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Capitol View commentary: Friday, July 17, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 11:43 AM, Jul 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-17 12:43:05-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst

July 15, 2020

AS THE VIRUS FIGHT INTENSIFIES MAYOR JOHN COOPER JOINS US ON INSIDE POLITICS; ANOTHER WEEK OF IN-FIGHTING AND MIXED MESSAGES IN WASHINGTON; THE STATE AND METRO; ECONOMIC RECOVERY OUTLOOK STILL LOOKS LONG AND DIFFICULT; NOW FOR SOME POSITIVE NEWS ABOUT THE PANDEMIC; FORREST BUST REMOVAL SLOWS WHILE U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN PICKS UP MORE SPEED, GOES NEGATIVE; EARLY VOTING BEGINS AS THE COURT FIGHT OVER ABSENTEE AND VOTING BY MAIL IN TENNESSEE CONTINUES; TENNESSEE HEARTBEAT LAW STOPPED QUICKLY BY FEDERAL JUDGE; POLLS AND A CAMPAIGN SHAKEUP

AS THE VIRUS FIGHT INTENSIFIES MAYOR JOHN COOPER JOINS US ON INSIDE POLITICS

The fight against the COVID-19 virus pandemic continues to be an increasingly difficult one, around the world, across the country, as well as here in Tennessee and in Nashville. Multiple times in recent days, both the city and the state have announced record numbers of new cases while those hospitalized also continues to grow to record levels. Even on non-record setting days, the virus continues to increase the rolling 14-day average of COVID-19 cases.

To discuss where Nashville is and where we are headed in fighting the pandemic, along with several other major issues he is grappling with, we welcome back to the INSIDE POLITICS this week, Mayor John Cooper.

With all that’s happened since he was elected, it may be hard to remember he has been on the job only about 10 months. There certainly haven’t been any dull moments for him since he took his oath of office, so we appreciate him taking time to talk with us.

Tune in!

This week, INSIDE POLITICS will again air at 6:30 P.M. Friday on the main channel of the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK (WTVF-TV).

INSIDE POLITICS will air several times over the 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. on 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 cannot 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 early in the week after the program airs.

Finally, I am now posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

ANOTHER WEEK OF IN-FIGHTING AND MIXED MESSAGES IN WASHINGTON

It sounds so simple.

The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week if the nation was placed under a mask mandate, within 4 to 8 weeks COVID-19 would be “on its knees” and “under control” in this country.

It is a simple game plan. However, given the extreme gridlock and partisanship in this country abut wearing masks, it is about as likely to happen as the sun rising in the west and setting in the east tomorrow.

The CDC Chief then offered another prediction, which is much more likely to occur: This coming fall and winter will be “one of the most difficult times we’ve experienced” in public health.

The week began with the apparent feud between President Donald Trump and his health experts continuing to pick up steam, even as the President claims he has “a very good relationship” with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Last week, Mr. Trump also said Dr. Fauci “has made a lot of mistakes”, a theme White House staff and top aides took over and amplified further, especially one of the Trump administration’s chief trade advisors.

To further underscore the rift, the CDC has been demoted by the White House from first receiving vital hospital information and other key statistics to battle the pandemic.

All this feuding and infighting occurs as almost all of the 50 states are seeing continuing upticks in their virus cases with the daily count going well over 70,000 for the first time this week. Dr. Fauci said two weeks ago (when the daily counts were in the 40,000s), the nation will soon be at 100,000 new cases every day with hospitalizations and deaths rising as well.

If these attacks on Dr. Fauci and the CDC are the latest efforts by President Trump to neutralize the controversy over COVID-19 and help him in his re-election effort, it is getting quite a negative backlash from health officials. At the same time, and an initial poll indicates the issue is not working at all for the President.

It has been said we are at war with COVID-19. If so, and this past week represents our efforts at national leadership in the crisis, you have to say the virus is winning!

Ironically on Thursday, another top CDC official gave his description of what it would take to get the virus under control. It sounds a lot like what we are doing in Nashville. Too bad this national plan will never come out of the White House.

Ironically, a leaked CDC document shows Tennessee among states that need tighter COVID-19 restrictions. Even though the state and Nashville are listed as national hot spots, most of the steps recommended by the CDC, Nashville has already taken!

All this ongoing virus struggle comes as worldwide, COVID-19 cases exceed 13 ½ million case while deaths are closing in on 600,000. In the U.S. we have over 3½ million cases and we are not too far from 140,000 deaths, all those figures for the United States, remain the most in the world.

In the vacuum left by no coherent national leadership in this crisis, the nation’s largest retailer and grocery chain, along with other businesses, are stepping in.

Close to half the 50 states now have masks mandates, but not Tennessee. Nashville Mayor John Cooper has suggested a mask mandate be imposed by Governor Lee in the two-thirds of Tennessee’s 95 counties who already have such an “unacceptably high” level of COVID-19, the state already bans nursing home visits. There is no word about any response from the Governor on this proposal.

THE STATE AND METRO

I have written quite a few times about the lack of a game plan and consensus on attacking the virus. The problem is perhaps most glaring on the national level, but the challenge also manifests itself on the state and local levels too here in Tennessee.

I am not the only one writing about it either.

On the state level, despite almost daily record virus case numbers and hospitalizations, Governor Bill Lee says he will not consider a face mask mandate and shutting down the economy again is also not on the table.

In return there are a growing number of states where Tennesseans are not welcome to visit without going through a 14-day quarantine first.

While Governor Lee has resisted a statewide mask mandate, he is allowing mayors in counties across the state to do so. The mayor of Maury County has declined to issue such an order, but again proving COVID-19 pays no attention to who a person is, or where anyone lives, the mayor of Columbia, TN., the county seat of Maury County, has just learned he has the virus along with his wife.

In terms of hospitalizations the strain on the system is beginning to show. Williamson County Medical Center has sent out an internal memo that it will begin to stop elective surgeries as that medical system already now has as many COVID-19 patients as it did back in the spring.

The state this week did mark its one millionth virus test, one of the larger testing numbers in the country. The state’s positivity rate has risen but its average is rising and is now just below 10%.

Governor Lee announced this week the state plans to announce its revised guidelines next week with the goal to reopen schools with in- person classes. Some local doctors and teachers say that is “insane and irresponsible.”

Early next month, Metro Schools are beginning public school classes virtually until at least Labor Day. The city is staying in a revised Phase II of reopening its economy “for the foreseeable future.” That means bars are closed through at least the end of July with restaurants, retail, gyms and other personal care businesses open at reduced capacities. Meanwhile city leaders and health officials are scrambling to get the virus under control as case counts continue to set daily records every few days and hospitalizations tick up, although still below the expanded capacities our city and state now have to keep this spike from overwhelming the health care system. But things are getting tight, even in Metro, with another potential problem a lack of doctors and nurses.

Late this week, Metro did begin to enforce its mask mandate. On Wednesday, health officials announced they had issued 48 citations to businesses so far. It’s not just the usual suspects but businesses throughout the county.

On Tuesday, Metro police announced they had issued no citations, but that changed a short time later that day when the department said it would begin enforcement on Wednesday with teams of officers concentrating on the lower Broad and other parts of downtown. The results on the first day? A number of warnings were issued, but no citations.

The leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported Mayor Cooper for office last summer, now says it is “not acceptable” and expressed unhappiness police have to do this job.

Testing continues to be a challenge with continued delays at times to get results back quickly. Metro has changed its lab team, but some say we ought to change who gets priority to get a test first.

Overall, Nashville and Tennessee don’t appear to be in the dire straits, states such as Texas, California, Florida and Arizona are, or cities such as Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles. But we are not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel just up ahead either.

ECONOMIC RECOVERY OUTLOOK STILL LOOKS LONG AND DIFFICULT

Jobless claims declined a little again this week but the ongoing number of people seeking assistance remains well above historic highs as there are new concerns about the rate of requests for help skyrocketing due to some states shutting down again due to the spike in the virus and if government assistance to major industries such as airlines is not continued.

In Tennessee, the numbers for new unemployment help went down a little after ticking up last week. Overall, the Volunteer State has seen over a quarter of a million of our citizens continue to file for unemployment help this week, while over a total of over 700,000 have requested assistance since mid-March.

Unemployment in Tennessee is now down below 10%. I have not seen a new unemployment number for Nashville.

The continued economic challenges are bound to build pressure on Congress and the Trump administration to approve another virus relief bill. No overall consensus has been building on what to do with Congress set to go back into session next week, before taking another scheduled recess two weeks later for most of August. There is support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to f forgo the August break, but there has been no word from Senate leaders.

There are reports late in the week a deal on extending some unemployment benefits might be close.

Another potential development that could further spur action in Washington is the wave of evictions pending across the nation.

Locally, utilities such as Nashville Electric Service are continuing a moratorium on disconnecting service as well as other efforts to help economically strapped customers .

Congressional negotiations will likely also include providing more aid for state and local governments, efforts which have been hamstrung when earlier aid came with lots of restrictions for how it can be spent.

While the potential for federal help still looks uncertain, one Metro councilmember this week was tweeting figures that show local sales tax collections are up $67 million over revised projections for June. That had led to a resolution being filed for consideration at the next Metro Council meeting next Tuesday night. The resolution asks the Cooper administration to file by August 15 a revised tax levy ordinance that might reduce the 34% property tax increase recently approved.

Mayor Cooper says he is supportive of the concept, but he does not think there is enough firm financial information to lower the tax hike.

Meanwhile, those pushing a petition to recall Mayor Cooper, and the over 30 councilmembers who voted for the tax hike, say they will be at all the Early Voting sites both today and Saturday gathering signatures from voters.

NOW FOR SOME POSITIVE NEWS ABOUT THE PANDEMIC

There was some good news about a vaccine this week.

Locally Vanderbilt University has been playing a major role in this particular vaccine effort.

Of course, unless forced by circumstances I doubt anybody working on developing a vaccine would want to release anything but good news about their efforts.

Still I noticed later this week, still other rival companies are now touting their vaccine progress, even in advance.

And wouldn’t know it, there are now news reports that the Russians are hacking the researchers to steal their vaccine information.

FORREST BUST REMOVAL SLOWS WHILE U.S. SENATE CAMPAIGN PICKS UP MORE SPEED, GOES NEGATIVE

The effort to move from the State Capitol, the bust of controversial Confederate General and former Klu Klux Klan leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is being delayed until next year. After the State Capitol Commission voted last week to remove the bust and place it in the Tennessee State Museum, it had been thought the State Historical Commission, which by law, must also approve the move, would act at its meeting in October.

But due to all the red tape and required notices involved, it will now be February 2021 before the group can take final action. Approval requires a two-third vote of the 23- member commission.

35 prominent Tennessee businesses have signed a letter to Governor Lee calling for the Forrest bust to be moved.

A descendant of General Forrest says he supports the move as do members of the family of the late Nashville Senator Douglas Henry who was instrumental of having the bust placed in the Capitol back in the 1970s.

The push to remove the Forrest bust gained renewed life after the nationwide protests following the death of a black man, George Floyd, who after he was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Reaction to the calls for social justice and police reform has also led a Tennessee Republican U.S. Senate candidate to resign from a corporate board he served on.

Bill Hagerty’s chief primary opponent Nashville Doctor Manny Sethi is holding an interesting event in Rutherford County on Saturday. U.S. Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, who has endorsed Sethi, will speak. The Sethi campaign expects over 600 people to attend the outdoor event, despite the summer heat and ongoing virus concerns.

Speaking of heating up, as I predicted last week, as the Senate race tightens, the likelihood of attack ads has become inevitable. Indeed, as early voting begins today (July 17), both sides are launching attacks against each other. Fasten your political seat belts, it could get bumpy from here until Election Day.

There is a third GOP Senate candidate running a significant amount of TV ads. He is perennial candidate Dr. George Flinn of Memphis, who is independently wealthy. Perhaps hoping to capitalize, as Governor Bill Lee did in 2018 to win the Republican primary for governor when his two main opponents destroyed each other in the final weeks of the primary through TV attack ads, Flinn has begun airing a new ad of his own, claiming ,unlike his major opponents, he is not running to just to “pledge complete loyalty” to President Donald Trump. Flinn says he is running instead to “pledge total loyalty” to take traditional Tennessee conservative values to Washington.

In fact, Flinn says in the ad “President Trump isn’t always right.” That statement is likely to be perceived as close to heresy among many Tennessee Republicans, who for the last 5 years have made Mr. Trump the most popular elected official among Republicans in the state.

Can such an ad be effective? Well, it certainly makes Flinn stand out in the GOP primary field, but I doubt the ad will help him much, especially since he’s waited so late in the race to start it and it appears Flinn is significantly behind. Even if Tennessee Republicans might be receptive to his message, it takes some time for any message to be heard enough times for it to sink in, and then finally lead folks to action by voting for Flinn. I don’t think there’s enough time for that, and I have my doubts his message about the President is one Tennessee Republicans believe or want to hear. But if you are long shot like Flinn, I guess it is worth the chance to try it.

EARLY VOTING BEGINS AS THE COURT FIGHT OVER ABSENTEE AND VOTING BY MAIL IN TENNESSEE CONTINUES

As mentioned, early voting for the August elections began today. It comes as requests to vote by mail are already setting records after a Nashville Chancery Court said voters had the right to ask for an absentee ballot and vote by mail because of fear for their health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court decision, and the refusal of the Tennessee Supreme Court to stay the ruling, has not stopped the legal wrangling, including over whether first time newly registered voters must vote in person under state law. So far, the judge says that state law is not involved.

The COVID pandemic is also creating controversy over the ability and accessibility for Tennessee seniors and others in nursing homes to vote by absentee or by mail.

There is also another potential problem arising in Davidson County about mail-in ballots: Postage!

TENNESSEE HEARTBEAT LAW STOPPED QUICKLY BY FEDERAL JUDGE

Passage of one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation has been a top priority of the administration of Governor Bill Lee.

When the bill was finally before him Monday morning, he couldn’t wait to sign the ‘heartbeat bill” into law, even though it only stayed in effect for less than an hour. That’s when a Nashville federal judge blocked it pending a hearing next week.

The federal judge who stopped the “heartbeat bill” is catching a lot of grief for his action, which is unusual for several reasons. Major, controversial laws like this are often temporarily paused to review legal efforts to stop them. Similar laws in other states, prohibiting an abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy or when a fetus’ heartbeat has been detected, have been struck down by the courts, so this is a serious matter, deserving time for review.

What also makes the criticism of the judge involved a little unusual is that the jurist was nominated by Republican President Donald Trump and confirmed to the federal bench by a GOP dominated U.S. Senate. The Judge’s mother is also a high ranking official in the Tennessee Republican Party, and even was a host for a fund raiser for GOP Senate candidate Manny Sethi earlier this year.

But none of these facts kept GOP officials and elected officials across Tennessee from blasting the judge for being a “judicial activist.”

There are hopes among pro-life advocates, that Tennessee’s “heartbeat bill” will fare better in the courts because it contains a number of dates during pregnancy that allows the “heartbeat” provisions to take effect, even if a shorter time frame is voided by the courts. Some of pro-lifers even believe this law will open the door for the U.S. Supreme Court to begin to overturn its Roe v. Wade decision from the early 1970s that legalized abortion.

Pro-choice advocates say the state is just wasting taxpayers’ money, even as Governor Lee say he is committed to do “whatever it takes’’ to defend the new law in court.

POLLS AND A CAMPAIGN SHAKEUP

There have been a couple of contrasting presidential polls out this week.

One from the Rasmussen polling group finds President Trump making a sudden surge to close the gap between himself and his presumptive Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden to just 3%.

The difference between the candidates in several national polls in recent weeks has been anywhere from 8 to 11 points or more. A new NBC/ STREET JOURNAL poll is among a couple of polls this week that see a double digit margin for Biden.

So which polls are right? Based on the large number of polls that indicate Biden with a lead, it appears the Democrat is ahead (although these surveys measure the popular, not the electoral, vote)

If you watch the actions of the Trump team this week with a rumored campaign staff shakeup from the top coming down on Wednesday, that doesn’t send the message or the image of a re-election effort roaring back with its message, and plans to win, now in place.

There also remains the question about whether anyone can trust polling after the 2016 election?

At the same time, the Republican National Convention to nominate Mr. Trump for second term, is experiencing turmoil, after being moved by the President from Charlotte, NC to Jacksonville, FL, now one of the hot spots for COVID-19.

The Democrats and Joe Biden face issues too in holding their national convention in Milwaukee. In the wake of the on-going virus, the multi-day session is being scaled back, and will largely be held virtually. But local authorities are still getting ready to deal with a challenge that has faced every national convention of both parties since 1968 ….and which has again come back into national prominence in the wake of the death of George Floyd….protests.