Friday, August 12, 2005

No Quarter

Comparing Confederates to Nazis, Commissioner Walter Bailey scoffs at compromise.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 12, 2005 at 4:00 AM

As is surely well known, Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey has become a local leader of the effort to rename the three downtown city parks that have prominent associations with the Confederacy.

Bailey, like most local observers, was relatively subdued in his reaction to Mayor Willie Herenton's proposal last week for resolving the ongoing controversy - a proposal that may have been a masterstroke in its capacity for giving both sides what they want.

"It depends on the result," Bailey said, after pondering the matter for a moment on Monday.

What Herenton had said, in a widely noticed press conference, was that the city had no business renaming parks or digging up graves (one recent suggestion had involved disinterring the bodies of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife and removing both them and the general's statue from Forrest Park to Elmwood Cemetery, where the Forrests had originally been buried). "History," the mayor said, should be respected - whether we approved it or not.

That much of the Herenton plan was music to the ears of traditionalists (read: whites, in the main) who want the city's Old South past and its monuments - not just Forrest Park but the other two contested downtown park spaces, Jefferson Davis Park and Confederate Park - to remain inviolate.

But what the mayor's right hand gave, the left hand took away, as he followed those pronouncements up with the suggestion that the city deed over the two riverside parks to the Riverfront Development Corporation and Forrest Park to the University of Tennessee, the adjacent institution which presumably might covet such high-grade real estate.

It was businessman Karl Schledwitz, a prominent UT alumnus, who had suggested a plan whereby the Forrest graves and statue would be transferred to Elmwood, with the university expanding its medical facilities into the vacated park.

Count Bailey in on that idea: "If the [mayor's] proposal pans out and the council approves it and the Riverfront Development board approves renaming the parks and UT goes forward with the Schledwitz proposal, then I'm for it."

The longtime commissioner, who - pending the outcome of his current appeal of a Chancery Court decision - has been term-limited out of a chance at reelection next year, was not totally enamored of the Herenton proposal, mind you. Certainly not with what may have been the key feature of the mayor's statement: its ambivalence.

"I disagree with that," scolded Bailey. "I think he should have just renamed the park. If he cared anything about making his mark nationally, this would have been the opportunity, because this is a national issue."

Nor was Bailey all that crazy about another recent proposal, this one from city councilman Myron Lowery, who stood alongside two descendants of the late General Forrest a couple of weeks ago and suggested what many people took to be a sensible compromise - one which might, for example, change the name of Forrest Park to Civil War Park and balance the general's statue with appropriate memorials to heroes and heroines of the civil rights movement.

Bailey frowned and waved that off. He then invoked the example of German chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder. "Schroeder erected a monument not to Hitler or Rommel or Goebbels or Eichmann or that crowd, but to victims of the Holocaust. We've got it backwards."

In like manner, the city owes an apology to the victims of slavery, said Bailey. As for making common cause with the descendants of Confederate luminaries, he was unforgiving: "If somebody raped your sister and whipped her, would you want to stand next to the descendants? They showed no contrition. They want to glorify their relatives. They don't show remorse."

And Bailey was inclined to show no quarter to those who might be offended by the uprooting of the Forrests and the statue from the park that, as of now, still memorializes them. "There's a neo-Confederate part of the population that glorifies this man, that romanticizes this man. It's almost like neo-Nazis. You've always had that opposition. Change is always revolutionary. But it takes pressure. It's not going to happen by beseeching people to do the right thing."

Might the commissioner take the lead in asking the County Commission to put itself on record one way or the other? He pointed out that, as a member of the Center City Commission, he had already moved successfully for that body to seek action from the council on transforming the name and nature of the parks.

Bailey shrugged. "I've already had my shot. You have to be selective. I don't want to be all over the place. You have your credibility to think of."

Lastly, the commissioner was asked about the forthcoming visit of Al Sharpton, the prominent black leader and former presidential candidate who has vowed to lead a demonstration here against maintaining the Confederate memorials. Would Bailey be participating in a march or other dramatic action led by Sharpton?

"I'm going to be there," Bailey vowed. "I'm going to be right by his side. Absolutely." Then this man of sometimes stern visage opened up with one of his patented disarming grins and stated what comes off as a clincher: "I'm going to give up my golf game!"

n Anyone visiting the Flyer Web site lately (and please do: MemphisFlyer.com) will have noticed an ad for next year's U.S. Senate race. It's a two-parter, beginning with a panel showing an unflattering likeness of current Republican incumbent Bill Frist over the words "Replace this Republican doctor ... " This morphs into a second panel showing a smiling gray-haired, somewhat pixie-like woman over the words "... with this Democratic nurse."

Then the person browsing is invited to "click here," hence to be transferred to the campaign Web site of Senate candidate Rosalind Kurita, currently a state senator from Clarksville.

What makes this worthy of being referenced here is the fact that this rather catchy visual doesn't appear just in the Flyer. It has turned up on the Web sites of several of the state's major daily newspapers, as well as four or five of the most prominent and frequently visited national political Web sites.

Scott Shields, in an article posted prominently in one of those national sites, the Democratic-oriented MyDD.com, takes note of the ad this week and makes it the occasion for a reevaluation of next year's Democratic primary for the Senate seat (which the GOP's Frist, a potential presidential candidate, has decided to vacate).

"There was a long stretch of time when I didn't think there was any question that Harold Ford Jr. would be the 2006 Democratic candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist," begins Shields, who recapped the development of a highly visible national profile for Ford - including Ford's service as keynote speaker at the 2000 Democratic convention, his selection in 2001 as one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World," and his 2002 challenge for the office of House Democratic leader.

"But now all of that has changed," says Shields. "Ford is being challenged for the nomination by state senator Rosalind Kurita." After an analysis of what he clearly regards as a highly effective Internet ad, Shields opines, "Kurita knows that to beat the nationally recognized Ford, she needs to raise her profile. Already she's seeing that strategy pay dividends."

Evaluating a Kurita victory as "a real possibility," Shields concludes this way: "The race is probably still Ford's to lose, but I would not be surprised to see Kurita start putting up some serious numbers. Her embracing of a net-roots campaign, coupled with her outspoken positions on issues like the bankruptcy and energy bills could make her an attractive alternative to the 'centrist' Ford, who supported both."

Meanwhile, from Ford's point of view, some of the edge came off the local Democratic "unity" rally of two weekends ago. New party chairman Matt Kuhn issued a letter of clarification last week to newly elected members of the party executive committee, disavowing what had seemed to be Kuhn's endorsement of Ford's Senate candidacy at the prior rally.

Said Kuhn, in part: "In the excitement Saturday of seeing so many Shelby County Democrats coming together, I made comments that were not appropriate for the Chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party. My remarks about Congressman Ford were intended to show our gratitude for his significant accomplishments on behalf of the Democratic Party.

"Unfortunately, my words went beyond my intentions; I regret any misunderstanding this has caused. As chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party, I cannot and will not endorse any Democratic candidate for elected office unless and until that candidate is the sole Democratic candidate for the position."

Still, members of the Ford faction were included in the slate of officers proposed by Kuhn last week and ratified by the membership.

And the best news of all, from the Ford clan's perspective, came last Thursday, with the narrow Democratic-primary victory of political neophyte Ophelia Ford (by 20 votes over state representative Henri Brooks in the special election for the state Senate seat vacated by brother John Ford in the wake of his arrest in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting).

Ford's come-from-behind victory, aided by get-out-the-vote efforts overseen by another brother, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., was certainly a hurrah for the family's political organization - whether the last or one of several more yet to come remains to be seen. n

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