"That was the trouble with corruption. The bigger the players who went down, the bigger the headlines got and the worse the city looked. So it was always the little ones -- the ones mixed up in things they didn't necessarily ask for, the ones who wouldn't be missed -- who were sacrificed. And the big fish eased back under their rocks to let the storm blow over."
That passage is from T. Jefferson Parker's new novel, The Fallen. The setting is San Diego, and the sordid backdrop -- that city's public pension-fund scandal -- could be taken right off the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Where will the next storm in Memphis come from? Pension plans? Tennessee Waltz? The Memphis City Schools? Election problems? Mayor Herenton's reelection? The Memphis Charter Commission? In the spirit of the college football polls, here are six candidates for you, the readers, to rank.
The next chapter of Tennessee Waltz. Now that Michael Hooks Sr. has pleaded guilty and Roscoe Dixon has been convicted at trial, what will John Ford and Ward Crutchfield do? Ford and Crutchfield were the longest-serving and most powerful politicians indicted in Tennessee Waltz, and both have so far indicated that they will go to trial. But Dixon's trial was brutal and will probably get him a longer sentence than Hooks. If Dixon, Hooks, Ford, or Crutchfield decide to unburden their conscience, or maybe even if they don't, there will be more indictments.
PSPB stands for public-sector pension burden. Get used to seeing it. Pension problems threaten to bring down General Motors and Ford and reached scandal status in San Diego, a city much richer than Memphis. Memphis appears to have its pension plan adequately funded, but there are warnings -- pension concerns were the original impetus for the Memphis Charter Commission, and the city's bond rating was lowered last year.
Without a whistleblower like the insider who exposed the problems in San Diego, PSPB problems stay under the radar. They're not media-friendly, and the feds can't "get a wrench around it," as former federal prosecutor Hickman Ewing Jr. used to say. But the basic problem of funding retirement benefits with taxpayer money is nationwide.
Election problems. Remember when elections consisted of 60 percent turnouts, decisive victories, and gracious concession speeches? The norm in Memphis these days, it seems, is a turnout of 25 percent or less, a victory margin of less than 1 percent or a "winner" with one-third of the vote, and a post-election challenge by the loser. And three weeks after the election, the Shelby County Election Commission is still going over the votes and hasn't come out with a Voter Turnout Report.
The Memphis Charter Commission. Direct democracy has come to Memphis. Will the seven commissioners play it safe, or will they present voters with one or more blockbuster referendums in the October 4th, 2007, city election? Activist agendas around the country include term limits, no tax increases without voter approval, and, in Arizona, a $1 million lottery award to encourage voting.
The Memphis City Schools. Another one of those big-picture stories that is hard to get a wrench around. Memphis is pulling for Superintendent Carol Johnson, but the top assistant she brought with her from Minneapolis suddenly left last month, and recent headlines included classrooms without schedules or textbooks, a principal resisting arrest on Beale Street, and a fight between a parent and student and a police officer.
A fifth term for Willie Herenton? Harold Ford Jr. will get the headlines until November, but after that, attention will shift to Herenton, who runs in October 2007. Steve Cohen's victory with 31 percent in the 9th District Democratic congressional primary gives hope to others with limited but loyal followings in a multi-candidate field.
Herenton is well entrenched with operatives, including spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson on the state Democratic Party executive committee, all-purpose special assistant Pete Aviotti, newly elected Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, MLGW president Joseph Lee, and city attorney Sara Hall. He remains the heavy favorite.
Correction: I mistakenly reported last week that Pat Kerr Tigrett's Waterford Plaza penthouse is for sale. Another Waterford Plaza penthouse is for sale. I regret the error.