Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, spoke to the Leadership Academy in Memphis last week, getting the star treatment in an Oprah-like setting. Walking out of the Hilton hotel, I ran into city councilman Bill Boyd who asked me, "What percentage of the people in that room would you say were comparing [Booker] with our mayor?"
Most of the audience, including Mayor Willie Herenton, probably noted some similarities and differences. But Booker reminded me of another Memphis politician: a younger version of Herman Morris.
Booker was a star football player at Stanford; Morris was a star football player at Rhodes. Booker has a law degree from Yale; Morris has a law degree from Vanderbilt. Booker's parents were civil rights activists; Morris was head of the Memphis NAACP. Booker is multitalented, with a gift for public speaking; Morris is multitalented, with an impressive portfolio of paintings.
But Booker has had political success, and Morris, who is less politically driven and gregarious, hasn't. Booker won his first race for City Council and rose to the mayor's office in 2006 on his second attempt. Morris lost a City Council race in 1987 and didn't get back into politics until 2007, when he finished third in the Memphis mayor's race with 21 percent of the vote.
A strong resume doesn't automatically translate to political success. Several thirtysomething men and women in Memphis would make good political leaders, but they either won't run for office or they can't get elected.
Bringing Booker to Memphis was inspirational, but it was also sort of a tease. He's not moving here, although his older brother Cary is executive director of the Stax Music Academy. If he did move, there is no doubt he would win support from Leadership Academy members and graduates, but leadership groups are more educated and more affluent than the general population. Booker earned credibility and electability by living in the inner city, by serving on the Newark City Council, and by playing extreme politics, such as going on a hunger strike.
His success is hard to duplicate and not just because, as he said, he had to deal with accusations of being KKK, gay, and a tool of the Jews. He favors eliminating one entry-level political job: the elected school board representative.
Part of the Sarah Palin phenomenon is that every politically ambitious school board member or councilman now sees himself or herself as a potential mayor, congressman, or governor. The elected school board is a step to political upward mobility. The only local board member willing to do away with it is Kenneth Whalum Jr. I was sitting near a table of other Memphis City Schools board members, and they weren't clapping when Booker said "you cannot manage large institutions by committee" or when he plugged mayoral control of schools.
Getting more Cory Bookers in politics would be easier if some other people stayed out of politics. Maybe leadership groups should give equal time to John Ford, Rickey Peete, Michael Hooks Sr., Michael Hooks Jr., Roscoe Dixon, Kathryn Bowers, and Bruce Thompson. I bet every one of them is a graduate of a leadership program and attended dozens of programs like the one in Memphis last week.
In exchange for a reduction in their prison sentences, those former public officials could be offered a chance to explain their temptations and troubles in public forums — one hour, one person alone on a stage in front of a microphone, open to any and all questions about their political rise and fall.
"What happened?" "What would you tell someone who is considering running for political office?" "What is it about Memphis and Nashville that produces political corruption?"
It would be an emotional experience for everyone, much like the belated remorse and pleas for leniency that convicted defendants make in court to a judge and a handful of spectators at sentencing hearings. There might be some long pauses and awkward silences. It goes against the grain of groups like the Leadership Academy, which has a goal to "celebrate what's right in Memphis" and says "it's time to give the microphone back to the optimists."
Give the microphone to the fallen, too. Memphis could learn a lot by examining the broken places with the people who know them best.