Friday, December 12, 2003

The Case for Letting Go

For political veterans like Pat Vander Schaaf, longevity means ups and downs.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 12, 2003 at 4:00 AM

On the big stage, Al Gore has endorsed Howard Dean for president. The Democratic Party establishment candidate of 2000 likes the antiestablishment candidate for 2004, but Tim Russert and the analysts say he may just be looking ahead to 2008.

Gore can't get let go of this president thing.

On the small stage, City Councilwoman-elect Carol Chumney can't let go of her old job in the Tennessee General Assembly. As my colleague Jackson Baker has reported, she's determined to appoint an interim successor who will serve less than two months.

Meanwhile, two candidates are vying to replace her in a runoff election this week. One says her opponent doesn't live in the district. The other says his opponent hasn't even lived in Memphis much for many years. More accurately, their professional handlers in the state Senate are trading these charges. Along with the Shelby County Commission, which also decided to butt in this week, they can't resist micromanaging an election that, if history is an indicator, will attract about 10 percent of the eligible voters.

Politics becomes more and more like rotisserie baseball, an arcane game played by experts and fanatics but of little or no interest to the majority. A recent school board runoff election in Memphis actually attracted a turnout of 4 percent.

Politicians who can't let go should consider the case of Pat Vander Schaaf.

Vander Schaaf has served on the Memphis City Council longer than anyone in history. On December 16th, she will attend her last meeting as a voting member, having been beaten soundly this fall by Scott McCormick.

She was appointed to the council in 1975, completing the unexpired term of one of the founding members, Gwen Awsumb, in what was quaintly known at the time as the de facto woman's seat. It would be eight more years before she had a female colleague.

Gerald Ford was president. Wyeth Chandler was mayor. Willie Herenton had just been named deputy school superintendent. Elvis was alive.

Eleven council members who later ran for Memphis mayor (none successfully) were elected after her. Vander Schaaf herself ran for mayor in 1982, getting 3 percent of the vote against Dick Hackett, J.O. Patterson Jr., and Mike Cody. She has served with all but seven of the people who have been on the City Council since it was invented.

In other words, Pat Vander Schaaf was in politics a long, long time and possibly too long. Politics obviously has its rewards, but for veterans like Vander Schaaf it's a mixed bag. Thirty years is time enough for plenty of ups and downs, and if you're a public official, the downs sometimes make the news, as was Vander Schaaf's case.

Early in her career, her future seemed as bright as her red hair. Along with her ex-husband, former Shelby County commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf, she created and built Davies Plantation, still one of the best-looking and environmentally sensitive suburban developments in Shelby County.

She was a big-hearted champion of senior citizens, the downtrodden, and stray animals. Last week, she was calling council staffers trying to find a home for a lost dog.

"It's a bittersweet end, but when you look back, although she had some personal ups and downs she never strayed the course one bit," said Hackett, who knows a little about painful election losses himself. "She probably wasn't given credit for all she did for St. Jude and downtown development as a whole. You'll never find Pat on any issue I recall standing up looking for credit for what she's done."

On Tuesday, her colleague John Vergos will also attend his last meeting. He is retiring after serving eight years. Which ending would you choose?


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