlier with local school systems that are sliding into failure.  

The deadline to get all these law changes done is pretty tight. Tennessee must submit its application to the feds for the grant (noting we have changed our laws) just a week after the special session begins. Can our lawmakers make that quick a turn, especially with the teacher's union, the Tennessee Education Association, openly unhappy about the changes? Well, I don't hear any of the leadership in either house objecting (so far), including the Democrats who have long considered TEA one of their political allies.

The Governor is making it clear that Tennessee is making these education changes to comply with federal mandates laid out by President Barack Obama and his administration. If we don't do it, we will likely miss out on tens of millions of dollars the state needs says the Governor. The TEA (and its national counterpart NEA, the National Education Association) have been big supporters of the new President. One comment the Governor made during his news conference about the special session seem to give a veiled hint that if teachers don't like these changes, they should blame the Obama administration, not the State of Tennessee.

The Governor called the Obama administration "the most liberal administration of my adult lifetime." Not too hard to read between the lines there, although I guess the Governor must have been a teenager (or in suspended animation) during the 1960s during the very liberal Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson.  J


This is likely my last CAPITOL VIEW column for 2009. For a year without any scheduled elections, it's been a heck of 12-month period politically. That's especially true here in Tennessee, where we began 2009 with a big surprise, the controversial choice of Kent Williams as State House Speaker, and then ended the year with another round of surprises with the political fruit basket turnover caused by the recent congressional retirements.

In between, there were a few scandals and a resignation or two on the Hill. 2009 saw a state legislative session dominated more by where permit holders could take their guns (parks, bars, restaurants) than how to deal with the state's deepening financial crisis. Both issues promise major encores when lawmakers return in 2010.

Then there were the major local controversies that were ultimately resolved (the voter rejection of English-Only in Nashville and the demise of the massive May Town Center proposal). We also saw the passing from the scene of many long time leaders in our city (Nelson Andrews, Monroe Carroll, Eddie Jones, Dan Miller, Tommy Burnett to name just a few). And throughout the year, the new convention center project continued to grow in controversy. Its fate awaits the New Year.

On both the national and state level, 2009 was a very tough year economically, and while things look a bit better for 2010, unemployment is still way too high and credit way too tight to see much an economic recovery coming anytime soon.  Still the attraction of new industries like the VW plant in Chattanooga and the solar power facilities near Clarksville give promise to the future.

And of course, there's the first year of President Barack Obama in Washington. A virtual whirlwind of activity on so many fronts, it still remains hard to fully evaluate his successes or failures so far, especially when Washington continues to be a place where change always seems to go to die. One ominous sign for the new President, his job rating numbers continue to fall, and that can't be good for him or his party as the mid-term elections loom next year.

Regardless of how things went to 2009….here's hoping 2010 is much better!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and here's to great New Year!

The next CAPITOL VIEW column will be Friday, January 8.

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