U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander was in Memphis on Monday for a variety of purposes — one of which, perhaps coincidentally, was to see and be seeen on a day when his chief Republican primary opponent this year, state Representative Joe Carr, was the beneficiary of a Germantown fund-raiser.
Among other things, the senator made a pitch at a noon-time press conference at the University of Memphis area Holiday Inn for his bill to simplify student-aid applications and subsequently helped preside over the presentation of the Dunavant Public Service Awards (to Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft and Collierville town administrator James Lewellen).
In between those events, Alexander was asked about the news that broke Monday morning about the United Auto Workers (UAW) decision to withdraw its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of a representation vote that went against the union at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant earlier this year.
Earlier in the day, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, at a press conference of his own, had expressed astonishment at the UAW action, on the grounds, as the congressman said, that the union had what he thought was a good case.
So did Democratic members of Congress, who had only last week laid the basis for a possible hearing on the Volkswagen/Chattanooga matter in Washington focusing on a UAW contention that Tennessee state officials — notably Governor Bill Haslam and Alexander's Senate counterpart Bob Corker, along with members of the Tennessee legislature — had interfered with a fair and honest vote through their public statements and implied threats to withhold further state aid from Volkswagen if the union gained representation.
(Volkswagen itself, as Alexander acknowledged, had taken a neutral position — one which many believed favored the union cause.)
The reasons for the surprise UAW decision remained obscure, though rumors flew in some circles that it was all part of a maneuver to put the Haslam administration on the spot if Volkswagen chooses not to proceed with plans to build a new SUV line in Tennessee.
Whatever the case, Alexander professed himself pleased. "The UAW lost the election. Now it's time to get back to buildng cars," he said. He declined to comment directly on the union accusations against Corker and Haslam, other than to say he admired both officials and that they had "a perfect right to speak out on behalf of the people of Tennessee."
Warming to his point, Alexander went on to declare that the UAW's now-withdrawn appeal had been part of a "political sideshow," and he professed himself critical about the NLRB itself, which, he said, had been tilting more and more toward the interests of organized labor instead of focusing on its intended purpose as an objective body.
Accordingly, said the senator, he and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP's Senate leader, were preparing a bill to "restructure" the NLRB. He did not elaborate further.
In other words, the Fat Lady may not have sung the terminal note on this issue.
• For the third election cycle in a row, Congressman Steve Cohen has been endorsed in the course of a contested Democratic primary by President Barack Obama.
Cohen, who is opposed in the primary by lawyer Ricky Wilkins, announced the presidential endorsement — an echo of previous primary-season endorsements in 2010 and 2012 — at a press conference at his Midtown home. Obama's statement, released later via email, reads as follows:
"Congressman Steve Cohen has been a leader on justice and civil rights issues and has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents. His focus on bringing good jobs, affordable health care, and world class education to Tennessee is why I am proud to once again support his re-election."
The formal response of Cohen, who was an early endorser of Obama's presidential hopes in 2008, went this way:
"It has been my privilege to work with President Obama to make America more fair and just. Whenever I meet with him, we talk about Memphis and the needs of its citizens. I am always impressed with his compassion, dedication, and determination on our behalf. I appreciate the president's faith in me. Together, we will continue to work every day to ensure that America is a country where if you work hard and play by the rules you get a fair shot."
• If there is one thing that suburban candidates for the Shelby County Commission tend to agree on, it is that tax increases are off the table, in regard to both existing problems and to governmental innovations going forward.
That much was made clear Monday night when the four Republican candidates for the new District 3 County Commission seat met at the Bartlett Community Center for a forum conducted by the Northeast Shelby Republican Club's Frank Colvett.
Early on, all four hopefuls — Sherry Simmons, David Reaves, Kelly Price, and Naser Fazlullah — took the no-new-tax pledge, and when moderator Colvett later turned the screw, asking the candidates how they would decide if faced with a choice of cutting county fire and police services by 5 percent or raising taxes, they all held the line — though with various degrees of unease.
With a regretful look, Reaves said services would have to be cut; Price said essentially the same but promised to work with administrators to make the cuts as harmless as possible; and Fazlullah and Simmons both suggested that more fine-tuning of the budget might allow the choice to be averted.
All except Reaves, who noted that the county tax rate had been increased last year and wanted further cuts, were willing to endorse county Mayor Mark Luttrell's proposed $1.16 billion budget, however conditionally. Reaves suggested reductions could be obtained by eliminating out-sourcing of food services for county prisoners and instead using existing school nutrition sources and by consolidating IT services, a one-time Luttrell proposal that had proved to be a bugaboo with various turf-conscious department heads.
Another given in Republican circles is skepticism about governmental controls, a fact that elicited outright disapproval from three of the candidates of the currently controversial Common Core proposal for educational standards. Simmons, whose 35 years of teaching experience in Shelby County schools made her the only educator in the group, gave a grudging approval of the concept of uniform standards, provided that students were given time to adapt to Common Core's testing procedures.
Summing up what seemed to be a group disapproval of subservience to "national models," Reaves, an exponent of more vo-tech to counter poverty, complained that local school systems "should quit sucking money out of Bill Gates and the rest of his buddies."
The other three candidates had some one-liners, too. Simmons, agreeing with the others about swearing off free sports tickets and other perks, made a tongue-in-cheek exception for national championship games featuring the University of Alabama. Price, suggesting that recent public-school changes had been mainly cosmetic and not for the better, said that if he changed his name to "Dr. J," he still wouldn't be able to play basketball.
For his part, Fazlullah, who proposed creation of a "fund" to assist small business, said that local government in the past had been subject to the Golden Rule: "Those who have the gold have made the rules."
The candidates were split on some issues, like PILOTs (payment-in-lieu-of-tax provisions) to attract industry, with Reaves and Simmons approving PILOTs as necessary and Price and Fazlullah expressing doubt about their efficacy.
All in all, however, the quartet stuck fairly close to the traditional GOP talking points of low taxes, less government, and greater efficiencies.
Colvett had cautioned the candidates to avoid "personal" disagreements, and, in fact, the event was devoid of any significant disharmony, though Simmons and Reaves — or, more exactly, their supporters — have hit some sharply competitive notes in social media.