Friday, January 18, 2008

The Memphis Week That Was; MLK, Campaigns, Ethics, and a Postponement

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Memphis is a political Safe Zone for Martin Luther King week. State and national politicians of both parties can pop in for a photo or a speech at the National Civil Rights Museum or the NBA's sixth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day game on Monday. Republicans and mainstream Democrats can even rub shoulders with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Everyone can be for "civil rights" and against 1960s-style segregation and police brutality without having to step on the landmines of modern-day public schools, health insurance, unions, taxes, and broken families and all those other tough issues that Willie Herenton (who has endorsed Hillary Clinton) has to deal with every day.

Sorry, but in terms of modern relevance, the NBA's MLK game is an airball. It should draw a nice crowd, and honorees Bob Lanier and Kareem Abdul Jabbar seem like the most dignified and thoughtful of former athletes. I was a Detroit Pistons fan when Lanier and Dave Bing were all the Pistons had going for them.

So we're all agreed that Dr. King was a great American and his assassination was tragic. What does support for "civil rights" mean in Memphis in 2008? I wonder what King, who stayed at the Lorraine Motel and dined on soul food potlucks and marched with the poorest of the poor would think of the modern NBA, and pro sports in general. Memphis gets "honored" with King-related events in basketball, baseball, and on the upcoming 40th anniversary of his death. And it is scorned as Tennessee's problem child and black eye the rest of the year.

It was stunning that Hillary Clinton's Tennessee campaign last week put out a "statewide" list of "women's council" supporters without the name of a single Memphian on it.

Memphis Women Who Are Not on Hillary's List includes teachers, principals, city division directors, prosecutors, directors of nonprofits, and recent candidates for city mayor and city council. Some are constrained from making endorsements, but most are not. And the argument from Hillary's Nashville-based headquarters that Memphis was slow to respond is nonsense. You don't wait for endorsements, you go get them.

Wouldn't you love to be running Barack Obama's campaign now that he has opened up an office. Suppose he shows up in person between now and Super Tuesday (February 5th) and Hillary doesn't. "My friends, as I stand here in the city where Martin Luther King was assassinated, I ask you why my opponent ... ." Or maybe that would just remind people that he is black.

Remember, Memphis Democrats handed Tennessee, and therefore the 1996 presidential election, to Bill Clinton and Al Gore by voting precinct margins of -- these are actual numbers from Election Commission returns -- 753-3, 482-1, 1009-8, 1040-5, and 362-0. Clinton won Tennessee over Bob Dole by 45,616 votes. Clinton won the 9th Congressional District by 86,897 votes. Without it, Clinton loses Tennessee.

Tennessee went Republican in 2000 and 2004. Gray Sasser, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, says 25.9 percent of voters in the Democratic primary are black. Statewide, voters aren't asked about race when they register (although they are in Shelby County), so the number is an estimate based on key Zip codes.

The party's dilemma in Tennessee 2008?

Finding common cause for lower-income African Americans who ride MATA, go to public schools, use the free-lunch program, and often come from single-parent homes with college-educated blacks and whites who don't use public services and who like Bill, Hill, and Oprah but aren't sure what to think about a place like Memphis.

Postponed in Nashville. Since Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has been in contact with Gov. Phil Bredesen's office for months, suspicions fall on his colleague, Mayor Herenton, for deciding to postpone their meeting on schools. Herenton sent out a statement saying more due diligence is needed. That seems like something you would do before setting up the meeting in the first place, which is essentially what Wharton said after the postponement.

You don't get to see the governor often to ask his help, and when you do you don't want to squander it by not having the specificity that he needs," Wharton said. "On my end, I am burdened with the cost on the three-for-one funding formula. I have made it clear throughout that I would not seek nor support any larger role by county government."

The postponement followed a meeting last week between Herenton and school board chairman Tomeka Hart, who has emerged as one of the system's stoutest defenders on the pages of this newspaper in an exchange of opinion columns with former city councilman John Vergos.

"He didn't give me any indication he was changing his mind because of our meeting," Hart told me. She said she can live with an appointed board or an elected board, just so it's effective.

"Government should be run more like a business." Don't hear that one much any more, do you? What business? Merrill Lynch? Citigroup? First Horizon? Bankers who couldn't say no to unqualified borrowers were partly responsible for the current mess, including First Horizon's 65 percent stock plunge and $248 million quarterly loss reported last week.

A contrarian at another financial firm in Memphis says a turnaround could be a year or two away, but First Horizon's bond department and capital markets division had a good month because of lower interest rates and refinancings. The mystery, this source says, is what took them so long to cut the dividend.

Or maybe the "run more like a business" disciples mean the airline industry, where Northwest is looking at a merger with Delta. Except they both of them went bankrupt first. On second thought, maybe that is what it will take to consolidate city and county schools and governments -- for one of them to go bankrupt first.

On a brighter note, Pinnacle Airlines CEO Phil Trenary said the Memphis airport should be fine even if Northwest merges.

"We manufacture connections, and we can manufacture them at a lower cost than anyone else," Trenary said. "One misconception about our hub is that it is a weak hub. It was weak at one time. It is a small hub, but by having a mix of regional carriers and Northwest it has really changed the complexion and made it more successful financially."

Best Recycled Political Slogan for 2008: "It's the economy, stupid!"

Ethics in Gray Areas? In a Flyer interview last week, Shelby County Commissioner David Lillard talked about ethics in government. Here's my question: Obviously, if a commissioner or city council member has first-hand knowledge of criminal activity by a colleague then they should report it. But what about those gray areas? Should elected officials openly question their colleagues, or at least press them for more complete disclosure of potential conflicts?

Surely, Lillard and Diedre Malone had some knowledge of their colleague Bruce Thompson's consulting work that finally got him indicted in 2007. Thompson went so far as to get a letter from Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn on the matter.

I think Thompson's current legal problems could have been avoided by full disclosure and discussion of his arrangement with school contractors, including the ballpark amounts he was being paid and by whom. It would have been a tough thing to do, and might well have cost him the business, but it might have saved him some grief later on. But a collegial courtesy pass was ultimately no favor at all.

When reporters want to check an elected official's financial statements they fill out a form and the official is notified. Why not have the commission and council give the media preemptive notice as standard procedure when one of their own officially declares or seeks clarification of a conflict of interest?

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