Wars and Rumors of War 

Ritz, Monger, and General Nathan B. Forrest all targeted for take-out.

"Just like World War Two, I'm going to Nashville to get my allies, and I'm coming back to bomb your Hiroshima!" That was how Millington's Terry Roland, an opponent of city/county school merger and a backer of municipal school systems in the suburbs, put it last week, when he was out-voted on a school-related issue on the Shelby County Commission.

That was one Republican's point of view as the GOP-dominated General Assembly headed into a week in which consideration of enabling legislation for municipal schools as well as school vouchers was due to be on the front burner.

Another Republican, meanwhile, was feeling some heat himself, though he professed not to mind it. This was commission chairman Mike Ritz, suddenly the subject of efforts by a group of discontented local Republicans to have him recalled as chairman and declared "persona non grata" by the state Republican executive committee.

click to enlarge Commissioner Mike Ritz - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Commissioner Mike Ritz

Ritz, up to this point a Republican in good standing, told the F lyer, "I certainly won't volunteer to leave the party," and basically shrugged off the threat. He thinks the whole development could be "quite frankly, helpful" to him in a plan he's actively considering to run for county mayor in 2014 as an independent.

About the recall effort, announced at Sunday's county Republican convention by a group associated with the Tea Party movement, Ritz contended that most of his critics live outside the area he represents, District 1, which takes in much of the city of Memphis from Midtown to its eastern periphery as well as scattered precincts in its adjoining suburbs.       

Ritz says he doubts that 21,000 signatures could be found inside his district for a recall petition. That's the number — 15 percent of the district's registered voters — estimated as necessary according to state law by Mick Wright, a vice chair of the county GOP organization supporting the recall effort and a parallel one to have Ritz formally excommunicated from the Republican Party.

"Now, they might have an easy time of it out in the county," Ritz said, meaning, essentially, District 4, which takes in unincorporated areas of Shelby County, as well as six suburban municipalities, which are seeking to form independent school districts and are resisting long-term involvement in the unified city-county school district, which Ritz supports. "The mayors out there might even circulate the petition themselves," Ritz said, only half joking.

Rather famously, Republican Ritz and seven county commission Democrats have formed a solid bloc of eight in favor of completing the unification of city and county schools and litigating against efforts by the suburban municipalities to secede from the school consolidation forced by the December 2010 surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.  

Concerning the likelihood of legislation favorable to suburban school independence, Ritz and the commission majority have consistently expressed the view that whatever is decided by Hardy Mays, the presiding judge over school-merger litigation, will trump any actions by the General Assembly.

Term-limited and unable to run again for his commission seat, Ritz foresees no negative consequences from either the recall effort or an attempt to expel him from the GOP. He doubts things will come to that, but, given his mayoral-race plans, "If they kick me out, it could be the best thing possible for my candidacy."

Running as an independent candidate for Shelby County mayor against GOP incumbent Mark Luttrell and any of several possible Democrats, he could at the very least be something of a "spoiler," Ritz believes. And if Luttrell should accept an appointive office from Governor Bill Haslam — something Ritz thinks is possible — "my vote potential looks better and better."

Whatever happens, Ritz says, he's perfectly at ease with the political positions he's taken, attributing them all to a sense of fiscal responsibility: "I think most people see that I'm a moderate, and that's basically what I am."

• The city council-appointed Committee on Renaming Parks held its inaugural meeting on Friday in City Hall and made plans for a second meeting on April 1st, where the public can express its views in a town-hall format.

If that meeting should feature as many disparate points of view as the one on Friday, the public meeting could turn into a wild and woolly affair.

Such was not the case on Friday, inasmuch as the committee's council co-chairs, Bill Boyd and Harold Collins, did their best to ensure that decorum prevailed and the committee members managed to disagree — and occasionally agree — in polite fashion.

But the variance in points of view was wide enough on what happened in the past — the Civil War portion of it, anyhow — that the chances of agreement on how to commemorate that past seemed remote.  

The Rev. Keith Norman, current president of the Memphis NAACP, made it clear early in the meeting that he regarded the idea of paying homage to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a "slave trader," as unacceptable and that the Southern Confederacy, whose reason for being was to further slavery, was a case of treason against the United States and therefore deserving of no honor.

That was one flank of the debate. The other was provided fairly quickly by Becky Muska, a late appointment by council parks committee chairman Boyd, who appointed the naming committee. Muska was chosen, Boyd said, because her ancestors had settled in Memphis early in the river community's history.

Her explanation for the Confederacy and the Civil War was as distant from that of Norman as could be imagined. The 13 Southern states that seceded had done so not because of slavery, she said, but in defense of "states' rights," and their grievance was against high tariffs on Southern agricultural exports imposed by Northern manufacturing interests.

As for Forrest Park, Muska said it was an outgrowth of Progressive Era politics and had the support of Robert Church, a Memphis African-American eminence, she said. For all the volatility generated by disputes over Forrest and the Confederacy and the meaning of that aspect of history, "I don't feel ashamed, and I don't feel embarrassed."

The other members of the committee, also present and taking part, were: Jimmy Ogle, president of the Shelby County Historical Commission; Larry Smith, deputy director of Parks & Neighborhoods; Michael Robinson, chairman of African & African American Studies at LeMoyne-Owen College; Douglas Cupples, former instructor of history at the University of Memphis; and Beverly Bond, associate professor of history at the U of M.

Ogle and Smith attempted to route the discussion away from forming conclusions about history. Ogle noted that the saga of Memphis was abundant with examples of every kind of historical development, telling "the story of America better than any other city," and that ample potential parkland existed to pay tribute to any and all points of view.

Smith took the point of view that the committee's purpose was to formulate guidelines for future development of park properties. "I don't think we're here to name a park," he said bluntly (and somewhat surprisingly, given the publicly stated purpose of the committee).

Councilman Collins got in the last word at Friday's meeting, commenting that "our mission is bigger than our own opinions." The committee's task was to do what "benefits the city." Whatever that is is yet to be decided, of course, and the naming committee's role is an advisory one. The council will make any final decisions.

• A vote by the Shelby County Democratic caucus in the legislature to replace IT specialist George Monger with businessman/activist Anthony Tate on the Shelby County Election Commission has some local Democrats in an uproar.

The loss of Monger, who had impressed many as an assertive advocate for needed election reforms and as an expert in election-software issues, was lamented by several local bloggers and activists, as well as by Norma Lester, the other Democrat on the five-member SCEC board. There evidently is a move afoot to get Monger named to a pending vacancy on the five-member state election commission. Another Democrat interested in that slot is Van Turner, outgoing chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

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