Having a "conversation" with Shelby County residents about consolidation is like having a conversation with your spouse or significant other about your relationship.
You can talk yourself into believing you're being grown up and tactful, but sooner or later — probably sooner — you are going to be in deep trouble.
Might as well come right out and say, "Does this new dress make me look fat?" or "You know, that marriage therapist on Oprah said some interesting things" or "I'm thinking of hiking the Appalachian Trail to clear my head."
All of your delicacy is for naught. Within three milliseconds, the response will be, "So what's your point?" In short order you are busted, just like Memphis and consolidation proponents, whoever they are, are going to be busted.
I have no hard position on the merits of consolidating city and county governments. As a reporter, I've read at least 100 stories and columns about it in the last 25 years. Sometimes on certain issues, there is something to be said for Greater Memphis speaking with one voice. If the One Great Leader of consolidated government were someone on the order of FedEx founder Fred Smith, it would be one thing. But if it were someone on the order of Willie Herenton, it would be another thing. As for tax fairness, that depends on where you happen to be standing when the deal is done.
Anyone with an ounce of civic and political awareness knows this. And that is why the niceties of the "conversation" about reinventing government will crash headlong into the realities of "What's in it for me?" if and when it comes to a vote this year.
I thought of this last week when I was interviewing Bill Rhodes, the chief executive of AutoZone, for a story in one of our sister publications. He's a good story if you're trying to sell the positives of Memphis. In addition to running a Fortune 500 company, Rhodes, a 44-year-old Craigmont High School graduate, is chairman of the board of Memphis Tomorrow, the top-tier leadership "do tank" that has a vested interest in the conversation about consolidation. On the morning of our interview, however, political farce in Memphis and Shelby County was in full flower on the front page of The Commercial Appeal. Politicians were going rogue faster than Sarah Palin can say "hopey-changey thing."
Interim county mayor Joe Ford was "pissed off" about something and might or might not decide to run. County commissioner Mike Ritz took it upon himself to write a civil rights complaint to the Justice Department and give state government an out on the Med. County commissioner and constitutional law professor Steve Mulroy was elevating the demolished Zippin Pippin roller coaster to the importance of Marbury v. Madison.
Two observations are relevant to the consolidation conversation. One, if you were visiting Memphis last week and saw these stories you might wonder if this place had anything better to do. Two, for some people, "One Memphis" isn't going to trump political self-interest and a job.
If consolidation has any prospects in a referendum, then sooner or later backers are going to have to drop their on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand facade, get off the high road, and engage in retail politics. The resistance of entrenched county politicians could play in their favor with voters tired of the same-old, same-old. Getting people to vote for higher taxes — the likely impact of consolidation on county residents — could be just short of miraculous, but having a conversation isn't going to move the ball.
Maybe proponents don't want to be identified, or don't want to disturb a sleeping giant, or are planting a thousand seeds that will bloom in the summer. Or maybe there is no plan.
Americans enjoy a good show. Coy is out; in-your-face is in. Nothing is off limits in public conversation any more. Every time I turned on the TV last week, Jenny Sanford was outing her husband, the governor of South Carolina, as a cheap creep. Liberals were ripping into Palin and the Tea Party and conservatives were ripping into Obama. Our national town hall meeting runs on charismatic figures, plain talk, and bold positions — the simpler the better.
Make them laugh, make them cry, make them mad, and just stir them up was sound political advice when Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King's Men 70 years ago, and it's good advice today.