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Capitol View commentary: Friday, July 30, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 2:04 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 15:04:44-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

July 30, 2021

HAS THE DELTA VARIENT CHANGED THE COVID WAR? FIGHTS RE-EMERGE AS NEW CDC MASK GUIDELINES ARE ISSUED ABOUT INDOOR USE AND SCHOOLS; IN A MAJOR VICTORY FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN A BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL ADVANCES IN THE SENATE; $4.8 MILLION APPROVED BY U.S. HOUSE FOR TWO HISTORICALLY BLACK NASHVILLE COLLEGES AND SCHOOLS ALONG WITH AN EFFORT TO RECONNECT NORTH NASHVILLE AND REVITALIZE JEFFERSON STREET; IS IT STUPID OR POLITICS OR BOTH?; FORMER GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM IN ENCORE INTERVIEW ON INSIDE POLITICS; REPORTS SHOW NATIONAL ECONOMY HAS REBOUNDED BACK ABOVE PRE-PANDEMIC LEVELS WHILE NASHVILLE’S GROWTH SO FAR IN 2021 IS BEST IN THE COUNTRY;

HAS THE DELTA VARIENT CHANGED THE COVID WAR? FIGHTS RE-EMERGE AS NEW CDC MASK GUIDELINES ARE ISSUED ABOUT INDOOR USE AND SCHOOLS

It has been another week where COVID-19, with its Delta variant, is raging all over the country, especially in areas with low vaccination rates. But the virus is so much more contagious, it is impacting even fully vaccinated people.

A leaked memo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates “the war has changed.” The virus with this variant seems to be at least as contagious as the common cold, Ebola or chicken pox.

Those concerns, based on full data to be released today (Friday), led the CDC earlier this week to once again change its guidance about masks.

Problematically, the latest CDC statements reverse some of its most recent guidance. Now, folks, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, in areas with strong transmission of the disease (that includes most of the country including Nashville and Tennessee), should go back to wearing masks indoors, in particular where crowds are present.

The CDC is also reversing its recommendation about who should wear masks in school. Now the federal agency says everyone: staff, teachers, visitors and students, vaccinated or unvaccinated, should go back to wearing face coverings. The CDC does still recommend school classes be held in person, in classrooms, and not virtually.

The CDC has proven time and again during this pandemic that the Cs in its name do not stand for “communication.” In fact, you can be sure they stand more for controversy and confusion.

And so, it begins again.

Nationwide, the CDC’s guidance change is already sparking some cities, states and others to reinstate mask mandates.

The CDC actions are also galvanizing businesses to tell their workers to get their covid shots or else.

By the way, the federal Department of Justice said this week federal law does not ban employers from mandating vaccines.

President Joe Biden is also getting tougher on federal employees to get their dabs.

Finally, the President is urging cities and states to use their American Rescue funds to offer incentives to get folks vaccinated. The state of Tennessee has never done that, and despite giving some incentives earlier this year, there are no indication Nashville officials will do it again.

There is some good news locally. Nashville Mayor John Cooper wrote this on social media this week.

“Due to the Delta variant, COVID-19 cases are up 400% over the past month. Nashvillians are taking note and getting vaccinated.

Vaccinations were up 46.5% over the past 7 days compared to the average of the 4 previous weeks.”

Health officials hope that upward trend in getting shots continues.

On a related issue, with the national moratorium banning evictions set to expire this weekend, President Biden wants Congress to extend it. That might legally strengthen the moratorium which has run into problems in the courts. But the President is asking Congress very late. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday asked the CDC to extend the moratorium again. However, in light of recent court decisions that may not work.

Meanwhile, the red tape issues, down in the cities and states, to get the billions of dollars in rental assistance Congress has approved, out to the millions who need help, does not seem to be improving. Metro Nashville officials say they are getting out more rental assistance money here than in the rest of the nation. They claim the national average is only 20% while Nashville has distributed 58% of its funds. But still more rental aid is available. They urge those in need to apply.

But local advocates and some Metro Council members want the city to do more to protect the hundreds of Nashvillians in danger of losing their shelter.

Getting back to masks, across Tennessee, there is not much consideration at all to reinstating mask mandates, That includes here in Nashville which until a few weeks ago, when the city ended a months-long indoor mask requirement for city owned buildings, was followed by many local businesses.

What about schools which open in just a few weeks in Nashville? The Metro School Board had decided to ‘strongly encourage” but not require masks. Will that change? Even before the new CDC guidance some parents were petitioning the Board to require masks again. The national association for pediatricians has also called for full masking to return.

Of course, the return of mask mandates is causing a renewed political fight in Congress with some House Republicans refusing to mask up and Democrats again calling for them to be fined. The Senate is getting into a controversy as well, even though mask wearing is optional in the upper chamber. The stakes and the political temperature waxed even higher at the end of the week. The new head of the Capitol Police was threatening arrests against those House staff or visitors who refused to leave or cover up. No arrests yet for House members although any refusals from them are to be reported to the House Sargeant At Arms.

Here in Tennessee, these new mandates and the new spike in covid cases, along with lagging vaccination rates are even beginning to split the Republican Supermajority in both Houses.

A majority of the Senate Republican caucus, including all its leadership have signed and sent out a strongly worded letter urging everyone to get vaccinated now.

But as Senators sent out their letter finally taking a strong stand in favor of vaccinations, several House members sent out their own message warning school officials they do not have the legal authority to impose mask mandates or to require proof of vaccination.

What a mess. We look for leadership. Instead, all we find is more division, even among the super majority party in control of our state.

And it goes even further. In the aftermath of a two week political debacle that found Tennessee receiving national ridicule for firing its chief doctor in charge of vaccinations, because GOP lawmakers complained she was “peer pressuring teens” to get shots, now Governor Bill Lee is being criticized by some in the conservative media in the state. The criticism comes from him apparently not understanding the long time policy of the Tennessee Department of Health. That policy allows children ages 14-17, flexibility in their health care in terms of parental permission.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michelle Fiscus is continuing to speak out against Governor Lee and his administration. The pediatric doctor, fired from her position as Tennessee’s top immunization physician, has given a block buster interview to NEWSCHANNEL5’s Investigates Chief Reporter Phil Williams.

In a series of stories aired this week, Phil connected the dots from some of his previous reporting, while raising new questions about the following:

· Dr. Fiscus says almost quit her job late last year over a $26.5 million no-bid covid testing contract given to a politically connected out of state firm with no experience.

· Did State Health Commissioner (and Fiscus’ boss) Dr. Lisa Piercey mislead GOP state lawmakers when they questioned her about the covid testing contract?

· Did Governor Lee invoke his religious convictions to keep Tennessee from using the one-shot Johnson & Johnson shot?

In another interesting twist in the news coverage of the Dr. Fiscus controversy, THE TENNSSEE STAR is picking up the NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES/ Phil William interview.

Next week the Metro Council is being asked to get involved in the controversy over Dr. Fiscus. A memorializing resolution on the Council’s agenda Tuesday night (with 18 sponsors) recognizes Michelle Fiscus, M.D., for her leadership during the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another resolution recognizes August 2021 as “National Immunization Awareness Month” in Nashville and Davidson County, an event that has also played a part in the state’s teen vaccination controversy.

And if Governor Lee doesn’t have enough controversies to deal with, now he is being sued over his move to cut off early the extra federal unemployment aid that many out of work Tennesseans have been relying on. The Governor took that move earlier this month, saying he thinks its time for everyone to go back to work.

Nashville itself remains divided this week over longtime local radio talk show Phil Valentine. He has spoken out for months against the covid vaccines, saying they were too risky for him to get the shots, and advising his listeners to do likewise and avoid them.

But now he has COVID-19 himself (and was placed on a ventilator this week). In earlier interviews from the hospital, Valentine admits to a change of heart and now urges everyone to get vaccinated.

All this has led to a most unfortunate outpouring from social media critics, some of whom say they hope he dies.

That’s terrible. I have known Phil for years. We worked together on several of the old Gridiron roasts. I worked with his wife when I was in the PR business. We rarely agreed on politics, but we got along OK.

He seems to now admit he made a mistake about the vaccine, and he urges his listeners to get their dabs. Yes, he made a bad mistake, especially for someone people looked to as an opinion leader in the community. But no one should ever wish a person to die or any other evil happen to them.

Remember if you want to begin to convince the doubters and those resisting the vaccine to change their minds, telling them first “you are wrong and you’re ugly, now change,” is not the way to start or advance that conversation.

IN A MAJOR VICTORY FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN A BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL ADVANCES IN THE SENATE

We’ve talked about this a lot in this column and on INSIDE POLITICS.

All summer critical negotiations have been underway seeking to find support to pass a major bi-partisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, first in the Senate and later in the House. It is a bill with 8 years of funds for roads, bridges, transit, rail and broadband. It is a very important part of President Joe Bidens legislative agenda. At times it looked the efforts to pass it were making progress. At other times, things looked close to failure.

Last week, all the Senate Republicans voted no to begin debate on the bill, feeling they needed more details about a measure still being drafted. Even early this week, there were news stories the effort to pass the bill was near collapse.

But then came word on Wednesday, a final deal had been reached. The measure came back to the Senate floor early Wednesday night where the body voted 67-32 to begin debate on the measure. The yes votes include 17 Republicans, seven more than needed to overcome a filibuster. Those voting yes to allow debate include Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had previously said he was committing 100% of time to stopping the Biden agenda. These developments this week sent former President Donald Trump into orbit.

There are likely still obstacles ahead when amendments are considered. But for now, this is a major victory for President Joe Biden and his administration. But remember, even if the Senate approves, the vote in the House is not a sure thing, given the narrow Democratic majority in the lower chamber.

There’s also an even larger ($3.6 trillion) human infrastructure bill still pending in the House. It is another major part of the President’s agenda with funds for continuing child tax credits, Medicare and Medicaid expansion, childcare and fighting climate change. Because this second human infrastructure measure will be considered through the budget reconciliation process, Republican support is not needed, and it can’t be stopped by a filibuster.

But it can be stopped if all 50 Democrats in the Senate don’t vote yes. Or if amendments gum up the works and Democratic support in either house is fractured. Even the Senate parliamentarian might get involved again. However, on Thursday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters he the votes in the Senate to pass the larger infrastructure bill.

Right now, for a President with the narrowest of majorities on Capitol Hill, Joe Biden looks to be in the political catbird seat to pass two major pieces of legislation. Both measures are of a financial size, and enact major policy changes, making them reminiscent of the New Deal or the Great Society.

But remember, as that great political analyst Yogi Berra once said:

“It ain’t over, till it’s over.”

$4.8 MILLION APPROVED BY U.S. HOUSE FOR TWO HISTORICALLY BLACK NASHVILLE COLLEGES AND SCHOOLS ALONG WITH AN EFFORT TO RECONNECT NORTH NASHVILLE AND REVITALIZE JEFFERSON STREET

In a separate funding bill passed by the U.S. House this week, $4.8 million has been allocated to two of Nashville’s historically black colleges and schools (American Baptist College and Meharry Medical School). The funds will also support an effort to reconnect North Nashville to the rest of the community and revitalize Jefferson Street.

The funds were included at the request of Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper, the first time in a decade that members of Congress were able to submit specific projects for their districts. I think this process used to be called “earmarks,” and until recently, they have been politically out of favor.

“These projects are vital to make Nashville more inclusive and help us continue to grow,” Rep. Jim Cooper said. “I hope the Senate will agree to support these projects and send these much-needed funds back here to Middle Tennessee.”

If approved here is how the funds would be spent:

American Baptist College, in partnership with the Metro Historical Commission, would restore buildings on its campus where many notable Civil Rights leaders received their education and training. The effort would also create a complementary Civil Rights walking tour of the campus to educate the public about the college’s significance and role in the Civil Rights story.

Meharry Medical School would fund a supercomputer cluster to support student- and faculty-specialized genomics research at their new School of Applied Computational Sciences.

Metro Nashville would construct the Jefferson Street Cap and Connector, an interstate cap located over I-40 from the D.B. Todd Blvd bridge to 17th Avenue North. The project would help reconnect the North Nashville community and support revitalization of the historically significant Jefferson Street commercial district.

Said Faye DiMassimo, Director of Metro Nashville Department of Transportation and Multimodel Infrastructure. “The proposed Cap and related transportation improvements determined through community led design, will yield equity, sustainability and community restoration benefits to a historical Black community generationally impacted by the construction of I-40 in the early 1960s.”

The status of the funding bill in the Senate is not known.

Politically speaking, if Congressman Cooper can obtain approval of these funds, it will be a real coup. He is facing a most uncertain re-election campaign in 2022. First, it is unclear what kind of district he will be running in after Republicans in the Legislature redraw the congressional districts lines. Second, Cooper is again facing primary opposition from the minority community. Whatever the Congressman can do to show he can help his constituents by “bringing home the bacon”, as they say in politics, it would likely be a positive for his campaign.

IS IT STUPID OR POLITICS OR BOTH?

There was still more gripping video shown this week of the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.

It was backed by emotional testimony given by Capitol Police officers who felt they were going to die when they tried to stop the riot.

But even as the select House Committee held its first public hearing to begin its probe of what happened on January 6, at least one Republican proves that maybe you can’t fix stupid or wrong- headed politics.

Representative Andrew Clyde has said what happened on January 6 was just “a normal tourist visit” on the Hill. Believe it or not, even after the latest video and the testimony, he says he still stands by that statement.

It’s just unbelievable politics. And stupid.

The anger surrounding what happened on January 6th continues to boil. It is not just Republicans versus Democrats. It also includes a growing fight between pro-Trump anti-Trump forces within the GOP.

While things remain in turmoil, on Thursday, both houses of Congress did approve $2.1 billion in emergency spending for Capitol Police. Otherwise, the agency was about to run out of funds next month and employee furloughs loomed.

FORMER GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM IN ENCORE INTERVIEW ON INSIDE POLITICS

Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, we are not able to produce an INSIDE POLITICS show this week.

In light of both the continuing political fighting in Washington, contrasted with the rare bi-partisan vote in the U.S. Senate to advance an infrastructure bill, I thought it would be good to hear again the thoughts of former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam as he discusses his new book: FAITHFUL PRESENCE: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL OF FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE.

Governor Haslam believes we can be people of faith and be effective in politics. He also believes in the old adage of former Tennessee U.S. Senator, the late Howard Baker. He often said, listen and pay attention to what the other guy (or lady) says, they may be right.

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. 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. We are also back on DISH TV with the rest of the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.

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 own Facebook page, usually on the Monday or Tuesday after the show airs.

REPORTS SHOW NATIONAL ECONOMY HAS REBOUNDED BACK ABOVE PRE-PANDEMIC LEVELS WHILE NASHVILLE’S GROWTH SO FAR IN 2021 IS BEST IN THE COUNTRY

The latest national economic report this week found the economy rebounding back above the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 (although not for jobs). The growth in the second quarter for the nation’s Gross National Product (GNP) was 6.5% on an annualized basis. That is quite robust, although lower than the 8%-plus some economists were predicting. The growth number was 6.3% for the first quarter.

All that looks at what has already happened. What is the outlook for the economy going forward with COVID-19 and its Delta variant still raging?

As for growth in the Greater Nashville area, it may be the best in the nation so far for 2021. According to a report from the real estate company Tessa, Nashville is experiencing the most economic growth of any large metro area in the country. We are ahead of the greater Orlando, Jacksonville, Austin and Raliegh areas ,who are also in the top 5 in the survey for 2021 growth so far.

Here are our numbers for the Nashville-Davidson County-Murfreesboro and Franklin areas:

Composite score: 78.9

Percentage change in total employment: 1.1%

Unemployment rate: 3.9%

Average monthly building permits per 100,000 residents: 132

Average monthly home sales per 100,000 residents: 174

Population: 1,933,860

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce says those figures are in line with the economic rebound it has been predicting.

Nashville’s tourism industry has certainly rebounded. But a change needs to be made quickly.

After local tourism officials feared, and predicted it would happen, a visitor to Nashville fell off one of those nearly completely unregulated “transportainment” vehicles on Broadway. He landed face down and then got run over by the vehicle’s wheels.

He is in serious condition, but his injuries are not believed to be to be life-threatening.

Don’t blame Metro. The know-it-alls in the Republican Super Majority in the Legislature decided only they, not the city, should regulate “transportainment.” The problem is our astute lawmakers have gone home for the year, so nothing can be done to better regulate the safety and operations of these vehicles. Even when they come back in January, you can be sure the transportainment operators will have plenty of lawyers and lobbyists to help them stay in control of any “changes.”