When Justin Ford, all of 25 years old, was elected in 2010 to the Shelby County Commission seat his father, then interim county mayor Joe Ford, had vacated, nobody quite knew what to expect. The mystery continued during the first year of the young commissioner's service, with Ford keeping a virtually complete silence for several months and then speaking only in short, usually noncommittal bursts.
All of that was uncharacteristic for a member of the inner city's best-known political family, and adding to others' perplexity was the unpredictable, highly fluid nature of Commissioner Ford's votes — which as often as not seemed to be with the commission's Republicans as with his fellow Democrats. Ford struck observers, including his fellow commissioners, as everything from merely bashful to downright enigmatic.
Almost nobody was prepared for it when the baby-faced, mild-mannered, somewhat deferential commissioner rematerialized within the last week as a volcanic presence, peremptory, demanding, willing and able to shout down his seniors, and determined to impose his will on the commission's faltering efforts to redistrict itself in conformity with the 2010 census.
Ford's transformation began in earnest last Friday, when the commission — stalemated on arriving at a redistricting plan that could get the nine votes required on a third reading — met in a special Friday-morning session in an effort to reach some sort of compromise.
At that point, the two options being considered were a plan for 13 single districts presented by District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy and another, initially presented by District 1 commissioner Heidi Shafer, for what was basically a demographically updated version of the current plan — four three-member districts and one single-member district.
Early on, Mulroy, virtually alone, had made the case against multimember districts as synonymous with "incumbent-protection plans." He argued further that smaller single-member districts are more responsive to constituents and could more easily be made to sync with single-member school-board districts in the future. Shafer and such other proponents of multimember districts as District 4 commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas argued, among other things, that such districts provide alternative representation to constituents.
Mulroy had appeared to be making converts for his point of view, and several commissioners had moved over to his side. Before Friday's meeting he saw the prospect of putting together a consensus, having netted support from Mike Ritz in District 1, which straddles Memphis and suburbia; Walter Bailey and commission chairman Sidney Chism of inner-city Districts 2 and 3, respectively; and Millington commissioner Terry Roland of District 4.
But Mulroy had also hoped to attract such fellow Democrats as District 3 commissioners James Harvey, who was absent on business during the week, and Justin Ford, as well as Melvin Burgess and Henri Brooks from District 2.
Harvey remained out of town, an unknown quantity, but the other inner-city Democrats tipped the other way from a single-member plan. In fact, to most commissioners' surprise, it was not Shafer who made the case Friday for the updated plan involving four three-member districts and one single-member one (which she had been calling by its number in the order of presentation, 3-C) but Ford, who promptly gave the plan a new nomenclature — the "continuity plan."
It wasn't just Ford's coming forth as a proponent of that plan nor his new role as primary author that constituted a surprise. It was his manner in doing so.
In place of the modest first-termer was a firebrand. Where there had been a lamb was now a lion. In particular, Ford lit into Bailey, calling the august commissioner, dean of the body in terms of total years' service and a recognized eminence in the African-American community, a "hypocrite," lambasting him for opposing a multimember plan virtually identical to the one Bailey had accepted 10 years earlier.
Pointedly (and ironically, since it was he who was making the case for "continuity"), Ford suggested that the issue was a generational one, with an older generation on the commission attempting to hold back newer commissioners like himself who were willing to take the lead in resolving the stalemate.
Everybody present noted the dramatic change in personality, chalked up by more than one observer as a matter of DNA, in that the commissioner's father, former commissioner Joe Ford, could also famously move back and forth from sunny agreeability to ferocity in debate.
The net result of Friday's special session was a continued stalemate, with five members for the Mulroy single-member plan and seven voting for the multimember upgrade. The commissioners now had to deal with the very real prospect that failure to agree by December 31st, as called for by state law, could land the matter in the lap of Chancery Court.
The commission met again on Monday in yet another attempt to break the case. This came in the form of a motion by Ritz in favor of 1-F, an earlier plan that split the middle between the two now under dispute. 1-F posited six dual-member districts and one single-member district.
After some discussion as to whether Ritz's motion was appropriate under parliamentary rules, county attorney Kelly Rayne's ruling cleared the way for a vote. That one came out five-seven, with the votes arrayed along the same lines as Friday and the supporters of the "continuity plan" holding firm.
Except it was no longer the continuity plan. It was now, as voiced by Commissioner Thomas, who called for it to be approved, "the Ford plan." The term caught on instantly, with Commissioner Brooks contending, "The Ford plan has a consensus. It has the votes. We need to get this behind us. It's a structure people are comfortable with." The plan, she said, was a "win-win" for everyone.
It was certainly a win for young Ford. Years from now, the permutations and hair-splittings of this debate on redistricting may be forgotten, but, depending on how his career develops henceforth, this debate, and Ford's role in it, may well be seen as something of a canebrake moment for him. (For better or for worse, we might add.)
Ford himself now "humbly" asked his colleagues on the other side to give up resistance and accede to what he, too, was now calling the Ford plan. Those commissioners who held out for something else and displayed a willingness to have the redistricting matter go into court were guilty of "irresponsibility," he said.
And then he upped the volume: "I'm not going to sit here on this body and let irresponsibility permeate this commission. ... This plan has worked for the people for years." And once again he struck at Bailey. "Commissioner Walter Bailey, he helped establish the plan. And now, all of a sudden, Commissioner Bailey and other commissioners seem to feel that this plan doesn't work any more. Now I'm not going to sit up here one more day and take that. ... It's called being a leader. And if you want to go to court, if you won't compromise because you can't get the votes, then you shouldn't be here. That's all I've got to say."
Roland attempted to offset Ford's rhetoric, borrowing for the purpose Britain's World War II leader Winston Churchill, whom he quoted as saying, "Never, ever, ever give up ... on anything great or small that you believe in." And he challenged Ford, "Don't call me out and say I'm not a leader!"
Ford responded. "I did call you out," he said, also claiming Churchill as his guide.
Without mentioning Ford by name, Bailey would observe that what had been said smacked "of sophomoric petulance," adding, "We can disagree without getting disagreeable. But I'll chalk that up to the excitement of the moment."
There was no agreement on a plan Monday. And, after a longish, Godot-like debate as to just how and when the commission should meet again and how it could adjourn with proper attention to parliamentary procedure, the meeting would finally end, with members appearing dazed and confused and with an uncertain timetable for further attempts to break the impasse before year's end.