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The Hip-Hop Commissioner

The first year of Michael Hooks Jr.’s tenure on the Memphis Board of Education has not been without controversy.

by Tanuja Surpuriya

PHOTO BY TREY HARRISON
Michael Hooks Jr. wants to host his own radio talk show, a dream he casually reveals as he parks his new green Ford Expedition in a no-parking zone along Madison Avenue. It wouldn’t be a show like Bobby O’Jay’s, Hooks says, placing an outdated “Official City Business” decal on the dash. Not an in-your-face kind of thing, but rather a show based in music that also takes on social issues. Something that would inspire young people and get them to care about local government.

“We’d have the hip hop, of course, but we’d also have discussions where maybe Puff Daddy and [Mayor Willie] Herenton would talk on the same issue,” he says. “Right now, young people don’t care about what’s going on at all.”

It’s not the kind of thing you usually hear from elected officials, much less school board members. But at 24, Hooks, who gets more of his news from the Internet than newspapers, is determined to change a lot about the Memphis City Schools Board of Education. He recently completed his first year on the job, the youngest to serve on the board as far as anyone can remember.

He’s already making a difference in the classrooms, where students and teachers alike see him as a breath of fresh air. Teachers gush that his one-on-one visits with students in trouble, especially young black boys, have resulted in better effort and higher self-esteem.

At Orange Mound’s Hanley Elementary School, Hooks sits cross-legged in a circle of first-graders debating the merits of different cartoons, and the kids think he’s the coolest for it.

The reaction is little different for the preteen girls at Sherwood Junior High, where Denzel Washington wouldn’t have gotten more ogles and stares from students rushing to doorways as Hooks walks the halls. They’ve seen Hooks, sporting jeans and a black leather jacket, as a panelist on the BET talkshow Teen Summit, and now he’s actually in their school.

And over at Rozelle Elementary, one of the shining schools in his district, Hooks quizzes some third-graders on their study of Native Americans. When he points out that rapper Master P has something in common with the Indians — both wear buffalo coats — the whole lesson seems more important all of a sudden.

“I can talk to anybody at any level, whether it’s age or race or economic background,” Hooks says about the advantage of his youth. “I have friends from jail to Harvard. These kids relate to me because I know their language.”

If that language includes wearing the same Puff Daddy-designed clothes, listening to the same hip-hop music and asking students “Wus up?” instead of “How are you?” then Hooks is fluent, as he should be. After all, it was less than six years ago he was a student himself at White Station High School.

But the youth that translates so well in the classroom doesn’t always go over so well on the school board, where the generation gap between Hooks and some of his fellow commissioners has shown up most recently with the first major issue Hooks has tackled since winning his District 4 seat: school construction contracts.

“People on this board have constantly attacked my youth and integrity over this,” he said. “Five thousand dollars [a board member’s annual salary] isn’t worth the beating I’ve taken from my fellow board members or the press. It gets so frustrating that sometimes I feel like quitting altogether.”

With a 5-4 vote in November, Hooks muscled through a resolution that lumped new school construction projects under one giant $195 million contract, effectively reversing an earlier 7-1-1 decision (Hooks dissented and Sara Lewis was absent) that scattered the projects into smaller groups so local contractors would have a shot at some of the work. While his mantra has been “I’m just trying to save taxpayers time and money,” critics say the resolution has less to do with easing the burden on taxpayers than it does with appeasing friends at Barton Malow, the Detroit-based construction company that’s in good position to win the multimillion-dollar contract, surely in no small part because of its own hard-core lobbying of school board members.

Derek Albert, who has been friends with Hooks since Albert was a student at LeMoyne-Owen and who now works in Barton Malow’s Atlanta office, claims his company has done nothing unethical in its pitch for the contract. However, U.S. Congressman Harold Ford Jr., a friend of Albert and childhood friend of Hooks, admitted that he made calls to school officials on behalf of the company, and that Albert helped in the mayoral campaign of city councilman and Rep. Ford’s uncle Joe Ford.

It’s that kind of lobbying, and not merely Hooks’ youth, that irks the dissenters to Hooks’ resolution — Lora Jobe, TaJuan Stout Mitchell, Barbara Prescott, and Bill Todd — who have complained less about the actual construction package than the hard-sell push going on behind the scenes.

“It’s not about youth,” Jobe says. “I think the fact that somebody at such a young age wants to serve the public is fabulous and something we need more of. But typically we haven’t done business by bulldozing and manipulating, so that’s made it more difficult to work with [Hooks] on this.

“Usually when we have a difference of opinion, we vote and move on no matter how the vote goes. You have to remember that you as an individual board member mean nothing; it’s the decision of the whole group that matters. I’ve never seen anything like this before, where one person can bring back and reverse an issue that was already settled.”

PHOTO BY TANUJA SUPURIYA
But Hooks says that while all the attention has been on his relationship with Barton Malow, local contractors, especially members of the Association of Builders and Contractors, have also lobbied equally hard against the resolution, even contributing to some school board members’ campaigns. “But good luck trying to get anyone in the media to see that,” he says. (Actually, a random search of contributions to Hooks and other board members did not turn up any apparent conflicts over this issue; however, some disclosures are not up to date. Hooks’ last disclosure was April 1, 1999, well before his resolution came before the board.)

Now Hooks is personally explaining his side of the story to everyone who’ll listen, including requesting and receiving the ear of the Commercial Appeal’s editorial board after a couple of unfavorable editorials. He says that he happened to like Barton Malow’s work after hearing its pitch at a national school board conference and not because of his friendship with Albert, whom he says he hardly knew before the conference. He adds that he has never received a contribution from the company or anyone associated with it, and only found out about Harold Ford Jr.’s involvement a few days before the news appeared in The Memphis Flyer. But the news doesn’t bother him.

“I have nothing to hide,” he says. “I may not have the same experience some other people on this board have, but I do know when and how to stand up for what’s right.”

And if growing up as heir to what’s shaping up to be another Memphis political dynasty counts as experience, Hooks is hardly a rookie.

If a family passes along a solid political legacy through at least three generations, it’s fair to call it a dynasty. Sure, the Fords technically have only two generations in politics now—Harold Sr. and Harold Jr., but the vast collection of other Ford uncles and aunts is enough for them to make the cut. And although Hooks hates the term, preferring “family tradition” instead, he admits that it is his destiny to carry the torch for his family’s political dynasty.

Midtowners are certainly familiar with the Hooks name. They are represented by one of the family members in city and county government, and now on the city school board. Hooks’ father, Michael Hooks Sr., has served on the state constitutional convention, state board of equalization, as a Memphis City Councilman, and as Shelby County Property Assessor and is currently serving his second term as District 3’s county commissioner. Hooks’ stepmother, Janet Hooks, just won re-election to her seat on the city council, representing District 4. And Hooks’ great uncle is legendary civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, former head of the NAACP and more of a grandfather figure to Hooks.

“I guess you can say [getting into public service] was expected of me from early on,” the younger Hooks says. “How could it not be? I was surrounded by it. I grew up playing with Tonka trucks in the back at the city council meetings. I tagged along with Uncle Benny when he was having lunch with Jesse Jackson.”

But he wasn’t really motivated until he witnessed Harold Ford Jr.’s success, which he says set a precedent for young leadership in the South. But even then, he hadn’t seriously thought about running for office until he read that his neighbor Archie Willis wasn’t going to run for the District 4 seat again. In fact, most of his family found out about his plans to run through the papers. His father was happy and supportive, but his mother Gladys Sawyer [Hooks’ parents divorced when he was 4 years old] hated the idea, wanting to see her son build on the political science degree he earned at Virginia’s Hampton University and go to law school instead of the school board. “But he managed to turn me into a believer, too,” she says. “He really does his homework and works for what he believes in.”

Hooks grew up shuffling back and forth between his mom’s home in Chicago and his dad’s house on South Parkway. Although he didn’t settle down in Memphis permanently until the 10th grade, he feels a deep-rooted connection to the city, especially Midtown. “No matter what I decide to do, it will be here. This is where it’s at for me.”

While he’s figured out where he’s going to live, Hooks is still undecided about what he’s going to do for the rest of his life. Law school is the best bet, although not until he saves up a little cash first. And on that end, Hooks has his hands full juggling a lot of jobs to make ends meet. He’s working on a temporary basis right now for the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and is taking some appraisal courses just in case the family business beckons. He’s even helping some friends sell cars, hoping to pocket a few finder’s fees. And the radio talk is hardly a pipe dream either. He’s in talks with the owners of Hot 107 (KXHT-FM) to make it a reality.

While most board members talk about what they’ve accomplished in the past, Hooks must look to the future to see his impact on education in Memphis. And it’s his role as motivator that is the one Hooks takes most seriously.

Hooks won’t leave Rozelle Elementary until at least 100 students and teachers have repeated his mantra “Stay focused and see the big picture” over and over and over again. He regularly seeks out students with discipline problems, especially young black boys, and encourages them to get back on track. “You know what’s happening with the young black men in this country, they’re disinterested in school,” he says. “Sometimes the most successful people they know are the drug dealers driving Lexuses in their neighborhoods.

“I’ve been blessed with all my opportunities. My parents were always there for me, and judges and doctors on my street served as my role models. But in the very next neighborhoods my friends were living across the street from dope dealers. Sometimes I’m the only male role model these kids have got. I want to change that.”

Hooks says after the construction management issue dies down, he’ll tackle getting more computers in each school and finding alternate funding sources from private businesses. But he’s already finding it difficult to make changes in the school system, he says, citing a communication problem with staff members, and more specifically with superintendent Gerry House, whom he says does not regularly seek input from the board or keep commissioners aware of school issues, a feeling echoed by other board members as well.

“I went to school with her son, and when I first got here I was so excited I told her I’d help with anything she wanted,” he says. “Have I heard from her since then? No.”

But staff members say it’s Hooks who has communication problems. There are complaints that Hooks cussed out a public relations staff person who wouldn’t write a speech for him and that he overworks the secretaries in the Board of Education office. He denies both charges.

But Hooks’ most costly battle is still brewing with Wanda Halbert, the parent activist whom Hooks defeated twice en route to win his position. They’re still waiting on the Tennessee Supreme Court to hand down a decision on Halbert’s challenge to the election because she says Hooks had not been a resident voter for five years as the school board charter mandates. Hooks says the challenge, which he says has cost him about $50,000 so far to defend himself, is about Halbert being a sore loser, picking on a technicality since he was away at college. Besides, he argues he never changed his permanent address on South Parkway in Memphis even when he was in Virginia.

While a confident Halbert is prepared for a possible special election if Hooks is forced to step down, Hooks isn’t ready to go anywhere and says he’s sticking with the school board for the long haul.

He adds that he has no higher political ambitions, at least for the moment. When a friend half-jokingly asks Hooks if he’s stocking the treasure chests for a run at being mayor someday, he quips, “No man, I don’t want to be the mayor. I just want to be the mayor’s best friend.

“I see myself picking up where Uncle Benny left off, but in a whole different light,” he says on a more serious note. “Instead of fighting for civil rights equality like he did, I’m fighting for economic equality, to give every kid the opportunities they need no matter how rich or poor they are.”


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