Friday, January 10, 2003

In with the New

Politics really might be different this year.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 10, 2003 at 4:00 AM

As 2003 begins, real changes are underway.

A new Tennessee governor will be inaugurated next week -- Democrat Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor, who will see his vaunted managerial skills sorely tested in shoring up TennCare and figuring out how to carry out a judicial mandate requiring equalization of state teacher salaries. Among other issues, legislators will concern themselves with the mechanics of establishing the state lottery authorized by voters in November.

The new state House Republican leader is state Rep. Tre Hargett of Bartlett, a member of his party's conservative wing. At the national level, the GOP's Bill Frist is the new Senate Majority Leader, succeeding Mississippi's Trent Lott in the wake of the latter's remarks extolling the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign of retiring centenarian Strom Thurmond.

Locally, the Shelby County Commission will decide next week on the fate of commission administrator Calvin Williams, under fire over conflict-of-interest matters as well as for intemperate remarks in a telephone conversation with Shelby County Assessor Rita Clark.

Johnnie B. Watson is out as city school superintendent, and the vexing issue of education clearly looms large on the agendas of both city and county. That became evident on the first day of 2003, in remarks by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton at city councilman Myron Lowery's annual New Year's prayer breakfast at The Peabody.

After a gracious introduction by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, Herenton rapidly got down to business, musing on the "deep-seated problems" in local education. He could not be pleased, he said, when there were "two governments and two separate school systems, neither with appropriate resources."

This was all on account of -- or the cause of -- too many "selfish agendas."

Referring to a recent suggestion by Shelby County schools superintendent Bobby Webb that new county schools should be built at a safe distance from the annexation areas of Memphis, the mayor said he had a "message" for the superintendent, noting parenthetically, "He's a newcomer. I've been around a long time."

Such thinking was "unacceptable to me," Herenton said, and so were the "reform" notions envisioned by Webb (and, by implication, Wharton, who recently suggested a plan of his own that would revise the funding formula, abhorred in the suburbs, that favors the city over the county by a ratio of three-to-one in the distribution of state capital-construction funds).

"I'm going to do all that I can to lobby the Memphis City Council and the Memphis board of education [against it]. And, Mr. Mayor [Wharton], that is no disrespect to your reform plan."

There were just some things he needed to "make clear" to the suburbanites, Herenton said. "They boast of having superior schools. They ought to pay for them."

The mayor said, "I came here today to put the gloves on and draw battle lines," because the aforesaid suburban mayors "don't want to do the right thing." And: "If they don't need Memphis, they don't need our tax dollars."

After promising that his own reform plan of a year ago -- one which envisioned single-source funding but separate school jurisdictions -- would be "back on the agenda" for the Memphis school board, Herenton said, "The school board is a disaster. It makes no sense."

Singling out member Hubert "Dutch" Sandridge, who "tore up my proposal," Herenton warned the board, "Your business is my business. ... There is no law that my signature is not on. That proposal he tore up is coming back."

He compared his own tenure as schools superintendent favorably with that of his successor, Dr. Gerry House, who, he said, "was a disaster," a dilettante who had loaded the school system with unnecessary programs and "got herself a lot of awards" and moved on, leaving the frequently beleaguered Watson to clean up after her.

Herenton accused the board of "spending our dollars with arrogance." Pledging again to draw "deep battle lines," he said, "I have tried compromise. I've tried everything. I worked with these officials to try to get them to do the right thing."

Promising to work with Wharton in devising a school-reform plan both could agree on, Herenton said, "These suburban mayors don't want to do the right thing. They like you [Wharton] better than they like me. Let their schools be overpopulated.".

The current two-headed educational structure and "piecemeal" approach to problems are not only ineffective but too expensive, he said, a constant goad to the city and county tax rates. "Ask the realtors; ask the homebuilders," he said.

The latter point drew a grudging assent from Wharton, who, however, left the room quickly when the mayor had finished. Seemingly baffled by that fact, Herenton insisted that his remarks were "not personal," that he had merely been trying to "challenge" Wharton and the other exemplars of local government.

At least one member of his audience, school board member Sara Lewis, took his remarks in that spirit. "Somebody should get the four units talking," she said, meaning the city/county legislative bodies and school boards. "Maybe it'll be me. Maybe I'll call a meeting."

Oh, and lest anyone out there hadn't known, Mayor Herenton said after his speech that "of course" he'd be running again in 2003.

· Barbara Lawing, a Democratic activist much loved by political friends and foes alike, died unexpectedly on Christmas Day and was remembered at a wake and funeral held at N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, followed by a reception at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building on Madison.

Among the many paying tribute were former Vice President Al Gore, who telephoned condolences, 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and State Representatives Mike Kernell and Carol Chumney.

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