Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 9, 2009 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 9, 2009



By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations

January 9, 2009


While Washington lawmakers and the incoming Obama administration continue to struggle to come up with the right way to stimulate our lagging national economy (is a trillion dollars too much more debt to add and just how do you spend it?), we here in Tennessee have found our own relatively easy and small way to deal with the situation, at least in terms of stimulating our spending on politics.

It's simple: Have former Republican U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist declare he prefers to continue to be a private citizen, and so he has decided not run for Governor in 2010. Frist was considered the prohibitive favorite to gain the GOP nomination and a very strong possibility to win the general election next year and maybe without a lot of oppostion.  

Now the race is wide open....and the candidates are pouring out to fill that vacuum...and start collecting and spending money. It is estimated it will cost at least $3 to $5 million per candidate to successfully compete to win the August 2010 primaries, and at least that much more to win the general election race. Already three Republicans have jumped in (Congressman Zach Wamp, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons) to say they are ready to move forward and start priming the pump and raising and spending money for their candidacies.

Can't you just feel the political money oozing around the state!

Well, maybe not yet. But there are still others looking at getting into the race later this year. That includes Congressman Marsha Blackburn, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and Nashville GOP Representative Beth Harwell, among others. Is there enough money out there to sustain all these folks running? I seriously doubt it and that why you are seeing some jump in the race so early to build their  money, as well as statewide support and name recognition as quickly as possible.

Those waiting to get in know they are taking a chance if one of these early candidates catches fire with voters, but given the responsibilities several of them have in Washington and here in Nashville with the General Assembly to deal with the declining economy, they seem to feel the time is not right to get in just yet. We will see if that wisdom turns out to be so wise.

I suspect there are a number of candidates on the Democratic side itching to get into the field as well. But, much like Senator Frist before he decided, it's likely no one wants to jump in before former Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. decides if he wants to run. For now, Ford says it is way too early. And with his statewide support and name recognition still lingering from his strong Senate race in 2006, he's probably right.

But for the rest of the potential Democratic candidates (a list longer than I care to outline here for fear I will omit several from a field that's seem to be growing by the day), they are not so fortunate. The sooner they can get out and get started (especially raising and spending money) the better it would be for them.

And while they can't wait too much longer (especially out fear the Republican candidates will steal all the momentum and publicity in the race), look for them to cool their heels a while yet to see what young Harold wants to do.

Sizing up the Republican field at this point, it is hard to see any frontrunner. It's been longer than I can remember since we had a Governor from East Tennessee (not counting Lamar Alexander, who has always kept a home and voting residency in Maryville, but has lived most of his adult life in Nashville). Three of the current or potential GOP gubernatorial candidates have their political bases in East Tennessee (Wamp, Haslam and Ramsey). But with all three in the race, there's a good chance they could split up the East which has the largest number of Republican voters in Tennessee.

That could be an advantage to other potential candidates such as Gibbons (West Tennessee), or Blackburn or Harwell (Middle Tennessee for Harwell and Middle and West Tennessee for Blackburn) if they join the field. But can they do it? I think it's just too early to know that just yet. And so you will see all the candidates (and maybe the remaining would-be candidates) traveling around the state to drink coffee with reporters, holding fundraisers, and looking for endorsements from other better-known Republicans in the state, just as former Senator Bill Brock's endorsement of Congressman Wamp. How much good those endorsements will do is subject to debate. Brock hasn't been actively involved in Tennessee politics since he left office in 1977. But, on the other hand, it probably can't hurt either. At least, someone who's been active and well-known in the past in state politics thinks you can do the job.

On the money front, unless Haslam wants to dip into his family fortune, no one seems to have a built in advantage. To this point, from what I have seen and heard, it's unclear what Haslam will do. In Tennessee political history, for every Phil Bredesen or Bill Frist who has spent a large amount of a personal or family fortune to win, there have been a Jane Eskind, Franklin Haney and Jake Butcher, all of whom tried it, and it didn't work.  Haslam also needs to consider the source of his money (oil) and whether that will bring more political baggage than support to his side. You can be sure his opponents will try and make an issue of it.


The holidays are gone...but the political hangovers continue.

Here are just a few examples:

Just before Christmas, Santa left a big pile of coal (sludge) in TVA's stocking, after a massive coal ash slide created a tremendous environmental mess all across the neighborhood surrounding a TVA power plant near Harriman, Tennessee.

This incident, and a similar leak from a gypsum pond at a TVA plant in Alabama just now making the news, are likely to have major, long lasting political and regulatory implications for the federal agency and for ratepayers, who will have to pick up the huge tab for cleaning up these messes, as well as the changes that will be necessary to keep these kinds of environmental calamities from happening again.

Already there are ominous rumblings from Congress about where this might lead, and TVA's timing couldn't be worse, after several recent large rate hikes, and with Congress in the mood to lower to regulatory boom on just about anybody after all the laxity of government oversight in recent years (even though almost none of that has had anything to do with TVA).

In the meantime, it might do TVA officials some good to get back to the basics. I have heard many statements from TVA officials in recent days. But so far, no one (from what I have read and heard) has stepped up and said: "We are sorry, we apologize for what happened." You can't begin the healing process, with the public or the residents who are most impacted by the spills, until that happens. Instead, the residents in Harriman seem galvanized to lead the fight against TVA, in Washington and in the courts, with national environmental groups not far behind. 

So for TVA, the holidays are over, but the agency is just starting to take its (coal) lumps.

Then there is Tennessee GOP leader Chip Saltsman. He thought he was doing a good thing politically when he sent a compact disc as a Christmas gift to Republican leaders across the nation. This is a small group of folks who will soon be considering his candidacy to be the next Republican national chairman, and begin to rebuild the party from its recent national election defeats.

 The CD was a collection of political satire. But at a time when many GOP leaders (including Saltsman) have been talking about the need to reach out and increase party diversity for the future, a song with the title of "Barack, the Magic Negro" hit a wrong chord with many in the national media and in his own party (especially Saltsman's opponents in the GOP Chairman race).  

Rather than try and end the controversy quickly by saying he or someone made a mistake in judgment, Saltsman has continued to insist the CD is all light-hearted satire, and those criticizing him are using a double-standard given all the other parodies out in the media. Now, I know Chip, and I don't think he is a racist. But I do question his judgment and response here. The continuing controversy has certainly raised his name recognition, and many conservatives take it as a "red badge of courage", and one to wear proudly, to be criticized by the national main-stream media. But did it really get him any votes for GOP National Chairman? Ominously, none of Tennessee's three GOP voters in this race are supporting Saltsman. They remain officially uncommitted. Without at least some of their votes, Saltsman's chances of winning the GOP race are slim to none, and that's likely true whether he sent out the CD or not.   

Next on the holiday hangover list, there are the State Republicans in the General Assembly. Before the holidays, they could hardly contain their glee over taking control of both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, as well as the power to elect Tennessee's constitutional officers (secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer).

Party leaders even held some public hearings to show how open and transparent their candidate selection process would be. But now, after the holidays, a less than a week before the final votes, there are problems. Questions from the media, and from some Republicans and Democrats about the political involvements (PAC fundraising and campaign contributions) and business dealings of some of the top candidates for two of the posts. For more information about some of the controversy, see Phil Williams' recent reports here on the NewsChannel5 Network. 

These are the kinds of questions a full vetting or a public hearing might have put to rest. But that didn't happen, leaving GOP leaders figuring out how to make everything all right before the General Assembly begins its organizing session in the next few days.

Not to be outdone, next on the holiday hangover list is the U.S. Senate. At a time when Democrats ought to be celebrating their newly enlarged majority, instead they are worrying about just exactly how many Democratic votes they have, with vacant seats still waiting to be filled from Minnesota (where a court fight over a near-tied election outcome may wrangle on for months), and, of course, Illinois (where an appointment by the likely-soon-to-be impeached Governor there has tied up the Senate for days trying to figure out whether to seat him). At first, it looked like no way that would happen, and this matter was headed to court. Now maybe something will happen to bring about a compromise to allow the Senator-designee to be sworn in to replace President-elect Obama and be the only African-American in the upper chamber. No matter what, the Democrats will still be a few votes short of the 60 needed to really get anything done in the Senate, so maybe the headaches for Senate leaders are just beginning.

Finally, on the holiday hangover list, the state of Tennessee budget mess. Here Santa has been pretty good to Governor Phil Bredesen and Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz. With President-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan set to possibly bring millions of dollars to the state, and with a federal court ruling allowing the state more leeway in how it reviews, qualifies and spend its TennCare money, that billion dollar abyss Tennessee is facing in the budget doesn't look quite so bad. But, don't get too optimistic just yet, the latest state tax revenue figures show collections still continuing a now months-long negative decline. That's mean not just less money is coming in than what the state budgeted or projected, but less money than what the state has collected in  previous years. Yikes!


It's been the most controversial political topic in Nashville for two or three years now. On January 22 voters will get to decide the English Only/English First controversy as a part of a special election that will also have voters decide whether to make it easier to amend the Metro Charter in the future. Early voting is already underway at the Election Commission and will be until January 17.

Everyone who reads this column knows how I feel about this matter. I believe voters should reject these charter changes. But, regardless of how you feel, and especially if you haven't decided, I hope you'll watch this weekend's INSIDE POLITICS show where we discuss the matter with representatives of both sides.

For those who support the charter amendments, we have Councilman Eric Crafton and Nashville Businessman Jon Crisp, both with the Nashville English First organization which is spearheading the charter change election. For those opposed to the proposals, we have Nashville attorney Gregg Ramos and Tom Negri, the manager of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel. Their group is called Nashville For All Of Us.

It's a good discussion and I hope it is helpful in helping everyone understand the issues involved.

By the way, for full disclosure, (and I say this on the show), my public relations work includes assisting the Metro 9-1-1 Board with a public education program about the proper way to use 9-1-1 which includes a Spanish-language component.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS at several different times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.

That includes:

Friday, (January 9) 7:00 PM......Newschannel5 Plus, Comcast Channel 50

Saturday, (January 10) 5:00 AM....NewsChannel5 Plus

Saturday, (January 10) 5:30 PM.....NewsChannel5 Plus

Sunday, (January 11) 5:00 AM.....NewsChannel 5, WTVF-TV

Sunday, (January 11) 5:00 AM......NewsChannel5 Plus

Sunday (January 11) 12:30 PM......NewsChannel5 Plus

Remember if you don't have Comcast or live outside the Nashville area, you can see excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here on

NewsChannel 5 thanks Pat Nolan for providing this column every week. Mr. Nolan's commentary reflects his own opinions, not those of the NewsChannel 5 Network.  Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at  

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