Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Luttrell, Search Firm Both Talk Up Delays in School Merger Process

Mayor cites Board inaction and effect of municipal schools; PROACT also put off by uncertainties.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Mayor Luttrell
  • Mayor Luttrell
Simultaneous with published reports that the search firm hired by the unified School Board wants a delay in looking for superintendency candidates, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has said he thinks a year-long delay in school merger itself would be helpful.

Luttrell told members of the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday that the likelihood of multiple school systems in Shelby County’s suburbs and the complications stemming from that process would make such a delay desirable. Luttrell also expressed frustration with the efforts of the unified Board in resolving matters that impinge on its own budget — and consequently on that of the county at large.

“We still don’t know what the schools will cost. I thought we would have a budget for them by now,” Luttrell said. “Maybe we’ll get something from them by May.”

The impatience in the mayor’s voice was almost palpable as he told the Rotarians, “To say I’m frustrated with the School Board is an understatement. They have done us a disservice.”

Luttrell said his own need to prepare a county budget has been hampered by the Board’s failure to come to grip with unfinished items on its agenda. Only last week, in two meetings, the Board — deadlocked between contrary points of view held by holdover members of the erstwhile Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools boards—failed to make headway on school closures or whom the new system should hire for cleaning purposes.

Asked if a year’s delay might be a viable alternative to completing city/county school merger by this August, Luttrell said, “Yes, I think it would.”

Luttrell’s opinion would seem to coincide with that expressed by officials of PROACT, the Board’s search firm. According to The Commercial Appeal. , the search firm, like Luttrell, has been put off by uncertainties created by School Board inaction and would prefer to pursue the search in earnest ”in the fall and winter months.”

Board member Chris Caldwell has said he will present the firm’s request for consideration at Tuesday night’s Board meeting.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Maxine Smith, Civil Rights Icon, Dead at 83

For decades, she was at the center of social progress — in the schools, work force, and political structure of Memphis and Shelby County.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 26, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Maxine Smith, 1929-2013
  • Maxine Smith, 1929-2013
Maxine Smith, the longtime executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP and a pivotal local figure in virtually every important aspect of the civil rights era, has died at 83.

Smith’s slipping of the mortal coil is sure to be formally recognized and her life commemorated by local, state, and national legislative bodies, for there is hardly as aspect of the times she lived in that she didn’t do much to transform.

As in the case of Rosa Parks, whose denial of a seat on a Montgomery bus in 1956 led to that city’s landmark bus boycott, led by the young Martin Luther King, Smith’s ascent into social leadership stemmed from a personal rebuff.

She and Miriam Sugarmon Willis, another civil rights pioneer, saw their applications rejected to do graduate work at Memphis State University in 1957. That led to Smith’s involvement with the NAACP and her activity on behalf of sit-ins and various protests and voter registration drives.

She led the "If You're Black, Take It Back" campaigns that boycotted downtown stores with segregated work forces and separate water fountains. She personally escorted the African American children who desegregated Memphis public schools in 1961. In 1969 she was a leader of the “Black Monday” boycotts to force further school desegregation.

As a leader of the NAACP, Smith was outspoken in support of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, which would culminate in the tragic assassination here of Dr. King.

Having been elected to the Memphis School Board in 1971, she was the single most important factor in the elevation in 1979 of Willie Herenton, a black principal, to fill the vacant position os school superintendent, organizing resistance on the Board and in the city to a Board majority’s plan to hire a white superintendent from Michigan.

Smith was equally influential in the 1991 mayoral campaign of Herenton, who won and became the city’s first elected black chief executive, just as he had been the school system’s first black superintendent.

Speaking of Smit on WREG-TV Friday, after learning of her death, Herenton, now organizing a charter-school network, credited Smith for being a major force for “the advancement of African Americans,” and said, “When the annals of history are written … Maxine Smith’s name will be there. She made an indelible imprint on this city.” A tearful Herenton acknowledged that he would never have become superintendent of schools “if not for the courage of Maxine Smith.”

Perhaps appropriately, Smith was elected president of the School Board the same year, 1991, that Herenton was elected mayor. She left the school board in 1995 and eventually relinquished the reins of the NAACP, but continued to function as a sort of elder stateswoman, speaking out on issues and offering advice whenever she was consulted by either side to a controversy, which was often.

She remained an inspirational figurehead, as did her late husband Vasco Smith, a veteran civil rights activist himself and a longtime member of the Shelby County Commission, which meets now in a building named for him.

Speaking of Maxine Smith's death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Friday, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen said, "Today in Memphis, Tenessee, a great lady passed, a lady who was as fierce, as brave, as courageous as any woman who has ever lived in this country...She helped take Memphis beyond Jim Crow and segregation... and she helped take America there...."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

It's the County Commission’s Turn on Gun Rights

A Roland resolution would have Shelby County “nullifying all Federal acts in violation of the Second Amendment….”

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 6:20 PM

Witness Richard Archie (left) and Commissioner Steve Mulroy disagreed Monday on a gun-rights resolution, bur Archie, husband of a transplant recipient, made it  a point later on to congratulate Mulroy for his planned surgery next week to donate a kidney to a local organ bank.
  • JB
  • Witness Richard Archie (left) and Commissioner Steve Mulroy disagreed Monday on a gun-rights resolution, bur Archie, husband of a transplant recipient, made it a point later on to congratulate Mulroy for his planned surgery next week to donate a kidney to a local organ bank.

Kenny Crenshaw was speaking earnestly — the look on his face familiar to most of his onlookers, who had seen it numerous times on a host of billboards and TV screens. Only this time the easily recognized local lawn services proprietor wasn’t pleading to be allowed to “kill your weeds. “

It was Wednesday morning in the committee room of the Shelby County Commission, and Crenshaw was beseeching Commission members to take a stand for the rights of gun owners and against what he deemed “ a lot of attempts to infringe on the Second Amendment.”

Crenshaw and two other men — all touted in advance by Commissioner Terry Roland as “experts — were on hand to convince members of the Commission’s Government Operations Committee to support a resolution by Roland that, as described in its title, “shall be known and may be cited as the ‘Second Amendment Preservation Resolution.’ to prevent Federal infringement on the right to keep and bear arms; nullifying all Federal acts in violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Despite the baldness of the word “nullifying” in that final clause of the caption, the three petitioners were at pains to appear diffident and reasonable. “There’s no one here who is in any way an insurrectionist,’ said David Mixon, the second member of Roland’s support group. They were only asking “that the Commission support the Constitution of the United States of Amer ca [and] support the framers,” said Nixon.

Shafer:“We’ve got a right to take care of ourselves and our family. And let me tell you: A kitchen spatula isn’t going to get it.”

The third member of the trio was Richard Archie of Madison County, who had helped in the passage of similar resolutions elsewhere, including on freshly subscribed to by his home county government. “We’re simply asking our peers to stand forth and to notify the state of Tennessee that we’re desirous of having our Second Amendment rights upheld,” said Archie, who warned of disquieting activity “at the federal level” that threatened those rights.
Roland himself weighed in, saying his proposed resolution was “doing nothing more than saying we support the Second Amendment and the Constitution as it is written.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer rejoiced at the opportunity to support “an issue near and dear to my heart.” She made the point that “the vast majority” of legally sold weaponry was used “for self-defense or hunting” and that those people who used guns for criminal purposes “have got them illegally.”

Recalling the recent reign of terror imposed on Boston, Shafer said, “We’ve got a right to take care of ourselves and our family. And let me tell you: A kitchen spatula isn’t going to get it.”

Commissioner James Harvey thought all the rhetoric was getting out of hand. He said he, too, supported the Second Amendment but averred , “No one is abolishing the Constitution.” All that was going on in Washington was an effort “to have a little b it more control to try and reduce gun violence.” Harvey professed himself to be uneasy about “people with behavior problems” walking around with guns. “Some of you have wives and husbands that you don’t want,” he said. “I just don’t want to live in a society that’s caught up with guns.”

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker pooh-poohed all that. “The sky’s not going to fall if we pass a resolution to uphold the Second Amendment,” he said. He lamented what he said was “a lot of fear-mongering” as wel l as misleading “media bias.” Gun laws were “in and of themselves, ineffective,” Bunker said. “I support the Second Amendment for that reason.”

Chairman Mike Ritz opined that “as a general rule, I think we should avoid these advisory requests,” that calling on the General Assembly to take action on such things “consumes a lot of time and is of no real value to citizens and taxpayers.” Ritz said that a statute to the same effect as the resolution had already been brought before the legislature “and the state dropped it on advice of the Attorney General.”

Archie, who said he’d spent abundant time in Nashville before legislative committees, objected that Ritz was wrong , that the measure objected to by the Attorney General had been Senate Bill 250, introduced by state Senator Mae Beavers (R- Mt. Juliet” and later withdrawn.

That bill, he noted, went much further than the current resolution. It would have gone so far as to designate federal officials as felons for enforcing new gun laws and would have subjected them to arrest. (Archie didn’t single it out, but state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) had succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a resolution very like the one before the Commission.)

Commissioner Chris Thomas couldn’t resist reminding Ritz that if he thought “advisory” legislation was wasting the General Assembly’s time, he and the Commission majority, in the course of communicating opinions to the Assembly, shouldn’t have bothered legislators by “advising them on the school issue.”

Nullification had been an issue in the Civil War. “We fought a war over that,”Mulroy said.

Steve Mulroy, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, had been biding his time, and now he suggested that the resolution was not merely aimed at supporting the Second Amendment: “It goes far further in disturbing ways.”

Nullification had been an issue in the Civil War, he noted. “We fought a war over that,”Mulroy said, and he cited a clause in the resolution that calls upon Tennessee sheriffs to defend Tennesseans “against infringements upon their rights and to hold the federal government to the limitations provided under the Constitution.” He mused: Would the supporters of the resolution really expect Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham to round up federal officials?

In the end the matter was put to a vote. Four committee members — Roland, Bunker, Thomas, and Shafer — voted Aye, and one, Mulroy voted no. The others had either absented themselves or opted not to vote.

The voting on Wednesday was a preliminary of sorts.. It will all be done all over again on Monday, May 6, when the full Commission gets a chance to vote on the resolution — this time for real.

Bunker Pulls Petition To Run for Lakeland Mayor

Shelby County Commissioner formerly served on Shelby County Schools board and has been consistent advocate of suburban municipal schools.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 6:19 AM

Wyatt Bunker
  • JB
  • Wyatt Bunker
Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker — who previously served six years on the old Shelby County Schools board, following years of service by his father, Homer Bunker, on that board — now aspires to become Lakeland’s mayor as the city prepares to establish its own independent school district.

Bunker drew a petition from the Election Commisson on Wednesday, immediately following the Commission’s schedule of committee meetings . Incumbent Mayor Scott Carmichael has also drawn a petition. The election will be held on September 19.

A veteran of law enforcement, Bunker now serves as director of security for Baptist Hospital East.

On the Commission, Bunker has been a outspoken advocate for suburban municipal schools, consistently resisting the Commission majority’s pursuit of litigation against the municipal-school process. "I regard my legislative experience and contacts, as well as my School Board service as good preparation to lead Lakeland into the new era," Bunker said.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Judge Joe Brown, Ousted from his CBS Courtroom, Could Run for the Senate

Taking on Lamar Alexander in 2014 is one career option for the erstwhile TV star, once a bona fide Criminal Court Judge in Shelby County.

Posted By on Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 5:02 PM

JudgeJoeBrown.jpg

Remember “Send Brown Downtown?” No, probably not. Most of you weren’t fixated on the lengthy ballot that confronted Shelby Countians in the steamy summer of 1990.

The Brown in question was Joe Brown, candidate for Shelby County Criminal Court and, after he won that race, just plain Judge Joe Brown later on.

In a way he gave up that title, in a way he didn’t. In 1998 he attracted the attention of CBS producers, having won some notoriety as a result of handling an ultimately futile 1997 appeal by James Earl Ray of his 1969 conviction (via guilty plea) for killing Dr. Martin Luther King.

The result was that in 1998 Judge Joe Brown, Shelby County Criminal Court, became Judge Joe Brown of the eponymous TV reality show, Judge Joe Brown, which was paired by CBS Television Distribution with Judge Judy, starring retired Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin, in a national syndication package.

Both shows involved binding-arbitration situations staged as plaintiff-and-defendant courtroom drama with both the competing participants and the TV judge encouraged to ham it up.

For two years, Brown handled both the television show, installments of which were recorded in Los Angeles, and his regular judicial position in Shelby County, to which he had been reelected in 1998, the same year his TV show began.

The wear and tear of so much commuting, along with the far greater financial compensation of the television show, eventually convinced Brown to resign his judicial position in 2000 and focus on his TV career.

Cutting to the chase, last month Brown recorded his final installment of the show, which was canceled by CBS, following the failure of Brown and the network to reach agreement on a financial package. CBS, citing lower ratings, wanted to cut Brown’s compensation, publicized by the network as $20 million annually, although Brown, complaining about “Hollywood trick economics, said he was actually only paid $5 million a year.

In any case, the CBS-syndicated version of Judge Joe Brown is no more (Judge Judy was, incidentally renewed), and Brown is casting about for other syndicators for his courtroom theatrics. He and various partners are also purportedly planning a radio program to be called Real Talks With Judge Joe Brown.

And hark! The Hollywood Reporter maintains in a new article that Brown “also is considering offers to get involved in politics, which could include a run for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.”

Since Brown has, during the years of his TV judgeship, occasionally returned to Memphis to host fundraisers for various local Democratic candidates, it is to be presumed that his party label as a Senate candidate would also be Democratic. Which means that if he availed himself of his first opportunity at a U.S. Senate seat, challenger Brown could find himself trying to put Republican incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander in the dock of public opinion in 2014.

Alexander should be forewarned: Though journalists who covered Brown as a Criminal Court judge were often impressed with his habit of dramatizing his opinions, they also saw him as being relatively mild-mannered with the contending parties in his courtroom.

But not so the Joe Brown of that Hollywood studio courtroom, who perfected the art of being stern, hard-edged, and sometimes even abusive with those upon whom his adverse judgments fell.

But stay tuned. Maybe there won’t be an Alexander-Brown showdown. Surely it’s as practical to be a faux legislator as a make-believe judge. Is it possible that, sometime down the line, maybe in 2014, we could find ourselves watching a new “reality” show entitled Senator Joe Brown?

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On Eve of Budget Talks, Strickland Warns against Property Tax Increase

Budget chairman of Memphis City Council calls for public participation in “line by Line” search for cuts in city budget.

Posted By on Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 7:28 AM

Strickland at Dutch Treat Luncheon
  • JB
  • Strickland at Dutch Treat Luncheon
That proposal made by City Councilmen Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn for a sales tax referendum, coupled with a reduction in the city’s property tax rate? It’s on indefinite hold, destined to remain there permanently if Mayor A C Wharton is able to convince the City Council to raise the property tax rate in budget negotiations about to get under way.

That was the word from Strickland, the featured speaker Saturday at the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon, a surviving spinoff of the old Loeb Dutch Treat Luncheons once presided over by former Mayor Henry Loeb and by the late Charley Peete, who took them over after Loeb’s death.

As in Loeb’s time and Peete’s, the attendees tend to be arch-conservative or seriously libertarian, and Strickland, who boasted at Saturday’s meeting at Pancho’s Restaurant on White Station that he was “the only Council member who has never voted for a tax increase, not one,” was well received. When one woman gave voice to a common assumption that Strickland intends a mayoral race at some point, the Councilman merely gave a faint smile, as if in confirmation.

As he has on other occasions, Strickland expressed a concern that the greatest danger facing Memphis is that of population loss. "People are voting with their tail-lights,' he said. He attributed the problem to people’s anxieties about three areas — crime, education, and taxes. For the most part, he confined his remarks to crime and taxes, both of which, unlike schools, he said he as a Council member had some direct responsibility for.

Strickland seemed guardedly optimistic about crime control in Memphis. He said the city’s crime rate had declined in recent years under the influence of “Blue Crush” tactics, first introduced by former police director Larry Godwin after the model of an approach by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that located an increased police presence in statistically high crime areas.

According to Strickland, there was a bit of a relapse after Godwin’s departure in 20111 to become a deputy to state Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and as new police director Toney Armstrong took up the reins. Members of the Council noted a 10 percent increase in crime under a new, modified policy instituted by Armstrong “that did away with the biggest part of Blue Crush.” Things have since stabilized as Armstrong has begun to restore the former policy. “Blue Crush works,” Strickland said.

Turning to budgetary matters, Strickland, who chairs the Council’s budget committee, told his audience they “probably won’t believe it,” but the city’s tax rate has in recent years decreased by about 10 percent. He reminded them that the amount of property tax paid is a combination of two elements, “the tax rate and the value of your homes.”

Inasmuch as the most recent assessment shows a dramatic downturn in property values for most Memphians, he said, there is pressure to increase the tax rate so as to maintain revenue. Hence, a budget proposal from Wharton last week calling for an increase from a $3.11 rate to one of $3.39.

Strickland noted that the combined city and county tax rates for Memphians are already 50 percent higher than the property tax rates imposed by Nashville Metro government. Given that the county rate is going to go up, largely because of the unanticipated transitional costs of school consolidation, Strickland forecast the possibility that local tax rates could increase to a level 75 percent higher than Nashville’s.

He further noted that Mayor Wharton’s proposed budget would spend $622 million, an increase over last year’s budget of $597 million and said, “We need to reverse that.” The bottom line, said Strickland, was that “we have to spend less.”

The problem is one of where to cut, and Strickland made known his preference for maintaining projected expenditures for pre-K education. “Pre-K works,” said Strickland. “If Pre-K didn’t work, I wouldn’t have sent my kids to Pre-K.” He said statistics demonstrate that Pre-K instruction causes literacy rates among children to rise dramatically.

Strickland said some of the remedies frequently called for (and expressed by members of his audience on Saturday) would have no effect on the tax rate per se. Included in that category were the idea of privatizing city sanitation services, which are subsidized by fees, not taxes, and proposed pension reforms involving a change from a defined-benefits system to a defined contribution (or 401-K) system. Strickland agreed that pension reform needed to be discussed, but he argued that an immediate switch “would not save tax dollars” and that there were would be transitional costs involved in maintaining the city pension fund.

As an example of the kind of thing that might be cut, Strickland mentioned the Memphis Music Commission, the work of which is paralleled by the privately funded Memphis Music Foundation, “which probably does it better.”

An aspect of Wharton’s proposed budget that Strickland did not specifically discuss but one which may be featured in budget deliberations next week is the mayor’s call for a 2.3 percent pay raise for all city employees to take place in January as a start in restoring a 4.6 percent pay cut imposed on city employees two years ago.

“We need to go over the budget line by line” looking for opportunities to cut, Strickland said, and he called for public participation in the process of looking for reductions, noting that the facts and figures of the budget process are available for inspection on the city’s website, memphistn.gov.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

BULLETIN: Strife Between Speakers and Chambers Kills Two Key Bills in Tennessee Legislature

On eve of adjournment, Senate and House trade death blows to Judicial Redistrictng, Charter Authorizer bills. UPDATED

Posted By on Fri, Apr 19, 2013 at 3:22 PM

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey gets report from state Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), House sponsor of Judicial Redistricting measure, on failure of bill.
  • JB
  • Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey gets report from state Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), House sponsor of Judicial Redistricting measure, on failure of bill.
BULLETIN: Strife between legislature’s two chambers and two speakers spells doom for two key bills.

NASHVILLE: The state Senate will shortly adjourn for the year without passing the Charter Authorizer bill (HB702/SB830) that easily cleared the state House on Thursday.

The reason? A tit-for-tat response to the House’s killing of a bill, favored by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), to revise the state’s judicial districts. That bill (HB0630/SB0780) was defeated 28-66, with House members of both parties rebelling and expressing defiance against what several members referred to as dictation by the Senate.

One result: Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Senate sponsor of Charter Authorizer, will apparently not even bring it to the floor. If she does, before what is now an imminent adjournment, it will “go nowhere,” says source in position to know. Ramsey’s attitude is said to be, “Don’t get mad, get even!"
Though sibling rivalries have happened before between House and Senate and between their respective speakers, this is the most serious schism yet involving the GOP leadership. At one point, there was a heated exchange in Legislative Plaza between Gresham and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville).
Details to follow

UPDATE: The Senate formally adjourned for the year Friday afternoon, minutes after state Sen. Gresham asked that SB0830, the Senate version of the Charter Authorizer bill, be referred to the Senate Calendar committee.

The fate of the Authorizer bill appeated sealed when the House overwhelmingly defeated a Judicial Redistricting bill favored by Lt. Gov. Ramsey, but various principals attempted to put together an improvised deal with inducements that could appease Ramsey and save the Authorizer bill. As it turned out, however, there weren't enough carrots in the package.

Formal adjournment of the 2013 session awaited only action of the House to adjourn.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Authorizer Bill Enlarging State’s Power Over New Charter Schools Advances

A spirited but futile rebellion by House Democrats erupts amid assembly-line processing of measures; Senate to get bill on Friday, adjournment day.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 18, 2013 at 11:34 PM

White Pfesenting Authorizer Bill
  • White Pfesenting Authorizer Bill
For diehard determination in the face of intractable and hostile and inevitable fate, General Custer had nothing on the few Democrats, mainly from Nashville, who spent a futile but valiant hour in the state House of Representatives on Thursday, the next to last day of the 2013 legislative session, trying to turn back, or at least amend, a charter-authorizer bill that basically gives state government unlimited veto power over local school boards.

In the end every stratagem to blunt the bill and every amendment to deflect or redefine its purpose fell victim to a party-line vote from the top-heavily Republican membership of the House. The final vote there was 62-30. Much the same result is expected when the bill gets to the floor of the equally GOP-dominated Senate on Friday.

The bill (HB702/SB830) targets only five of the state’s counties (and “targets” is definitely the right verb). Stripped of its various clauses and protocols, what it does is empower the state Board of Education, as an authorizing agency, to overrule, sans recourse to appeal, negative decisions on charter-school applications by school boards in Knox, Hamilton, Hardeman, Davidson, and Shelby counties.

The provision of the bill that limits it to those counties stems from an amendment by state Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), the key part of which states: “This section shall only apply to charter schools authorized by the state board of education upon appeal from a denial of approval of a charter school application by an LEA that contains at least one (1) priority school on the current or last preceding priority school list.”

“Priority” is essentially a euphemism for “failing,” and the adjective applies to the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state’s schools, those desti ned to end up being absorbed by the new state-run Achievement School District.

Defining the application that way nets the five counties listed, four of which — Knox (Knoxville), Hamilton (Chattanooga), Davidson (Nashville), and Shelby (Memphis) — happen to be the sites of the state’s largest urban school systems. Hardeman (Bolivar) makes the list because it is home to a large rural — and impoverished —African-American population.

The original version of the bill, sponsored by Mark White (R-Germantown) and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), was based on population and too arbitrarily had Davidson and Shelby counties in its sights. As amended by Brooks, it both has a more defensible qualifying mechanism and is shorn of a proposal for a new state review panel that would have added a burdensome fiscal note.

White and Brooks stood in the well to advance the bill Thursday, and they were kept busy fending off a series of energetic efforts that essentially were meant to stigmatize and condemn the measure. No one really doubted what the outcome would be.

The bill’s opponents couldn’t be faulted for lack of effort. Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) made a point of describing the disagreement between the Davidson County School Board and the state Board of Education that may have occasioned the bill.

This was a case in which the local board rejected a charter application from Mitchell described as an “out-of-state company from Arizona” that wanted to locate a charter school, Great Hearts Academy, in the upscale Belle Meade section of west Nashville but was rejected by the school board, he said, for failures to address questions regarding diversity and transportation.

Reflecting the Haslam administration’s strong comimitment to charter-school expansion, the state Commission of Education would penalize the Davidson board $3.4 million in state funding for its action regarding Great Hearts. That was one consequence. Development of the current authorizer bill was another. “A corporation from Arizona got denied some taxpayer dollars from Tennessee, that’s why we’re here,” Mitchell said. The issue hadn’t been education, it had been money. “Some millionaries weren’t go0n g to get some money, that’s why we’re here.”

If the presence of priority schools in a county was what qualified that county for such direct oversight by the state Board of Education, then new charter schools should be located within close proximity to the failing schools or within their confines, not in affluent areas, Mitchell argued, but his amendments to that effect were tabled.

State Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) argued in vain for an amendment requiring the state to pay the local share of funding for a new charter school in cases where it might overrule a local school board’s judgment. “If the state Board of Education is overruling the will of the people, the state can for for it,” Stewart said. “Nashville shouldn’t become a piggy back to fund whatever new educational scheme happens to be advanced by the latest school reformer Let them pay for these new unproven experiments they find so captivating.”

Stewart said the authorizer bill was one of many in this year’s session and in the previous two years that conformed to a pattern of state power being imposed on local options.

Others — Reps. Larry Miller (D-Memphis), Criag Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) — tried other arguments and other amendments, but nothing availed. Everything was tabled by more or less the same vote — 60- or 70-something to 20-somethng, ratios corresponding to the Republican-to-Democrat ratio in the House.

To all the objections White and Brooks responded that the aim of the bill was to reverse the trend whereby Tennessee consistently ranked low among the states in educational achievaement. “We’re trying to get the best charter schools in our state. We’re tired of ranking 46 or 47 of 48 in national standings. That’s what we’re targeting,” White said.

The outcome of the battle was never in doubt, but at least there was a battle. For most of Thursday, in the two chambers and in the committee rooms of the House and Senate, bills were read out by the speakers or chairpersons and declared passed without objection, one after the other, with the bills’ sponsors in most cases not having to say a word in explanation of them. It was government by assembly line.

More of that is expected on Friday, the last day before the factory is scheduled to shut down for the year.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Corinth Man Arrested as Mayor Wharton Expresses Concern about Memphis Postmark on Ricin Letters

Envelopes containing the deadly poison had been mailed to President Obama and Mississippi Senator Wicker. (UPDATED)

Posted By on Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 7:17 PM

facsimiles of anthrax letters during earlier scare in 2001
  • facsimiles of anthrax letters during earlier scare in 2001

News sources were reporting late Wednesday that Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Mississippi (mis-identified in first reports as having a similar name and being from Tupelo) has been arrested in connection with the sending of suspicious mail to Justice Court in Tupelo and possible involvement in the mailing of two letters — one to President Obama, the other to U.S. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi — containing what FBI labs had identified as traces of the deadly poison ricin.

Earlier Wednesday, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton had responded to published reports that Memphis had been the point of origin for the letters to Obama and Wicker. The mayor issued the following statement:

“We are grateful that, to this point, these letters have been intercepted before causing injury to anyone. While it has not been confirmed that the letters originated from Memphis, it is regrettable that our name is connected in any way with this heinous act. Local law enforcement officials have been in contact with the investigating agency, the FBI, and stand ready to cooperate as needed.”

The Associated Press, on the basis of an FBI bulletin the news agency had obtained, had been the source of information that the two letters, both intercepted by authorities on Tuesday, both bore Memphis postmarks and had contained, along with the poison, the same message: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance. I am KC and I approve this message."

The 45-year-old Curtis, whose initials roughly match up with those in the message, is said to be someone who habitually writes letters of complaint to members of Congress. He is also being identified by several sources as a frequent Elvis impersonator. See here.

Sheriff Jim Johnson of Lee County, Mississippi, had earlier confirmed to the Jackson (Ms.) Clarion Ledger that FBI agents had set up a staging area around Tupelo for their investigation and said he would have a press conference at 9 p.m. Wednesday to release more information. It was at the press conference that he mentioned FBI interest in possible connections between the letter locally received and those to Obama and Wicker.

The Department of Justice issued this clarifying statement Wednesday evening, apparently connecting all the letters to suspect Curtis:

Today at approximately 5:15 p.m. (CDT), FBI Special Agents arrested Paul Kevin Curtis, the individual believed to be responsible for the mailings of the three letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service which contained a granular substance that preliminarily tested positive for ricin. The letters were addressed to a U.S. Senator, the White House and a Mississippi justice official. The individual was arrested at his residence in Corinth, Mississippi, following an investigation conducted by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces in Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss., the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, aided by the following state and local agencies: Lee County, Miss., Sheriff’s Office, Prentiss County, Miss., Sheriff’s Office; Corinth, Miss., Police Department; Booneville, Miss., Police Department; Tupelo, Miss., Police Department; the Mississippi National Guard 47th Civil Support Team; and the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security.

Since the first reports Tuesday of ricin letters to the President and the Mississippi senator, Senate offices from Alabama, West Virginia, Arizona, and Michigan had all received what were described by news agencies as suspicious envelopes, though no further confirmations of nicin deposits had so far been reported.

The flare-up of anxiety about the ricin letters in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is reminiscent of the anthrax scare that occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

MTK, as fresh information is received.

The Case for a Local Memorial to U.S. Grant: Exhibit One

Most Memphians don’t know it, but the legendary Civil War figure and President has already been toasted here.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 7:38 AM

grant.jpeg
As the city’s Parks Naming Committee gets ready to resume its deliberations (next Monday, April 22), its members could do worse than consider for honors a onetime resident of some distinction. I mean, as long as generals on horseback are in fashion....

Here was the man, a modest, regular-fellow sort with a bit of blues in his soul, in 1861: “I’ve tried to reenter service in vain. I must live, and my family must live. Perhaps I could serve the army by providing good bread for them. You remember my success at baking bread in Mexico.”

These words were from a desperate U.S. Grant, in a letter to childhood friend Chilton White mid-way of that first year of conflict, as war was beginning and the former captain, who had served in the Mexican War and at various peacetime posts, tried to find a role for himself. The future four-star General and two-term President had been forced to resign his commission in 1854 after being caught drunk on post and had endured seven lean years of unbroken ill luck at a variety of makeshift civilian jobs.

At the time he wrote this letter, he had already made three abortive efforts to reenter the military and most recently, had been forced to cool his heels as a supplicant in the outer office of the Army’s then rising star, the somewhat self-enamored General George B. McClellan, who had made a point, as several other potential saviors had, of ducking this apparently used-up hard-luck case. As Grant described the last of his several attempts to see McClellan, “Next day I came in. The same story. The General had just gone out, might be in at any moment.”

Baking bread! This last-straw reference was to a skill Grant, a West Point graduate, had developed while serving as a unit quartermaster in Mexico along with the aforesaid White during a war of conquest -- one which, as he clearly recognized at the time, was both unjust and ominously created an opportunity for the wholesale expansion of slavery. In his Memoirs, Grant would pinpoint the Mexican War as the event which made later civil war inevitable.

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure [the precipitating annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” The American government was “following the bad example of European monarchies in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

Quite obviously, the down-and-out Grant of 1861 would get lucky, not long after writing the above-mentioned letter, fluking into a modest regimental command of a volunteer unit in Illinois when the previously appointed commander proved unable to maintain discipline. There happened to be a surfeit of such commands in Illinois because the then President of the United States, one Abraham Lincoln, had made sure that his native state had more than its share.

History has amply recorded that Grant was able to properly avail himself of his unexpected good fortune.

Later, after a celebrated run of victories in the Western theater, from Fort Donelson to Shiloh to Vicksburg, and with command in the decisive eastern theater still in his future,the serially promoted Grant made Memphis his interim headquarters for extended periods of time and conducted himself with studious benevolence toward the inhabitants.

Of this period, historian Jean Edward Smith (whose biographies of Grant and FDR are both must-reads) records: “Grant’s sympathetic approach helped to turn the tide of public opinion in Memphis, a city that had been among the most devoted to the Confederacy. On August 25 [1863] the board of trade hosted a dinner in his honor, and on the next night the mayor and city council followed suit. Grant was presented to the 200 guests with the toast, ‘Your Grant and my Grant,' in which his reopening of the Mississippi to commerce was compared to the exploits of two other local heroes, Hernando deSoto and Robert Fulton.

“…At the second banquet, General Stephen Hurlburt, the Memphis commander, read a brief statement Grant had written thanking the citizens for their kindness and expressing his pleasure at the public exhibition of loyalty to the United States. “The stability of the Government and the unity of this nation depend solely on the cordial support and the earnest loyalty of the people…I am profoundly gratified at this public recognition, in the city of Memphis, of the power and authority of the Government of the United States.” When Hurlburt concluded, the audience gave Grant a prolonged standing ovation.”

Grant was a tiger at warfare. As we might say, apropos a certain basketball team we admire, he was all grit and grind. But, as we know from the way he treated Lee at Appomattox, he was possessed of a certain grace and generosity as well and was a man worth commemorating as a part of Memphis history.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Municipal-Schools Bill, 2013 Version, Passes Both Houses of Tennessee General Assembly

Amid rumors that the window will close next year, this year’s version, ostensibly statewide, meets only perfunctory resistance.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 at 7:11 PM

Rep. Todd brings the muni bill to the House floor.
  • Rep. Todd brings the muni bill to the House floor.
With little more than perfunctory debate, this year’s version of a municipal-schools bill (SB1353/hb1288) passed both chambers of the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly with comfortable margins Monday, thereby allowing the de facto secession from Shelby County’s soon-to-be “unified” school district that six suburban municipalities in the county have been seeking for at least two years.

Mayors and other representatives of those suburbs — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington — were on hand for the occasion and were introduced in the state House of Representatives by suburban GOP members before Monday’s vote in that chamber.

When the 2013 bill was considered in the House on Monday, presented by Rep. Curry Todd (R-Collierville), the co-author of record, there was one serious reminder of last year’s floor controversy. Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) rose to express forebodings about the measure and declared his opposition to it, as he had to last year’s original model, which would have applied statewide before being modified prior to passage.

After noting pointedly that he had received emails from within Shelby County “urging” him not to express his concerns “for all to hear,” Dunn did so, anyhow. He worried that, since this year’s bill, unlike the final product last year, was cast so as to apply statewide, not just to Shelby County, “we’re going to see some problems down the road.”

Todd began his remarks by expressing thanks for the “61 signatures” of House co-sponsors he had received.

Among those problems was a technical one — that municipal taxpayers in new districts would become restive about paying taxes to support schooling for the non-resident children who would enroll in them and that fees would be imposed on those outlying households ultimately. “The state is supposed to provide a free education,” Dunn noted.

He did not articulate the larger concern that he had been vocal about last year, before the 2012 measure was rewritten so as to apply only to Shelby County, and that was simply a concern about unintended consequences of a statewide measure that could result in new municipal school districts elsewhere in Tennessee.

Dunn pointed out that he had ultimately supported the Shelby-County-only version of last year’s bill, but “unfortunately, a judge shut it down.” He reminded his colleagues that he had “asked that the current bill be rolled” until a version with dependable safeguards for school districts statewide could be perfected, but,”unfortunately it was not rolled.” Consequently, “I will be voting no tonight. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think I’m gonna be.”

That was about it for objections from the state at large. But some came from representatives from the City of Memphis, who, unlike their suburban Shelby County colleagues, were opposed to the bill. Representatives G.A. Hardaway, Antonio Parkinson, and Johnnie Turner all took shots at the measure, articulating their concerns about the effect of the bill on the county’s unified school district, still in the process of formation, and extracting assurances from Todd that the bill had no immediate impact upon the future disposition of school buildings currently owned by Shelby County.

Both Hardaway and Parkinson gave voice to a rumor that has circulated widely of late — namely, that an unspoken arrangement exists between the bill’s sponsors — Todd and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris being the principal ones — and Republican colleagues in districts elsewhere to the effect that a one-year window would be held open for Shelby County and would be closed for everybody else by follow-up legislation next year.

Todd, who had begun his remarks by expressing thanks for the “61 signatures” of House co-sponsors he had received, blithely gave assurances that no such revocation next year was planned and that if it was proposed, “I would vote against it.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), leader of the 27 House Democrats, made one last stand against the measure. “I hadn’t planned to speak on this bill,” Fitzhugh said. “…I thought I didn’t have a dog in the hunt…But as so goes Memphis, so goes my little town and my district.” And he expressed concern about the “long-term effect” of the bill upon Memphis.

The bill would pass the House by a margin of 70 to 24.

Things were similar in the Senate, where principal author Norris, in bringing the bill to the floor, described it as a corrective to limitations on new districts imposed during the Tiny Town crisis of 1998, when a stealth bill to allow easy incorporations by small communities challenged the annexation rights of municipalities before being found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) quizzed Norris on the bill’s impact on the “existing funding stream” for county school districts where new municipal districts might be formed. Norris responded that “funding shifts [to] follow the student and that it would be incumbent on municipalities desiring their own school districts to approve them in referenda and to vote such new add-on taxation as would be necessary to pay for them.

State Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the leader of the Senate’s seven Democrats, pressed Norris on what he insisted would be the potential negative effect of the bill on counties like Roane, the one represented by Yager, and, for that matter, on Knox County and metropolitan districts like that of Davidson County.

Senators will ask themselves, said Kyle, “Why did I get involved in a boundary dispute in Shelby County?’”

Norris disputed that, both on grounds that municipal secession in such districts was unlikely because of “other hurdles” created by the bill and because there was no evidence that municipalities mentioned by Kyle — like Farragut in Knox County and Franklin in Williamson — would either pursue or be affected by efforts on behalf of new municipal districts.

Kyle disagreed. “I think the answer to that is yes. A special school district could withdraw and become a municipal district….This is a mistake, a mistake you’ll see in your community one day.” And senators would ask themselves, said Kyle, “'Why did I get involved in a boundary dispute in Shelby County?’” — one “bringing to your front door what essentially is a local dispute.” And, he said, that”could drain tax dollars from the county exactly as the gentleman from Roane County [Yager] questioned.”

In his closing remarks, Norris acknowledged that the bill “doesn’t just apply to one county but has statewide application” and insisted that the measure was “entirely in keeping with the educational reform movement,” removing an “artificial barrier” against new districts imposed at a time when the state did not possess charter schools, achievement schools, or virtual schools.

Singling out the latter category, virtual schools, which came within a whisker of being phased out or minimized in legislation favored by Governor Haslam because of poor academic results, Norris said, “You can go to school from your house on the Internet. Why should any of us seek to forbid the forming of municipal systems?”

The bill passed the Senate 24-5 and now requires only the signature of Governor Haslam and the ultimate vetting by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays.

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Richard Fields, a Socratic Gadfly, Gone Too Soon

Felled by a car in Midtown at high noon, the tireless and controversial attorney for many civil rights causes is finally off the case.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 at 7:50 AM

Richard Fields in 2001
  • Richard Fields in 2001
I was stunned and saddened to learn on Saturday night of the death of Richard Fields, a pedigreed civil rights attorney who had toiled relentlessly for many years to bring the two major races of these parts into some kind of parity to make up for eons of official and unofficial injustice perpetrated by one upon the other.

My grief, if that’s the right word for it, was not because I ever considered myself a friend of Fields. I knew him first by reputation and then as a news figure and sometime source whose work affected my main beat, politics, and then as an acquaintance I would sometimes run into at gatherings and public events. My colleague John Branston, who has written splendidly and comprehensively about Fields, knew him far better. (See his 2001 Flyer article, “The Man Behind the News.”)

The fact is, I was one of an increasing number of people locally who could respect, even admire much of what Fields had done but — to say it outright, if mutedly — were taken aback and estranged by what he seemed to have become or, even if involuntarily, were forced into a clash with him.

Let’s just say he had issues, dormant during his legal heyday, that loomed larger in his personality in recent years. Some of them stemmed from his apparent decision — at some point in the late ‘90s — that he was meant to be a kingmaker, influencing elections and political outcomes instead of, or side by side with, correcting injustices.

The ancient Greeks coined a term for this kind of presumption, and the errors and imbalances of self and temptings of fate it entailed: hubris.

This is not the venue to list what might have been Fields’ derelictions, many of which he answered to in the form of ignominious defeats in two bumbling runs for public office (School Board and state Senate), in a state Supreme Court censure here or disciplinary bar actions there, or in or two separate expulsions from the local Democratic executive committee.

(At least one of the latter was attributed by supporters to an act of principle: i.e.,his legal work, alongside Republicans, against seating a Democratic legislator, state Senator Ophelia Ford, amid evidence of fraud in her election.)

He also strained and even ruptured friendships, some of which had been monumentally important to him — like that with former Mayor Willie Herenton, whose rise to power he had been instrumental in, even if not to the degree that he liked to suppose.

In the course of trying to influence Herenton against running for a fifth term and to broker a succession, this meticulous and unabashedly judgmental lawyer was accused of having slipped over to the wrong side of the law himself in an entrapment scheme, a circumstance he would strongly deny and, in any case, was never tried for.

Fields saw himself, not always accurately, as being on the side of the angels. He certainly had more than his share of courage, and in basic, institutional ways he could see clearly the difference between right and wrong and try to get others to see it — nay, make them see it by force of law. If he had trouble coming to the same distinction about his own conduct, he most surely was not the only human being so afflicted.

I own up to having written some articles about Fields in recent years that, let us say, tried to redress the over-glowing image he had of himself. And I remember being approached by one of his closest legal and personal friends and tensing up, thinking I was about to be reproached. “Thank you,” the man said instead, and it was then that I realized that some of those who regarded Richard Fields most fondly were concerned that, for his own sake, he be redirected back to his center — by public writ or therapeutic means, if need be.

Let us revisit that center: Richard Fields, who came here from California in the late ‘60s to work on behalf of the ambitious War on Poverty programs of the time, even as those programs were losing steam, stayed around to try to finish on his own the impossible tasks they had envisioned.

After earning a law degree, he set out to be a scourge of established privilege, litigating to desegregate schools, protect the impoverished from exploitative developers or unscrupulous businesses or negligent officialdom , secure better living conditions for working-class folks, and in general to be the kind of public gadfly that an accused Socrates once proudly owned up to being. He was a mainstay of the NAACP when that organization needed someone most.

In the course of it all, he endured, or perhaps even invited, sacrifices in his personal life, as how could it be otherwise?

Let me be clear about something: I don’t rejoice when the Reaper comes calling on anybody, and I particularly lament the way in which Richard Fields met his fate — hit by a car while crossing a busy Midtown thoroughfare at high noon.

At this writing, we still don’t know much about the accident, though both the motorist’s statement on a police report and an interview with a bystander featured on local television suggest that Fields may have walked directly into the stream of traffic, oblivious to danger.

Whether or not it’s accurate, I see him doing so with a cell phone attached to his ear, working an angle, still on the case at age 65, still trying to right some wrong, real or imagined, and not noticing, or feeling for very long, what hit him. There are worse ways to go, but, still, it’s a shame.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

On the Latest Tweet Crisis Starring Rep. Steve Cohen

Chris Cillizza says our congressman just had “the worst week in Washington.” Really? Because of that Cyndi Lauper thing?

Posted By on Sun, Apr 14, 2013 at 1:58 PM

The congressman, doing his shout-out to Cyndi Lauper from the House floor
  • The congressman, doing his shout-out to Cyndi Lauper from the House floor
When I lived in Washington for a while in the early ‘80s, working on Capitol Hill there, I was convinced that The Washington Post was the greatest newspaper in the world — bar none, including the vaunted New York Times, itself not too shabby.

Part of that, of course, was that the Post covered politics — national, international, even local — like nobody’s business. Politics, of course, was and is the business of Washington, which is something of a company town. But the paper’s excellence transcended that with a comprehensive “Style” section, for example, which could have lessoned the Times on how to handle issues of lifestyle and taste — and probably did.

I don’t get to see the paper much anymore — we don’t have street editions down this way — but I keep encountering published jeremiads in which various pundits lump the Post in with other progressively weakening print icons.

Our own irrepressible 9th District congressman had "the worst week in Washington?" So what’d he do?

I do see many of the Post’s offerings, though, either in syndication or in various web forms, delivered via social media or ordinary emails, and I am familiar with Chris Cillizza’s byline.

Until this weekend, I had no sense that Cillizza was anything other than your usual competent Washington politi-scribe. However, I am — how to say it...bemused — after seeing his Saturday article entitled “Who had the worst week in Washington? Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)”.

Really, I thought. With all the controversy going on up there about gun legislation, immigration, and the still unresolved sequester mess, and all the stupid things said and done in pursuit of those conundra, Steve Cohen, our own irrepressible 9th District congressman, had the worst week in Washington? So what’d he do?

Cilliizza went on to give a sketchy, even cheeky review of the relevant situation involving Cohen. Here’s a key paragraph:

“On Sunday night, he [Cohen] attended the White House’s tribute to soul music and, afterward, tweeted at Cyndi Lauper — of 1980s rock-pop fame — “great night, couldn’t believe how hot u were.see you again next Tuesday.” He then immediately deleted the tweet.”

There was, of course, a reference in Cillizza’s column to a previous well-publicized tweeting incident involving Cohen.

This one — which we, like everybody else, covered — was related by the Post writer this way:

“… [T]he congressman had drawn attention by exchanging tweets with a 24-year-old model in February. Cohen later explained that the woman in question was his daughter, whom he had found out about just three years ago.”

Fair enough. As we said in our own account at the time, nothing

…could have prepared most of us for the ultimate Cohen bombshell, delivered Thursday to local TV stations and almost certain to be a news item everywhere as news-gatherers in the nation and around the world catch on.

The young woman was Victoria Brink of Houston, who had tweeted Cohen during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address and was tweeted back twice with endearing messages from the congressman, ending with the initialed phrase “ilu” (for “I love you.”)….

And the reveal was stunning:

Steve Cohen, a perennial bachelor (though he has squired many a handsome lady) is a father, and the 24-year-old Brink is his daughter.

Meanwhile, though, those “ilu” references had generated all manner of howls from aroused citizens, censorious and leering alike.

As we patched together our own account, we skimmed through the backstory, involving a long-ago liaison Cohen had been involved in with the mother of Miss Brink and his surprise discovery of his offspring’s existence only three years earlier, and arrived at the simple conclusion that the congressman, — the “proud papa,” as we put it — should be congratulated .

(That was not enough to satisfy some, including a local activist who had soured on Cohen and, in following our progress in documenting the Victoria Brink story, suggested first, hopefully, that we were “digging for dirt,” and later, disappointedly, that we had come up with a “fluff story.” Oh well, as Ricky Nelson, among others, done tole us, “you can’t please everybody.”)

To the present: Cillizza’s article about this past week’s incident notes that Cohen’s tweets to Lauper were related to her participation in a tribute event to Memphis soul music at the White HouseI and goes on:

“It turns out that the episode with Cohen’s daughter was directly tied to the Lauper incident. Cohen, seeking some payback, said Friday he purposely wrote and then deleted the tweet to Lauper — knowing it would pique the media’s curiosity and allow him to talk more about an upcoming PBS documentary on soul music in Memphis.

As motives go, that does seem a bit far-fetched, and it was all Cillizza needed to make his point — “that point being that a member of Congress can still act like a high school kid time after time.”

Well….

OK, but that does seem like pretty thin gruel for Cilizza to serve up for his modest little “worst week in Washington” gala. Is that really as bad as things got for any member of the national government complex last week? Really? Then we should rejoice that things up that way are not nearly so bad as they have seemed. Let’s have a party, a feast of national celebration, and do it on the Mall.

Back in 2009, I did an “exit interview” with then Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who was about to leave office early and — somewhat incidentally and futilely, as it turned out — to challenge Cohen’s reelection to Congress in the 2010 Democratic primary. In that interview, Herenton delivered up that interviewer’s dream, a fireworks quote that would draw attention to the story and go on to have an incendiary life of its own:

"I've known Cohen for over 30 years. And to be honest with you, he's an asshole. Anybody who knows Cohen knows he's an asshole."

As he said those words, I reflected on how many people might agree with the mayor about Cohen’s state of imperfectness, though “asshole” might not be their exact word of choice.

Congressman Cohen — who, it should be noted, has been reelected three times, each time with a more resounding majority — is somebody who gives as good as he gets, and, to paraphrase Herenton, those of us who have known him for a while are more than aware of his foibles, several of which have been recounted in our spaces or at least alluded to, sometimes between the lines.

...the first sign of trouble for Cohen on the stump — when the remaining strands of hair on his now balding pate begin to rise

Members of his staff have learned to watch, with some trepidation, for what they know is the first sign of trouble for Cohen on the stump — when the remaining strands of hair on his now balding pate begin to rise.

That happens reasonably often, but if a foot occasionally gets into his mouth, so do words of eloquence and wit, as when, during his aforesaid “worst week,” Cohen rose Tuesday on the floor of the House to extol what was then the forthcoming “Memphis Soul” celebration. After citing the fact that Memphis was a “great reservoir of the nation’s music history” and that the city’s music was a “living, breathing part” of American culture, Cohen offered President Obama some advice:

A number of eminent Memphis musicians would be on hand for the celebration, the congressman noted, including “Justin Timberlake, Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper, Sam Moore of Sam & Save,” but among the unavoidably absent would be the great Al Green. Therefore, said Cohen, suggesting a reprise of one of Obama’s choicest public moments, the President “will have to do ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by himself.”

Later in the week, amid the fuss attendant to his much-noticed tweet, Cohen would address the House with a public “shout-out” to the aforesaid Cyndi Lauper, citing her 2010 album, Memphis Blues,” and a song from that album, a cover of the late Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” He then recommended that lyric to his colleagues as a specific for what ails them.

It might work also for Chris Cillizza, for whom we wish another good week in our nation’s capital, that apparent oasis of carefree easy living — troubled recently, it would seem, only by our local congressman’s sincere tributes, whether “flirty” or not, to a musical artist he admired.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

A (Verbal) Shoot-Out at the AgriCenter Gun Show

In which our friend Mary Loveless takes a first-amendment stand against what she sees as second-amendment zealotry.

Posted By on Sat, Apr 13, 2013 at 8:43 PM

Periodically, there is a gun show in Memphis at the AgriCenter on the eastern fringe of Shelby Farms, and it never lacks for customers. On Saturday, December 22, last year, there was one there that prompted a visit from 58-year-old Mary Loveless, a former writer for Memphis magazine, one of the Flyer's sibling publications.

“[F]eeling moved by the obscenity I saw in holding a gun show one week after the Newton Massacre,” she had to go do something about it, as she explained in an email to the Flyer.

Loveless “went out to the AgriCenter and sat in my soccer mom chair, holding a poster that said, ‘This Bird Hunter and Mother Believes Nobody Should Own Assault Weapons.’ It was three of the most horrifying/depressing/fascinating hours of my life. I hadn't been "goddamn"-ed, called a fascist, or had semi-automatic weapons brandished in my direction in quite a while—like, never.”

That was then. This was now, in the week after there had been steamy debate on Capitol Hill in Washington (and at least a temporary cloture) regarding new legislation from the Obama administration seeking to require background checks at gun shows like this very one, which are exempt as of now from any such stipulation.

Mary Loveless, who supports the bill, which faces long odds against passage, but wants also to see one containing a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, was out there at the AgriCenter again on Saturday to picket a new gun show, figuring that this show, like the one in December, would bring out big crowds because it, too, was being held at a time when the media were paying close attention to gun issues.

“That seems to bring them out,” she explained to me as I dropped by to say hello, long-time-no-see on Saturday. There she was, parked just outside the entrance to the gun show, sitting in the same folding soccer-mom chair, holding the same poster with the same message as in December.

"I hadn't been 'goddamn'-ed, called a fascist, or had semi-automatic weapons brandished in my direction in quite a while—like, never.”

I hadn’t seen Mary, — a sunny presence, the epitome of civic purpose and sincerity — in almost 20 years, and we got reacquainted as she began telling me about the research she’d done on weapons issues and the relationship, as she saw it, of easy availability of guns to the kind of murderous to-whom-it-may-concern violence that breaks out all too frequently in America these days.

Nobody had hassled her yet about her message and her presence there, she told me, but she was getting her share of looks from customers, many of them bearing weapons, whether going or coming. Some of the customers were buying, some were selling, and some, as I had resolved to do, were just looking.

Before I had a chance to go in and check out the scene on the arena floor, a uniformed sheriff’s deputy, one of two who’d been eyeballing Loveless, from the distance, some twenty feet away, of their parked patrol car, approached her and told her she’d have to move away from the entrance and even away from the parking lot area.

Mary held her ground, protesting that she had the first-amendment right to do what she was doing and that, after all, this was a public event. That point was disputed by the deputy, who told her the building and parking lot are often used for public purposes but in this case had been rented to a private individual, who had the right to control how the entrance-way to the event was used. The deputy seemed a bit tentative and uncertain about the tenor of what he was saying, but maybe he was just being polite.

As Mary was insisting on her first-amendment rights, a youngish, moustachioed man materialized in front of her, identifying himself as the individual mentioned by the deputy as the renter of the premises for the weekend, who had paid for the privilege to use them, and he insisted that Loveless was trespassing and obstructing his rights to conduct commerce.

She once again asserted her first-amendment privileges to put forth the message she had brought and said, “I’m not hurting anybody” The young man gestured toward her sign and said, “You’re hurting me by telling my customers that it’s wrong for them to have assault weapons.” And he asserted his own and their constitutional rights under the second amendment.

At a certain point, after all three parties had repeated their positions, the conversation ended with Mary still sitting there, her message sign still propped up for all to see. The renter had gone inside the building, the deputies had returned to their squad car, and one of them was dialing a number on his cell phone. It seemed clear that he wanted further instructions from a superior, and, directly, as Mary and I continued our conversation, a van arrived, bearing another officer, and conversatons between the three officers continued, more or less sotto voce, all the time I was there.

After a while, with Mary still holding her position, I went inside the arena to check things out, paid a $10 admission fee at a desk, got a red entry-stamp on my hand, and began circulating among the throng, looking along with them at the aisle upon aisle of booths with guns and knives for sale and all the appurtenances thereof and virtually anything and everything that related to weaponry, self-defense, aggression and a few things beyond.

"If You Voted for Obama, We Don’t Want Your Business. You’re Too Stupid to Own a Gun."

Right off the bat was a table loaded with several brand-new looking specimens of a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle -- C15, 223, with red-dot scope -- for a price, $999.99 that compared favorably to prices I would later see advertised for the weapon online.

A mean, efficient-looking weapon, and right next to it was a table loaded with magazine clips, most of them capable of holding 30 rounds, some of them 40 and perhaps more.

Among the other exhibits, randomly sampled: “concealment holsters,” handcuffs, rocket flares, scopes, USMC fatigue hats (no service ID required for purchase), “covert knives” (longish, cold-steel items that were painted black and could indeed be handled stealthily), a “Masonic presentation sword,” a “complete three-piece sword set” selling for the bargain rate of $35, a one-day ration pack, Dragon Breath shotgun shells, etc, etc.

All of these, and like items, were multipied seemingly a thousand-fold on table after table. Oddly, there were tables of used books, with offerings ranging from Cold Steeled Challenge, 3 vols, which turned out to be a DVD collection, memoirs of military figures and politicians, titles ranging from Wagner’s Hitler to Women and Love by Sheree Hite.

At the beyond-the-pale end of things, there was a table bearing the sign, “If You Voted for Obama, We Don’t Want Your Business. You’re Too Stupid to Own a Gun.” Another one nearby featured framed insignia under the head “Deutsche Wehrmacht,” and there was one, with a sign advertising “Splattered Targets,” boasting a rack of brightly colored cartoon prints of, yep, blood-splattered images at $1.00 a copy.

Kelly and Loveless in dialogue
  • JB
  • Kelly and Loveless in dialogue

Outside Mary Loveless was still holding her spot. She and I resumed our conversation, and as we did, a T-shirted man approached her. We both may have sucked in a breath, but the man started pleasantly enough: “Ma’am, I agree with you. I wouldn’t care if they didn’t carry any assault weapons in there, neither. I’m just as redneck as they come, and I think our army’s got enough of them.”

Mary was delighted at this spark of apparent agreement. She smiled and responded with one of her well-researched, well-rehearsed arguments, “They don’t want any for hunting or sport. They are arming themselves against our government….”

“Yeah, that’s it,” the man said. “Our United States government, they done ripped us off. We do’t own nothing. If China come over here right now and demanded what we owe ‘em, we couldn’t pay ‘em.”

Stunned only momentarily, Mary picked up on the last part of that. “We know that….”

But the man was continuing, “If they brought their army over here, they’d blow through us like a lawnmower. There’s too many of them.”

I ask the man his name, and he answers, affably, “Robert Kelly.”

"Yeah, I got my pistols here. Big ole pistol. Sounds like a cannon."

Kelly tells me he is a vendor, at the gun show to sell weapons, a fact which the back of his T-shirt explains in detail (see image). “I sold a 500 magnum, “ he explains, turning around and flashing the message on his shirt. “Big ole pistol. Sounds like a cannon. Yeah, I got my pistols here.”

He goes on to say, “I like to target shoot. Even if somebody broke into my house, I don’t think I could shoot ‘em.” And there proceeds something of a classic stichomythia, a rapid-fire dialogue.

Mary: “I have thought a lot about this scenario, and I…”

Kelly: “If they tried to kill me I guess I would shoot ‘em.”

Mary: “...I could not shoot anybody with a handgun because they’re not accurate….”

Kelly: “Well, they have to be right up on you.”

Mary: “But I can defend myself and would, with a shotgun….”

Kelly: “I got a shotgun, too. I keep it close to the bed, too…. “

Mary: "I’m good with a shotgun, and I’d have no hesitation. But I don’t….”

Kelly: “I don’t care nothing about an an assault gun.”

Mary: “I don’t understand…

Kelly: “I don’t, neither.”

Mary:” …why they have a need to have one, and everybody I ask that question to, and I’ve been asking it since December, nobody will answer it, they….”

Kelly: “They know when China’s gonna come. It don’t matter how many they got, they’re gonna wipe us out.”

Mary: “..they immediately say ‘second amendment….’”

Kelly: “Yeah.”

Mary: “…and I had a fellow tell me point blank today that he thought the purpose of the second amendment was to arm yourself against your own government….”

Kelly: “That’s what it’s for.”

Mary: “What? You mean….”

Kelly: “It’s to take our government out if they get too big, but, see, it‘s too late. They done already got too big. They got the military on their side.”

Mary: “I mean, we are not a third-world….”

Kelly: “That’s what the amendment says. If you read it close it says we can protect our self from our own government.”

Mary: “But that….What part of ‘well-regulated militia’ doesn't come into play?

Kelly: “I don’t know.”

Mary: “’Cause that’s a key part of it.”

"It’s to take our government out if they get too big, but, see, it‘s too late. They done already got too big."

Kelly: “I gt the whole handbook of the Consitution and all the amendnments at home and I’ve read it and read it and read it. I can’t sit here and memorize it to you ‘cause my brain doesn’t work that well.”

Mary: “It’s a short amendment….”

Kelly: "I did a lot of LSD when I was a kid. I’m dumb as a bag of rocks.”

Mary: (laughs)

Kelly: "I grew up in the 60s and smoked pot and LSD and all that stuff. Got my brain…it’ ain’t what it used to be or could be."

At this point in the dialogue, a friend of Kelly’s has arrived at the entrance to the arena, and the two say hello and exchange slap handshakes.

Kelly and his friend make conversation about the pistol the friend has brought with him, an oversized handgun with a long magazine clip extending from it, an “assault pistol,” Kelly will explain later. The friend is there to sell the gun.

“I got to buy me a new car,” he says.

In something of a non-sequitur, Kelly tells him, “We don’t need no assault weapons.”

The friend shrugs, “Well, I got several.”

Kelly says, “When the Chinese army gets over here they’re gone go through us like a lawnmower anyway.” Now he shrugs. “You’ll go down shooting anyway.”

He turns back to Mary Loveless: “I appreciate what you’re doing. But it’s all kind of useless. Nobody will listen to you, will they? Every once in a while they might.”

She tells him. “I’m not trying to take their guns. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.”

Kelly nods. “Well, The Man Upstairs will work it out anyway.” With that, they each thank the other for the conversation, this unusual twining of first-amendment and second-amendment commentary, and Kelly goes inside.

Directly, the sheriff's deputy comes over to Mary and tells her he's checked the situation out and, "You're fine to stay."

And not long after that, the man who'd identified himself as the renter of the faciity comes out to smoke a cigarette with a buddy, who nods toward Loveless and says in a stage whisper: "Can we get rid of her?"

Mary listens close and hears the renter to say disgustedly, indicating the deputy, "Nah! He loves the bitch!"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Corker, Alexander Vote for (Partial) Cloture, Arouse Ire of Gun Group

Tennessee’s two Senators among 16 “soft Republicans” targeted for purging.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 11, 2013 at 7:36 PM

the daily sanity logo
  • the "daily sanity" logo
Maybe Frank Nicely knows what he’s talking about! Nicely is the state Senator from Strawberry Plains who wants the party caucuses in the General Assembly to do the nominating for U.S. Senator, not the voters, and says that in such a case Tennessee’s two U.S. Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, are likely too moderate to be renominated by the state’s Republican legislators.

Nicely would probably get some agreement from an outfit called Conservative-Daily.com, which, in the “daily sanity”newsletter it distributes to its network, takes dead aim at Alexander, Corker, and 14 other Republican senators with the vow, “We Will Not Rest Until They Are Removed.”

What prompted this threat was a 68-31 vote in the Senate on Thursday in which partial cloture was imposed on a would-be filibuster against S. 49, the Obama administration’s bill to mandate background checks for all gun sales. The vote, according to a spokesperson for Corker, was "to allow the bill to be considered, debated, and amended. There will be another vote on a cloture motion to move to final passage...."

Whatever the technical thrust of the outcome, Tennessee’s Senatorial duo were in the GOP minority that voted with the Democratic majority to permit procedural votes. The total needed to impose cloture was 60 votes.

The proprietors of Conservative-Daily.com were clearly not amused. Their signed spokesman, identified as Tony Watkins, went on to say: “We have lost the first battle….But we have NOT lost the war….The filibuster, that we supported, was voted down thanks to the ‘turncoat’ Republicans who voted against the filibuster. The NRA is taking note. We are taking note of these soft Republicans. We are calling OUT the Republicans who voted against the filibuster.”

After listing the 16 Republican senators who voted for cloture, “daily sanity” goes on to say, “We will vote you out of office!”

After that,Watkins’ philippic gets a little less agitated, if no less resolved, and it segues into an appeal: “We are tired of supposed Republicans voting against our Second Amendment rights! However, there is still a strong opportunity for the final vote to VOTE NO on S. 649!! That is why your fax is extremely VITAL to SAVE our Second Amendment rights from the United States Constitution!”

The newsletter asks readers to contact their members of Congress for one last heroic effort: “Fax Congress NOW! The debate is already in progress. But it could last into next week before a FINAL VOTE! When it comes to cutting down our Second Amendment…this is it! The Second Amendment, as written by our founding fathers, literally guarantees Americans the right to own and bear arms, guns. But, unless we fax NOW, that time is gone!"

Meanwhile, Corker released a statement displaying some flexibility in his position: "I don't understand why any senator wouldn't want to debate these issues, but in the end, I will not support any legislation that violates our Second Amendment rights.'

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