Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 6, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

April 6, 2018

A FLOOD OF MAYORAL CANDIDATES; THE TRANSIT VOTE; BREDESEN AHEAD IN MTSU SENATE POLL; AN EDUCATION POLL ON THE GOVERNOR’S RACE; INSIDE POLITICS LOOK BACK 50 YEARS LATER ON THE MLK ASSASSINATION; WRAPPING UP; SENATOR HARPER;

A FLOOD OF MAYORAL CANDIDATES

First, the number of candidates doubled…then more jumped in. And the list could grow even further.

We still don’t know when the special election for mayor of Nashville will be held. But just in case it’s in August, there was a flood of people (at least 11) filing qualifying papers. This week is the candidate qualifying deadline for the scheduled August 2 election. It passed at noon on Thursday, April 5.

Actually 11 mayoral candidates are how many whose qualifying paperwork has been approved. According to THE NASHVILLE POST, as of late Thursday, another 9 potential candidates still await their paperwork review and possible approval to be candidates! 20 candidates! Talk about a crowded ballot!

Among the likely top contenders in the race, the current incumbent, David Briley heads the field. He became the city’s leader after Mayor Megan Barry resigned the post, having pled guilty to a criminal theft felony charge revolving around an extra-marital affair she had with her security chief.

In terms of the upcoming special mayoral race, Briley late this week served notice on his growing list of opponents that they better bring their full campaign pocketbooks with them to the contest. After less than a month in office, Briley’s campaign says he has raised just over $400,000. And I suspect there will be lots more campaign dollars raised for him in the weeks ahead.

Nevertheless, the mayoral field swelled this week. What was once a contest of three potentially major candidates: Briley, At-Large Councilmember Erica Gilmore, and local NAACP President and former district Councilmember Ludye Wallace, has nearly tripled in size and could get bigger.

Remember when a local business group urged candidates to stay out of the special mayoral race, and for the sack of keeping stability in local government, allow Mayor Briley to run unopposed to serve out the year remaining in Mayor Barry’s term? Mayor Briley wisely rejected that idea and, given the late land-rush of candidates at the Election Commission, so did a lot of folks, even though a number of those who qualified late are not likely to be major candidates.

Two conservative Tea-Party related candidates, former talk show host Ralph Bristol and former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, have announced they are running and so is architect and former Donelson Councilman Roy Dale (although Dale says he may yet withdraw).

Dale has been weighing a run on his Facebook page for weeks. He will seek support from his Donelson base and from the business and development communities. While Briley already seems to have a lot of business support in his corner, Dale may find some encouragement among developers. He will however

find strong opposition among neighborhood groups who have more than once locked horns with him over development projects he has championed for zoning changes or variances.

Late in the week, Nashville Democratic state legislator Harold Love, Jr. and No Tax 4 Tracks consultant and political activist jeff obafemi carr also filed papers to run for mayor. Love is a Methodist pastor and is considered, along with Gilmore, to be among the leading political figures in the African American community. It runs in the families. Love’s late father was both a long -time state legislator and a Metro Council member. Gilmore’s mother has also served in both elected bodies and seeking to be elected to the State Senate.

Love has qualified to run for re-election to his state house seat, which is also on the August ballot, so he may have to choose which race to pursue. The withdrawal date for the State House race is next Thursday, April 12. It is unclear when the withdrawal date for the special mayor’s race will be, given its still uncertain legal status.

Clearly, with the original leading mayoral candidates being Briley and Gilmore who are strongly progressive in their politics (along now with Love), the field is open for a conservative. But two conservatives may be too many given Nashville’s history as a blue county. Bristol and Swain will also have to prove they have the name recognition and funding to be considered viable. They do seem poised (along with carr) to make the transit plan on May 1 ballot a focal point of their mayoral efforts. I guess we will see how well that works as an issue after the referendum results are tabulated next month. Gilmore, Love, Wallace, carr and Swain are all African American. So they could, in some ways, split that growing voter bloc.

While Mayor Briley remains the overall favorite to win the special mayor’s race, the sheer number of candidates now in the field does increase the possibility (if not the probability) of there being a second or special runoff election between the top two vote getters. Metro law requires that a mayor receive 50% plus one vote to be elected. Oh, and whoever wins, gets to run again in the summer of 2019, if he or she wants to win a full four- year term as mayor.

Hopefully on Monday of next week, we will learn more about when the special mayoral election will be held. That’s when the State Supreme Court will hold oral arguments over a lawsuit brought by Wallace challenging the August election date. Wallace qualified to run for mayor in part to strengthen his standing to bring the suit. Wallace believes the special mayoral election should be held in May. That would seem to be an impossibility for the May 1 contest. Early voting begins just two days after the state High Court hears oral arguments in the case. But it is possible the Court might pick a date later in May (as Wallace also asks) or whenever it chooses, if not August 2.

Depending on the actual election date, it is possible (believe it or not) that the Supreme Court could grant additional time for still more candidates to qualify in what is already the most unusual election in Metro’s 55- year history.

THE TRANSIT VOTE

The May 1st election will begin to be decided next week.

That when voters can begin to go to the polls (Wednesday, April 11)) as a part of the early vote period. Along with a Democratic primary to pick nominees for several local constitutional and judicial offices, Nashvillians will decide the fate of a $5-$9 billion, multi-decade transit improvement plan.

Proponents say the plan is crucial to Nashville’s future growth and prosperity, while opponents say it will raise (sales) taxes too high, doesn’t address regional traffic issues, and employs backward looking technology (light rail) rather than forward thinking efforts such as ride sharing.

As Jeff Eller of the No Tax 4 Tracks groups told me on INSIDE POLITICS last week, his group is back on the air with a new TV spot. Curiously, the group had gone dark in its broadcast advertising for several weeks. The new ad proports to present facts which pro-transit supporters claim are just not true. You can see the ad here.

So where does the transit battle stand? From multiple sources, I’ve learned that two potential mayoral candidates (who decided not to run) polled the issue. Their surveys found the anti-transit opponents up between double digits and 4-6 points. At this point, not even the transit opponents believe they are way ahead and they are not ready to claim impending victory for May 1. They do feel good about their chances.

Transit supporters do not appear quite as confident as they have been about success. They acknowledge they’ve had to adjust to the controversy and change the scandal and resignation of their plan’s biggest supporter, Mayor Megan Barry has caused.

But they believe the issue is not decided, especially with Mayor Briley strongly stepping in to be the new leading advocate for transit. Transit supporters have also picked up their paid media campaign including their new Nashville Predators TV endorsement ad. The transit folk have also launched a strong direct mail effort apparently aimed at frequent voters (the most likely folks to go to the polls). At my house, I have received four different mail pieces (oversized post cards) in just the last few weeks. One is aimed at the benefits for seniors under the transit plan, a second mailer focuses on how the plan will take 55,000 cars off the road, while a third piece warns of the huge future costs of rejecting the plan and taking no action. The final piece I got yesterday is more of a generic call for support.

As for Mayor Briley he has issued a Declaration of Transit Independence and urged all Nashvillians to sign on. You can read it in full here.

“The transportation declaration of independence is really all about our fundamental freedoms,” says the Mayor. “It’s about giving everyone the chance to have access to reliable and consistent transit regardless of race, economic status or the neighborhood they live in.”

“The first step is to invest in a transit network that serves everyone, that can move more people faster, and that provides affordable options for those who need it most. This is about establishing a better future for ourselves, for our families and for Nashville.”

Transit plan opponents dismiss the Declaration as a publicity stunt and say it’s just more happy talk to justify the transit proposal.

From what I can gather the biggest challenge facing transit supporters is what seems to be a potential split in Nashville’s politically dominant progressive base.

Normally this group has been largely monolithic in electing Metro candidates and passing local legislation. But now there is disagreement about the reliance on a sales tax increase as the major source of funding for the transit plan. Progressives have always opposed the sales tax as being regressive and hurtful to the poor. Transit supporters counter by saying using the sales tax will allow out of county residents to pay some of the costs, and besides, the sales tax is only tax option available that will generate enough funds to pay for any significant transit plan. State law does not allow the use of property tax and that source would likely be even more controversial with voters.

Another rift among progressives is the fear among some that the transit plan will only further increase gentrification in Nashville while doing nothing to help provide affordable housing. Transit supporters disagree, but so far they don’t seem to be finding enough common ground to hold the progressive base together.

It’s always tough to get people to vote to raise their taxes. I can recall only one Metro election where that happened. It was back in 1980. The Metro Council approved a large property tax increase, then offered voters a chance to roll that back a bit if they passed a sales tax hike. They did do that but that’s the last time the local sales tax has been raised, almost 38 years ago.

For all those reasons: the confusion and upheaval caused by the Barry scandal and resignation; the rift among the progressive base of voters, and the overall reluctance of voters to raise taxes, it means the transit supporters face a tough fight between now and May 1. Can the transit plan still pass? I am not ruling it out if for no other reason that Nashvillians want to do something to improve the traffic situation…and right now it’s still the only game in town or at least on the ballot to do something.

BREDESEN AHEAD IN MTSU SENATE POLL

A new poll released this week from Middle Tennessee State University shows former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen grabbing a 10-point lead over Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn in the November race to replace retiring GOP U.S. Senator Bob Corker.

The 45% to 35% margin for Bredesen with 20% undecided or refusing to answer is certainly different from the previous polls done on the contest (all a few weeks or months old). They have shown the race close for the most part, or with both candidates having single digit leads depending on the survey.

Is the MTSU poll an outlier? What’s changed to show that kind of swing? One change is that, in the last month, Bredesen has begun his paid broadcast and digital ad campaign while Blackburn has laid down her ad buy to begin later in the spring. I doubt she plans to change that schedule, but you can be sure

the MTSU poll results will have some state and Washington Republican leaders privately voicing again their doubts and concerns that Blackburn is not a strong enough candidate for the GOP to hold the seat.

Here is a statement from the Blackburn campaign downplaying the MTSU poll:

"Phil Bredesen is trying to convince voters he's a moderate Republican, but he will be first in line to support Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi's liberal agenda. Tennesseans know Marsha Blackburn is the only candidate who will represent their conservative values in the United States Senate. Marsha will continue to work overtime, listening to Tennessee families and sharing her ideas on how we can get the Senate back to work and pass President Trump’s agenda."

The Blackburn campaign went further, questioning the past accuracy of MTSU’s polling as well as the poll’s methodology in terms of how many days it was in the field and how many days it took to before the findings were released (a week). Some of those criticisms will seem a bit picky to some. But the most questionable criticism by the Blackburn campaign was this:

“Bredesen is only at 45% on the ballot and he has previously run statewide 3 times and has been running for public office for nearly half a century.”

“The name of the game in a head-to-head contest is getting to 50% +1 and we have yet to see any data that shows Bredesen getting close to 50%

The difference in getting to 45% versus 50% is huge, especially in a conservative state like Tennessee.”

Let adjust some math, Bredesen’s first Tennessee political race (mayor of Nashville) was in 1987, more like 31 years ago not “nearly a half century.” His first unsuccessful race for governor was in 1994. He won in 2002 and 2006. Getting 45% support as a Democrat in this state at any time in a race is stronger than most would expect when no one from that party has served Tennessee in a U.S. Senate since the early to mid-1990s.

Interestingly, the Blackburn campaign did not question the mix of registered voters surveyed in the MTSU poll. But there’s not much to pick at. It was 34% Republican, 25% Democrat and 28% Independents, a mix that ought to favor any GOP candidate in a deep red state.

As for Bredesen, while the MTSU poll is certainly a boost for his efforts and his supporters, the election is still months away and you should never base the status of a race based on one poll. I am sure his campaign is assessing how the MTSU survey stacks up with other polls including their own internal campaign research and surveys. Blackburn is surely doing the same.

One other thing to compare in the MTSU survey to other polls: measuring the job performance numbers of President Trump. As you can see in campaign’s quote above, Blackburn has committed herself to working to pass the Trump agenda in Washington, while Bredesen in his TV ad is avoiding running against the President. The MTSU poll shows the President’s approval numbers in Tennessee to be 50% favorable 41% unfavorable. That’s about the same as the last MTSU poll done in October.

Now compare that to a monthly national tracking poll also released Thursday by the Morning Consult group. Surveying over 97,000 voters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it found President Trump at a new low in approval numbers nationally (41% approval 54% disapproval). The survey also included this comment about his poll numbers in Tennessee during the month of March.

“At the state level, some of the biggest negative swings in net approval came from places that backed Trump in the 2016 presidential election: Iowa (minus 9 percentage points), Idaho and Tennessee (minus 6 points), and Montana and Oklahoma (minus 5 points). On the positive side, Trump made a 6- point gain in New Hampshire and improved his standing in West Virginia and Vermont by 4 points.”

It all boils down this: Look at a variety of political polls and surveys going forward. Sample and compare them like perfume, sniff and enjoy them, don’t swallow them or declare one to be the gospel.

One last piece of news about the Bredesen campaign this week. Former Vice President and possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, will be helping the former governor raise money for the Senate race when he visits Nashville later this month. Biden is also coming to speak at Vanderbilt University. This news comes along with reports that, if elected, Bredesen will be among the wealthiest men to serve in the Senate.

Bresdesen’s relationship with national Democrats will be something of a challenge. Of course, he wants their support, but some like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are from more liberal parts of the country. His politics and those of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi likely don’t poll well in this state.

AN EDUCATION POLL ON THE GOVERNOR’S RACE

In Tennessee’s other 2018 statewide contest, the race to be Tennessee’s next governor, there was an interesting (if not surprising) poll released this week by an education group.

Here’s what THE TENNESSEAN reports.

Obviously, the headline from the poll is the close GOP primary race between Congressman Diane Black (25%) and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd (20%). But notice that if “undecided” was a candidate it would still be in the lead at 37%, just 4 months before the August primary vote.

Even after months of campaigning and TV ads, there are still lots of voters who don’t know or won’t commit to these candidates, none of whom have ever run statewide before. The same is true on the Democratic side, (44%) although Karl Dean (41%) appears to have a decided advantage over Craig Fitzhugh (11%).

The still large undecided number gives the other two GOP gubernatorial primary candidates, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Franklin businessman Bill Lee, some reason to hope. But either one would have to find a way (soon) to catch fire with voters and capture a really large percentage of those undecideds to win or even be competitive (if this poll is accurate, and it is not dissimilar to other recent polls I have seen).

INSIDE POLITICS LOOK BACK 50 YEARS LATER ON THE MLK ASSASSINATION

This week on INSIDE POLITICS we look back 50 years ago this week on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

What was it like in Nashville and across the country in that most politically challenging year of 1968? Where are we today in terms of reaching the promised land Dr. King spoke of in his last speech the night before his death? And what does the future hold?

Our guests are Dr. Reavis Mitchell an historian from Fisk University and Dwight Lewis, a retired editor and long-time reporter with THE TENNESSEAN.

Join us.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:

7:00 p.m. Friday;

5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;

1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

WRAPPING UP

As state lawmakers continue to move towards what they hope to be a mid-April adjournment, this was the week when all but a couple of committees, finished their work and shut down for good (except those who still have to handle the state budget).

Since this adjournment will be sine die (which is Latin for “we won’t be back until the new General Assembly is elected and takes office in January”), this closing down process is like cleaning out your closets when you move. Lots of legislation comes to the end of the line or at least until these measures are re-introduced and start all over again next year.

Carri Wade Gervin of THE NASHVILLE POST has a good summary of the usual carnage at the end of session and the legislative term.

From now, most of the remaining action on the Hill will come from votes taken on the floors of both chambers. This week that included the Senate voting 24-5 to overturn a Nashville ordinance set to gradually eliminate certain types of short-term rentals, as well as similar prohibitions in other cities.

It was quite a debate says THE TENNESSEAN.

The House passed its own short- term rental bill last year. Can the two different bills be reconciled and passed before the session ends? That appears unclear at this moment.

Next week it could be a decisive vote (again) about re-burying President James K. Polk and his wife at his boyhood home in Columbia rather than staying interred at the Capitol. Imposing work rules for some Tenncare clients could come up again in the Senate. And other than the operating budget (it must pass before lawmakers leave) who knows what else could be decided? Maybe allowing liquor stores to sell booze on Sunday and holidays while retailers can sell wine on the same days? It could get wild. It’s crunch time.

SENATOR HARPER

She came to Capitol Hill in 1991, the first African American woman to serve in the Tennessee State Senate. Thelma Harper announced her retirement this week after 36 years in public service, including 28 years in the upper chamber along with 8 years in the Metro Council. She leaves as well as the longest serving female State Senator in history.

It is hard to imagine Senator Harper no longer throwing her hat in the ring to run. You see nobody had or wore more colorful hats than she over the years. It was her political symbol, her trademark of distinction. There is some symmetry with her announcing her retirement during Easter Week. For her, every week was the time to wear her best bonnet in the Easter Parade. Appropriately for many years she also hosted a community Easter Egg Hunt. The most recent one was last weekend.

I first met and covered Senator Harper, as a TV reporter, back in the 1970s. She was a political activist whose mission was to close the city’s Bordeaux Landfill. Against imposing odds, she prevailed using her elections to the Council and then the State Senate to push that agenda.

I consider Senator Harper a friend, but she could be tough on those with whom she disagreed which happened a couple of times when I was in Mayor Fulton’s office. I was later honored to serve with her when she co-chaired the planning of the celebration of city’s 50th anniversary of Metropolitan Government in 2012.

It has been a difficult time for the Senator recently. She lost her husband Paul. I hope the outpouring of congratulations on her career of public service and best wishes on her retirement can be a comfort. She richly deserves such recognition from both sides of the aisle.

Gov. Bill Haslam

“Tennessee is losing one of its most experienced and likable public servants with the retirement of Senator Harper. I will miss her friendship, her insight and her wonderful sense of humor.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally

“Even before she was elected to the Senate, Thelma Harper was working to make the lives of Nashvillians better. I've served with many members and none have had more compassion and strength of will than Thelma Harper. She has consistently broken down barriers throughout her career without ever breaking a sweat. She has been a credit to Nashville and a most distinguished member of the Senate. Her hand is consistently extended in friendship toward those she serves and those she serves with. She has truly left Tennessee and the Senate better than she found it. While we will miss her in the Senate, her retirement is well-deserved.”

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro

“Thelma Harper’s absence will leave a void in the Senate. She’s been a stalwart member of this body and a leader in Nashville for a generation. I join so many others in wishing her well and thanking her for her years of service, and I will personally miss seeing her each day on the Senate floor.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris

"Senator Harper is a Tennessee treasure. Her service in the Senate and to our state is surpassed only by her dedication to her community and constituents. She will be missed but never forgotten."

Senator Bill Ketron

“Many times we speak of statesmen in the General Assembly, but Senator Harper reflects that image for me and many others on both sides of the aisle. She has represented her constituents with great honor and distinction, and she will be truly missed.”

State Rep. Harold Love Jr.

“There has been no greater champion for children and young adults in Tennessee than Senator Harper. She has blazed so many trails for so many people that her legacy will last for decades to come. I am grateful to have been blessed to serve with her in the Tennessee General Assembly.”

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