Meet the Mayors 

Politicians are sometimes accused of fast footwork and tap dancing over the issues. But this week, they may actually be dancing on Beale Street.

The National Conference of Black Mayors is expected to bring 500 politicians from around the country to Memphis this week, including New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Atlanta mayor Shirley

Franklin, and Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman.

The schedule includes a black women mayors' workshop, training sessions on developing communities, and a reception hosted by Mayor Willie Herenton Thursday night on Beale Street.

"Thursday night we're having a red-carpet affair," says Gale Jones Carson, Herenton's spokesperson and a co-chair of the Memphis host committee. "It's a welcome to Memphis: welcome to our music, to our food. After [the reception], they'll each be given wristbands to go to any of the clubs they want."

Memphis hosted the conference once before, in 1995, and bid for this month's event two years ago.

"Many of the mayors, when you talk to them, talk about what a good time they had the last time it was in Memphis," says Carson.

In addition to the usual convention activities of golf and shopping, the mayors will attend a think tank on Saturday about "new markets, new strategies, and new solutions" and even see some of the local sights.

"During the conference, there will be a tour of Memphis to show off our Hope VI sites," says Carson.

Hope VI grants are federal monies distributed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace run-down public housing. In Memphis, delegates will visit College Park, Uptown, the Metropolitan, and Lamar Terrace.

Call me a policy wonk, but I think it's exciting to have so many mayors converging on Memphis. There's a lot of government experience when you get 500 mayors in the same place, and Memphis might just be able to learn something.

And not just from Herenton. Several events are open to the public. About 250 area high school students will attend the conference's youth day with keynote speaker Tracee Ellis Ross.

"They want to make young people a part of what they're doing because they are our future," says Carson. "Who knows how many will be our leaders in the future? Bill Clinton met President Kennedy, and he ended up being president. We want them to know nothing is beyond their reach."

Carson is used to being around politicians and other power brokers, so the idea of being around a bunch of mayors wouldn't ordinarily faze her much.

"It's not just black mayors but other black elected officials," she says of the conference. "Some people may not feel like [the African-American community] is where we should be, but when you're there, with all these African Americans who are decision-makers, it really makes you feel we're heading in the right direction."

The event that has garnered the most public interest is the "Black Women Mayors Caucus Luncheon," with actress Phylicia Rashad.

"Phylicia is a draw, but I also think people want to be in the same room with all the black women mayors," says Carson. "The people who have been calling have been women. That's something to be proud of."

But a main focus at the conference is Hurricane Katrina and the mayors who dealt with it in their communities.

"One thing they normally do is the 'Tribute to a Black American' dinner," says Carson. "This year, they wanted to reward and recognize their own, the mayors in Louisiana and Mississippi whose towns were heavily hit. ... Those mayors are still dealing with the aftermath of Katrina every day."

And perhaps some of the most important events -- though not open to the public -- will be Friday's panel discussion on "Lessons Learned From Katrina" with Nagin and the mayors of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and St. Gabriel, Louisiana, and Wednesday's session on the avian influenza pandemic.

With the threat of avian flu, terrorism, and increasingly violent weather, the federal government expects local communities to be prepared. On a recent broadcast of Dateline, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt said that any community expecting the federal government to step in and save them during a flu pandemic will be disappointed. Not because the federal government isn't prepared for the flu, mind you, but that the federal government can't respond if the flu hits 5,000 communities at the same time.

Leavitt compared a possible outbreak of bird flu to Katrina, saying that the country started recovering from the storm within a matter of days -- here Nagin & Co. may disagree -- but that it would take over a year to recover from an epidemic of bird flu. And before it is all over, the country will see a catastrophic loss of life and economic activities.

Which I guess is my long way of saying that local leaders -- and how they prepare their cities -- are more important than ever.

I hope that the mayors have fun in Memphis, but there are definitely some issues they can't afford to dance around.

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