The Big Chill 

The political air grows frigid, and it isn't just the weather.

The recent extended siege of Arctic temperatures was not without its forebodings for Memphis politics. The decision by some city sanitation employees to forgo working in frigid temperatures resulted in an uncomfortable déjà vu which saw Mayor A C Wharton publicly expressing his displeasure with the recalcitrant workers and suggesting he will seek to amend the city's contractual relationship with the union representing the sanitation employees.

The circumstance — which became public, ironically, in the week of annual commemoration of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. — is by no means a parallel with the showdown between then Mayor Henry Loeb and sanitation employees in early 1968 that triggered a long-running strike and, ultimately, the tragic assassination of King, who had come to Memphis in solidarity with the workers. For one thing, an arbitration process now exists for the resolution of differences.

But no one doubts that the forthcoming budget crunch is going to present some hard decisions. City councilman Jim Strickland discovered as much quite concretely when, as an attendee at last weekend's opening of the new downtown University of Memphis law school, he was greeted by a well-wisher, Chip Sneed, at the reception for the event.

Sneed, a firefighter in his last year of duty before retirement, pointed out during the conversation that the amount of his pension would be dependent on his final pay status, which at this point is affected by a citywide employee raise that Strickland and others on the council have proposed rescinding as one means of balancing the budget.

Strickland was plainly moved by the exchange but noted that an already unstable budget situation has been exacerbated by a state appeals court's mandate restoring cuts in the city's contribution to Memphis City Schools.

Something — or somebody — has to give, either taxpayers or city employees or both, and it's not exactly a win-win situation.

• One of the supporters of Governor Phil Bredesen's comprehensive educational program, which seeks $485 million in stimulus funds from the Obama administration, was newly elected state senator Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who as a member of the state House was a determined foe of all forms of "pork," state or federal.

Kelsey, who is not averse to theatrical tactics, once made a show of putting slabs of bacon in an envelope, which he offered to "return" to then House speaker Jimmy Naifeh as his way of rejecting surplus funds that were being meted out to each legislative district.

In announcing his decision to vote for Tennessee's pursuit of "Race to the Top" educational funding, Kelsey opined that the money would be helpful to schools in his district and said, "For the first time in my career, I like the strings attached to these Obama stimulus dollars."

Kelsey's statement and vote may be the first confirmation of a prophecy made last week by a fellow arch-conservative, state representative Frank Nicely (R-Knoxville).

"He'll be different in the Senate," Nicely said about Kelsey. "I've seen it happen over and over, when people move over. It calms them down. He'll be in the majority over there. When you're in the minority, you have to act up to get attention."

Indeed, Kelsey was in the minority for most of his time in the House, but these days the House, too, has a Republican majority. The newest member of it is Mark White, who was easily elected last week over Democrat Guthrie Castle and independent John Andreuccetti to succeed Kelsey in House District 83.

White, who claimed 68 percent of the vote in the special election, made the tongue-in-cheek statement that his only regret was that he hadn't "beat Brian Kelsey," who had polled 75 percent in his own recent victory in the special election for Senate District 31.

Ford for Dummies (continued): Back in 2000, as so many chroniclers have noted, Harold Ford Jr., then a second-term congressman from Memphis' 9th District, was asked by Al Gore (a political "Jr." himself and a fellow graduate of Washington's exclusive St. Albans school) to deliver the keynote address at that year's Democratic convention, the one that nominated Gore for president, and at which Gore delivered a populist-to-beat-the-band acceptance address. Ford, in his remarks, chose not to sound populist at all:

''I recognize that I stand here tonight because of the brave men and women, many no older than I am today, who fought and stood and oftentimes sat down to create that perfect union," he said at the beginning of his 13-minute address. And that was how the Gore people had wanted him to sound — like the latest, newest, shiniest, gratefullest incarnation of the African-American voting bloc.

That was followed, however, by a quick segue out: "But I also stand here representing a new generation ... ." Thence came some nice business about education and the need for more schools. And a good deal of generalized uplift. It was stirring enough. But much of what Ford said would have gone by the name of "yuppie" a few years earlier — a kinder, gentler version of Newt Gingrich's "Opportunity Society," if you will. And, noticeably, Ford eschewed direct criticism of the GOP Bush-Cheney ticket.

A few journalists wondered afterward why it was arranged for the keynote address to come after the major networks were all done with their coverage for the night. (Earlier, in prime TV time, there had been Jesse Jackson, Caroline Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Bradley.)

It developed later on that there had been a tussle between Ford and the Gore campaign over the substance of his remarks. When I asked Ford about it three years later, in a Q&A I did with him for Memphis magazine, he said this: "That team of people had put together some remarks for me that I didn't agree with. It was the kind of predictable stale approach that most of America gets turned off by, and, frankly, I didn't believe in it.

"The vice president asked me to give a speech, and I imagine that if he just wanted somebody to read some remarks, he'd have shared that with me at the outset or picked somebody else. But my politics was not that [pause] old-line predictable approach to politics. That's not me, and the speech I wanted to give was forward-looking and one that would invite a new generation of voters to vote for Al Gore and join my party. So there was a difference about what should be said."

And that "difference" may well have been what kept Ford out of prime time.

In that same 2003 Q&A (not so coyly entitled "Does Harold Ford Jr. Want to Be President?"), Ford dilated further on his sense of what "forward-looking" meant: "For me to do well politically and for Democrats to do well politically we have to attract Republicans. ... There's a generational thing. I grew up attending school with a lot of guys who identify more as Republicans than as Democrats. I know how they think, because a lot of times I think the same way."

There you have it: The seeds of a political conservatism that was more than evident in 2006, when Ford ran for the U.S. Senate. Now that he's a candidate for the U.S. Senate again, this time from New York, pundits up thataway, and even some down here, are referring to all that as opportunism — born of a need to pander to red-state Tennessee. Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, in doing a depth chart on Ford's frequent former turns to the right, calls the candidate "the incomparably horrific Harold Ford."

Horrific or not, there's a consistency to what Ford has said — and continues to say — the apparent flip-flops on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage notwithstanding. It cannot have gone unnoticed in liberal, socially conscious New York that Ford has now pronounced himself dead set against President Obama's showpiece legislation on health care.

And there's more.

To be (re)continued...


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