Thursday, January 7, 2010

In “State of the City” address, Wharton Points the Way to His “One Memphis"

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Mayor Wharton at Kiwanis
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  • Mayor Wharton at Kiwanis
There was an overflow crowd on Wednesday when Mayor A C Wharton addressed the downtown Kiwanis Club at The Peabody. So many came to the Skyway to get the word that extra tables had to be set up. Everybody got served who wanted to be, but the desserts ran out in fairly short order.

Symbolically, that was just about right, since, for all the inspirational uplift of his address — and there was a good deal of that — the mayor made it clear that Memphians shouldn’t expect too many goodies right away. He didn’t dwell on the pending budget shortfall that may end up with either serious cuts or serious taxes, or some combination of both, but he didn’t brush it aside, either.

Wharton came armed with a 14-page prepared address, but he cut-and-pasted a-plenty and ad-libbed at will, rising to some of his best eloquence when he went off the page.

After citing as many of the Who’s Who types on hand as he could see or felt like acknowledging, he segued into a resounding passage: “We cannot wait for fortune to find us. We must find fortune. I’m here to tell you our boat will list in the sea no longer. Our course is charted. I am confident in our city’s future.”

And, after touching upon the usual high points in the city’s legacy — AutoZone, FedEx, Holiday Inn, St. Jude, and, latterly, the Broadway music “Memphis” — and listing such civic attributes as “a spirit of innovation, a hard work ethic, faith in God, and our faith in one another,” he stated bluntly, “We must stop being our own worst enemies.” Memphians, he said, “leave the ranks of those who bemoan what we once were and join the ranks of those who see what we can become.”

Wharton cited some of those Christmas Futures — “thriving” arts enterprises, the developing bio-med complex, the Chamber’s “Fast Forward” Plan which had created 3,000 jobs in a recession year, and — shades of University of Memphis athletic director R.J. Johnson — growth at Memphis International Airport, “the largest economic generator in the state of Tennessee.”

And the mayor noted that, on that very day, CNN, no less, had expressed interest in the city’s new policy of dealing with bad weather by restoring power to those MLGW customers who had defaulted on their bills. The “city of compassion” had committed itself to the proposition that “you will not suffer tonight.”

He also mentioned — intriguingly but without elaboration — “transformative” possibilities for The Pyramid and The Fairgrounds.

But — there was crime and poverty and this line from the mayor’s advance text: “I am talking about the lack of opportunities and lack of trust that have driven a generation of men and women out of our city because they did not feel Memphis had what they needed, nor did we appreciate what they had to offer.”

There was a fine balance to that, as there was to the address as a whole — much of which was directed to the members of “an ascendant generation” of Memphians.

“I will never, ever, ever succumb to the nation that poverty leads to crime…that if you’re poor, you’re going to resort to crime,” Wharton said. The poor have “the same values, the same dreams, the same aspirations” as their better-off fellow citizens. But, he conceded, poverty created a “milieu” that could tempt deprived young people into misdeeds.

Crime being a reality, Wharton pledged that the city would be unstinting in his effort to preserve public safety, and he mentioned “a number of initiatives” to combat crime. He promised a “study,” a “fresh look,” some means of getting “illegal guns off the street.”

But: “Young people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law need their freedom once they have paid their debt to society.” Without some effort to redress the wrongs of the “milieu” from which they came and to which they return, “they never leave the jail.” As one remedy, the mayor proposed to find more jobs, and to freely use tax incentives and other tools to do so. He was, as he noted, conducting a “jobs forum” at the Ben Hooks Library that very afternoon.

He gave lip service, and maybe more, to an old goal. “For some time, it is no secret, I have been advocating for a consolidated, metropolitan form of government.” He still would be, he assured his audience, in the interests of efficiency. “We can eliminate the needless, wasteful bureaucracy that deters good companies and good jobs from making Memphis their home.”

On the basis of a recent conversation with Vice President Biden, Wharton held out the promise of new money headed “straight to the city.” He knew how to use it, to build a new river wall, say, to put roofers, carpenters, and painters back to work, so long as the funds came to Memphis and not to Atlanta or Nashville. He didn’t “need a regional director in Atlanta, Georgia, “nor do I need a governor” to dole out the funds or tell him how to use them.

That was an evocation of an old quarrel, dating from his tenure as county mayor, that Wharton has had with the concept of money being routed through Nashville at the discretion of Governor Bredesen. He lashed out at the very notion of “from-the-top-down” controls over stimulus funds. Help should be routed “from Main Street up and not from Wall Street down,” he said.

Highlights of the brief Q and A that followed his remarks included a pledge to give “serious thought to not giving pay raises in the coming year,” coupled with a vow not to “take back” raises already given.” Though the tax increases he requested have been stonewalled by the council, he felt optimistic about finding “some constructive opportunities for dealing with our debt, anyhow.”

Wharton called for better and strictly enforced spay and neuter laws, and he answered a question about neglect and worse at the Animal Shelter by opining that “we give ourselves a false sense of relief when we fire people when we have not yet fired up our consciences.”

The mayor had concluded his formal remarks with an “appeal to our people, to the best in them and not to the worst in them, to find the things that bring them together,” to help bring about the “One Memphis”of his campaign rhetoric.

He had promised to get the ship of state moving, that it would “list in the sea no longer.” It was clear from the generally enthusiastic reception to his remarks that he would be given the benefit of the doubt to do just that.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New York Times: Harold Ford Jr. Ready to Run for the Senate in New York

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 9:00 PM

The Good Grey Lady has spoken; so it must be true, right? According to the New York Times, former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., a de facto resident of the Empire State since losing a U.S. Senate race in 2006, is poised to try again for the Senate — only this time from New York.

Times writer Michael Barbara, in a piece datelined January 5, alleges that “[a]bout a dozen high-profile Democrats have expressed interest in backing a candidacy by Mr. Ford…” Among those mentioned by name are Richard Piepler, co-president of HBO, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Barbaro states outright,” To test the viability of a candidacy, Mr. Ford is trying to line up a network of major donors across the state in the weeks ahead.” Ford would be entering this fall’s Democratic primary to challenge the incumbent, former congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, who earned an appointment to the seat of former Senator Hillary Clinton after Clinton resigned to become Secretary of State.

One problem that the erstwhile Tennessean, Merrill Lynch rainmaker, and current head of the Democratic Leadership Council may face is touched upon by Barbaro: “The state’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, has been aggressively elbowing out potential primary challengers to Ms. Gillibrand.”

Barbaro points out that “New Yorkers are unusually welcoming to political newcomers,” but also notes, “Mr. Ford, who lives in Manhattan, represented a conservative Southern state and, if he runs, may himself have to adjust some of his positions, like his opposition to same-sex marriage, to appeal to New York voters."

GOP's White, Independent Andreuccetti Stage Lively District 83 Forum

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 2:05 AM

White (left) and Andreccetti at LWV Forum
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  • White (left) and Andreccetti at LWV Forum
Whatever scheduling conflict suddenly occurred to Guthrie Castle, Democratic candidate for the vacant state House seat in District 83, it surely came as a surprise to several of his party-mates who showed up for a League of Women Voters forum Monday night, only to discover that Castle hadn’t.

For the record, Castle communicated with LWV president Peg Watkins at 3:30 Monday afternoon with an apology for having to skip the showdown with Republican opponent Mark White that he’d accepted some days before.

“He said he was very interested in having dialogue with citizens, but he had a conflict in his schedule that he couldn’t rearrange,” Watkins dutifully informed the audience at Germantown Municipal Center just before show-time.

The show went on, however, when independent candidate John Andreuccetti turned up. White, evidently anxious to have a debate with somebody, had called up Andreucetti on his cell phone to make sure he’d be on hand; Andreuccetti actually took the call on his way into the building.

The several Democrats present, most of them from the Germantown Democratic Club, were not eager to disparage their man for a no-show, but they made little effort to hide their disappointment (or, in one or two cases, their skepticism about the “conflict” in Castle’s schedule).

Several of them made a point afterward of commending businessman Andreuccetti, who was dependably conservative for the most part and genuinely independent, “sick of” both Republicans and Democrats, as he put it. But on a few key positions — notably the pro-choice side of the abortion issue and an aversion to the “ludicrous” guns-in-bars bill passed last year by a GOP-dominated legislature — Andreuccetti expressed positions the Democrats clearly found gratifying.

This was the second time in a few short months that the League had been unable to arrange a candidate debate so as to fulfill its stated mission “to expand citizen participation in the election process and in federal, state, and local government decision making.”

Brian Kelsey, the Republican who ultimately won a special election for state Senate District 31 on December 1st, had previously declined to participate in a would-be League forum with Democratic opponent Adrienne Pakis-Gillon. Now Democrat Castle’s last-minute dropout seemed to leave the League high and dry once more

But the consensus of those present, regardless of party, was that White and Andreuccetti had both acquitted themselves well, with neither sounding particularly knee-jerk or doctrinaire. White seemed very much on his game in his espousal of positions that were pro-business and opposed to an excess of government oversight. And he, too, was dubious about the guns-in-bars bill.

So spirited, frank, and genuinely dialectical was the discussion Monday night, in fact, that Castle’s absence seemed less and less important as the evening wore on — a fact that. may not, on the whole, augur well for his campaign.

The District 83 special election is scheduled for next Tuesday, January 12.

Monday, January 4, 2010

John Wilder’s Fellow Citizens Bid Him Adieu

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2010 at 1:07 AM

An honor guard of state police and testimony from former House Speaker Jimmy Naifh (inset, top) and others were highlights of Sunday's funeral service for John Wilder.
  • JB
  • An honor guard of state police and testimony from former House Speaker Jimmy Naifh (inset, top) and others were highlights of Sunday's funeral service for John Wilder.

For a short while on Sunday afternoon, Peebles Fayette County Funeral Home, a modestly sized structure just inside the Somerville city limits, about a 15-minute drive from Memphis, was the political center of the state.

Tennessee’s ranking officials — state and federal — were all there to pay homage to the late John Shelton Wilder, the former state senator who had held title to the office of lieutenant governor for 36 of his 88 years and to the affections of his fellow citizens, even those who opposed him politically, for at least as long. A goodly host of common folk were on hand to demonstrate the fact.

For what seemed a half-mile in each direction, two of the highway’s three lanes were closed off to provide parking space for the multitudes who came by on Wilder’s behalf. Many of them, fearing there was no room inside the funeral home’s chapel, signed the book, paid their respects to the patriarch’s survivors, shook a few hands, and left. But several hundred wedged themselves inside for an hour-long service that had as much gladness as grief to it.

Gladness, because all who spoke at the service, including some who came in with the heaviest of hearts, told wonderful stories about the legendary Wilder, outlandish but true tales, not tall at all, that generated glee and appreciation and convulsed the attendees with laughter.

There was Jimmy Naifeh of nearby Covington, for example, the still-serving state representative and a long-serving Speaker of the House in his own right, who recalled being flown back from Nashville by Wilder one night in a raging monsoon. That flight, like all back-and-forths between Wilder’s West Tennessee home and the state capital, was effected in a single-engine aircraft known as “Jaybird,” which by this time had come to seem every bit as venerable as the Speaker himself.

Fearing that Wilder intended to land the plane in the grassy field near his Fayette County homestead in Longtown, a nervous Naifeh hopefully suggested that they continue on just a tad further to a bona fide structured airfield at Arlington. Wilder, as Naifeh noted, would on some occasions do just that.

But not this time. As Naifeh recounted, in the pidgin-English that he often spoke, pilot Wilder said, “Uh uh, Jimmy, Jaybird want to go home!” And so they splashed down in what amounted to a marsh, throwing hunks of grass and torrents of water everywhere. But getting there, after all, in one piece.

And another longtime intimate, former state Attorney General Paul Summers, told a rain story of his own. He and Wilder were driving to a West Tennessee town for some campaigning when a downpour started. The lieutenant governor promptly emptied out a paper sack containing some campaign materials and began folding the bag.

Summers asked what Wilder was doing. “Making a hat,” the Speaker replied. When Summers remonstrated in horror that it would “look funny” for Wilder to go campaigning that way, the reply he got was, “I don’t care. It’ll keep my head dry.” And, sure enough, when Wilder disembarked, he was wearing the paper hat and kept on wearing it while passing out campaign cards and introducing himself as “your lieutenant governor” or “your state senator” or what-not.

Those were just two stories of many such that got told. But while Wilder was surely a character, he was clearly much more than that. The first reminiscence on Sunday had come from the Rev. Ralph Duncan, a steadfast friend who, when he first met Wilder, was a young member of the state House, a Republican, who was being groomed to oppose the Democratic senator for reelection.

Duncan told of being summoned to Wilder’s inner sanctum at the state Capitol on the pretense of discussing a “codification bill” that he’d basically never heard of. (Wilder would later confide to his prospective election adversary, “I just wanted to see you up close, size you up.”)

There would be no race between the two, however. In the course of that brief interview, Duncan said, he experienced an “epiphany.” He perceived in Wilder a depth of feeling and intellect and faith that convinced him that “this is God’s man,” and he would tell his party mates that he would not run against God’s man. (The substitute candidate who did would lose, though that race, in 1980, was the closest shave candidate Wilder ever had.)

Wilder was an artful politician, who was able during his 36-year run as lieutenant governor, to defuse two organized coups against him from his fellow Democrats — in the course of which challenges he would make the Senate a truly bipartisan chamber, winning his many subsequent reelections to the Speakership from a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. He was also an early exponent of civil rights, from a part of the state that was, back then, not exactly rife with such lower-case democrats.

And he was, as State Representative Johnny Shaw pointed out, someone who would never speak the phrase “I’ll get back to you” when asked to deal with a matter but would get moving on it right then and there. In the case of a road repair Shaw asked about, the Speaker had officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation in his office within minutes, promising, and actually planning, to take care of it.

Several of the speakers Sunday reminisced about that famous pidgin English of Wilder’s — replete with idoms like “The Senate is the Senate. The Senate is good” and with talk about the “cosmos” which, as Rev. Duncan pointed out, often “left journalists scratching their heads.”

A personal disclosure: I once got invited to lunch by Wilder and spent the better part of an hour listening to a discourse on the aforementioned cosmos — one that made perfect sense to me, as someone who’d logged several years in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a participant in conferences and enterprises that were holistic in nature. Wilder’s sense of the universal connectedness of things was detailed, well grounded both scientifically and spiritually, and nothing short of profound. Whatever some may have thought, the man was nobody’s fool.

And that obscure-sounding baby talk of his was easy enough to understand as his version of political evasiveness while he took the time to make up his mind about something or while preparing this or that action which would turn out to be quite precise and resolute.

As 9th District congressman Steve Cohen — a Wilder loyalist during Cohen’s tenure as state senator — made it clear over the weekend, there was scarcely a project that got taken care of in Tennessee during Wilder’s several decades in power without his having a major hand in it. In the case of Shelby County, that would mean The Med and the National Civil Rights Museum and exspanded facilities at the University of Memphis among myriad other examples.

And one thing they all agreed on who spoke Sunday: Nobody else, ever again, is going to come down the pike with anything like Wilder’s durability in state government or with influence so widespread and lasting.

To appropriate the man’s own lingo: John Wilder was John Wilder. And John Wilder was good.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cohen Gives Congress an 'A' for 2009

Posted By on Sat, Jan 2, 2010 at 2:07 AM

Cohen at prayer breakfast
  • JB
  • Cohen at prayer breakfast
Calling 2009 “the most historic year of Congress ever,” 9th district U.S. Representative Steve Cohen cited a series of legislative milestones Friday as the keynote speaker at city councilman Myron Lowery’s annual New Year’s Prayer Breakfast at the airport Holiday Inn Select.

Among the achievements listed by Cohen were: the Lily Ledbetter Law, mandating equal pay for women in the marketplace; hate crimes legislation, and credit card reform. Cohen said that Congress, acting with the White House, had “kept the economy from going off the precipice” with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Though he acknowledged some dissatisfaction with the Senate’s version of pending health-care legislation, the congressman devoted some time to toting up what he regarded as the better points of the likely bill, including the elimination of prior-illness restrictions on health-insurance coverage, provision for more community health centers, and extending coverage for dependents to the 27th birthday.

Cohen lashed out at congressional Republicans for their virtually unanimous opposition to the health-care bill. “The Republicans want to beat Barack Obama, They want to do anything they can to beat this president,” he said. “They want the White House, and we are not going to give it to them.”

While Cohen offered praise in general for the first year of the Obama administration, he said he had reservations about the degree of support he should give the president’s policy in Afghanistan and asked for guidance from his constituents so he could “make the right decision” for his district. “It’s difficult to put money into war when you’ve got problems at home,” he said.

Among his personal initiatives during the last year, Cohen listed his sponsorship of a bill authorizing a study of infant mortality and his proposal for a Fair Employment for All bill which would prohibit using credit scores to deny employment. He promised that appointments of a new VA administrator locally and a new U.S. attorney were imminent.

Cohen also said coyly that he had a “suspicion” that President and Mrs. Obama would be visiting the district in the near future. That, of course, would be a boon for his reelection bid, though he did not say so. When asked after his speech, the congressman was also somewhat reticent about making forecasts concerning his forthcoming primary contest with former Mayor Willie Herenton.

As usual, the Cohen wit got a workout. At one point, commenting on the fact that Senate was “working” on its version of a labor bill, the congressman cracked, “I know that sounds like an oxymoron,”

And, early in his remarks, commenting on Thursday’s victory by the University of Tennessee basketballers over the University of Memphis, Cohen said, “UT may have beat the University of Memphis at Memphis, but when they play the University of Memphis at Lexington, they’ll get beat.” That, of course, was a reference to the mass migration of Tiger recruits to the University of Kentucky along with former UM coach John Calipari.

On a more serious note, Cohen paid tribute to “my friend” John Wilder, the venerable former Tennessee lieutenant governor who died at Baptist Memorial Hospital East early Friday after suffering a stroke. In addition to his tribute to Wilder as such (see story), Cohen said that Wilder’s death, at 88, had in one respect been a blessing.

“After his stroke, he would not have been John Wilder,” Cohen said. “He would not have been able to walk. He would not have been able to talk. He wouldn’t have been able to ride his bike. That wouldn’t have been John Wilder.”

    • Filling in the Blanks

      Gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s platform for Memphis remains somewhat inspecific, but he’s got a start on it. Meanwhile, he's wasting no time putting his local network together.

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