1) ELECTIONS: In Memphis and Shelby County three years out of every four involve regularly scheduled elections, and in 2011 the cycle required a round of city elections. Inasmuch as Mayor A C Wharton, who was first elevated to office in the special mayoral election of 2009, was reelected, as were all 12 incumbents who sought reelection, there was a surprising lack of drama — especially given the fact that city workers were slammed with a 4.6 percent pay cut, resulting in nonstop tension during the year between the administration and the employee unions.
The District 7 council seat, vacated by long-term member Barbara Swearengen Ware as part of her copping a plea on a charge of official misconduct, was the only open one and became a test case of sorts. Establishment-supported candidate Lee Harris easily defeated Kemba Ford of the well-known local political clan. Ford had the active support of the unions; thus, it would appear that Wharton's palpably business-friendly policy, which included generous concessions for new industries like Electrolux and Mitsubishi, resonated well with the public.
Some interest was generated at year's end by matchups for the 2012 election season — notably a forthcoming race for district attorney general between incumbent Republican Amy Weirich and Democratic challenger Carol Chumney and a Democratic primary race pitting Urban League head and school board member Tomeka Hart against incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen. The given was that Cohen had defeated his last several opponents by four-to-one margins, and Hart's campaign seemed to be having trouble gaining traction organizationally or financially. But que sera, sera.
2) CITY/COUNTY SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION: At the end of 2010, a majority on the Memphis City Schools board — spooked by the prospect of Shelby County Schools getting sanction from the Tennessee legislature to establish a separate special school district — voted to surrender the MCS charter, thereby invoking automatic consolidation of the two systems.
The suburb-friendly Republican majority in the General Assembly responded in the first week of the 2011 legislative session with the Norris-Todd bill (introduced by state Senate majority leader Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, both Collierville Republicans). This bill, quickly passed and signed by new GOP governor Bill Haslam, provided for a slow, two-and-a-half-year timetable to complete the merger process and allowed the creation of new special districts when merger was completed.
Multiple litigations about the matter were consolidated and brought before U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays of Memphis, who authorized a Solomonic solution that seemed to leave all parties with comfortable options.
Thereafter, in accordance with an elaborate ruling from Judge Mays, the Shelby County Commission appointed seven new members to a new 23-member unified interim school board that also included the nine members of the old MCS board and the seven members of the SCS board. The two separate administrations continued to conduct their business separately under the direction of the interim board, and there was further input from a 21-member "planning commission" (aka transition committee) appointed by various parts officialdom as mandated by Norris-Todd.
As the unified interim board and the planning commission each continued to meet, exploring the contours of the ongoing process, it was an open secret that the suburban municipalities — and some of their appointed representatives on the board and commission — were simultaneously mulling the means of striking out on their own with independent school districts in 2013.
The next major point of contention is whether and at what cost new special school districts (which would already involve add-on tax rates) could commandeer the existing school buildings and other infrastructure. How that matter is resolved could determine what really ends up happening.
3) LEGISLATION AND STATE GOVERNMENT: The 2010 statewide election created such overwhelming Republican majorities in the legislature (20 R, 13 D in the Senate; 64 R, 33 D, and one de facto independent in the House) that Democrats, who had been used to being the controlling party since Reconstruction, were forced into being a captive (and passive) audience as the GOP followed its fancy in the 2011 legislative session.
There was little new gun legislation of the sort that had marked the 2009 and 2010 sessions but only because virtually everything gun-friendly had already been enacted except, perhaps, for a hypothetical mandate that Tennesseans would have to bring weapons into their church pews.
On the educational front, the ruling GOP was especially active. Haslam pushed for — and got — reforms that greatly expanded the number of charter schools, toughened tenure regulations, and provided for strict evaluations of both teachers and schools themselves (with the latter subject to being taken over and directly administered by the state). Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, an archconservative who arguably became the dominant force in state politics, made sure that additional measures, including recognition of "virtual" online schools and the abolition of collective bargaining for teachers, got passed.
Bills providing for a school-voucher system and inhibiting discussion of homosexuality in classrooms were stymied but were sure to be reintroduced in 2012.
4) THE STATE OF TENNESSEE vs. PLANNED PARENTHOOD: This battle raged for most of the year, with state government's Republican establishment following the lead of what is now evidently GOP national policy. And that policy, carried out in state after state, was to defund Planned Parenthood, which has a lengthy history of involvement with legal abortion activity, from any share of public money. It was a task that Ramsey relished taking upon himself.
The GOP's battle plan in Tennessee went a little awry toward the end of the 2011 legislative session when someone (still not identified) slipped a sentence into the enabling legislation that had the effect of exempting Planned Parenthood from its intended exclusion. The state Health Department was thereupon charged with arm-twisting county health departments, one by one, to accept federal Title X family-planning funding for themselves and to keep it away from Planned Parenthood, the usual agency to execute Title X services (none of which involved performing abortions).
When Davidson County (Nashville) accepted these terms in June, Ramsey declared victory, but he was a mite premature, in that Shelby County's Health Department insisted on issuing a request for bids on local partnering in the Title X programs. The state, aided by anti-abortion activists, lobbied fiercely against Planned Parenthood, and proponents of the agency worked just as hard to keep Planned Parenthood in the running for the nearly $1 million involved.
In the end, a majority of Shelby County commissioners went along with a grading order established by the local Health Department and gave the bid to Christ Community Health Services — which acknowledged it would decline to hand out the morning-after contraceptive pill but promised to abide by federal guidelines by providing referrals on abortion-related activities.
5) REDISTRICTING: Every 10 years in the United States a new census requires that legislative bodies — local, state, and national — be redistricted in conformity with the demographic results.
In the case of Memphis city government, the process involved little reshuffling, and the incumbent council members had no trouble agreeing on revisions with council attorney Allan Wade, who prepared the redistricting plan. A few would-be challengers bristled, however, at the close-to-the-vest way in which the council plan was formulated and with the late date, just before filing deadline, at which it was announced.
Redistricting for the Shelby County Commission proved more troublesome, even though the various plans presented to the commission came from the neutral city/county office of planning and development. With 9 votes required from the 13-member body to approve a redistricting plan on the final of three readings, the commission was at year's end split three different ways — some members wanting single-member districts, others insisting on a multimember system based on three-member districts, and a compromise plan involving two-member districts also failing to command a super-majority. This could meant that Chancery Court will have to resolve the impasse unless the commissioners themselves do so when they come back from the holidays, presumably refreshed, for a January 4th last-chance meeting.
Even more suspense awaited the Tennessee General Assembly's redistricting plan for legislative and congressional seats, also scheduled for unveiling sometime early in January. Inasmuch as Republicans have a commanding majority in the Assembly, major changes of a partisan nature were expected, as were simple demographic readjustments. Although Memphis attorney and GOP national committeeman John Ryder, chief adviser on the process, promised evenhandedness, Shelby County looked to lose legislative seats — almost certainly at the Democrats' expense.
UPDATE: Deidre Malone declares for County Mayor at Chism picnic.