Thursday, October 15, 2009

They've Been There

Dick Hackett and Jim Rout offer some advice to the new mayor.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Elsewhere in this issue, we Flyer staffers offer our two cents' worth to the new mayor. Dick Hackett and Jim Rout are former mayors who moved out of Memphis after leaving office but whose political instincts are still sharp. What do they think the next city mayor should do?

By way of introduction, Hackett, 60, is head of the Children's Museum of Memphis. He was elected mayor of Memphis in 1982 in a special election when he was just 33 years old. It was the end of the era of white men in suits. The majority of city council members were white males old enough to be his father, and none of them had active mayoral aspirations.

Rout, 67, is head of the Mid-South Fair. He was elected mayor of Shelby County in 1994 as the consensus Republican candidate in a crowded field of Democrats and independents in a Republican landslide year. He succeeded charismatic Bill Morris and preceded lawyerly A C Wharton, the odds-on favorite in Thursday's election.

The political landscape is different today. We have more mayoral churn than ever — probably three different city mayors in three months this year and possibly three different county mayors between next week and next September. We have more media exposure, debates, and commentary than ever. But fewer people care. Both Hackett and Rout predict Wharton will win and that the turnout could be half the 254,000 who voted in the 1982 special election. Memphians, says Hackett, "are apathetic about their own city." To Rout, Willie Herenton's resignation was the big story, and the election is anticlimactic.

Flyer: What advice would you give the next city mayor?

Hackett: "I think the interim mayor has the authority to start over and create their own staff and their own identity. Normally, you want to be aggressive with an abundance of caution. But these are not ordinary times. I had to be cautious. I was young, and if you really mishandled something you didn't have time to recoup. Now I don't think we have the time. It has to be a bold two years. We have to be aggressive, and I think that will be rewarded."

Rout: "If there was ever a time in the history of Memphis that we need a particularly strong vision, it is now. It is not business as usual. The problems of the economy, taxes and finance, crime, and school dropouts going to prison call for a clear vision of where somebody thinks they can take this community."

What is the easiest mistake for a new mayor to make?

Hackett: "Getting too wrapped up in the fanfare of being the mayor. Some people just can't handle that."

Rout: "I had 16 years on the county commission. I knew the budget inside out, but I had to learn to think like a mayor and not like a commissioner, to shift gears."

What was the best advice you got?

Hackett: "It came from [former Memphis mayor] Wyeth Chandler. Keep your sense of humor and be yourself. Don't let the job or the people around you change you. It sounds simple, but it's easy to allow that job to consume you in such a way that you try to be everything to everybody. I did not like the entourage part of being mayor. I was a husband and a dad too."

Rout: "You will never ever be as popular again as you are the night of the election, because when you start showing leadership and making decisions there are going to be people who are not going to go along with you."

Does consolidation have a chance in the next few years?

Hackett: "No. I don't think it can be pulled off. You almost have to write two years off because the unknown is the next county mayor and where they will stand on the issue."

Rout: "Not in the next few years or in my lifetime. As long as the law requires it to carry in both the city and the county outside the city of Memphis, it is going to be very difficult before credibility is reestablished. It is a huge waste of time and resources to continue to deal with this issue at this time given the other problems that we have."

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