On the third ballot Monday, former assistant city treasurer and longtime Democratic activist Regina Morrison-Newman was elected by the county commission as interim Shelby County Trustee to succeed the late Paul Mattila.
Morrison-Newman, who also served as assistant commissioner of revenue for former governor Ned McWherter, won out over two rivals, fellow Democrat Robert Grandberry and longtime deputy Trustee Debra Gates, who had Republican support.
Given the Democrats’ current 8-5 majority on the commission, it was a reasonable certainty that one of the two leading Democrats would win, and when Mike Ritz, one of the most dyed-in-the-wool Republicans on the commission, cast his vote for Morrison-
Newman on the first ballot, it was a fairly good indicator that Monday was her day.
Gates was eliminated on the second ballot as Morrison-Newman continued to gain, and she finished the third and final ballot with a convincing 10-3 margin over Grandberry.
It started slow, and there were moments when name politicians, fixing to orate, looked out on empty tables and chairs, but as the middling steamy Saturday wore on, the Shelby County Democratic Party’s “BAD” picnic (the letters stood for “Bring a Democrat”) began to gel.
By the time the last two major speakers — gubernatorial candidate Roy Herron and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen — took their turns, the crowd had become large and enthusiastic. Meanwhile, candidates and office-holders and personages of all kinds had come and gone.
There were gubernatorial candidates — besides Dresden state Senator Herron, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, and local favorite Jim Kyle, the Democrats’ state Senate leader; mayoral candidates — Charles Carpenter, Jerry Lawler, Detruc Stigall, Myron Lowery, and A C Wharton on the city side and county mayoral aspirants Harold Byrd and Deidre Malone; and assorted others running for various offices.
There was beer, soda, hot dogs, Bratwurst, and ribs. A little music on the P.A. system between speeches. All in all a good showing, overseen by Lexie Carter and party chair Van Turner and others, held in the spacious back yard of generous hosts Anthony and Karina Tong in Cordova.
Monday is decision day at the Shelby County Commission. An interim successor to the late Trustee Paul Mattila will be selected by the commission from among ten applicants, most of whom were interviewed en masse by the commission in a committee session last Wednesday
Among the chief contenders are current acting Trustee Debra Gates, who is presumed to have the support of the commission’s five Republicans; and Bobby Grandberry, Regina Morrison-Newman, and Lee Ester Redmund-Terrall, all of whom have support among the body’s eight Democrats, with Grandberry and Morrison-Newman considered to have the strongest chances.
The commission will also consider a proposal by Commissioner Steve Mulroy to endorse state legislation creating voluntary redemption centers and offering a 5-cent per bottle refund on empty beverage containers. The legislation, designed to resolve litter problems and to assist bottle manufacturers in recycloing efforts, would re-establish what was once a standard statewide arrangement for recycling used containers.
For much of the way in Saturday night’s second televised mayoral debate, it was a legitimate question as to which participant was most prosecutorial:
Was it WREG anchor Richard Ransom, who consistently hounded the four candidates for their lack of candor, charging them with making “political” answers? Or attorney Charles Carpenter, who pressed a relentless attack against front-runner A C Wharton? Or Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, who sternly marshaled evidence against both Carpenter and Wharton, interrupting their replies to one inquisition before whipping immediately to the next?
Even genial A C himself, the Shelby County mayor who seems headed to inevitable victory, largely on his capacity for being laid back and wearing well, got cranky and ad hominem once or twice.
The big surprise was the subdued final posture of Carol Chumney, the former damn-the-torpedoes councilwoman who had arguably got the mischief started by asserting that Wharton wanted to pile on new layers of bureaucracy and reactivating an old accusation that the county mayor had committed some hanky-panky in getting his car registered.
Declining, unlike the others, to take advantage of the opportunity, in the two-hour debate’s last half hour, to address direct questions to whomever she might choose for up to four minutes, Chumney explained that as mayor she might in the future have to “work with” one of her three opponents. So why would she want to rile things up now?
Her concerns would seem to be moot if the various polls conducted on the race so far are to be believed — notably the most recent one, done by Mason-Dixon for debate co-sponsors WREG and The Commercial Appeal (the activist organization MPact was the third sponsor).
That Mason-Dixon poll, on the basis of which the four contestants Saturday night were winnowed down from the 25 people on the ballot, showed Wharton with a 30-point lead on the three runners-up, with a serious chance of winning an absolute majority when the polls close on October 15.
No matter then that Wharton struck some as over-cautious, even a bit of a waffler, having made a somewhat generalized case for the success of his seven years as county mayor (though his claim to moving ahead on a Shelby Farms plan was acknowledged by critic Chumney). Or that his finest moment — one that earned him “courage” points from opponent Lowery — came when he acknowledged being “dead wrong” in allowing blogger/talk show host Thaddeus Matthews to use the N-word in his presence.
The fact is, as his intimates will confide, A C is no controversialist. He hates being cross with people or excluding anybody or anything from his good-natured consensus.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. It sometimes prevents him from making explicit cut-bait choices, but it’s what underlies his campaign exhortation to “come together as one Memphis,” a theme stated in his opening remarks Saturday night. And, beyond the money he’s raised or his ever-burgeoning list of endorsers or his long experience in and around local government, it’s what gives him his seemingly impervious 30-point lead.
They all hoisted their campaign personas in their opening remarks: Self-described man-of-action Lowery depicted himself through the slogan “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” Carpenter, insisting he was “not a politician” (shades of his longtime mentor Willie Herenton), promised to substitute a “business culture” for a “political culture.” Chumney assumed the role of civic crusader, vowing to “fight for you” (a note that many, even some longtime supporters, consider more appropriate to a legislator — Chumney served both in the legislature and on the council — than an executive).
Memes and themes: Neither Wharton nor Lowery missed an opportunity to remind listeners of their current stations in life, responding that they had “already” done something or other that was asked about. Chumney, co-opting Wharton’s “come-together” motif, alluded more than once to the “40 years in the wilderness” since the catastrophic events of 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and it had to be an inattentive person indeed who missed Carpenter’s frequently stated resolve to prepare and act on a “comprehensive plan” for the city.
Astonishingly, given that everybody but Carpenter had previously gone on the line for city/county consolidation, that chestnut was never really warmed up — except indirectly in the direct-questioning portion of the forum — Carpenter demanding that Wharton cite something he’d done to facilitate unified services (“You must not have been paying attention,” the county mayor responded, citing his efforts to standardize and coordinate ambulance service); and Lowery chiding Wharton for allegedly letting seven years go by before getting serious about “one Shelby County.”
For obvious reasons, clear front-runner Wharton bore the brunt of most of the direct attacks. Sometimes things got ultra-personal. Carpenter was particularly slashing, at one point demanding to know how it was that the county mayor could utilize as campaign aides Bobby Lanier, Susan Adler Thorp, and Tom Jones, three longtime Wharton associates who, Carpenter insisted, had run afoul of ethical or legal guidelines. And both Carpenter and Wharton would be taxed by Lowery for using former Herenton intimate Reginald French in their campaigns.
Lowery also got Carpenter to own up to having earned some $5 million in work for the city over the 17 years of his mentor Herenton’s mayoralty.
Indeed, in the judgment of several observers (including this one), the acting mayor probably rose and shone more consistently than the others, though his final statement, (which was also the final statement of the night) was a somewhat risky defense of his “Hello Dalai” fist-bump moment, which Lowery seemed to be trying to escalate into a transcending piece of good P.R. for the city. (He might have been coaxed into that hubristic reprise by the playful way he had been introduced in the beginning by Ransom: "Myron 'I fist-bumped the Dalai Lama' Lowery.")
One concession to the vanished old order: A question asking the panelists to assign a letter grade to Mayor Herenton got mixed results. Lowery, the most specific grader, gave Herenton A through F, with the letter declining a step for each of the ex-mayor's five successive terms). All four candidates gave Herenton high marks for his accomplishments in upgrading the city's public housing.
And 9th district congressman Steve Cohen got some endorsements, too, when the candidates were asked to choose between him and his forthcoming reelection opponent Herenton. Lowery endorsed Cohen right away, and Chumney did, too, ultimately, after some prodding to choose from Ransom.
It remains to be seen if the mayoral-race standings got shifted to any appreciable degree, or how their exclusion from this debate might affect such other hopefuls as Jerry Lawler and Wanda Halbert and Kennth Whalum Jr..(As things got ready to go Saturday in the WREG studio, Ransom, who co-hosted with Claudia Barr, jested, “Everybody here but Prince Mongo?”) In any case, more debates or forums are to be held, including one on Tuesday night of this week sponsored by the Cordova Leadership Council at the Homebuilders headquarters on Germantown Parkway.
Shelby County mayor A C Wharton continues to shrug off criticism from opponents in the Memphis mayoral race concerning his off-and-on attitude toward forums and debates. With a big lead in the polls, meanwhile, he's vaunting his support from others in the political establishment.
During the last week, Wharton’s campaign released a lengthy list of such endorsers, and the candidate did show-and-tells with some of them on successive days. On Thursday, Wharton appeared at his headquarters with Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore, state Representatives Larry Miller and Ulysses Jones, city councilmen Jim Strickland and Edmond Ford Jr., and Shelby County commissioner Mike Carpenter. Former councilman Edmond Ford Sr. also turned up for the photo-op.
On Friday, it was the turn of Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who showed up at Wharton's headquarters to confer his endorsement. "I had not originally intended to endorse anyone," said she sheriff, who would tout the county mayor's cooperation on Operation Safe Community and other crime-fighting issues, "but at a time like this, we need avoid discord and pull together as a community, and Mayor Wharton is the person
to make that happen."
As he has in the past, the county mayor pooh-poohed the need to appear at each and every called gathering of mayoral candidates, though he was scheduled to appear at Saturday night's debate on WREG, News Channel 3, along with former city council member Carol Chumney, acting Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, and lawyer Charles Carpenter, the latter of whom was scheduled to be feted at a women's luncheon on Saturday.
Taking note of Chumney's criticism of him for running for one job before he had finished with another, Wharton said, "That's exactly what she did. She was running for mayor [in 2007] before she'd finished her commitment to the city council."
Among the other endorsers of Wharton included in a list furnished the media by the candidate’s campaign were the following:
State senators Jim Kyle and Reginald Tate; state Representatives Joe Towns, Jr., Barbara Cooper, Larry Miller,m Lois Deberry, and G. A. Hardaway; county commissioners J.W. Gibson, Sidney Chism, and Henri Brooks; councilman Shea Flinn; Chancery Court clerk Dewun Settle; and school board members Tomeka Hart, Jeff Warren, Freda Williams, and Betty Mallot.
That gives Governor Phil Bredesen 20 days to issue a writ for a special election in District 83, and if Bredesen acts on or before October 7th, the arithmetic of state law will permit a District 83 primary to be held on the same date, December 1, as the currently scheduled general election for the District 31 Senate seat which Republican Kelsey seeks.
A gubernatorial writ issued after October 7 would mean a brand new primary election, at a cost to the state of some $60,000 to $70,000. Kelsey’s Democratic opponent for the state Senate, Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, points out that, whether or not the special House primary can be scheduled on December 1, the subsequent general election would still cost the same amount of money. And that, she says, was always unnecessary.
Pakis-Gillon maintains that Kelsey didn’t need to resign, that the Shelby County Commission, at no cost to the taxpayers, could have appointed his successor, should he go on to win the state Senate seat. “Of course, he’s not. I’m going to win,” she added Thursday night, addressing a group of potential voters at a meet-and-greet affair in the Gray’s Creek area of suburban east Shelby County.
Kelsey, of course, would differ on both counts. First, he has noted that the commission, with an 8-5 Democratic majority, would probably install a Democrat to represent the predominantly Republican area — something that would amount, he says, to a disenfranchisement of the district’s voters.
And, secondly, Kelsey, like most observers, would be astonished if Pakis-Gillon, a diminutive homemaker and political activist, should actually pull off a victory in District 31.
The ongoing special election in the district, a longtime GOP bastion which encompasses parts of East Memphis, Cordova and Germantown, was made necessary by the resignation of the scandal-scarred former state senator Paul Stanley,
Pakis-Gillon knows the odds against her, but she thinks she can gain traction by a three-pronged strategy of talking up Democratic issues like jobs and health care, appealing to wavering Republicans, and pointing up Kelsey’s personal eccentricities.
On the latter score, she notes such Kelsey stunts as his waving an envelope stuffed with bacon during a floor debate on stimulus funds. “We don’t need to be the comedy routine on late night television,” she told the meet-and-greet group Thursday night, especially not when rejecting state or federal funds, the point of Kelsey’s display, arguably deprived the district of badly needed job opportunities.
Thursday night’s affair boasted the attendance of Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, a longtime friend of the candidate, and several other attendees, like Luttrell, were Republicans. A number of these suburban residents professed concern over the guns-in-parks bill passed in the last session with the support of Kelsey and other GOP legislators.
“The Republican Party used to be known as the conservative party, as the party of common sense. They’ve left us. Will you become the senator of common sense?,” asked one man, who identified himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.
And when Pakis-Gillon had answered by expressing at length her own opposition to the gun bills passed in the last session, condemning the National Rifle Association for what she said were its arm-twistings and infusions of money, the man said, “Well, you’ve got one Republican vote!”
Another GOP attendee, who had been active in the campaigns of Republican state Senate majority leader Mark Norris, said, “For us to be comfortable, we need to have somebody in Nashville to deal with those issues we haven’t even thought about yet. Someone with maturity. I’m not impressed with the Republican candidate.”
These may be atypical voices, or they may signal a possible trend. The well-financed Kelsey remains an odds-on favorite, but Pakis-Gillon demonstrated at the Gray’s Creek meet-and-greet — where, among other things, she professed an open mind on tort reform measures — that she already had a modicum of Republican support herself and would be probing for more crossovers.
In any case, there’s a race on in state Senate District 31.
Japanese prime ministers in the jungle room at Graceland, Khrushchev at Disneyland, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” These are signal moments in diplomacy, attempts by representatives of one culture to cross the divide separating them from another. And this distinguished Tibetan cleric, here on a very mission of cross-cultural bonding, for Heaven’s sake, is not some pulpit-pounding televangelist scourge. He’s from Asia, where a sense of humor is intrinsic to theological traditions. I mean, the Buddha laughs. He even giggles!
Like it or not, the fist bump is a nascent form of greeting in these United States. The President of the United States and the First Lady famously did it. And the acting mayor of River City, U.S.A. is supposed to be above it?? Nah! As for “Hello, Dolly,” the Broadway-descended title from which Lowery’s good-natured pun derives, it is — again, like it or not — a bona fide cultural reference, a part of American history, if you will, not an insult.
Instead of acting like offended self-righteous elders or, alternatively, scornful cynics whom nothing can please, why don’t we take our cue from the Dalai Lama himself, who responded to Lowery’s gesture with apparent pleasure and, as the admirable Chris Davis’ on-site videos demonstrate, reciprocated it later on with an appropriate homily on how it symbolizes the conversion of a symbol of violence into one of affection.
Quite simply, that is exactly the meaning of the fist-bump. Hello, Dalai! Nice to have you here and glad you speak our language!
UPDATE: The following story was written on the basis of the two emails sent from the office of state Rep. Brian Kelsey, reprinted here in their entirety. Since then, both Kelsey and the Republican House Leader, Jason Mumpower of Bristol, have confirmed that the draft of Kelsey's resignation announcement was released by mistake. While, as Mumpower added, a resignaton announcement was to be expected in a "timely" manner, that time has not yet come. More details if and when the mystery unravels.
Germantown legislator Brian Kelsey, a candidate for the forthcoming special election for state Senate District 31, vacated by the scandal-scarred Paul Stanley, resigned his District 83 House seat Friday but seems not to have calculated the election calendar with total correctness.
A draft of Kelsey’s resignation letter to House Speaker Kent Williams and distributed to the media Monday read as follows:
"I am resigning my position as State Representative of the 83rd Legislative District as of 11:59 p.m. Resigning today will allow the state to save roughly $60,000-$70,000 by scheduling the primary special election on the same day as another special election in Shelby County.
"It will also allow a new Representative to be elected by the people of the 83rd Legislative District to be in place when the 106th General Assembly reconvenes."
There are several problems with Kelsey’s assumptions, however — a possible reason why Kelsey’s staff assistant Chase Johnson issued a subsequent email to the media with this message:
"Please disregard the previous email. This draft language was not intended to be sent to this distribution list."
Governor Phil Bredesen has 20 days from Friday, the day of Kelsey’s announcement, to issue a writ of election. There would be no difficulty in scheduling a District 83 primary on December 1, the same day as the currently scheduled general election for state Senate District 31, so long as Bredesen issues his writ on or before Day 18 of the aforesaid 20-day period.
Presumably that is what the governor will do. Should he wait out the full 20 days, however, the earliest feasible date for a Disttrict 83 primary would be Thursday, December 3, two days after the senate general election and a circumstance requiring the full expenditure of the aforesaid $60, 000-$70,000.
Most likely, however, the governor will act by Day 18 so as to hold the House primary on the same day as the senate general and limit the expense to the taxpayers. However, if he should wait to issue the writ until late in the cycle — say, on Day 18 itself, October 6 — he would be empowered to set the date of the state House general election up to 107 days later.
From a practical point of view, that could be Tuesday, January 19 — one whole week after the legislature reconvenes. That would not only preclude a new House member’s being “in place when the 106th General Assembly reconvenes,” it would open the way for a wholly hypothetical nightmare scenario from the Republican point of view.
Williams, the Elizabethtown Republican who was elected House Speaker last January on the strength of his own vote and that of the 49 House Democrats, is due to serve in that capacity until January 2011, after the next regularly scheduled election cycle.
But should Williams, who was uncredentialed as a Republican by the state GOP executive committee after that action, decide to resign as Speaker, then he could be replaced as Speaker by a new vote of the House at any time between January 12, the date of reconvening, and January 19, the date of general election to determine Kelsey’s final successor.
Should he do so, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, dominated as of now by an 8-5 majority in favor of the Democrats, would probably have appointed a Democrat as an interim District 83 successor to Kelsey.
Should another special House election, in District 62, have meanwhile resulted in no change in that district's current Democratic status, the interim Democratic appointee from Shelby County could, for the space of a week, give the Democrats a majority of 50 in the House to elect a new Speaker, who might well be Jimmy Naifeh, the long-serving former House Speaker, or some other Democrat.
And that Democratic Speaker would preside over the whole of the 2010 legislative session, determining which bills got to the floor and which didn’t, presumably able to alter committee memberships, and exercising other kinds of significant influence over House actions.
Granted, that scenario probably won’t happen. Williams is eager to regain his party credentials (and now has leverage to make sure it happens – and soon). And he enjoys being Speaker.
But it could happen. And that gives both Bredesen and Williams unusual power over the course of Tennessee political history. At least in the short term.
POST-NOTE: As the Update explains, the original story was based on a mistakenly -- and prematurely -- released draft from Kelsey's office. It should also be noted that the scenarios of power shifts indicated in that story are purely speculative and their probability is remote; still, they are possible, and become more so with the passage of time.
Eschewing the opportunity to comment on Tuesday’s announcement by Democratic rival Harold Byrd, a political veteran and Bartlett banker, Malone said she expected others to jump in the race, including some survivors from the current special election race for Memphis mayor.
“I really can’t be too concerned with that,” Malone said. She offered a lament that outgoing county mayor A C Wharton, a candidate for city mayor, might not serve out his term, but said she expected to up the ante as his successor. “Mayor Wharton is a nice guy, and he’s been a good leader, but in me you’ll see a little more fight,” Malone said. She named education and health as two of her foremost issues and promised to work well with the county’s law enforcement arm.
Recalling with some chagrin her first run for public office — in 1995 when she was a candidate for the District 5 school board position -- Malone said, “Lora Jobe beat me like I’d stole something!” Of her two terms on the commission, Malone, who just completed a year as chairman, acknowledged that “it took me 3 ½ years to get it.” She said she learned how to work with other commissioners and expressed surprise and delight that she was able to get an ordinance passed proclaiming a moratorium on new developments.
“I’ve proven my ability to work with people who don’t live in the city,” said Malone, a steadfast proponent of consolidation (though she acknowledges it will be a "tough sell"). “As far as leadership, I offer that. I’m not afraid of much. I really don’t back down from much.”
One thing she didn’t back down from on Wednesday was her resolve to fill important vacancies with Democrats, even if the vacancies were in Republican-dominated areas. Malone, who voted with other Democrats to put fellow Democrat Matt Kuhn in former Republican commissioner David Lillard’s seat and unsuccessfully competed with Republican Joyce Avery for a second consecutive term as chair, said she “absolutely” would vote to put a Democrat in Republican Brian Kelsey’s District 83 state House seat if Kelsey wins election to the state Senate in a special election.
“That’s politics at a very high level. It could change the outlook of the House,” she said. I’m not one for tradition. I don’t believe it exists. You make the right decision for the people you represent.”
Later Wednesday, Malone was the beneficiary of a fundraiser at the University of Memphis area Holiday Inn on Central. A sizeable crowd, including several fellow commissioners and Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, attended the event.
Byrd, a well-known University of Memphis booster and former state representative from Bartlett, has also run for the 7th District congressional seat and launched a race for county mayor in 2002 before deciding to withdraw.
A list of Byrd supporters circulated by email on Tuesday encompassed a wide range of influential people in Shelby County — running from civil rights luminaries Maxine and Vasco Smith to former county mayor Bill Morris to former MLGW head Larry Papasan to C.M.E. Bishop William N. Graves.
Another Byrd backer, longtime political broker Sidney Chism, is a commission colleague of Malone, who no doubt will unveil her own lengthy list of supporters.
“Even J Street’s staunch friends on the Hill acknowledge the potential costs of their position. Steve Cohen, a Democratic congressman who represents Memphis, told me that in his mind Israel had squandered its heroic status through its wars in Lebanon and Gaza and had come to be seen as “the neighborhood bully.” But he recalled that “when J Street first surfaced, the talk among members was, ‘Do we get near them?’ ” The organization had endorsed Cohen and asked if he would record a video for its Web site. “Several veteran Jewish members cautioned me not to do it,” he said. “They were afraid I would be attacked by Aipac. Some people whispered about the possibility of having an opponent.” He went ahead and made the video. He also signed the J Street letter calling for deeper American engagement in the peace process. I asked if there had been any repercussions. “I’m thinking about it,” said Cohen, a significantly wryer-than-average legislator. “I did have some strong Aipac supporters who didn’t come to my last fund-raising party. And they’re normally the first people to come forward.”Though “the New Israel Lobby” is generally sympathetic to J Street, the section on Cohen, like the article as a whole, stresses the possible political dangers of breaking with AIPAC and other established pro-Israel lobbies.
Joyce Avery, a second-term Republican from Arlington, assumed the chairmanship from outgoing chair Deidre Malone, a Democrat, and so felicitous and graceful was the transition that one could almost forget the modest acrimony that may have lingered from Malone’s failed attempt back in July to get herself elected to a second consecutive term as chairman.
That effort was turned back when two Democrats, Steve Mulroy and current chairman pro temp Sidney Chism, voted for Avery — and for the gentlemen’s tradition of rotating chairmanships by person and by party.
There were no notable apostasies on Monday, as the commission, though hearing misgivings here and there, voted 12-1 for a controversial 5 percent pay reduction in commissoners’ pay, from $30,000 annually to $28,500. That was the required third reading for the proposal, which came out of nowhere two weeks ago and snowballed into its first approval.
Not that the feeling was unanimous. Irate Democrat Sidney Chism denounced it all as "showboating," and several other commissioners expressed reservations, Malone confessing she was “not sure it’s the right thing to do” and both Mulroy and fellow Democrat Matt Kuhn expressing concern that the vote might contribute to the devaluing of the public sector. And Democrat Henri Brooks renewed her appeal of last Wednesday’s committee session for the idea of “restructuring” the commission, making its positions full-time and compensating them in kind.
But in the end only Chism actually cast a vote against the commissioners’ pay cuts. The others either acquiesced in the majority sentiment or, like Republican Commissioner George Flinn, continued to see the self-abnegation as “leadership” in a time of general economic woe. City charter provisions now oblige the city council to accept the same compensation level as the commission.
The commission’s unanimity broke down somewhat on a subsequent vote to apply an equivalent 5 percent pay cut to the sales of the sheriff and county mayor, with five commissioners — Democrats Kuhn and Mulroy and Republicans Mike Carpenter, Mike Ritz, and Avery voting to restore Sheriff Mark Luttrell to his current salary of almost $118,000 but losing out to a majority willing to see the sheriff’s position reduced by the same proportion as the commisisoners’, to $115,000.
And the commission, with only Sidney Chism dissenting, voted to sustain a pay-cut package for itself whereby commissioners’ compensation is to be reduced by $1500 from the current level of $30,000 annually.
In an editorial which appeared after last week’s euphorically intense commission meeting, the Flyer commended the body for its bold action in initiating a joint city/county consolidation commission but suggested that its actions in imposing pay cuts on itself and others were more impulsive than considered and that a measure of “bathos and embarrassment” might be the residuum of that action.
The term was objected to by at least one commission member, who may indeed have spoken for others. We meant only to be helpful, and, in that same spirit, here are ten reasons why the pay cut action was a bad idea to begin with and should be ditched, or at least modified, before passage on third reading Monday.
1. It is one thing to turn one’s own cheek in masochistic self-denial; is quite another to forcibly turn someone else’s — in this case, the members of the Memphis city council, whose pay levels are linked by charter to those of the commission.
During Wednesday’s committee session, Commissioner Mike Ritz passed along a comment he’d gotten from city councilman Bill Boyd, like Ritz a Republican and a conservative. “Thanks a lot” was the comment, and, as faithfully inflected by Ritz, it sounded more sardonic than not.
Beyond the matter of financial disservice, the commission’s action arguably trespassed on protocol by pre-empting a co-equal public body’s own prerogatives.
2. The Shelby County sheriff has been unnecessarily humiliated. There was considerable testimony during last year’s commission debates on charter amendments and this year’s consideration of the county budget to the effect that the salary of Sheriff Mark Luttrell was at the low limit as compared to peer salaries statewide — ranking, in fact, at the level for sheriffs in small or rural counties where law enforcement is a far less consuming enterprise.
Ultimately, in the transition from constitutional status to a position spelled out in the newly amended charter (the change, effective a year from now, was approved by referendum but precipitated by a judicial ruling), the sheriff’s salary was pegged arbitrarily to a level from 80 percent to 95 percent of the county mayor’s. That stipulation in effect gave a free hand to the commission, which chose, however, to dock Luttrell (or his successor) by the same percentage as it cut the mayor — from the sheriff’s current pay level of roughly $118,000 to $115,000.
Much ado has been made by proponents of the pay cuts about their “symbolic” value. The symbolism here seems to be that of a slap in the face of Shelby County’s chief law-enforcement officer.
3. The Shelby County mayor’s office has been rendered further insignificant. It is axiomatic that the powers of the county chief executive are minimal — especially as compared to those of Memphis’ “strong” mayor. Indeed, that is one of the crosses currently being borne by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, a candidate for city mayor who is vulnerable to potentially unfair charges from his opponents that he has been a “do-nothing” executive.
The pending cut in mayoral compensation — from $150,000 to $145,000 — is a further step in the erosion of the office’s prestige, and, as indicated above, part of the trigger mechanism for lowering the sheriff’s level of compensation.
4. Public service itself is further devalued by the pay cuts. The government-bashing which became fashionable some two decades ago — even in government circles themselves — has by now approached the level of the toxic. Again, perhaps the best example is the fact that, during this past year’s budget deliberations, Sheriff Mark Luttrell had to struggle to patch together a minimally acceptable level of funding — this in a time of public alarms over a perceived increase in violent crime.
Equally starved, arguably, are such vital components of the public sector as the Health Department and the schools. To be sure, proponents of the pay cuts note that they do not apply to county employees. But the minimizing of expectations in one part of the public sector — the county’s elected officials — has inevitably a bleed-over effect elsewhere.
One commissioner who voted for the pay cuts reports privately that “everywhere I go,” he is being congratulated for putting the financial squeeze on himself and his colleagues. No surprise there. Anybody who takes in the radio talk shows is aware of the lynch mob sentiment toward public officials that exists — and is continually and artificially being whetted up — and not just among outright yahoos. Under such circumstances, the pay cuts amount to a plea of “guilty as charged.”
Ironically, two commissioners who voted on Wednesday to cut their own pay — Henri Brooks and Steve Mulroy — both argued eloquently in a separate discussion that a full-commission with full-time pay would attract more “qualified, energetic individuals” (Brooks), who would be “better at oversight” (Mulroy). At present, they argued, the part-time, ill-compensated commission is subject to potential domination by “a rich persons’ club” (Brooks) and “the landed gentry” (Mulroy).
5. Deflation of wages is hand-in-glove with cycles of economic depression. Though it is something of an historical truism, it is apparently a lost insight among today’s lay thinkers (and even many economists) that deflation of wages and prices is not only a consequence of hard times but a perpetuator of them.
Indeed, as the Great Depression began to deepen in the winter of 1932-33, that was one of the few matters that outgoing president Herbert Hoover and incoming president Franklin D. Roosevelt could agree on. Though their strategies for ending the Depression differed enormously, both men considered it necessary to increase, not decrease levels of compensation — in the public sector as elsewhere. (President Obama's "stimulus" strategy is an echo of that understanding.)
The issue is, of course, more symbolic than otherwise, but the symbolism of the pay cuts is one of the most bragged-upon aspects of them by those who voted for them and who are apparently confusing the pay levels of ordinary grunts with the excess profits and dividends of the financial market.
6. The original justification for the pay cuts — relating them to a call for certain Cost-of-Living (COLA) equities in county government — was sundered from them and remains sundered.
The pay cuts themselves are all that’s left over from the original motion by Commissioner Matt Kuhn to insure that, if Cost-of-Living increases were included in county employees’ compensation, they would be included in commissioner’s compensation as well. And, of course, vice versa.
This proposal seems to have been regarded by conservatives on the commission as a Trojan Horse measure to boost commissioners’ pay at some future date (horrors!) and was challenged on that basis. “We called their bluff,” as Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter would say, and the hair-shirted acceptance of a pay cut ensued — more by way of refuting a self-serving “evil” motive than, as would be claimed, to express “leadership” and a salutary “symbolism.”
7. The issue of the pay cuts exacerbates a developing tendency of the commission to divide along partisan and ideological lines.
Though this part of the current analysis requires a subjective judgment, it is apparent that recent votes and debates have deepened a rough fault line which finds Democrats and social activists on one side and Republicans and budget-cutters on the other. Increasingly, ideological axes have been ground, and, though Democrat Sidney Chism is wont to accuse the Republicans of “lock-step” voting, recent actions of Democrats in breaking long-standing “gentlemen’s agreement” traditions regarding recognized partisan spheres of interest are a major part of the problem.
8. The actual financial impact of the pay cuts is negligible to non-existent. Though Commissioner Joe Ford in particular made an effort last week to calculate economic gains for cutting the pay of commissioners, mayor, and sheriff — quantifying them at $200,000 over a period of several years — it has since been acknowledged by all persons and parties that the financial impact of the cuts would be nil or next to it. This became a matter of mutual stipulation during Wednesday’s discussion.
9. The potentially positive after-effects of the pay cuts were vastly over-hyped. A major part if the ballyhoo that developed when the commission first voted for the pay cuts last week was the expectation expressed by several members — statements by Ford, Mulroy, and Kuhn come to mind — that mankind as a whole would sit up, take notice, and be inspired by the commission’s action, and that governmental units elsewhere would look upon the commission’s actions as a noble example to be emulated.
This would seem to have been so much self-deception, in that mankind has pretty much gone about its business without even noticing what the commission did, much less emulating it. The anticipated national hosannas were not forthcoming. To put it bluntly: Mankind yawned.
10. “Bathos and embarrassment”: The most commonly accepted definition for the term “bathos” (a.k.a, “the art of sinking,” when applied to literature) is “an abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace….” Clearly, this definition applies to an action which turned out fairly quickly (and all too predictably) to have lacked both practical impact and seismic bounce.
As for “embarrassment,” surely no definition is required — given the gaps, documented above, between expectation and fulfillment and between reality and self-hypnosis. All, however, can still end well if the commission comes to its senses between now and Monday, when a third — and final — reading of the pay-cut provisions is scheduled to be acted upon at the commission’s next regular meeting.
Frist served as Majority Leader during the Bush administration. Riley headed the Education Department under former President Clinton. Their combining forces for a bi-partisan statement of support for Obama’s speech comes at a time when various conservatives, some of them congressional, have expressed disagreement with the Democratic president’s being allowed to speak to what the critics regard as a captive audience.
Frist and Riley take note of the controversy and stress the voluntary aspects of participation. “Although the decision of whether to watch the speech is appropriately left up to individual educators and parents, we encourage everyone to have their students watch and discuss the speech — and find every other possible way they can to underscore the value of education to our children.” They go on to note that the speech concerns “the key role hard work plays in being successful in school and in life,” and say, “President Obama, both because of his office as president but also because of his compelling personal story, is well-positioned to deliver this message and serve as a role model to students across our nation….”
“As individuals who have held leadership roles in both political parties, we encourage all Americans to support every effort to encourage children and parents to take ownership of their future. We are excited that President Obama is delivering this message across our nation today, and we hope every president will continue to do so in the future.”
The complete Frist-Riley statement is as follows:
As our nation's students and teachers return to school in uncertain economic times, Americans across party lines agree that a quality education is indispensable to the future of each child, our competitiveness, and our country.
Fully 30 percent of our nation’s students drop out of high school each year and most high school graduates don't complete college. While America was first in the world in high school and college graduation rates 30 years ago, we have slipped back into the middle of the pack among industrialized countries. Our results have stagnated while other nations are racing ahead of us.
As a former U.S. secretary of education and a former majority leader of the U.S. Senate who is now dedicating a substantial portion of time to education reform in Tennessee, we believe America can and must do better. While government has a crucial role to play to ensure quality schools, government can't do it alone. The evidence and our common sense make it clear: a good education also depends on hard work and personal responsibility for learning and achievement from individual students, parents, grandparents, and educators.
That's why we are supportive of the president of the United States — whether it is a Democrat or Republican — speaking directly to our nation's students to emphasize the core American values of education, hard work, and personal responsibility. We are pleased that presidents Reagan and Bush (Sr.) delivered similar speeches when they were serving in the White House in 1986 and 1991 respectively, and that is why we have both delivered similar speeches in many local schools throughout our careers.
Tuesday at noon, President Obama will address the nation’s students on the importance of personal responsibility, hard work, staying in school and getting a good education. Schools and classrooms all across America can tune in to the speech on the web or on television. Although the decision of whether to watch the speech is appropriately left up to individual educators and parents, we encourage everyone to have their students watch and discuss the speech — and find every other possible way they can to underscore the value of education to our children. If parents are concerned about the content of the speech, they can read the speech first (already available on the White House website) and then decide whether or not they want their child to listen to it.
One of the most important steps in turning around our nation’s education system is ensuring all of our children understand the value of education and the key role hard work plays in being successful in school and in life. The more people we have echoing this message, the better off our nation will be. President Obama, both because of his office as president but also because of his compelling personal story, is well-positioned to deliver this message and serve as a role model to students across our nation.
As individuals who have held leadership roles in both political parties, we encourage all Americans to support every effort to encourage children and parents to take ownership of their future. We are excited that President Obama is delivering this message across our nation today, and we hope every president will continue to do so in the future.
Frist has recently devoted much energy to an organization he co-founded called State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).
The revelation that Robert Spence, then employed as a private attorney by Herenton, received $55,000 on Jefferson’s say-so has apparently altered the thinking of at least two council members who were considered supportive of Jefferson when newly installed mayor pro tem Myron Lowery attempted to discharge the city attorney more than a month ago
Council chairman Harold Collins, one of several council members attending the opening of mayoral candidate Lowery’s campaign headquarters on Elvis Presley Boulevard Sunday, said “it doesn’t look good” for Jefferson, adding that the council would meet with the city attorney on September 15 and demand an accounting for a procedure which, Collins said, appears to have been improper.
Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, also present at the Lowery headquarters opening, agreed, saying that, on the basis of the facts as she currently understands them, she would be compelled to vote for discharging Jefferson should the matter be brought to a vote.
On July 31, the date of his formal swearing-in as mayor pro tem, former council chairman Lowery attempted to fire Jefferson and had him escorted from City Hall by police. Jefferson was able to get a preliminary injunction from Chancellor Walter Evans staying the action, however, an, after hearing the matter, Evans would later prohibit any firing of Jefferson without approval by the council and no suspension of the city attorney without appropriate “cause.”
Jefferson’s sanctioning of public money for Herenton’s private legal defense may turn out to be due cause, especially if other council members follow the lead of Collins and Fullilove. After the hearing in Chancellor Evans’ court, the matter appeared to have reached what Lowery referred to Saturday as a “stalemate,” with six council members, all white, presumed to be in favor of Jefferson’s departure and the other six, all African American, defending his tenure.
Speaking with reporters after he had addressed supporters at the headquarters opening, Lowery said the new disclosures amounted to a vindication of his original intent to discharge Jefferson. “Citizens need to know that there are certain things I can’t say publicly until I have absolute proof,” Lowery said, characterizing the revelations of the payments to Spence as “the tip of the iceberg” and pointing out that the FBI now apparently was investigating Jefferson.
“I think you will see more in the coming weeks, and I want this issue resolved as soon as possible,” Lowery said. Noting that his original effort to fire Jefferson had “the support of only half the council,” the mayor pro tem said, “If I’m going to run the city the way I want to run it, with open transparency and high ethics, this has got to be done.”
Among other things, Lowery said one of his reasons for wanting to fire Jefferson was that of security of information. “I’m concerned with the safekeeping of city records. Files may not be there. I’m looking for an original contract with Mr. Rickey Wilkins that no one seems able to find.”
"I guess this proves we were right the first time," said Dale Tuttle, one of Lowery's attorneys on the Jefferson matter.