Tennessee voters cast ballot for issues over candidates in midterm election

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In a state with historically low voter turnout, early and absentee vote totals more than doubled the number from the 2014 midterm election and voters seem more motivated by issues – ranging from tightening the border to expanding education spending — than the candidates.

While voting at Farragut Town Hall in Knox County, Mitch Burnett and his wife Peggy, said that their votes were based on their support for stronger border security and respect for police officers. They voted for Republican Marsha Blackburn instead of Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen in the race for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican.

“Sanctuary cities should be abolished,” Burnett said. “I think it’s time to get back to American values.”

A public school teacher in Tennessee, Mary Nipper said she voted early for Bredesen at the Downtown West polling place because he supports educators.

“He’s very moderate and he makes decisions based on issues,” she said.

In Knox County, the final totals for early voting – reported at 117,750 votes– broke records and surpassed the 2014 midterm election early voting numbers. The records for high early voter turnout display Tennessee voters’ level of motivation to cast their ballots.

Fran Daniels, a social studies teacher in Farragut, was more concerned with the increase in voter turnout than the success of one political party or candidate.

“I hope people turn out regardless if they think their party will win or not,” Daniels said.

After early voting ended in Tennessee on Nov.1, the Secretary of State’s office reported over 1,378,840 early and absentee votes cast. In the 2016 presidential election, that number was 1,689,989. In the 2014 midterms, only 634,364 absentee and early votes were cast – more than half of this year’s totals with nearly a week left until Nov. 6.

In this election, Blackburn has not been a likable candidate and Bredesen, while popular as governor, is still a Democrat running in a red state.

But the strong pull of issues that matter to them brought many voters to the polls despite their feelings about the Senate candidates.

Farragut resident LeighAnna Colgrove brought her daughter to the polls so she could witness the voting process. Colgrove said her vote in the Senate race was driven by important issues affecting her and her daughter’s life.

“There’s some people on the ballot with good views on education and health care,” Colgrove said.

The Cook Political Report calls the race a toss-up. Real Clear Politics’ average of multiple polls gives Blackburn a more than 6 percentage point lead over Bredesen. But over the summer and into September, Bredesen had a lead of as much as 6 percentage points over Blackburn; the lead closed during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Some voters were disappointed when Bredesen announced he would have voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh if he had been in the Senate.

Alesa Grant, 53, said she was offended by Bredesen’s support for Kavanaugh, but she still voted for him because she believes he will improve health care and the economy.

Downtown West voter Rachel Kraft was upset that Bredesen supported Kavanaugh and said that “he could have kept his mouth shut.” But casting her ballot for Blackburn was not an option because, Kraft said, “Blackburn is anti-woman.”

“I never liked Phil Bredesen but now he’s our only hope,” Kraft said.

Timothy Hickman, a conservative voter in Knoxville, felt much the same about Blackburn.

“I held my nose when I voted for the Senate race,” said he said of his vote for Blackburn. But he wanted a senator who would uphold President Donald Trump’s agenda.

One central theme for many early voters in Knox County was their hope that elected officials would address political polarization and the harsh rhetoric that permeates politics.

Bredesen supporter Gail West cast her ballot early because she felt it was her civic duty. She hoped the negativity in politics would end with the election of unifying politicians in Congress.

“I want to see the bickering stopped,” West said. “I want to see people getting along together.”

In Farragut, Mark Larsen said his greatest concern as voter was the effects of partisan politics in Washington.

“I think in general the stuff that’s going on in Washington kind of concerns me because it’s so much adversarial and that type of thing,” Larsen said.

Early voting in Tennessee ended this week, a few days before Trump’s Nov. 4 visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee to campaign for Blackburn.

Helsinki Commission tackles U.S. policies on European nationalism and Russia

WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Thursday disagreed over the effectiveness of the European Union on addressing the rise of nationalist parties in Europe nationalism and increased Russian aggression in Europe.

A strong U.S. and European partnership is crucial to face challenges from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and international terrorism, according to Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“U.S. success in meeting any of those challenges will be enhanced greatly by partnership with Europe,” Rathke said.

But Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, echoed President Donald Trump’s sentiments that the EU is a “foe on trade” and said it is not helpful in furthering the U.S. post-World War II strategy in Europe.

“The EU is an open and declared enemy to the role the U.S. assumed in Europe after 1945,” Bromund said.

Rathke disagreed: “To portray the European Union as a foe is frankly absurd.”

Bromund said nationalism is a dirty world in Europe because of Nazism, but nationalism is essential to the political order of Europe.

“Nationalism is a necessary thing,” Bromund said. “If you don’t have it or you try to repress it, it’s space will be filled with other kinds of group identities that are fundamentally incompatible with democracy.”

Paul Coyer, a research professor at the Institute of World Politics, said the U.S. should shape a healthy form of nationalism to curb the threats to European democracy.

“A healthy nationalism, in my view, is one that appreciates one’s own traditional culture while also appreciating those of other people,” Coyer said.

All panelists agreed that Russia is not blame for the rise of populism and nationalism in Europe, but nevertheless is a threat to global security.

Bromund chastised the European Union’s response to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine since 2014. He said the EU  economic sanctions on Russia are weak and not deterring aggression.

“If the EU and Europeans want to play a serious security role in their own continent,” Bromund said. “The invasion of a nation needs to be met with more than a few economic sanctions.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision this week to not seek re-election has raised concerns about who will replace one of Europe’s strongest leaders.

Although Merkel may remain chancellor for another three years, Rathke said her successor will determine how Europe deals with nationalism and Russia in the future.

“She’s weakened by the recent political developments,” Rathke said. “Whether Germany is going to play an active role will depend a lot on how this succession takes place.”

Coast Guard Commandant Speaks on China, Russia Advances in Arctic

Coast Guard Commandant

ARLINGTON, Va. — Beverly Banks speaks with Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz about the United States security measures in the Arctic at the Military Reporters and Editors annual conference. Schultz says the United States is prepared for China and Russia’s advances in the strategically important region.

Video by Patty Nieberg.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Midterm Elections in West Virginia and Tennessee

Senator Joe Manchin Interview

ARLINGTON, Va. — Beverly Banks spoke with WJLA 24/7 anchor Dave Lucas about her midterm reporting trip in West Virginia and Tennessee. While traveling across the Appalachian region, the Medill news team covered House and Senate races. Beverly interviewed Senator Joe Manchin and Richard Ojeda, the Democratic candidate for the third congressional district in West Virginia. While in Tennessee, Beverly talked with voters in Knox County about the issues that we’re driving them to the polls.

Published in conjunction with

Overcoming Obstacles to Mental Health Care

ARLINGTON, Va. –  In an effort to provide underserved communities with better access to mental health care, professionals are increasingly turning to a technology most people carry with them every day – the smartphone.

Speakers at the 2018 Behavioral Health Care conference in Washington, D.C. discussed how technology along with new ways of delivering care can improve access to services by breaking down geographical and bureaucratic barriers.

“We literally can have a person who can go online, refer themselves, and sign their consent forms,” said Amy-Erin Blakely, vice president of IMPOWER, a Florida health  organization that serves 20,000 patients a year, primarily through virtual health care.

Blakely said 98 percent of patients at IMPOWER report being satisfied with services delivered via Telehealth, a technology that provides health services through smartphones and laptops.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 89.3 Americans live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas.

“We had an overwhelmingly high success rate and satisfaction rate with our patients,” Blakely said. “Very few people said I’d rather take time off work and come and see the practitioners.”

Another innovation that promises to break down barriers to good mental health care is the transition from the fee-for-service to a value-based purchasing model. While fee-for-service pays providers based on the number of patients they see, value-based models tie payment to the quality of services.

Dr. Matthew Hurford, chief medical officer at the Community Care Behavioral Health Organization in Pennsylvania, said value-based systems could help in rural areas where substance abuse and mental health issues are often untreated.

“We want to build a ramp. This shouldn’t be a ladder,” Dr. Hurford said.  “This shouldn’t be like you’re climbing a mountain.”

Patient’s poor understanding of insurance models is another barrier to accessing behavioral healthcare in the U.S., according to conference participants.

Shondelle Wilson-Frederick, statistician and national program lead for the Office of Minority Health at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, described her office’s efforts to close the gap in health disparities through the Coverage to Care program.

Within this initiative, CMS provides a customizable guide to help patients better understand their health care coverage and connect them with primary care providers.

“With the expansion of Medicaid, some people were getting insurance for the first time and they just didn’t know how to use it,” Wilson-Frederick said.

In an effort to reach more diverse populations, resources within the Coverage to Care program are provided in several languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian.

Protests erupt during Kavanaugh confirmation vote

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of protestors demonstrated on the steps of the Capitol on Saturday before the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. Demonstrators shouted “Shame” and “Who’s Court? Our Court” in the hours leading up to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Police arrested several who refused to leave the Capitol steps. As the day progressed, demonstrators moved to the Supreme Court building. When Kavanaugh’s confirmation was announced, protesters booed and galvanized the crowd to continue chanting into the early evening.

Senate Passes Bill to Ramp Up Programs to Fight Opioid Crisis

WASHINGTON – The Senate easily passed bipartisan legislation Wednesday to combat the nation’s opioid crisis by bolstering programs to treat addiction, more closely monitoring of prescriptions and updating information on alternative treatments to addictive drugs.

The bill passed 98 to one – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah was the lone “no” vote and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was absent. The House passed the measure 393 to eight. It now goes to President Donald Trump for a signature, which is likely.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that more than 115 people a day die from opioid overdose and 21 percent to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.

Before the vote Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said that drug overdoses killed more than 72,000 Americans in 2017, including nearly 30,000 from opioid overdose.

“That’s heartbreaking — heartbreaking, as each person is someone’s loved one and someone’s family member,” Donnelly said.

The legislation would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to implement programs for prevention and treatment, including drug management for at-risk beneficiaries to avoid over-prescribing opioids, medical assistance for incarcerated juveniles who need substance abuse treatment, and limits on e-prescribing  prescription drugs that are controlled substances.

The Food and Drug Administration is also be would required to update information on nonaddictive treatments for chronic pain and addiction. In January, the FDA released its strategic policy road map, which included bolstering efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction.

Last month, the Senate passed another bill addressing the opioid crisis 99-1. The bill creates grant programs, including funding to help doctors get waivers for drugs that are especially good at treating opiod addiction, to help communities create addiction treatment centers and expands the use of naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses, to more first responders.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee and author of the measure, said Congress has allocated $8.5 million for opioid treatment since March. Wednesday’s vote “is an important step toward dealing with the most serious public health epidemic in any of our communities,” Sen. Alexander said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., emphasized how bipartisan efforts have helped curb overdose rates in West Virginia and nationwide.

“There’s no one silver bullet when it comes to the epidemic of opioids, but one thing is for certain, I and we will keep fighting,” Capito said. “We will fight back against those who are bringing deadly drugs into our communities.”

Published in conjunction with USA Today Logo

Obama Presidential Center sparks debate amongst South Side residents, environmentalists, and bird watchers

CHICAGO – South Side residents and park enthusiasts clashed over the Barack Obama Presidential Center’s environmental impact following the recent destruction of trees in Jackson Park.

Although the Obama Foundation made a commitment to ecosystem preservation, the Chicago Park District chopped down 40 trees in Jackson Park two weeks ago to relocate a track and field that would create more space for the center according to reports from WTTW Chicago Public Media.

“The idea that you would cut down that many trees to erect a monument to yourself. It’s obscene,” University of Chicago Professor William John Thomas Mitchell said. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in a man who I really revered.”

In January Mitchell, 76, coauthored an open letter that more than 180 University of Chicago faculty signed over concerns regarding the Obama Foundation’s promises and the lack of a community benefits agreement.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson stated, “Our landscape design provides more ecological variety and biodiversity than the more uniform grassy lawns that occupy almost the whole of this 19.3-acre site now.”

Blacks in Green, an organization focused on sustainability within black communities, has discussed the center’s effects on South Side neighborhoods with the Obama Foundation. The organization’s president, Naomi Davis, 62, of Woodlawn, is concentrating on the center’s potential benefits to the African American community rather than the center’s design.

“Our focus is not, do we love the president? We do. Our focus is not, is the design or the use of the Obama Presidential Center a good, bad or indifferent,” Davis said.  “We are focused on what’s good for black people.”

After the Obama Foundation unveiled the center’s designs in May 2017, many community organizations articulated differing concerns about the effects of a proposed 235-foot-tall museum tower on birds flying through Jackson Park.

Environmental activist Charlotte Adelman, 81, of Wilmette, filed a federal lawsuit with Protect Our Parks, Inc. to halt the construction of the center in the park. On Tuesday District Court Judge John Robert Blakey lifted the stay on the case and allowed legal proceedings to resume.

For Adelman, the center’s design is inconsistent with former President Barack Obama’s environmental policies and poses a threat to migratory birds.

“I don’t understand how Barack Obama who held himself out as being pro-environmental can choose a location to knowingly obstruct migratory birds and ensure many of their deaths or serious injury,” Adelman said.

Avid bird watcher Jennie Strable, 61, of Hyde Park, said the center will not have a significant impact on migratory bird populations. She has spoken with the Obama Foundation about redesigning the construction plans to account for potential risks to birds.

“There’s various types of bird safe glass that can be used,” Strable said. “Architects know how to build the building to minimize the impact to birds.”

Since Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government must approve the center before construction begins. A recent delay in the federal approval process has pushed back the groundbreaking date until 2019.

Youth activists galvanize communities to fight gun violence

CHICAGO – April 4, 2006 is the day that Trevon Bosley became an activist. Twelve years ago, his brother Terrell Bosley, 18, was preparing for band rehearsal outside a church on the Southeast Side of Chicago when someone fired shots and killed him.

Since that day Bosley, 20, of Roseland, joined Chicago youth activist movements advocating for an end to gun violence so that no one else loses their brother.

“I didn’t want anyone else to go through the pain of losing a loved one,” Bosley said.

“I wanted to use my anger and my passion to try to do something positive in the community.”

Bosley is part of a new generation of young activists inspired to end the cycle of gun violence in their neighborhoods and nationwide.

Five months ago, Bosley led thousands of protestors in the chant “everyday shootings are everyday problems” during the Washington, D.C. March for Our Lives.

Bosley is a member of Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., and Chicago Strong. Both youth activist groups advocate for peace in the community and empower young voices to speak out against gun violence.

Diego Garcia, 16, of Brighton Park, led 50 Chicago teenagers to the March for Our Lives demonstration and recently participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower in June.

As a member of Chicago Strong, Garcia advocates for immigrants on the Near South Side who are afraid of speaking up about gun violence. Garcia said his motivation stems from fear of a shooting in his neighborhood or school.

“It’s always in the back of my head that I might be the next victim of a school shooting and nobody is doing anything about it,” Garcia said.

This past weekend Isabella Johnson, 15, of Naperville, organized a rally outside Trump Tower for Stand to Save Chicago, a student-led organization fighting for safety in schools and communities. Johnson plans to meet with politicians about legislation to protect students from school shootings.

“I’m not going to wait until my school gets shot up to start doing something,” Johnson said. “I’m going to take action now.”

Johnson’s mother, Cindy Johnson, was heartbroken for the parents who lost their children in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“I never ever want to get the phone call that a lot of parents have received or the text message from their kids that are in a high school locked in a classroom,” Cindy Johnson said.

According to the most recent data from the Chicago Tribune, there have been 1,876 people shot in Chicago this year. Of those shooting victims, 83 were youths ranging in age from less than a year old to 16.

Bosley said he wants people to remember the names and just not the number of those killed by gun violence so that victims like his brother do not become another statistic.

“I definitely want to see in the future that people understand that these are lives and not just numbers,” Bosley said.  “These were innocent kids, no different than your own child.”

Susan Richardson Williams embodies servant leadership with family, politics, and the Knoxville community

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – While working on a U.S. Senate campaign in the 1970s, Susan Richardson Williams learned a valuable lesson in her career – do not take politics too personally.

When incumbent Sen. Bill Brock, R-Tenn., lost his 1976 re-election bid, a 31-year-old Williams was devastated after losing her first campaign and witnessing the series of Republican losses post-Watergate.

Despite this initial defeat, Williams’ career flourished, and she later worked for three Tennessee governors as well as attend nine Republican national conventions.

Williams was the first woman elected Chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, an appointed member to the TVA board, and a 12-year member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees. She credits the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for changing the trajectory of her life and career.

“The University of Tennessee ignited the fires in me and made me know what I really wanted to do with my life,” Williams said.

While parenting her three young children in the mid-1990s, Williams commuted Monday through Thursdays to work for former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in Nashville, Tennessee. The commute put a strain on her family, but Williams’ youngest daughter Hallie Williams said the sacrifice opened doors for her future career.

Williams met Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., during her time in Gov. Sundquist’s office.  Sen. Corker later offered her daughter Hallie an internship that turned into a 10-year staff position in his office.

“It’s a direct result of her decisions that I have been so blessed,” Hallie said.

While Williams is well-known in state politics, she has served the community through other leadership roles. Williams took a break from politics in the late 1980s and worked for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols under former Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan.

“Her first passion I think is politics,” Cronan said. “I’m just glad her second was athletics and UT.  She certainly made a difference in our program.”

According to a 2012 article from the Knoxville News Sentinel, when Williams left her position as Associate Athletics Director, the program was raising $2 million yearly and had endowed 40 scholarships.

Williams surprises many people because she is a Republican who champions conservation. In 2007 the Tennessee Wildlife Federation named Williams “Land Conservationist of the Year.”

As a member of the Legacy Parks Foundation, Williams provides insight for the preservation of nature in Knoxville. The Executive Director of Legacy Parks Foundation, Carol Evans, has known Williams for more than 20 years and calls her a loyal friend.  Although they are political opposites, Evans admires Williams’ open-mindedness and leadership within male-dominated organizations.

“She’s had to lead in earlier times, a lot in a man’s world,” Evans said. “She had to be sometimes the one woman in the room.”

Over the last two decades, Williams launched her public affairs consulting firm SRW & Associates while also raising two of her grandchildren, Jordan and Janae.

In her spare time, Williams enjoys painting for family and friends. One of Williams’ paintings hangs in Hallie’s apartment in Washington, D.C. and Hallie said it is her favorite decoration. The artwork depicts a silver and gold architectural landscape of Knoxville.

Hallie said her mother has taught her an important lesson that defined Susan Williams’ career.

“She has been really helpful when I would take it too personally to remind me that it’s just politics,” Hallie said.