Capitol View Commentary: May 16 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: May 16

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations

May 15, 2008

I don't remember exactly when I first met long-time Metro Vice-Mayor David Scobey, who died May 11 at the age of 85. But it was probably in the early 1970s when I was just out of college and began working for WDCN-TV as host of its live coverage of the Metro Council meetings.

It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship as I introduced the Vice-Mayor twice a month to begin the Council meetings between 1973 and 1985 (although often I had to keep talking and talking about the upcoming meeting to give the Vice Mayor time to end the last committee meetings so the full council session could begin). The Council broadcast became known by some as "Tuesday Night Live" and I must admit it occasionally took on some of the comedic overtones of that popular Saturday late-night program.

The Council was full of characters in those days. Dr. Richard Adams, Bud Hill, Ludye Wallace, Earl Shacklett, Dude Reasoner, Bill McPherson, Billy Spain, and the list could go on. But David Scobey always managed to keep the Council on task and, most of the time, on some kind of a schedule (even though the first public hearing we covered at then-Channel 2 (now Channel 8) had so many hot zoning issues the meeting did not end until 1:45 AM).

For nearly a quarter of a century, from 1971 to 1995, David Scobey set the standard by which all past, present and future Nashville Vice-Mayors will be judged. A charter member of the Council, serving two terms as a Councilman-At-Large from 1963 to 1971, he knew parliamentary procedure backward and forward, and he really knew how to run a meeting. Unlike a predecessor, who sometimes tried to encourage politicians to talk (a dangerous thing to do if you ever want to get anything done), Vice-Mayor Scobey was always ready to help conduct the debate, fairly enforce the rules, take a vote and then move on to the next order of business.

I always thought his training and work as a college football and basketball official had a lot to do with how well David Scobey controlled the Council. And it wasn't easy. Remember what Mayor Beverly Briley said of that body: They were like 40 jealous ladies of the evening (the Mayor actually used a slightly different word for ladies of the evening). But for years, Vice-Mayor Scobey was so good at what he did, he rarely had to raise his voice and his rulings were rarely, if ever, challenged (even when his went head-to-head with Councilman Wallace, who was his most persistent challenger). Everyone seemed to know what was expected and they did it his way. And when he did call someone down or raise his voice slightly, council members often reacted like scolded children.

David Scobey didn't do these things because he was mean or because he had his own agenda. But he was always his own man and he saw the Council as an independent body. He was a champion of the Council hiring its own Lawyer and Staff Director, instead of relying on advice from the Metro Legal Director or the Finance Director, who were appointed by the Mayor. He wasn't afraid to back those in the Council who wanted to re-do a city bid process (like the Council did in the early ‘80s on building the Criminal Justice Center) or re-write a Mayor's budget if they thought it needed changing or lower a requested tax increase if it appeared too high.  That happened on a couple of occasions under Mayor Fulton and earlier under Mayor Briley. But Vice-Mayor Scobey was always involved in a way that never made the confrontation a personal or a political one between whomever was Mayor and himself.

He was often rumored as a possible mayoral candidate, but he always seemed content with his job as Vice-Mayor. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with him while I was in Mayor Fulton's office, including on a property tax increase that was approved by the Council in 1985. As a CPA, Vice-Mayor Scobey was a very fiscally conservative politician, but he came to see the wisdom of downtown redevelopment efforts like the convention center, Riverfront Park and Union Station (although it took a trip to St. Louis to show how successful a similar effort was in that city to get him fully on board for that project. Seeing a couple of Cardinal baseball playoff games didn't hurt either J).

Scobey set tough decorum standards not only for council members, but also members of the audience and the media. When large groups showed up to oppose or support a zone change, he would quickly gavel down any demonstrations or loud applause when people spoke at the public hearing. As for the media, once, back in the mid-1970s, in the early days of live news coverage, one of my Channel 5 colleagues, Don Dare, was doing his report for the 10 PM News in the back of the chambers not far from where the Council was seated.  Don never did anything in a quiet voice and the Vice Mayor thought he was disturbing the meeting. After failing to get Don's attention to quiet down, Scobey sent the police officer acting as the sergeant-at-arms to physically remove him. So ended Don's memorable broadcast, telling a chuckling Chris Clark live on the air that this was the end of his report because he was headed off to jail (but he wasn't ever jailed). The clip was saved by Channel 5 and used for awhile to promote the immediacy of its live news coverage. It also became a part of the station's outtake reel. Over 30 years later, it is still hilarious and it has led reporters ever since (including me) to lower their voices and make sure any live reports are made in the far back of the council chambers or outside on the Courthouse plaza.       

In Scobey's later years in office, especially during the Boner administration and the debate over the location of a new landfill, the Council began to change and I think it concerned him. No longer was it a group that could have a vigorous debate, even strong disagreement, but still be friends afterwards and go out for a bite to eat. Instead the Council became divided, members were personally unfriendly with each other, single-issue oriented, my way or the highway.   

Because of term limits, our community is now denied the opportunity to benefit from the long-term public service contributions that someone like David Scobey brought to Metro. His passing also reminds us we are also slowly losing the last of our Founding Fathers and Charter members of the Metro Council: the men and women who did so much to create a government that has served our community so well for over 45 years.   

STATE OF METRO

Mayor Karl Dean got his first chance to give a State of Metro speech on May 13.

He's had a lot on his plate since coming to office eight months ago, including financial challenges that are causing the city (like the state) to lay off several employees and cut back on a number of capital projects.

But, as usually happens, Mayors find ways in their State of Metro speeches to accentuate the positive. For Mayor Dean, that would include plans to build Metro's own DNA crime lab, fully staff the police department for the first time in five years, place three new ambulances on the streets and fully fund the school budget. You'll notice these areas, along with economic development (jobs), were the Mayor's priorities when he campaigned for office last year. Despite limited resources, he's continuing on that track, but now also adding a commitment that Metro move forward to become a better environmental steward of its resources.

But it was Metro Schools that dominated the Mayor's remarks. With the possibility of the state having to take over the entire local public school system in the next two years if Metro's No Child Left Behind test scores don't improve, Mayor Dean seemed to be giving the community a pep talk that we are capable of solving this issue if everyone does their part and we think outside the box.

He didn't outline any new master plan in this area, but he did announce that Nashville has been selected to participate in an Alternative High School Initiative program led by the National League of Cities (with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that will provide more options to Metro high school students (and hopefully keep them in school and improve their test scores). The Mayor also wants to do more to recruit teachers to Nashville and he plans to fund an Attendance Center in his next budget, where officials of the Juvenile Court will work with truant cases to help keep them from becoming permanent dropouts. Strangely, he never mentioned the importance of hiring a new Director of Schools, a topic that has dominated news headlines and a good bit of the Mayor's and the School Board's time the last few months.  

Overall, the Mayor says the State of Metro is "good." But it's clear there are lots of issues ahead, especially what happens next year when Mayors have (at least for the last decade or so) gone for tax increases right after countywide property reappraisals. That could mean a real selling job ahead, because such an effort would likely require a voter referendum (and a special election, since there are no scheduled votes to be held locally during 2009). Mayor Dean may also have to convince some parts of the public he isn't going back on a campaign pledge not to raise during his term.  

There was one curious thing that occurred during the Mayor's remarks: a sportscast broke out. Mayor Dean went through a litany of all the professional and amateur sports accomplishments of the past year. He mentioned everyone except the city's professional baseball team, The Nashville Sounds. The Mayor has been in something of a feud with the ball club in recent weeks after it went to the General Assembly to get public funding for a new local stadium without the Mayor's blessing. The Mayor did later mention baseball, talking about a future walk along Nashville's riverfront where visitors might hear the applause of a crowd during an afternoon doubleheader. But again, there was no mention of the Sounds. Translation: Mayor Karl Dean is still a baseball fan and supports a riverfront baseball stadium, just maybe not with the current Sounds ownership. Jeff Diamond, the Sounds' new lobbyist, sure has his work cut out for him.

INSIDE POLITICS

This weekend's program (May 16-18) focuses on the founding of Metro government 45 years ago. My guests are two of our city's founding fathers, Tandy Wilson, a charter member of the original Metro Council back in 1963 and Charlie Warfield, a member of the Charter Commission that wrote the constitution we still live by for local government in Nashville.

How Metro came into being is quite a remarkable story. It involved not one, but two public referendums. I won't tell the whole story here (watch the show for that), but let's just say that when it appeared everyone was for the proposed Metro Charter, it failed. And when there was controversy and opposition, that's when it passed. And, believe it or not, we are still arguing over some of the same issues that divided those who put together our charter nearly a half century ago (i.e., how to select the School Board and how large should the Metro Council be).

You can see INSIDE POLITICS every weekend on the NewsChannel5 Network. Friday evenings (May 16) we are on NewsChannel5 Plus, Comcast Channel 50 at 7:00 PM. Saturdays (May 17) we are again on the Plus at 5:00 AM and 5:30 PM. Sunday mornings (May 18) we are on the main channel (WTVF-TV, Channel 5 ) at 5:00 AM as well as on the Plus channel at that same time. We air the program one final time on the Plus at 12:30 PM Sunday afternoon.

THE STATE

Budget prospects continue to be less than sunny on the other end of Deaderick Street as state government, and more specifically Governor Phil Bredesen and the members of the General Assembly, are struggling with how to balance a budget for the coming fiscal year that is at least over $450 million dollars out of whack. And things could be getting worse. April state tax collections were the worst on record.

The Governor outlined his ideas about what to cut in a speech to lawmakers on May 12. But frankly, he didn't tell them a whole lot more than what he shared with reporters a few days earlier (and which we outlined in our last column). That seemed to disturb some legislative leaders. Some want to take a two week recess before final budget approval to give the Governor more time to finalize and explain his plans, especially the buyout or layoff of up to 2,000 state workers. Others want to dip into the state's "rainy day" reserve fund on a one-time basis to buy more time.

But it is highly unlikely the Governor will want to go along with any of these ideas. And, frankly, lawmakers are all but out of time to finish their legislative session (unless they want to meet without getting paid) so they may have little choice but to go along with what the Governor wants to do, and let him take all the blame (or credit, if there is any). As this column is being written what will happen remains unclear.

The biggest concern, of course, is the buyout or layoff of up to 2,000 state workers. The Governor wants to soften the blow by first offering a voluntary buyout plan for folks to leave. But exactly how that will work (how much money will be offered, what about continuing health insurance benefit and offering tuition help if folks want to go back to school) remains unknown (and hence the source of legislative frustration).

We do know this. The Governor plans to use $50 million in state reserves for his buyout plan, which will be targeted first to the 6,000 state workers who are already eligible to take retirement. Others who will be targeted for the buy outs include those will be designated as employees whose jobs are basically non-essential, i.e., the state can get rid of their jobs and not have to re-hire anyone. So just who are those people? And why, some lawmakers ask, are they on the state payroll in the first place? What about the thousands of vacant, but fully funded positions, already in the state budget? Why not get rid of those before offering buyouts or layoffs?  

If not enough folks take buyouts, there will clearly have to be layoffs. And from what the Governor has outlined, it is pretty clear those at greatest risk of layoffs are workers deemed non-essential along with those eligible for retirement (although age discrimination regulations and civil service rules also come into play). But no matter how it's done, you can see why lawmakers have concerns.

The Governor says it will at least early June before he is ready to talk about all the details of his buyout/layoff plan, and the end of July before it is fully implemented. Lawmakers probably can't wait that long, so that's another reason some of them continue to talk about helping remaining state workers with a one-time bonus, especially since a planned across the board pay raise has been axed. A bonus has been done in the past, but that was in better economic times and when state workers weren't faced with layoffs. So the Governor is opposed to such an idea. But lawmakers, many faced with running for re-election later this year, may feel otherwise. So would the Governor feel strongly enough to use his line-item veto on that part of the budget?

There's a lot up in the air as the General Assembly approaches its final days. Democrats and Republicans continue to fight over how to divvy up the lottery surplus, especially about whether to spend any of it for K-12 construction projects or keep it all for various college scholarships. It looks like judicial reform will be delayed until next year, meaning the current judicial selection process will begin to go through a sunset process over the next year. Retiring Senator and former Lt. Governor John Wilder has always been a great champion of the current modified Missouri process of selecting appellate and Supreme Court justices. But the current Speaker of the Senate, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, and Governor Bredesen, for different reasons, want some changes in that process. It all left Wilder as a rather pitiful figure in his final hours in office, the once powerful lawmaker pleading to no avail for his colleagues to continue the selection process as it is.       

IT'S ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTING...

As we predicted in our last column, Senator Hillary Clinton won big (with close to 70% of the vote) in the West Virginia presidential primary. She's likely to win again May 20 in Kentucky.

But it's really all over for her campaign. What she gained in terms of delegates in West Virginia barely makes up for what she's lost in terms of super delegates either making up their minds or switching over to support her opponent, Senator Barack Obama (although Senator Clinton did pick up one more Tennessee super delegate recently).  

To make matters even worse for Clinton, less than 24 hours after her smashing West Virginia victory, she lost an endorsement she dearly wanted and needed to keep her campaign alive. While former presidential rival John Edwards' support does have the political clout it might have carried a few weeks back, it is dispiriting for Clinton, and a boost for Obama, not only in possibly picking up a few more delegates that were pledged to Edwards, but giving Obama a strong new ally to reach out to the blue collar, working class voters he has yet to enlist to his cause.  

Looking ahead Senator Obama is likely to win the other primary being held May 20 in Oregon. And he now leads Clinton in every category you can measure: primaries and caucuses won, the popular vote,  elected delegates, super delegate support, and, of course, in money raised (Clinton is well over $20 million in the red).

But Senator Clinton is still talking about her advantage in electabilty, despite poll numbers that show her with very high negative like/dislike numbers. She does continue to do a good job of exposing Obama's weakness among blue collar men and women voters. And she has won in several of the large, electoral vote-rich battleground states the Democrats need to carry this fall. There has been some talk about Senator Clinton withdrawing from the race on a positive note after wining West Virginia or Kentucky. But it appears to me, as I've said before, she plans to stick it out until the last delegate is selected and last caucus vote taken. She may even push to change the finish line (how many delegates are needed to get the nomination) when national Democratic party leaders meet later this month to decide what to do about seating delegations from Michigan and Florida, states that violated party rules and held their primaries too early.

Everywhere you look, especially if you analyze the three most recent special Congressional elections, it seems to clearly be a strong Democratic year, with its candidates winning in districts that have long been Republican strongholds. But, if you look at the exit polls from the most recent presidential primaries, you see something different. Voters for Clinton and Obama saying if their candidate isn't chosen, they'll stay home or vote for likely GOP nominee, Senator John McCain.

There are some theories out there that Clinton is continuing to push her effort to leave herself in a strong position to be the Democratic nominee in 2012 if Obama fails in the fall. But if the Democrats blow this opportunity to win the White House, I think there will be so much blame to go around, anybody involved with this year's campaigns will be big time damaged goods for any future race. For every week she stays in the race (and keeps any intra-party healing process from beginning), Senator Clinton likely heightens the chance that she will receive the greatest amount of that blame if things go down the tubes for the Demos this fall.

As for now, Senator Obama and his campaign are smartly taking the high road and do nothing overtly to force Senator Clinton to withdraw. He is campaigning like a general election candidate. That includes sending his spouse here to Nashville (may 15) to raise some campaign funds (nothing like the 37205 zip code for both political partiesJ).

Unfortunately, taking the high road is not always true with all of Obama's supporters, including Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen. Cohen was quoted in an ABC News story (May 12) as telling a local TV reporter that Clinton was similar to "the Glenn Close character in (the movie) "Fatal Attraction-a spurned woman turned stalker who was apparently drowned in a bathtub only to jump up one more time to be shot dead."

"Glenn Close should have stayed in that tub, and Senator Clinton has had a remarkable career and needs to move on to the next step, which is helping elect the Democratic nominee," said Cohen, who later, not surprisingly, apologized.     

 AN INTERESTING RUMOR

There's been some speculation recently about whether Bill Frist or Lamar Alexander are among those being considered as a possible vice-presidential running mate for John McCain. For several reasons, I don't think it's likely they'd be selected. But I thought I'd pass along another very interesting rumor...I said rumor...that is reportedly making its way through some of the highest levels of state government.

Let's say the Democrats win the White House in November and the new President is looking to fill the cabinet. For the Department of Health and Human Services, what about Governor Bredesen, who has long and deep health care experience from his time in both the public and private sectors? 

Of course, going to Washington means the Governor must resign from office, making Lt. Governor (and Republican State Senator) Ron Ramsey the state's chief executive to serve out the rest of Bredesen's term of office. It would also make Ramsey a de-facto incumbent running for "re-election" in 2010. So does former Majority Leader Senator Bill Frist (now the acknowledged front-runner in this race if he runs) make a primary challenge against Ramsey? What about Congressman Marsha Blackburn, Congressman Zack Wamp or the Mayor of Knoxville?

Some pretty juicy speculation, huh? Is it likely to happen?  I doubt it, but who knows? First, the Democrats have to win the presidency this fall. Would either Obama or Clinton really want Bredesen? His experience in health care is quite different from the kind of national health care plans they have both outlined on the campaign trail. And what Breseden has done with TennCare is still anathema to some of the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party. And while this may be the Governor's best chance to get to Washington any time soon, would Bredesen want to be in a job where he is really not the total boss?

What about the Democrats? The yellow dogs would scream bloody murder if the Governor resigned and handed over the office to the GOP. It would clearly put the Democrats at a disadvantage in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

So while somewhat plausible, I can see lots of reasons to believe this just won't happen. But doesn't it make for some interesting gossip, while we're waiting for the General Assembly to finally finish its work and go home.

THE SENATE RACE

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Tuke may seem to be paying incumbent GOP Senator Lamar Alexander quite a compliment. Just like Alexander did in his successful 1978 gubernatorial campaign, Tuke is embarking on a walk across Tennessee.

But Tuke hopes to use the walk not to flatter Alexander in any way. Rather, he says in a campaign e-mail: "It's been 30 years since a candidate walked the State to ask Tennesseans from all three Grand Divisions what their most pressing concerns might be. That candidate from 30 years ago appears to have forgotten how to ask that question; he seems to have lost touch with everyday Tennesseans."

Tuke also hopes to draw a contrast between Alexander's trademark red plaid shirt that he wore on his trek and the Marine combat boots Tuke is wearing on his journey. I am not sure how important an issue Alexander being a non-veteran will play in this race, but Tuke seems to think so, saying, "Our nation is fighting two wars now and we need at least one more Senator who has fought in combat and understands the difficulty of ending the war with minimal casualties and maximum honor."

And with rising gas prices becoming the major issue of the moment, Tuke says his journey will help him focus attention on the beauty and majesty of Tennessee, adding: "Tennesseans need a Senator who will look to develop alternative energy sources so we can break our dependence on foreign oil and strip-mined coal."

So will a walk across the state help Tuke? Well, it may have been 30 years since someone walked across the state as a part of a political campaign, but it's been done a lot nationally and I am just not the sure the public or the media will find it all that fascinating anymore. Besides, First Lady Andre Conte did it to raise awareness for one of her causes not too long ago (and got a fair amount of publicity). So is it too soon to try something like that again?

But why not do it? Tuke does need something to draw attention to his efforts and build his name recognition and he's not likely have the money to do it the more conventional way, with TV ads and direct mail pieces.

It is, however, going to take quite a bit of time, and there are a lot of highways and byways in Tennessee where frankly there just aren't a lot of voters. And you can be sure the Alexander campaign will have its spies out to make sure Tuke is really "walking" across the state and not cutting corners.

In some ways I suspect Alexander may be viewing Tuke's walk somewhat like General Sherman did when he was marching through Georgia during the Civil War and his opposing Confederate army, led by General John Hood, decided to go in the opposite direction and invade Tennessee. Sherman was quoted as saying that he was so unconcerned he would be happy to give General Hood's army provisions to go all the way to the Ohio River if they wished.

For now, Senator Alexander seems more concerned about finding a defensible political position on how to address the country's escalating gas prices. This week, in a news release from his office, the Senior Senator attacked the Democratic leadership of the Senate after the full body failed to pass the American Energy Production Act, which Alexander thinks would "address high gasoline and natural gas costs" by making "better use of the country's energy resources and technology." Alexander has been touting a "New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence," including delivering speeches recently on the topic at both the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Brookings Institute.

That's not enough, says Alexander's other Democratic opponent, Mike Padgett, who asks in a campaign news release: "Where has Senator Alexander been on this issue for the past five years?" Padgett says Alexander has been "protecting monstrous tax breaks for the oil industry" and he has "been a part of the spending spree that has put this country perilously in debt, and leaving us vulnerable to these high gas prices."

For now, it's questionable whether Padgett, like Tuke, can get enough visibility for his criticisms for them to have much impact on the overall Senate race. But when the full Senate votes almost unanimously to tell President Bush to stop buying any more oil to put in our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, it's clear our Washington politicians are grasping at almost anything to try and show the voters they are addressing this issue.

The truth is that a lot of economists say stopping the flow of oil into the Petroleum Reserve is not likely to have any major impact on oil prices. In fact, I've heard some reports that since oil prices are built on speculation about future oil availability in case of a crisis, having less oil in reserve might even tend to drive up prices.

But people are demanding action, and our politicians respond for now with news releases, speeches and votes in Congress. Unfortunately, those actions are not likely to produce any quick results. Changes in our energy use patterns will likely take years to implement and will involve even more pain than what we are experiencing now at the pump.

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