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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 16, 2018

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Posted at 3:23 PM, Feb 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-16 16:23:06-05

CAPITOL VIEW

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

February 16, 2018

MAYOR BARRY HANGS ON AS INVESTIGATIONS LOOK FOR OUTSIDE HELP; AS CORKER RECONSIDERS RUNNING THE TENNESSEE GOP SENATE RACE TAKES A NASTY TURN; THE AD WARS ESCALATE; FODDER FOR ATTACK ADS ON DIANE BLACK?; SELL TVA? I’D SOONER SELL…; PRESIDENT’S DAY ON INSIDE POLITICS; BEST LAID PLANS;

MAYOR BARRY HANGS ON AS INVESTIGATIONS LOOK FOR OUTSIDE HELP

To look at the schedule of Mayor Megan Barry this past week, it appeared to be just business as usual.

She attended many community events. Her office issued two news releases showing the Mayor stepping up with executive action to protect the city’s tree canopy and to help Metro Police combat gun crime by employing Shotspotter technology. Her office also warned of a tough budget year ahead (a matter she mentioned for the first time last week in her interview with me on INSIDE POLITICS).

But it was not a usual week in Metro.

Investigations by the TBI, the Metro Council and the city’s Board of Ethical Standards have each begun investigations into whether there was improper use of city tax dollars surrounding the self-confessed extra marital affair the Mayor had with her security chief retired Police Sgt. Rob Forrest over the last two years. The TBI probe includes looking into any possible criminal violations.

Nothing like this has ever occurred in Metro’s 50-plus year history. So not surprisingly, both the Council’s Special committee and the Ethical Standards Board want outside legal assistance. Read more about it here and here.

The makeup of the seven-member special Council committee, appointed by Vice Mayor David Briley, has gotten good reviews so far. The members are Erica Gilmore Bob Mendes, Brenda Haywood, Robert Swope, Burkley Allen, Mina Johnson and Russ Pulley.

Briley says he wants the group to be fair and stay focused on its charge from the Council regarding the proper use of tax dollars and not wander off into other matters. The Vice Mayor appointed four members to the Special committee who co-sponsored the Council resolution to create the special committee and three who opposed it. Councilmember Berkley Allen, who voted against the probe, will now chair the effort.

It will be up to Vice Mayor David Briley to make recommendations on what law firm or lawyer to retain. He has until the Special Committee’s next meeting on March 1 to do that. How difficult that will be, and how much it will cost, remains to be seen. The same could be true for legal assistance for Metro’s Board of Ethical Standards, which is being selected by the Metro Legal Department, which feels potential conflicts if it proves legal assistance in this probe.

The city’s Auditor is also assisting the Special committee which will hold down outside costs. But it appears this effort will take at least several weeks if not a few months to complete. And it could take even longer if there are questions or concerns raised about obtaining testimony from witnesses by deposition behind closed doors rather than in public sessions. The Special committee does have the power to compel witnesses to testify.

There is no timetable on when the TBI probe will be done (it is underway) or if its findings will ever be made public once its final report is given to Nashville DA Glenn Funk. He requested the inquiry be done.

And there could still be a fourth investigation underway by the Tennessee Comptroller. That agency never confirms any of its probes until results are released.

Of course, the media continues its investigation into the matter. This TENNESSEAN story link has been seen by some as a potential smoking gun in the case.

But is this travel and overtime approval switch a poorly timed request that likely changed or covered up nothing? Is the fact that Police Chief Steve Anderson got left out of the approval loop after the change was made, a sign of a coverup or just a computer glitch that Metro IT officials didn’t catch until the scandal broke? After all, to err is human. To really mess things up its takes a computer.

Nothing seems certain at this point except that this new revelation likely opens a new area of questioning for investigators as well as additional Metro officials to question.

It was also not a normal campaign kickoff for those pushing the Mayor’s multi-billion- dollar transit plan now before voters on the May 1st ballot. The Mayor was present at last Saturday’s event but did not speak. Nothing here of significance? Well maybe not. But it would have been inconceivable three weeks ago, before the scandal broke, that Mayor Barry, the plan’s biggest cheerleader, would have been left off the speakers list. But she was. So, draw your own conclusions about whether the leaders of the transit push now have concerns about the Mayor keeping too high a profile on the transit push.

It should be noted Mayor Barry is still pushing transit in the media, including an interview and ride on an MTA bus with a NEWSCHANNEL5 reporter this week. But the impact of the scandal on the transit vote was still asked during the interview. On Friday, the Mayor also sent out a blast e-mail to supporters (paid for by her Friends of Megan Barry campaign group) urging them to vote yes on the transit referendum.

Other community leaders are stepping up in favor of the transit plan, including Butch Spyridon, President and CEO, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. Some wondered about that group’s support because the sales and room taxes are among those being increased if voters approve the plan. Those tax hikes could impact costs for visitors coming to Nashville. But Spyridon wants to set the record straight about his industry’s support:

“When Opryland theme park closed, when Sept. 11 happened and when the flood occurred, those were disruptions. The transit plan will enhance our ability to move around visitors and hospitality industry

employees and make attractions like the Nashville Zoo, The Hermitage and Cheekwood, as well as Nashville International Airport, much more accessible through improved frequency on local routes and new lines. Transit construction will have minimal impact and be a temporary inconvenience worth the greater benefit upon completion.”

In late breaking news Friday afternoon, the main transit plan opposition group “No Tax 4 Tracks” will begin airing its first TV ad on Monday (February 19). The buy is $42 K on NEWSCHANNEL5 alone.

Finally this week, THE TENNESSEAN helped clear up some of the mystery behind those outdoor boards supporting Mayor Barry which that popped up along Nashville’s interstates within a day or so after the scandal broke into the news. The signs have just as suddenly vanished, and the paper says here’s why.

If one of Mayor Barry’s most dedicated supporters (enough to pay for three outdoor billboards) doesn’t want his or her name disclosed that seems to speak volumes about the continued very precarious position she may be with the public (and winning back their trust) going into the third week after this scandal became public. And it is going be several weeks yet before anything close to a resolution is in sight.

AS CORKER RECONSIDERS RUNNING THE TENNESSEE GOP SENATE RACE TAKES A NASTY TURN

Rumors and a CNN story surfaced last weekend that Tennessee Senator Bob Corker was being heavily lobbied by Republican leaders in Congress to shelve his retirement and run for another six year term.

At first, I thought this was a case of some late “buyer’s remorse” by the Senator. Other early news reports seemed to show Corker and his office sticking to his retirement plans, but then later in the week, things changed. The Senator’s office indicates Corker is now “listening” to those urging him to run and is “considering the matter.” Corker himself has just quit talking about the subject to reporters.

This flurry of activity seems to be part of a broader effort by Senate GOP leaders concerned they don’t have their strongest candidates seeking to hold Republican seats in several states. Here’s what THE HILL says.

Click here and here to read some additional coverage from other media sources you will likely find interesting.

The “sexist pig” and “old men in Washington” comments by a Marsha Blackburn spokesman certainly shows the continuing fractures in the national Republican party that echo here in Tennessee. I’ve told you before there are elements of the Tennessee party establishment who haven’t liked Blackburn for years and Corker running again could throw the Senate primary into an all- out war.

What happens to the other GOP primary candidate, former Congressman Stephen Fincher? He is rarely even mentioned in all these speculation articles and he’s being criticized by some for focusing too much on fund raising and not enough on building his name recognition and campaigning. If Corker jumps in, would Fincher find himself squeezed out?

I must say that if Corker jumps back into the race, he would seem to face quite a challenge. It’s pretty clear he got battered and bruised here in Tennessee in his feuds with President Donald Trump last year. Can he now get the President’s support in a GOP primary? That seems rather far fetched to me. But then we are talking about Donald Trump here and if any politician would think he could try and pull off that kind of switcheroo it would be The Donald.

But for now, count me doubtful.

As for the Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen?

He seems to be in a good place. Continuing events in Washington solidify his claims to voters that we need to elect more adults to go to Washington, folks who know how to get things done. That would seem to stand in sharp contrast to the long list of what is going on recently inside the Beltway (gridlock, government shutdown, the increased debt and red ink coming from the new two-year spending plan, as well as the new tax cut law , no action on DACA and other immigration issues and now, once again, no action plan whatsoever to address the continuing number of mass shootings especially in our schools).

But while it is no doubt helpful to the former Governor to sit back and remain on the sidelines while his potential opponents go after each other, Bredesen can’t let the GOP primary race completely overshadow him in media coverage and in the voters’ minds. He must continue to be a persistent presence so that voters don’t forget he is an alternative available this fall.

THE AD WARS ESCALATE

This Tennessee election cycle, with two hotly contested statewide contests for Governor and U.S. Senator, seems bound to set new spending records and it’s just mid-February.

Last week, GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn got the headlines for laying down a million- dollar broadcast and cable TV buy to run later this summer. Then fellow congressman and GOP gubernatorial candidate Diane Black announced an even larger buy of $1.33 million for ads to run in the same period this summer leading up to the August primary vote.

Now businessman and farmer Bill Lee had made the biggest buy of all (so far). It’s $2.2 million for primary ads in his quest to be the GOP nominee for governor.

A third gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd has been on the air with two big buys and two different ads already. This week Boyd also sought to match Black in a non-monetary effort for his campaign, He announced the formation of a 45 -member law enforcement coalition of sheriffs, district attorneys and police chiefs from across the state who are supporting him and advising him on public safety issues.

All the GOP gubernatorial candidates have now run TV spots, except House Speaker Beth Harwell. With $5 million in the bank when does she start? Well, there may be some positive messages on TV about her as soon as Monday.

That’s when a group called Tennesseans for Good Government has purchased $52,000 time for ads beginning Monday and running on NEWSCHANNEL5 the next couple of weeks. This ad does not be seems to be coming from her campaign funds. If it is not, it will the first third-party group to air TV in the governor’s race. And it is apparently a positive one.

Finally, in terms of campaign ads, why did Diane Black run ads during the Super Bowl but then go dark?

FODDER FOR ATTACK ADS ON DIANE BLACK?

This is a link to a major NEW YORK TIMES story that is beginning to get some traction here in Tennessee.

It could also provide fodder for attack ads against Congressman Diane Black’s gubernatorial campaign, in either the GOP primary and/or the general election battle this fall.

And will those ads come from other campaigns or outside groups?

THE TENNESSEAN has picked up the matter with an article that also includes reactions from the Black campaign (just standing by a constituent a spokesperson claims) as well as from opposing candidates (a mixed response so far) and from the Tennessee Democratic Party.

And now reports NASHVILLE POST there’s an ethics complaint filed against Black: “Nashville resident Frank Hundley filed a complaint with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance over the donations, citing "a systematic disregard for state laws."

Stay tuned.

SELL TVA? I’D SOONER SELL…

This week President Trump unveiled his long- awaited infrastructure plan and legislation. Like his latest budget proposal, it faces an uncertain future in Congress. It would not be your traditional federal government program. For example, rather than Washington putting up 80% of the money and the local and state governments 20%, the Trump plan reverses those numbers.

It also seeks to provide some of the federal monies by cutting existing agencies and services. Who would have thought President Trump and former President Barack Obama share anything in common on policy matters? Well, they do. Both have suggested selling the Tennessee Valley Authority and its transmission lines to private industry.

That proposal is likely not going anywhere. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander calls it a “loony idea” that won’t pass the Congress. Senator Corker is not supportive either, although in light of our earlier conversation in this column about Senator Corker thinking about running again, it seems the junior Senator from the Volunteer State is not as critical as Alexander, steering clear of using any harsh language or attacks on the President or the administration.

Here’s his statement in full…

“While it is important to remember that TVA has not received any taxpayer funding since 1999 and has taken positive steps in recent years to pay down its debt, as I’ve said before, I think it’s valuable to evaluate from time to time reforms that could cause TVA to function more effectively for Tennessee taxpayers and ratepayers,” said Corker. “That said, at the end of the day, selling TVA is a very unlikely outcome.”

I must say this renewed talk of selling TVA reminds me of the 1964 presidential race in Tennessee. That’s when Republican nominee Barry Goldwater proposed selling TVA which generated a strong wave of opposition. There was even a special bumper sticker produced. It read: SELL TVA? I’D SOONER SELL ARIZONA!” That’s the state Goldwater represented in the Senate. President Lyndon Johnson easily carried Tennessee that year, and Goldwater’s TVA comments likely helped build his margin. TVA is not nearly the political sacred cow in Tennessee politics today that it was back then. But selling it? No way!

Interestingly one Tennessee political leader who supports the President’s infrastructure plan is Governor Bill Haslam, although he told NPR he supports it in some measure because it’s “better than nothing” and nobody in Washington seems to support an alternative of raising the gas tax to fund an infrastructure push.

The Governor says the state would also be well positioned to get federal infrastructure money because it will get credit due to Tennessee’s recent state gas tax hike and the new state funding for rural broadband expansion. The State (and Metro?) could also get credit if voters approve the transit plan pending before Nashville voters on May 1st.

But does that mean Metro would get the federal dollars needed to fully build the light rail system and the rest of the transit plan? Will that even matter if Congress doesn’t approve the Trump infrastructure plan, which looks somewhat doubtful?

I have not seen the Governor’s position on the sale of TVA, but I would be shocked if he supports it.

PRESIDENT’S DAY ON INSIDE POLITICS

Dr. John Vile, noted political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University is my guest on INSIDE POLTICS this week.

Since it’s President’s Day weekend, we’ll take a look at the change in the job of being President over the years, and how the present Chief Executive is already leaving his mark on the institution.

That gives us plenty of room to discuss the latest political stories in the news and mix in a little election politics too.

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.

BEST LAID PLANS

When the City of Memphis managed to remove two controversial Confederate statutes from a local park by selling the property to a newly formed non-profit, which removed the likenesses of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest, GOP state legislative leaders cried foul. They seemed convinced state law had been violated.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally asked the State Comptroller’s office to investigate. It did, but SURPRISE: it found no law violations. Read more at this link.

As you might expect this fight is not over. But it probably hasn’t started out to be the easy task some state Republican lawmakers might have thought it would be.