By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence Advertising and Public Relations
July 18, 2008
The announcement that Volkswagen will be locating its new manufacturing plant (along with up to 2,000 jobs) in Chattanooga has to be the best piece of economic good news Tennessee has received in a long time.
With unemployment in the state running a full percentage point ahead of the national numbers and at levels we haven't seen in this area in decades, the new jobs can't get here soon enough. That includes the ones likely to be created by spinoff developments to what VW is doing. With the continuing national economic slowdown due to the widening credit crunch, inflation, energy prices and other issues, some mornings I check the dateline on the newspaper to make sure it says 2008 not 1929. And now it seems even the Great American Lager (Budweiser) belongs to the Belgians. What's next?
So you can imagine how quickly our elected officials have been jumping up to claim some credit for this new VW investment of about $1 billion dollars in our state.
For Governor Bredesen, this is clearly a major feather in his cap. It enhances his legacy as Governor which had become clouded in recent months as tough economic times have forced him back into the all-too-familiar role from his first term as Phil, the Budget Cutter, including cuts in some of pet programs related to other parts of his legacy, such as Pre-K education.
Will this raise his national profile enough to put him on the short-list for vice-presidential running mate with Barack Obama? No, I don't think so. But it sure may enhance his standing for a possible cabinet post if Obama is elected in November, and possibly for positions beyond just those that are health-care related. Of course, if the Governor decides to leave, that would put Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey in his place and, even consideration of the Governor going to Washington would ignite a political firestorm headed towards the 2010 Governor's race that, as we have discussed in a previous column, would be a real dozy.
Another person likely to profit politically from Tennessee winning the VW plant sweepstakes is Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber. A long-time West Tennessee lawmaker, his time as ECD Commissioner under Governor Bredesen, has been one of a lot of success for Tennessee in attracting new investments, new jobs and new industries, as well as expansions and improvements being made by existing industries in the state. Kisber clearly has political ambitions beyond his service in this administration. In a fairly thin Democratic field for Governor in 2010, could this make Kisber a player and give him some important talking points with voters about his proven ability to attract jobs to the state?
Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Bob Corker are also getting a good share of the credit for their help in convincing VW to move here. A former Mayor of Chattanooga, Corker understandable seemed almost giddy in his comments when the new plant was announced. He had hosted VW officials in his home for a special dinner to woo them to come. He also helped create the industrial park where the new car manufacturing facility will be located. Maybe his success here will diminish any bad feelings some in Chattanooga might have had after Corker recently purchased another home back in Nashville. J
As for Senator Alexander, this kind of good economic news is surely something he will talk about on the campaign re-election trial, and many Tennessee voters will remember it was on his watch as governor that the Nissan plant in Smyrna was built, beginning Tennessee's run to be a "little Detroit" in terms of automobile manufacturing.
According to THE TENNESSEAN's Gail Kerr's column (July 17) it was Alexander's piano playing (specifically his rendition of Chattanooga Choo-Choo) at the end of the dinner for VW officials at Senator Corker's Chattanooga home, that may have made all the difference in establishing the warm and fuzzies necessary to begin to seal the deal.
You think that sounds a bit strange?
Well, here's a story my DVL colleague Eddie Jones related to me about the recruitment of Nissan officials from Japan to come to Tennessee back in the 1980s. At the time, Eddie Jones was the Executive Vice President of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and again, there was a dinner party involved. This time, Jones' top economic development guy, Fred Harris, hosted Nissan officials at his home. Jones says Fred's wife fixed some great sushi.
But the hit of the night came when the Japanese car officials went outside Fred Harris' home (and onto the golf course of the Hillwood Country Club). There they became fascinated with the Tennessee fireflies (lightening bugs) that were lighting up the night sky. They had apparently never seen such a thing in their country. So much so, that like many of us did as children, the visitors found some jars in the Harris household, punched a couple of holes in the tops and began to capture the lightening bugs and put them into the jars. They apparently had a great time and it appeared to help created an emotional tie that was helpful in sealing the deal to bring Nissan to Tennessee.
Now, sure it takes more than fireflies and good piano-playing to recruit major jobs and industries to the state. But don't count out the little things either, especially their ultimate impact on the big picture, both in business and politics.
This week on INSIDE POLITICS we continue our conversations with the men who would be United States Senator from Tennessee, specifically the leading candidates in the Democratic primary on August 7, with the winner to take on incumbent Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in November.
Our guest is Nashville attorney and former State Democratic Party Chair Bob Tuke. Tuke knows he is in a tough race against Alexander. That's why he says he wants to save as much money as he can (he's raised the most among the Democrats at $400,000+) to be ready for the fall, even if Senator Alexander already has a war chest of $2 million plus.
Nevertheless, Tuke knows he must win the primary first against former Knox County Clerk Mike Padgett and Nashville businessman Kenneth Eaton. All the candidates have low name-recognition and people don't vote for someone whose name they don't recognize. So Tuke is hoping a paid media push in the final weeks can help make the difference. He is already up with radio ads in Memphis (where Tuke expects the most Democratic vote to be cast because of the hot Congressional primary there) and he will begin TV spots in Nashville and elsewhere across the state in the next week or so.
Still, early voting is already underway, and it is as quiet a contested U.S. Senate primary as I can ever remember in this state.
You can see my INSIDE POLITICS interview with Bob Tuke this weekend (July 18-20) at the following times on the NEWSCHANNEL 5 Network.
7:00 PM Friday, July 18 NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, COMCAST CHANNEL 50
5:00 AM Saturday, July 19 NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
5:30 AM Saturday, July 19 NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
5:00 AM Sunday, July 20 NEWSCHANNEL5 , WTVF-TV, Channel 5
5:00 AM Sunday, July 20 NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
12:30 PM Sunday July 20 NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
And don't forget we have excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows available here on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website.
One thing Bob Tuke seems excited about in our interview is an Associated Press report (July 16) that quotes one of Barack Obama's advisers, North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield as saying: "We are looking strongly at Tennessee...."
All that is part of an Obama strategy to boost black voter turnout as much as 30% and therefore put states like Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama into play rather than being safe "red" states for Republican Senator John McCain.
Tuke believes if Tennessee comes into play that would clearly help him quite a bit in his race against Lamar Alexander. No doubt it would, especially if the Democratic Senatorial Committee also changed its mind and sent money and resources to Tuke to make the Tennessee Senate race more competitive.
But is that likely to happen, especially since no one has seen Obama in this state for over a year now, and his staff presence here is at best minimal? So just what it is that the Obama campaign is looking at in Tennessee? And how in the world can they even talk out loud about putting Tennessee into play, given the amount of resources and time they haven't spend here over the last year (heck, the candidate didn't even come here for the Democratic Presidential Primary which he lost handily to Hillary Clinton)?
Let's see if this turns out to be more than just talk.
For former State Senator John Ford it was same song, second verse in Nashville federal court on Friday (July 18) where he was convicted of two counts of wire fraud and four counts of making false statements on official documents.
Specifically, Ford was found guilty of receiving consultant fees from two TennCare contractors while the Memphis Democrat served on Senate committees that oversaw that program.
Ford is already serving a 5 ½ year prison sentence for a separate bribery conviction coming out of the Tennessee Waltz scandal. Now he faces sentencing on September 29 that could earn him a maximum penalty of 20 years on the wire fraud charges and up to five years each on the false statements convictions.
So it looks like it's going to be a while before we see Senator Ford again around Capitol Hill. Given what he's been convicted of doing in violation of the public trust: good riddance.
TRANSIT AND SCHOOLS
The Metro School Board can still tell students where to go to school (under the new rezoning plan it recently adopted) but the Board can't tell them who will be their principals when they get there. Because Metro has failed to meet federal "No Child Left Behind" standards, that's a power that is now in the hands of the State Department of Education.
And in recent days, the state has been using that power, moving around several principals throughout the system and doing so less than a month before classes begin again.
Up until now there has been little public or political backlash from whatever the state has done to change Metro schools. But now, if you believe a story in THE TENNESSEAN (July 18), some parents seem to be upset about the changes and are speaking out.
Former Director of Schools, Dr. Pedro Garcia, knows all about it. He moved around a lot of principals and administrators in his time and he usually caught a lot of flak from it too. The state obviously feels making these moves will help Metro meet the No Child standards in the future. But with many folks in the community already upset about rezoning, and the administrator changes coming right before classes begin, these moves aren't likely to win many brownie points from parents and school supporters who may feel surprised and caught in the middle at almost every turn as the struggle to improve local public education continues to often seem at odds with itself.
And it's not just education where the state is telling local governments what to do. Now it is mass transit. TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely (full disclosure: a former client of mine) says his department is willing to give a million dollars to make up most of the Music City Star light-rail system's debt, if other local government chip in the rest and if the Metropolitan Transit Authority takes over management of the system.
Given the rather dismal record of those currently running the Music City Star, that's probably a good idea. But we've still got a long way to go to have some kind of coherent policy on mass transit in Nashville. We are still cutting service and increasing fares at a time when ridership is surging because of sky-high gas prices. Would a dedicated source of revenue solve the problem? Maybe, but as the school board is learning as it grapples with how to keep its promise under the new rezoning plan that there will always be at least $6 million for inner city schools to make sure there is a quality education available for all students, Metro Government doesn't really work that way. Budgets and the revenues to support them are approved annually only. Any long-range goal or commitment is subject to annual review and as mayors, councils and even school boards change, so too could commitments to extra monies.
And while you can always continue to use one-time reserve monies to pay the extra for the inner citi schools or makes cuts elsewhere in the schools operating budget to find the funds for inner-city (and avoid a tax increase or a voter referendum), none of those things build much trust in the overall school system going forward. You can blame whoever you want to about Metro's public education problems, but a lot of it comes down to a lack of trust in the system and those who are vying to control and run it. Who can bring all these various groups back together again? The Mayor? The Chamber? The new school Board? The state?
It better be somebody and soon.