Kemp Conrad, a member of the Memphis City Council and one of the leading actors in what, leading up to this week, had been a riveting budget debate over on cityside, got a cue call across the mall in the county building Monday, where the Shelby County Commission was about to resolve its own budget dilemma.
The absent Conrad was not being sought for his advice on budget matters — rather, as the City Council's nominee for non-voting membership on the board of directors of the joint city/county Economic Development Growth Engine Industrial Development Board (EDGE for short).
The gathered commissioners, about to vote to approve the EDGE membership, briefly considered whether Conrad, as the council's nominee (the commission has one, too, Commissioner Mike Ritz), required their confirmation, and finally decided he didn't.
Conrad, who has encountered trouble enough already, including tweets from an anonymous source threatening his safety and that of his wife and children, was fortunate to have been spared yet another ordeal. His current problems stem mainly from a proposal that the city consider privatizing its sanitation service as a way of cutting expenses, and, while that specific matter does not have any application to county business, the same divisiveness exists on the commission as on the council concerning public-vs.-private, labor-vs.-management issues.
And, who knows, Conrad might have gotten caught up in one of the crossfires that have become commonplace on the commission.
One version of that is what is rapidly turning into an ongoing feud between Memphis Democrat Walter Bailey, a long-serving member and custodian of numerous vintage traditions on the commission, and Millington Republican Terry Roland, a populist firebrand who sees himself as a change agent and sentinel of the suburbs.
The two got into it a few weeks ago during a budget committee meeting over Roland's proposal to cut the salaries of ranking county administrators by an arbitrary 5 percent (later raised to 10 percent). To Bailey, that was "political pandering ... irrational ... just popping out with figures arbitrarily," an attack that prompted Roland to characterize lawyer Bailey as "somebody that sits back there and hollers about every little thing" when "we're talking about cutting people that make from $29,000 to $35,000 ... all of us aren't big paid attorneys, you know what I'm saying."
That argument erupted all over again Monday at the very end of a surprisingly brief and relatively amicable settlement of several outstanding budget issues. Roland had moved, relatively late in the budget discussion, to strike out a 2 percent increase for county employees that, at Bailey's behest, had been voted in two weeks earlier.
Taking note of Bailey's remarks Monday that county workers should form unions so as not to "depend on the good faith of politicians," Roland suggested that "lunacy" could be defined by looking in Bailey's direction, adding, apropos Bailey's advocacy of unions, "maybe he's looking for some work. I know he represents unions."
The "lunacy" remark was an echo of a wide-ranging — and frequently caustic — series of observations Roland had made Saturday as a speaker at a meeting of the archconservative Dutch Treat Luncheon group. He had used the word "lunatic" to describe Bailey there. In other observations, the Millington commissioner said of his independent-minded GOP colleague Mike Carpenter, "If he's a Republican, I'm a Russian tank driver."
And he had opined of Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, a Republican who has often had hard going with the Republicans on the commission, "He doesn't take a stand. He's a decent man, a smart man, but I think somebody's guiding him."
As things developed Monday, the 2 percent employee raise was in fact dropped from the budget. It had to be to make room for some of the previous exclusions that were voted in. Funding was restored for the Chamber of Commerce's "Fast Forward" industrial-recruitment program and for the Memphis Music Commission, among several erstwhile casualties.
And, as for Luttrell, he proved to be not so much the guided as the guide. GOP commissioners Roland and Wyatt Bunker, vociferous opponents of a previously derailed $417,000 appropriation for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth, regarded it as a bureaucracy and a "social thing."
In any event, the OECY — whose supporters maintained it was the key to leveraging an estimated $6 million in state and federal funding for programs like infant mortality, among others — was apparently lobbied hard and successfully by Luttrell, because both Bunker and Roland began the discussion on reconsideration of the issue with muted tributes to Luttrell for making a convincing case for it. After Bunker had said his piece, Roland followed. "I, too, have talked to the mayor and will pull back my opposition," he said quietly.
Taken aback, Carpenter, who had largely carried the fight for restoring OECY, chose not to follow through on a prior request to speak on the issue. "I'm going to quit while I'm ahead," he said.
When someone later wondered out loud about the unexpected success of Luttrell's persuasive efforts to Chairman Sidney Chism, who had earlier hedged on the matter of supporting refunding efforts, the chairman replied cryptically, "He ought to be thanking me every day."
• Other chess games were going on in the worlds of politics and government. As the week began, Yvonne Madlock, director of the Shelby County Health Department, was holding her own in an effort to maintain a somewhat free hand in dealing with federal Title X funds for family planning.
Under pressure from the state, Madlock agreed last week to accept the full $1,345,000 designated for Shelby County but made her acceptance contingent on being able to sub-contract with local partners. If her resolve holds up, this is possible good news for Planned Parenthood, which in previous years had served as an agent for the state in carrying out family-planning programs.
The GOP-dominated legislature made a serious effort this year to defund Planned Parenthood, because it saw the nonprofit, which boasts a number of other programs, as too much involved with processing legal abortions.
• Chumney redux? Although the budget problems of city and county have managed to preoccupy most local observers of government and politics, the Memphis city election of 2011 is just around the corner, and partisans of the two political parties are already looking ahead to the 2012 election cycle.
One of the key races on next year's calendar will be that for district attorney general, with Amy Weirich, who inherited the job from former D.A. Bill Gibbons when Gibbons went to Nashville as state safety commissioner, as the Republican standard-bearer. Democratic strategists are looking at two possible opponents for Weirich — Glen Wright, who ran unsuccessfully for a judicial position in the 2010 county general election, and Carol Chumney, the former state representative and City Council member who ran for Shelby County mayor in 2002 and for Memphis mayor in 2007 and 2009.
While Chumney ran a respectable and relatively close second to former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in the three-way mayoral race of 2007 (current city attorney Herman Morris being the third candidate), she finished back in the pack in the 2009 race won by current mayor A C Wharton. It was an ill-advised race in which Chumney, matched against the popular Wharton and a crowded field of other candidates, lacked the resources and support she had enjoyed against Herenton.
After a spell last year of keeping her image current by speaking up at public meetings on topical subjects, Chumney has been keeping a low profile, working on her law practice and other private pursuits. She retains a good deal of name recognition, however, and she has expressed an interest in running for D.A. — a position which, arguably, calls on the same relentless intensity she displayed as a would-be muckraker on the council and one for which collegiality, Chumney's vulnerable point as a council member, is conspicuously less important.
Meanwhile, veteran prosecutor Weirich, emphasizing among other things the need for cooperation between local law enforcement organs, is stepping up her public visibility via speeches and other public appearances.