"Last September Congressman Cohen and Willie Herenton both agreed to participate in a debate on July 11th on WREG-TV with the terms of the debate, including the moderators, known to both candidates. In the 8 months since that agreement, the Congressman has not waivered and he is honoring his word.
"The Cohen Campaign never agreed to a meeting to consider other debate venues."
That statement was in response to a somewhat agitated and inflammatory press conference held earlier Friday in front of Cohen’s Union Ave. Campaign headquarters by the congressman’s Democratic primary opponent, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.
Essentially Herenton charged Cohen with having canceled a supposed meeting that morning involving “representatives from WMC-TV, I believe Fox News, the League of Women Voters, the Tri-State Defender and representatives from the Cohen and Herenton campaign.” So said the ex-mayor.
The meeting was to have ironed out details of a series of prospective debates to replace the one, scheduled for July 11 at WREG-TV, News Channel 3, and involving Channel 3 commentator Norm Brewer and Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford as panelists. Rather famously, Herenton had backed out of that debate two weeks, several months after he and Cohen had agreed to it. The reason? Brewer and Sanford were biased and would be unfair. So said the ex-mayor.
Spokespersons for the organizations involved in the aborted Friday-morning meeting suggested that, the Cohen campaign’s statement notwithstanding, there indeed had been an agreement to hold the meeting — which, said the ex-mayor, was “canceled at the request of Steve Cohen.”
If indeed the Cohen organization had agreed to a meeting on alternate debate venues, that would have been sharply at odds with what appears to have been an inflexible — nay, intractable — opposition on Cohen’s part to considering anything but the one and only Channel 3 debate.
Why Channel 3?, Young was asked Friday. First come, first served, she said in effect. Channel 3 had asked first. And ever since Herenton bowed out in protest of the station’s chosen panelists, Cohen had maintained that to accept other debate proposals would be allowing Herenton to “dictate the terms” of debate between the two.
Well…that begged the question of whether in fact it was now Cohen who was, by his inflexibility, choosing to dictate the terms.
But that possible inconsistency was as nothing compared to one engaged in on Herenton’s part, and I made bold to ask the former mayor about it at Friday’s press conference.
How could he not have known, way back last year when he first agreed on to debate Cohen on Channel 3, that Brewer and Sanford would be the panelists since the two of them had been the core personnel —the staples, in fact — of every election-year debate (and there have been many) since 2002, when WREG and The Commercial Appeal became official “news partners.”
(Consider that the Cohen press release we began with expressly stipulated that both candidates knew full well the identity of the station’s participants.)
Maybe it’s my imagination, but the former mayor appeared flustered when confronted with this obvious conundrum. There was a brief but impassioned verbal detour during which Herenton called me “inept” for having suggested (in several recent columns and interviews, I’ll admit)) that there was no Herenton campaign to speak of. No money, no events, no paraphernalia, no organization, no campaign — unless you count the occasional stab at getting some free media, like, come to think of it, the press conference on Friday.
“How do you have the audacity to talk about the campaign organization of the longest-serving mayor in this city, who beat an entrenched Republican and had no money, who dismantled the Ford political machine?” Herenton thundered.
‘Deciding that I would wait until later to cry my eyes out at Herenton’s reproaches, I repeated: Was the ex-mayor seriously maintaining that he didn’t know who would be asking questions when he first agreed to a Channel 3 debate late in the summer of 2009? If so, why didn’t he ask about such elementary details?
Taking a full breath, I asked, Was this not inept?
A perceptible pause, and then Herenton answered: “No, I just reserve my right.”
So here we are, the ept and inept alike, waiting on these two headstrong antagonists to cease reserving their rights — Herenton to get off his high horse concerning Brewer and Sanford, Cohen to relent about other debates in other venues.
“Please understand. I want to debate Steve Cohen,” Herenton said Friday. And, in an apostrophe directed at the absent congressman, still presumably on the job in D.C., he offered to do so “in front of your office.”
Herenton then got off what he must have hoped would be the predominant sound bite of the day: “I know you‘re not coming into South Memphis. That’s where a lot of your constituency are. You’re here in Midtown and downtown with a million-dollar war chest. Come down in the heart of South Memphis where the people live, where the unemployment rate is high, where the dropout rate is high. Come down there and explain to the people how you can give good representation as our congressman.”
Meanwhile, Cohen apparently intends to let his congressional work speak for itself — or to get back to doing so after a brief spell of consenting to do the dozens with former Mayor Herenton.
By the luck of the draw, one assumes, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam got to open up Tuesday night’s forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates on WKNO-TV and other public television stations statewide. (The forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters.)
And at evening’s end Mike McWherter, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee-in-waiting, conveyed his sense of how things stood among the GOP hopefuls with a press release dissing the forum performances of “Bill Haslam and the candidates running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.”
Add to that the fact that Haslam’s opening monologue was smooth and convincing — better by far than his uneasy recent talking-head campaign commercial (is it the third or fourth that the well-heeled Haslam has run thus far?)
In other words, Haslam did nothing — and had nothing done to him — that would disturb his long-presumed position as frontrunner in the Republican pack (and among gubernatorial candi9dates at large, for that matter).
Haslam’s task at this point of the nomination contest is to suggest to Republican primary voters that he is adequately conservative while intimating to voters at large that he is nondescript or “moderate” enough to deserve their votes in the general election. By and large, the Pilot Oil scion (whose formidable fundraising receipts have kept his personal wealth moot to this point) was able to do that Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp had a somewhat more difficult task — to compete with Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey for the affection of the Republican right wing while expanding his credibility with middle-of-the-road voters.
Wamp, too, largely succeeded — though, from a cosmetic point of view, his over-wide grins at the close of his answers took some of the edge off his impressive natural intensity. But the congressman held to his guns when questioner Otis Sanford of The Commercial Appeal suggested that Wamp might be backing off somewhat from his just-signed pledge to render unto the Med the same amount of federal funding received by the state as the Memphis hospital generates from uncompensated patient care.
And Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville, relatively unyielding in his public posture against state spending federal interference in state matters, kept his street cred with hardline conservatives and was the only major candidate Tuesday night willing to consider cutting funds for Pre-K education.
But even he was able to play off the extreme right-wing views evinced by Nashville businessman Joe Kirkpatrick, previously an Unknown Quantity, whose platform seemed to be equal parts devotion to “the God of Israel” and abhorrence of any federal role in Tennessee whatsoever.
Tea Partier Kirkpatrick’s description of liberalism as “a mental disorder,” his proposed solution to illegal aliens in Tennessee (“Buy ‘em a ticket to West Memphis, Arkansas, and send ‘em home”), his desire to abolish gun-carry restrictions altogether, his repudiation of climate change, and his general flamboyance all provided some entertainment and a parameter of sorts to the discussion.
All the candidates were for biting the bullet on reducing the number of state employees, though their criteria ranged from Wamp’s proposal for across-the-board cuts to Ramsey’s for reductions that were simultaneously more rigorous (“cut by a third”) and more selective (he opposed across-the-board cuts). None of the candidates were for eliminating coal as an energy source, though Haslam touted solar power and Wamp promoted nuclear power as alternatives.
Given that the forum was held in Memphis, there was precious little local reference from the panel, drawn from journalists across the state, until Sanford broached the subject of the Med. Ramsey thought the solution to the hospital’s dilemma lay in pressuring Arkansas and Mississippi to pony up more support while Haslam focused on the institution’s need for a long-term business plan.
Asked afterward why he had chosen not to join Wamp in signing the dollar-for-dollar pledge desired by the Shelby County Commission, Haslam cited objections from state TennCare officials that the procedure would reduce the state’s overall TennCare pool and thus its potential for acquiring federal matching funds.
Even if that dilemma could be avoided by the simple expedient of delaying distribution of uncompensated-care monies until all matching funds were in place, Haslam cast doubt on the accuracy of existing formulas for gauging levels of uncompensated care.
More to Come
In other words, if — as in the last fiscal year — the Med should provide some $90 million worth of charity medical care, all $90 million worth in federal compensation would go back to the Med under a Governor Wamp, who said yes when asked at his Memphis press conference if he would have absolute authority over the allocation of such funds, which are paid to the state, not directly to the generating hospital.
At present, all such payments for the indigent care generated by the Med and other Tennessee hospitals are routed, via TennCare, Tennessee’s version of Medicaid, on a pro rata basis to some 20-odd hospitals in the state.
Both Wamp, a Republican, and the Shelby County Commission members ,both Republican and Democratic, who had sought such a pledge of all active candidates estimate that changing the formula to pay out the funds on a one-to-one basis would net the Med an additional $50 million per year.
With that, says Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, who has been prominent in local efforts to pry more money for the Med out of the state, the institution’s long-running financial woes would be “over.” In fact, says Ritz, it would be possible to amortize the bonds for a new, smaller, more efficient facility for the Med; that’s another consummation the hospital’s supporters devoutly wish.
Whether the federal government would approve a change in the Medicaid waiver it has granted Tennessee is one potential obstacle to the proposed new arrangement — though the feds normally are agreeable to whatever distribution formula a state proposes.
Other, more formidable problems would issue from the politics of the affair, from regional rivalries, and from within the state’s hospital bureaucracy. Greg Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital association, was quoted at the Chattanooga Times-Free Press as objecting: "if you do this, then you're going to take away CPE (certified public expenditures), which will take away matching dollars for the TennCare program which will then be taken away in rates (cuts) to the Med."
The reference to CPEs indicates one of the complex auxiliary formulas whereby federal matching funds augment state expenditures. TennCare Director Darin Gordon also made reference to CPEs and suggested that a deviation from the current distribution formula would result in the state receiving fewer federal funds overall.
But no one, not Becker or Gordon and not one of the three other gubernatorial candidates — Knoxville Mayor bill Haslam and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, both Republicans, or Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, a Democrat — has disputed that indigent care provided by the Med results in the Memphis institution generating a disproportionate share of federal paybacks, nor that the state’s allocation to the Med from all sources combined is less than the total amount of these Med-generated funds.
In short, as virtually all local officials have maintained, regardless of party or their position in the sphere of government, the Med is being short-changed. Not even the recently enacted bed tax passed by the General Assembly would do anything to redress this perceived imbalance. Nor would the Med’s hanging-by-a-thread status be much affected.
Already the other gubernatorial candidates have reacted to Wamp’s bold move by proposing a variety of summits and further discussions to find some other formula for the Med than the one-to-one payback method. But both interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, as well as various other Memphis and Shelby County officials, have been down that road.
Talks with Governor Bredesen and other representatives of state government have been strained at best and unproductive at worst, except for the fact of the bed tax, which would stabilize the current fiscal status of the Med and other institutions receiving money via the TennCare network.
Ritz admits to a cynicism about the bed tax and other proposed solutions short of the one-to-one formula, and he sees the influence behind the scenes of private hospitals as being formidable. “They don’t want the Med to fail, because that would mean they’d have to take over too much indigent care themselves,” said Ritz, who extended the argument to include Nashville General and Chattanooga’s Erlanger, two other charity-care hospitals. “But they don’t want such hospitals to get too comfortable, either, because that would make them too competitive. Starvation rations is something they’ll settle for.”
Whatever the realities, Wamp stands to gain politically in Shelby County, which by some estimates generates a fifth of all Republican primary votes. Last Wednesday’s press conference, which was attended by Democratic commissioners Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy as well as several Republicans, was deemed non-political, but a move is afoot among the GOP commissioners to endorse Wamp as a body.
That may or may not come to pass — and one Republican commissioner, George Flinn, would have to measure the impact of something like that against his own bid for the GOP congressional nomination in the 8th District — but no one disputes that Wamp has gained significant political collateral in Memphis and Shelby County.
If nothing else, he has made a decisive response to the widespread suspicion, whether justified or not, that Memphis and Shelby County are orphans to state government and don’t get either the funding or the respect that other regions do. (In particular, Governor Bredesen’s several remonstrations to local officials to get the Med’s house in order before seeking more funding has been a source of local discontent.)
“Memphis matters” is a slogan lately adopted by candidate Wamp. One way or another, his gubernatorial rivals will henceforth be challenged — by thought, deed, or concrete proposal — to match it.
State Rep. Jeanne Richardson (right) was one of what appeared to be hundreds of guests who swarmed the inside and outside of Earnestine & Hazel’s Restaurant downtown Saturday night to help 9th District congressman Steve Cohen celebrate his 61st birthday. Earlier Saturday, Cohen had directed a crew of volunteers on an “Orange Mound Cleanup.”
A beaming Karen Shea, new president of the Memphis Central Rotary Club, presented Joe Ford (left) and Mark Luttrell (right), candidates for Shelby County Mayor, with individualized T-shirts pledging them to avoid “mudslinging” in their ongoing contest for the mayoralty. The presentation took place at Friday’s regular meeting, which doubled as a 50th anniversary celebration for the club.
State Senator Lowe Finney of Jackson (left) and State Representative Johnny Shaw of Bolivar compared notes prior to Friday night’s “white bean supper” of the Madison County Democratic Women. State Senator Roy Herron, a candidate this year for the 8th District congressional seat, had been expected to attend but was sidelined because of a strep throat, a spokesperson said.
U.S. Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, here backed by family members, celebrated a nartrow lead last Tuesday night in her Democratic primary contest with the state's lieutenant governor, Bill Halter. The two are now vying in a runoff election to be held June 8.
Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp on Wednesday became the first gubernatorial candidate of either party to sign a pledge committing himself to returning all federal funds generated by indigent care at the Med back to the Med, a step that he said would guarantee the Med’s financial survival for the next several years.
Wamp, a Republican, was backed by a bipartisan group of Shelby County commissioners, commissioners-elect, and Sheriff Mark Luttrell, a GOP candidate for county mayor, as he stated his commitment to the pledge (Wam's signed copy of which was distributed in a press kit) in front of the Med entrance on Jefferson Avenue.
Copies of the pledge, prepared by unanimous vote of the county commission, had been sent to all gubernatorial candidates back in April, and Wamp is so far the only candidate to respond with an actual signature and full commitment.
At least one other candidate, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican, has indicated he would probably not sign the pledge, though Haslam promised to seek other remedies to fully fund the Med. Yet to be heard from are Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, a Republican, and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the s0ole remaining Democrat in the governor’s r ace.
Although both Wamp and the county officials gathered with him characterized the event as “non-political” — a case, said the congressman, of “doing the right thing” — its political impact was potentially formidable.
All county officials present praised Wamp for his action. GOP commissioner Mike Ritz, one of the originators of the pledge and one who had not previously stated his support for a particular gubernatorial candidate, said that if Wamp remained the only candidate signing the pledge, he believed the Republican commissioners, as a group, would endorse Wamp. And he said that, in such a case, he would help to organize such a unified approach.
The two Democrats present, commissioners Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy, suggested that they would remain within party ranks in supporting a candidate for governor, but both agreed that Wamp would be likely to gain support in Shelby County. Asked whether he thought the Republicans on the commission would support Wamp en masse, Mulroy said, “They should.”
Mulroy said he thought Wamp’s decision to sign the full-funding pledge would have a strong positive impact on the Chattanooga congressman’s prospects in Shelby County, while negative reaction elsewhere in the state from hospitals that have been sharing Med-generated funds for indigent care would be negligible.
Wamp said a Tennessee governor had the unilateral pledge to make a funding commitment of this sort and that the annual additional amount made available to the Med would be in the neighborhood of $50 million.
The congressman said that, if elected, he would also convene the state’s congressional delegation, along with officials from Arkansas and Mississippi, neighboring states that depend heavily on care at the Med, in an effort to secure appropriate levels of funding for the Med from those states.
Here is a video portion of what Wamp said at the Med:
In addition to his remarks on-site, the congressman’s campaign issued the following press release:
Wamp becomes first gubernatorial candidate to sign pledge
to protect Shelby County MED
Republican frontrunner says a strong
Shelby County means a strong Tennessee
MEMPHIS — Zach Wamp, Republican candidate for governor, today became the first gubernatorial candidate to sign the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ request for support for the Regional Medical Center (The MED) in Memphis.
Wamp today affirmed his commitment to The MED and its community-focused services by signing a Commission-backed pledge that as governor he will work to provide all federal funds received by the State based on the MED’s uncompensated care to the facility.
Wamp also pledged to advocate for the maximum continuing match of Shelby County’s new $10 million annual appropriation to the MED.
This afternoon Wamp delivered his signed statement to Joyce Avery, chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, at a brief press availability in front of the Regional Medical Center in Memphis.
“I am signing this pledge because the MED’s continued operation is vitally important to Memphis,” Wamp said. “We need a governor with the right experience and backbone to do what we need to do to support the MED, including pulling together the Governors and all of the parties in Mississippi and Arkansas to make sure they are also contributing their fair share for this Regional Medical Center.”
Commissioner Avery noted the Med’s utmost importance to the citizens of Shelby County, its legislative delegation and local elected officials, and thanked Wamp for his commitment to the city of Memphis and Shelby County.
“I am delighted for Congressman Zach Wamp to meet with Shelby County officials today to express his commitment to help sustain the MED, a very vital stake here in Shelby County,” said Joyce Avery, chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. “His actions confirm his desire to make a positive difference in the lives of our citizens who have or will one day be dependent on the specialized trauma care that is widely offered by the MED.”
Wamp again pledged his commitment and strong support for Memphis and Shelby County during the event.
“As governor, I will work with the County Commission and other leaders here to make sure Shelby County gets the full attention and support this area needs to succeed because when Shelby County succeeds, the rest of Tennessee succeeds, too.”
The six-member Airport Authority is appointed jointly by the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County and oversees operations of Memphis International Airport.
Sammons’ long governmental experience, coupled with his close relationship with FedEx founder Fred Smith, is expected to make him a major player as an Authority member.
The 9th District congressman got it from the preacher whose invocation inveighed against “racial divisiveness and those who would attempt to divide us.” He got it from the radio personality (known as “Mother Wit”) who said, “I’m for him. I don’t care who knows. You need me to fight? I got me a stick”
He got it from former right-hand man and current Sheriff’s candidate Randy Wade, whose rhetoric went into overdrive. And he got it from a large crowd — estimated at between 200 and 300 — that happily sweltered (and, yes, there is such an oxymoronic thing) on the parking lot outside Cohen’s new campaign headquarters at Union and McNeil.
“Sometimes he talks too much and he says the wrong damn thing, but I do know that his heart is always in the right place. That’s what matters,” said Wade, who rose to preacherly crescendos in his celebration of his “brother from another mother.”
Like the other speakers, Wade strove to refute the black/white aspects of a contest in which Cohen’s Democratic primary opponent is former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.
“It’s not about black or white, Hispanic, Chinese, Asian, it’s about doing, what, the right thing,” said Wade, who went on to cite Cohen’s work on behalf of establishing the Lottery in Tennessee, as well as the several legislative successes of the congressman’s two terms in Washington.
“Evil has no place in this campaign. Race baiting has no place in this campaign,” declared Wade, and the theme was picked up by Cohen in his own remarks.
Looking out over his impressive and diverse parking-lot crowd, Cohen said, “This is a great picture. This is Memphis together… a community united and a united community.” He promised, “We’re going to win this campaign and win it big.”
Reviewing his work in Congress, Cohen mentioned, among other highlights, his vote for the health-care bill, his work in securing “a Medicaid fix for the Med,” his sponsorship of an infant mortality measure, alternative energy bill, and a financial reform package, and his efforts on behalf of Hate Crimes legislation.
The longtime state senator, who first won election to Congress in 2006, mentioned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had dubbed him “the conscience of the freshman class,” and that he was one of only a few members of that class to have become a committee chair and a whip.
Toward the end of his remarks, Cohen said his campaign would “make Memphis look good on the national stage, “ and he noted, “The national media’s going to be covering this campaign, and Memphis is going to come out a winner.”
In what seemed to be a reference to opponent Herenton, who resigned from the mayoralty last summer, Cohen said, “I do not quit!”
And his chastisement of Herenton continued in a brief press conference with reporters afterward, in which he was asked about Herenton’s surprise withdrawal this past week from a scheduled July 11 debate on WREG-TV, News Channel 3. Contending that the station’s assigned panelists, Norm Brewer of Channel 3 and Otis Sanford of the Commercial Appeal, would be “unfair,” Herenton has suggested rescheduling the debate on other TV stations.
"I’ve always been willing to debate Mayor Herenton. In fact, I would enjoy debating Mayor Herenton,” Cohen said. But: ”He’s not going to dictate the terms of this debate to me. He’s not going to dictate the terms of this debate to the Memphis public."
Cohen said he wanted to debate Herenton “eyeball to eyeball, chin to chin, knee to knee, toe to toe,” but, “We agreed to do it on July 11 on Channel 3, and, if he doesn’t do it, he’s a coward.”
After his tour of the Criminal Justice Center4 at 201 Poplar with Gibbons, Knoxville mayor Haslam made a joke based on a reference in last week’s Tennessee Journal to the ritual that the Gibbons drop-in has become for gubernatorial candidates in Memphis. (Republicans Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey had made the pilgrimage previously.)
“I think the Rendezvous’s getting jealous. He’s the new Memphis landmark,” said Haslam.
As for why he and the others were touching this base: “Seriously, we ought to. Bill, while he was campaigning, and even before that, was addressing one of the most serious issues in Tennessee [crime control]….He’s working on some creative solutions to the issue, and there’s nothing like coming to see it first-hand.”
Among the actrivities Haslam observed at the CJC were a domestic violence court and a drug court, both of which, he said, had contributed to the 16 percent reduction in crime in Memphis over the last two years.
Gibbons opined, “Maybe the fact that I talked about crime in the governor’s race made the other candidates understand that it is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
It has been no secret, of course, that each of Gibbons’ Republican visitors would like an endorsement — if not from Gibbons himself, then perhaps from members of the former candidate’s entourage.
Gibbons was asked: Would he consider making an endorsement of one of his former rivals?
“It’is not my intention,” he said. “You never say no, an absolute no, but it is not my intention to endorse anyone in the primary.”
During his availability with Gibbons, Haslam was asked about persistent demands from critics (including, ironically, Gibbons during the period of his active candidacy) that he release his income tax returns.
“Everything I own has been revealed publicly,” Pilot Oil scion Haslam said, contending that Tennesseans he talked to told him they understood where his money comes from. "I've laid out everything [I] own, and from Tennesseans, frankly, I have not heard that”—the “that” being demands for releaing the returns.
Haslam was also asked his attitude toward the currently controversial budget cuts passed by state Senate Repubicans and under consideration by the House. He answered warily. “I’m not for increasing taxes. And not for keeping on raiding the rainy day fund. “ He declined to specify his own budgetary remedies. “It’s too easy to sit on the sidelines and not say what you do like. I’ll let them determine specific cuts.”
Chattanooga congressman Wamp had been in town for two days earlier in the week, and at one point, after addressing a group of Young Republicans at Spindini’s Restaurant downtown, met briefly with reporters and renewed a suggestion that the gubernatorial race could winnow down from four (himself, Haslam, Ramsey, and McWherter) to three.
Who might the dropout be?, he was asked. “Well, it won’t be me. I’m not the one who’s missed most of the meetings this past week.” That was an apparent reference to Ramsey, who had missed at least one gubernatorial forum and perhaps other cattle calls due to his involvement in legislative activity.
Wamp was asked about the now famous Shelby County Commission letter requesting gubernatorial candidates to pledge that all federal funds generated by indigent care at the Med be returned 100 percent to the Med. “I intend to sign it,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it.”
During a visit to Memphis last week, Haslam was asked point-blank if he was inclined not to sign such a pledge: “Yeah, we’ve looked at that, and I don’t know that really signing that petition is what’s going to change things.” The reason? “It’s really not that simple that you can say ‘all the dollars that come out of here go back that way.’ You have to look…I don’t think anybody can give you an exact formula and say, ‘The Med produces this much and should get that much back.’
Haslam had also said, “Everybody thinks everybody else is getting a better deal.” But he acknowledged, “Memphis probably feels that stronger than most regions.”
One of the most-watched videos this week was that of a freak encounter (literally) involving Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy and an apparently homeless man in Overton Park, who alternately demanded money from Mulroy and threatened him. (See video here.)
All this happened Wednesday as Mulroy was being interviewed by Kontji Anthony of WMC-TV, Action News 5 outside Memphis Brooks Museum. As the commissioner, a professor of law at the University of Memphis, was answering her questions about the legal predicament of a man masquerading as a lawyer, the interloper approached.
“Are you messing with me?” the man reportedly began the conversation. A puzzled Mulroy assured him, that he wasn’t, and that began a troublesome dialogue during which the man repeatedly used profanity and demanded money, threatening the commissioner with bodily harm if he didn’t receive it.
Ultimately, the man went away, but not before there had been several scary (and some frankly comic) turns.
Mulroy himself, an opponent of the more stringent anti-panhandling ordinances under consideration by the City Council, saw the incident as reflecting more on the need for more local mental health measures.
After the afternoon report by Anthony had aired, Jason Miles of Channel 5 was able to track down the man who had accosted Mulroy, and Miles filed a subsequent story Wednesday night in which the man seemed to apologize for having hassled the commissioner. An interesting aspect of that report was the news that the man had had several brushes with the law, one for assault and battery.
Most convicted felons serving the first few months of a life sentence would need a successful appeal and a million dollar bond to walk out jail's front door. Convicted murderer Dearick Stokes just needed a faulty computer system.
On April 22, Stokes was released from jail just months into his life sentence, back on the street for the second time since his conviction. Stokes had previously gone into hiding just before the jury convicted him of murder, leaving the courthouse after telling his attorney, he needed to use the bathroom.
“I thought 'well, we'll never see this guy again,'” said Judge James Lammey Jr., who oversaw Stokes' trial. “He already had one chance to get away, one shot at it. and he failed, so the next time they've had a little practice, they might do something different. That's why I think it was such a good job on the investigators' behalf of finding this guy so quickly.”
Fortunately, Stokes was recaptured less than a week later at the Relax Inn on South Third Street after an intensive manhunt led by Sheriff Mark Luttrell.
“At this point it's almost comical,” Lammey said after Stokes' capture. “But I have a wife and kids, I want them to be safe. The jurors I know they had concerns during trial, about this fellow and his family. A couple of them felt like they were being eyed. So to know that this guy was on the street again, that would be scary for them, to say the least, and also the witnesses that testified against him. When he was out there it wasn't comical at all, it was frightening.”
What remains frightening is the prospect of a repeat performance, as the Stokes' situation is just the latest, most dangerous and high profile problem with a computer system that causes daily problems for those using it.
In order to handle issues of bond, release, court appearances, charges and other matters pertinent to case adjudication, the Criminal Court computer system and Jail computer system must be in constant communication with each other. Problem is, the two systems don't communicate very well.
The system often takes more than a day to register critical elements, does not interpret complex legal elements of adjudication correctly, and causes a variety of simple user hang-ups.
“I can do a record check from my computer, but it won't show the record on my screen,” Lammey said. “I have to print it out. So I just can't look at it on the computer. You would think that since the information is there that I would be able to see it and not print it. It seems like a waste of paper.”
That may seem like a normal office complaint, but it gets worse. Already indicted defendants appear in court erroneously daily, because their indictment isn't stored in the system. An order for release from jail can be easily confused as a release to the Dept. of Corrections (read: Prison) or to the street. And complications involving bond forfeiture, automatic sentences, sentencing hearings and case closure can all get convoluted moving back and forth between the two databases.
In Stokes' case, a charge of domestic assault was dropped to save judiciary effort, entered into the Criminal Court system, and sent to the Jail system. When the dropped charge showed up in the Jail system, the murder conviction was nowhere to be found. Also not found? An indictment for failure to appear in a felony case, issued earlier that day. Either would have kept Stokes in custody, but both were lost in the matrix.
And so, at 9:30 p.m. on April 22, Stokes was summoned by jail staff, questioned by release staff, given his things and politely shown the door. Just like that, a convicted murderer and one-time fugitive was out of police custody and back on the streets. Luttrell estimates that Stokes' release was witnessed by as many as six employees before he walked out the door.
“You would think a light bulb would go off somewhere,” Luttrell said. “There were some people scratching their heads and some members of staff stopped to question him and followed up, but we eventually let him go.”
The follow-up was not a phone call to Criminal Court, a question sent to Lammey or an effort to find original paperwork. Nope. The follow-up was just a double-check of faulty computer screen. Stokes benefitted from a perfect storm of systematic errors and poor timing, and was able to get out of jail.
To Luttrell that is unacceptable. Problems with both sides of the system were as well known as Stokes' status as a chronic flight risk.
“You should never rely exclusively on a computer,” Luttrell said. “We've known for a number of years that we have an antiquated system. It's got some problems. We established a task force three months ago to look holistically into this entire IT situation in the criminal justice system knowing we had some problems, and I think it's clear now that the accident we were fearful would happen, happened. And it happened in a big way.”
That reliance on the computer was already removed by Judge Chris Craft of Division VIII, who ordered that no prisoner who had appeared in his court would be released without accompanying paperwork. Craft made his order after a similar incident occurred in his court years prior to the Stokes' incident.
Now all defendants in criminal court will undergo the same scrutiny before being released, something Lammey feels is adequate for the time being.
“It's an expensive proposition to replace the whole [system]. The cheaper solution right now is to require that they have all the paperwork in hand. For now I'm satisfied that they have it corrected.”
A more permanent fix for the computer system is going to be trickier to implement. The positions of Criminal Court Clerk and Sheriff are both in the process of switching after this upcoming election, with no incumbent in sight. Much of the burden for updating these systems will fall on victors of those races, but will also include a myriad of officials at all levels of government. Luttrell, who is running for Shelby County Mayor, has said a focus on a more permanent solution would be a priority for him in the Mayor's position, but that he cannot predict if voters will give him that chance after this incident.
“I don't know about [effects on his campaign],” Luttrell said. “The political implications of this will be left up to the citizens.”
In the wake of the incident Luttrell has ordered a full investigation that he expects to be made public later this week. Any disciplinary action will be made based on the investigation's findings.
In the meantime, the local criminal justice system, which is the busiest in the state, is left with a computer system that has effectively rendered itself useless with regard to prisoner movement. For now, it's back to paper pushing.
Despite the development, Lammey says it is important for the public to retain faith in the administrating of criminal justice done downtown.
“From my perspective, we have the people in the community who are told countless times that the system is broken, and from our perspective we're trying to show that the system actually works,” Lammey said. “This hurts that effort, but we want to be sure that people have the right impression of our criminal justice system. I want people to have confidence in the system.”
Lammey, Luttrell and other believers may be able to convince the public, but their biggest task moving forward is to convince the computer.
Joe Ford’s billboards and paraphernalia employ the slogan “Voice of the People,” an apt phrase for the interim county mayor to adopt, suggesting populist concerns while simultaneously providing cover for his recurrent grammatical lapses.
Though Ford’s meanings are never unclear, his syntax often runs close to the edge and sometimes over it, as when he proudly claimed during Tuesday’s NAWBO debate with Mark Luttrell that “I have ran a calm citizen-involved open-door government.”
Since 70 percent of the constituency of Shelby County government resides within Memphis’ borders, and since the history of big-city mayors everywhere is replete with plainspeak vocabularies, Ford’s occasional run-ins with the language are as likely to endear him to voters as to put them off. Call it the Huey Long effect. The familiar phrase “politics ain’t beanbag” neatly encapsulates the idea.
Indeed, when both candidates were asked to identify any potential weakness they might have, either in educational preparation or political background, Ford was serene in his confidence: “I don’t see a weakness,” he said. “I’ve got six years of college, I’ve ran the office with distinction. I think most of you here can vouch for me on that. I think if you had to grade me right now, grade me A to F, just think about it, I’m going to continue that service.”
He then went on to note an extensive governmental vita — six years on the city council and seven years on the county commission, having served as chairman of both, plus the last five months as mayor. “Everything has come along just fine.”
Luttrell’s answer to the same question:”I’m not a ‘hail fellow well met,’ I’m pretty strictly business. I’m sometimes not as warm and fuzzy as I should be, that’s what my wife says. I take a great deal of pride in trying to be a good listener.”
That answer underscored the basis of one of the several disagreements between the two debaters. Ford, whose residence is in Bartlett these days, was quick to proclaim his unalterable opposition to city/county consolidation, rushing to do so even before he was questioned about it per se.
Luttrell was, on the surface at least, more measured: “I have not been an advocate or proponent. I pride myself on listening to what people have to say. We have a Charter Commission, and I don’t know what they will say. Mayor Ford or Mayor Luttrell are not going to decide consolidation…you the voters will. “ And he repeated: “To say you’re against something [when] you don’t know what it is” would be an “injustice” to the Charter Commission” The idea was to “wait and see what they have to say.”
On the surface, Ford’s championing of suburban resisters and Luttrell’s profession of urbane open-mindedness constituted something of an anomaly, political party-wise, but the real distinction was that Ford was centering himself in populist feeling while Luttrell’s sentiments were more abstract.
The same kind of distinction showed itself when the discussion went to the efficacy of out-sourcing county services. Luttrell, stating his mantra that he ever sought more efficiency in government, said, “We need to take a look,” while Ford made it clear he was “totally against” the very idea of out-sourcing. There were 6300 county employees, he said. “I want to keep them working. People lose jobs and benefits when you out-source.”
The two candidates differed also on the issue of Payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), the means whereby new businesses and industries are enticed into the county with tax breaks.
Ford took the hands-on point of view: “We’ve got to have the PILOT programs in Memphis. Take them away and it’s hard to balance our budget. They [the new businesses] do pay taxes.”
Luttrell, however, while acknowledging the usefulness of PILOT concessions, insisted they couldn’t be “the only component” of industrial recruiting and noted that Shelby County issue more PILOTs than “Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga combined.” He suggested a focus on other issues — “a strong educational system, safe streets, amenities in the community.”
Ford and Luttrell differed even on whether Shelby County’s was a “weak mayor” form of government, as most observers of its structure would suggest.. Ford — again, hands on — said he had not found it to be the case, that there were ways in which the county mayor had more power than the city mayor, citing his greater control of responders to the recent disastrous flood.
Luttrell, who has worked the structure from the vantage point of the Sheriff’s Department, a sizeable enclave with control over its own budget, saw the mayor’s office as depending on cultivation of relationships with other department heads.
Predictably, the two differed on whether the Med’s future had been safeguarded during Ford’s tenure. “I have saved the Med!” the interim mayor declared (no matter what the sheriff might say, he added), and he cited a series of funding increments — city, county, state, and federal — which he had labored to achieve.
Luttrell was skeptical. “Speak to anyone close to he Med, and they will tell you the Med has not been saved, it survives to fight another day.” All the funding sources Ford had boasted about had been stop-gap, meaningless without the long-term “business plan” which Luttrell insisted was necessary.
So it went. If there was a defining edge to the two candidates’ disagreement, it was that of incumbent versus challenger. Even on the issue, dear to the NAWO hosts, of what a county mayor might do for women owners of business, Ford talked in terms of seed money available and touted his task forces on the subject, while Luttrell promised to increase support for small-business initiatives and lamented the current lack of venture capital.
Ultimately, Tuesday’s forum suggested, for all the differences of race, party, constituency, and personal manner, the election could come to a case of what has been done already versus what else could be tried.
And for those who missed the forum? Fear not, there will be more of these to come.
What really was on display before a full house at Pancho’s Restaurant at Summer and White Station was a contrast in styles. During the summing up an hour after the luncheon session got going, Sheriff Luttrell acknowledged as much, suggesting that the forum had been a good opportunity for attendees to observe the candidates’ “leadership styles and visions for the future.”
Danielle Schonbaum of the League of Women Voters and I co-moderated the event at the invitation of Nita Black of NAWBO, taking turns asking questions.
An indication of the difference between the two candidates’ styles came about midway when I asked Ford and Luttrell what was “the most serious misconception people have about you.” This is a famous trick question used by executive headhunters to elicit private truths from the applicants they interview. The idea is that there are no misconceptions, that whatever the interviewee says is a misconception is instead simple fact.
Luttrell seemed honestly baffled by the question, apparently viewing himself as not only an open book but one printed in large reader-friendly type. His was “a pretty simple life,” he said. He’d been married “a long time,” had “beautiful children and lovely grandchildren,” and had “never had financial difficulties.” (That last reference may have been a subtle jab at his opponent.)
Ford took something of the same tack, but in a considerably more introverted and defensive manner. “A lot of people look to my last name and come to a conclusion, but I’m ‘what you see is what you get.’…I’ve ran a calm citizen-involved open-door government. I’ve been honest, people like me, A couple of newspeople that I don’t know and never met wrote some bad articles about me. …[There was an] article that was terrible about my family…I’ve done a great job. Regardless of what you see in the paper and what you read in the paper and what you see on TV, here I am.”
That sensitivity to media attention on Ford’s part, which had materialized repeatedly in previous public appearances by the interim mayor, surfaced several times more during the hour-long forum — when he insisted that he had “saved” the Med, for example, but that “the media” in general and “the Commercial Appeal,” in particular, declined to acknowledge the fact.
But he gave some indication that he was learning how to spin his resentment. Asked point-blank why he has complained about media examination of his personal financial problems when management of fiscal resources is a basic component of county government, Ford contended that “the only thing I complained about was when the Commercial Appeal put a map in the paper showing how to get to my house.”
He said he didn’t believe anyone had so publicized Luttrell’s domicile or would do so. “I do have some rights.” As for his problems with personal debts, yes, he had them, but so did AIG, the giant insurance company, and so did the City of Memphis. “I’m just in debt like most of y’all in here.”
A savvy answer, all things considered — though disingenuous, in that his former complaints about press attention had been much broader.
Both candidates were asked about their decisions to run for the office of county mayor after previously indicating they wouldn’t.
In Ford’s case, this meant renouncing a pledge not to seek the position that he had given when awarded the interim appointment by his commission mates. “That question has been asked about 59 times since November,” Ford responded when asked. “I changed my mind. My opponent, Sheriff Luttrell, changed his mind. This is America. Citizens of this county in large numbers came to me and said ‘you need to run no matter what you said. ‘This question needs to go away.”
Luttrell denied that his own last-minute decision to run had been based on a poll (though he had received highly positive results from one conducted by John Bakke just before switching out of a reelection race for sheriff).
The sheriff said his decision to run for mayor was based on the fact that he had not seen other candidates able to offer “alternatives,” and h felt his experience as sheriff enabled him to take both management skills and “fresh approaches” to the “larger stage” of the mayor’s office. “
The answer seemed to imply that the absent “alternatives” had been Republican ones, but, when asked about the fact that he apparently had been cast as spokesman for his party’s candidates at a post-election rally at his Eastgate headquarters, Luttrell took issue with such an interpretation — which Democrats will be insisting on.
The Sheriff said, “What we need in the forthcoming election is candidates that can reach out and appeal to all sections.” That meant, Democrats and Republicans, blacks, whites, both genders. It meant “being inclusive at all levels.” That's his story, and, clearly, one he intends to stick to.
(In Part Two, next, how Luttrell and Ford differed on the issues.)
It is understandable — if a tad abrupt — that a spokesperson for one of the two major parties in Shelby County should dismiss the other party’s freshly minted nominees for county offices as “duds.”
That’s what Shelby County Republican chairman Lang Wiseman, extolling his own “great candidates,” had to say at a post-election GOP rally concerning the Democratic victors in May 4 primary voting.
What is less customary is that such a spokesperson’s opposite number — in this case, Gale Jones Carson, one of two campaign co-chairs (the other is Dave Cambron) for the August 5 general election — should be advising Democratic cadres at a post-election rally to “hold your nose” and vote for all her party’s nominees “whether you like them or not.”
The contrast may not be so glaring as it seems. As Carson observed, the Republicans have their internal schisms, too. But: “They walk in there, and they pull that lever. That’s all that’s important, that their party win. We must have the same attitude about our party and about our candidates. The goal is to win and put personal feelings aside.”
Carson, a former Democratic chair who, from time to time, had taken her share of hits from party rivals, underscored the point: “Y’all know all the people that stepped on me over the years? I just walked in there and pulled that lever for them.”
Wiseman made his remarks to a gathering of the GOP faithful Thursday evening at the Eastgate campaign headquarters of Sheriff Mark Luttrell, now a candidate for Shelby County mayor. The well-respected sheriff, who has always got a fair share of African-American and Democratic votes, was presented by Wiseman as what he is now — the head of the Republican ticket and its de facto leader. Ironically, both parties accept that designation of Luttrell; it serves both their purposes.
Carson spoke her piece two days later to assembled Democrats at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Like the Republican affair, the Democratic gathering, presided over by party chairman Van Turner, was chock-ful of kumbaya — with primary losers like Deidre Malone (mayor) and Larry Hill (sheriff), making a point, quite literally, of embracing their victorious opponents, interim mayor Joe Ford and Democratic nominee for sheriff Randy Wade, respectively.
Even as the first speaker at the Republican rally, Chief Deputy Bill Oldham, who won the nomination for sheriff, had set the tone there by congratulating his primary opponents for the quality of their race and asking for inclusiveness, so did the rest of the Republicans do likewise.
And so would the Democrats at Metropolitan. Wade would designate Hill, in effect, as his possible successor down the line, while Ford, thanking Malone for her “clean, great race,” even professed to have “loved your [TV] commercial,” one which had taken an indirect swipe at the Ford clan’s political legacy.)
Still, Carson’s surprising candor lingered in the aura of the Democratic rally, and several of the party nominees undertook to address it. Coleman Thompson, nominee for register, protested that he wanted no nose-holding support but votes that acknowledged his ability, while renominated District 5 county commissioner Steve Mulroy tried to aw-shucks the whole deal.
“I’m not proud,” he said, with a smile of mock self-deprecation. “If you have to hold your nose and vote for me, vote for me anyhow.”
And the defeated Malone hearkened back to Carson's message: "Most people would think I’d be in bed this morning, but I’m not. I thought it was important that I come out this morning to let you know I’m a proud Democrat. It's important to stand together." And once again: "For some of these you may have to hold your nose, but if you’re a Democrat, you will hold your nose and push that button bcause it’s the right thing to do!"
On the other hand, nominee Shep Wilbun, making a comeback attempt to regain the Juvenile Court clerkship he lost in 2002 (and warning of possible hanky-panky in vote-counting for the August general election), suggested that his party’s candidates should stress their positive plans on behalf of the county and should be elected “not just because we’re Democrats, but because we are the hope, and we are the help.”
A similar note had been struck by Luttrell Thursday night as he stood on a modest tarp-covered dais at Eastgate, with his fellow GOP nominees arrayed behind him, and, for their benefit, pondered out loud “how to overcome the fact that you’re outnumbered by Democrats.”
Even as Wilbun would do, the high sheriff had taken the high road. “This county’s looking for leadership,” he said. “Regardless of party, we can have effective campaigns. Preach your message and talk your talk. We’ve got superior credentials….If we promote what’s good about us as individual candidates, we will prevail.”
Thus were the contrasting motifs of the current election cycle laid out at both party gatherings for all to reflect on — the theme of party loyalty vs. that of transcending partisan difference. If the first idea predominated at the Democratic rally and the second at the GOP affair, the difference — such as there was — lay in the numbers.
Pure and simply, there are more Democratic voters in Shelby County now than Republican ones.
It is not only in his party’s interest but in Luttrell’s own that he should emphasize the “individual” qualities of candidates and speak, as he did, of “diversity.” And it is part and parcel of the Democratic game plan to brand the sheriff, first and foremost, as a Republican loyalist.
The outcome of the August general election will depend in large part on which of the two images of Luttrell becomes the definitive one.
The debate will take place at Pancho's Mexican Restaurant, 717 N. White Station Rd., from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., with registration and networking taking place between 11:15 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. Moderators will be Danielle Schonbaum of the League of Women Voters and Jackson Baker of the Flyer.
Registration details are available at http://nawbomemphis0511.eventbrite.com.
Though Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam made perhaps his most pronounced pitch ever for Memphis support in a two-day visit concluding Thursday, he stopped well short of gratifying local wishes on one key score — that of funding for the Med.
Speaking to reporters after appearing before a sizeable crowd at his Eastgate headquarters in tandem with honorary campaign chair Howard Baker, Knoxville mayor Haslam expressed his commitment to the Med in general terms: “I think that what should happen is that we need to make certain the Med is adequately funded, because it’s so critical that you go there. We’re talking about the trauma unit, the burn unit, low-income care. You know, we all need the Med to work.”
But on the specific issue of a Shelby County Commission letter asking all gubernatorial candidates to sign a pledge to return all federal dollars generated by indigent care at the Med back to the Med, Haslam followed the lead of his rivals in waffling. Only his waffle was more explicit:
“It’s really not that simple that you can say ‘all the dollars that come out of here go back that way.’ You have to look…I don’t think anybody can give you an exact formula and say, ‘The Med produces this much and should get that much back.’
Haslam was asked point-blank: Did that mean he would decline to sign the pledge? “Yeah, we’ve looked at that, and I don’t know that really signing that petition is what’s going to change things.”
That seemed to settle that. No signing on to the commission’s pledge.
Haslam did express approval of hospital bed-tax legislation now making its way through the legislature as a means of helping the Med break even.
Asked about a widespread feeling among Memphians that the city isn’t getting its share of attention from state government in general, Haslam said such a feeling was general in all sections of Tennessee. “Everybody thinks everybody else is getting a better deal.” But he acknowledged, “Memphis probably feels that stronger than most regions.”
During his two-day visit Haslam had met with Med officials and with representatives of the Memphis’ Bioworks Foundation, among others. His time here coincided with showing of a TV ad aimed specifically at Memphis and Shelby County.
The ad features several Memphis landmarks and focuses on the fact that Crissyh Garrett Haslam, Haslam’s wife, is a Memphis native.
In addition to former Senator Baker, a resident of Huntsville, a town just north of Haslam’s own Knoxville, the speakers at the headquarters rally included former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, a former co-chairman of the gubernatorial campaign of local District Attorney Bill Gibbons who now occupies a similar role with the Haslam campaign.
Haslam's two GOP rivals, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, in previous visits to Memphis had held public pres availabilities with Gibbons. As of his Memphis visit this week, Haslam had not held a similar public media session in the company of Gibbons, nor did Gibbons attend the headquarters rally Thursday.
But the Haslam campaign contacted the Flyer after the first appearance of this article online to announce that the Knoxville mayor would participate in such a joint event with Gibbons next Thursday.
Haslam spent much of Thursday afternoon touring flood-damaged neighborhoods in Millington. He canceled a previously scheduled an East Memphis door-to-door session to do so.
UPDATE: Deidre Malone declares for County Mayor at Chism picnic.