Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tomeka Hart to Challenge Cohen in 9th District

Urban League head and MSC Board member could be congressman's toughest opponent.

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 3:19 PM

Tomeka Hart
  • Tomeka Hart
“I haven’t filed yet, but I plan to.” With those words, texted to the Flyer on Tuesday, Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart confirmed persistent recent rumors that she intended to challenge 9th District congressman Steve Cohen in the 2012 Democratic primary.

Cohen himself had taken note of the likelihood during an interview earlier this month in Washington. At the time he had not identified his prospective opponent by name, except to say that he expected organized opposition and that his challenger would be a well-known African-American woman.

That definition certainly fits Hart, the executive director of the Memphis Urban League and, with fellow MCS board member Martavius Jones, the leader in last year’s vote to surrender the MCS charter, thereby setting in motion the pending merger of MCS with Shelby County Schools.

“It’s all set,” Cohen said, indicating that his then unnamed opponent would be drawing on sources of support similar to those which had opposed him in his previous congressional races in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

“They’re going to try to revive the idea of a ‘consensus black candidate,'” predicted Cohen, who said that was the tack taken in such campaigns as those of independent Jake Ford in 2006 and Democratic candidates Nikki Tinker and Willie Herenton in 2008 and 2010, respectively. All these challenges fell significantly short, the last two being on the short end of 4 to 1 outcomes.

“It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now,” the congressman said confidently. “My track record is clear, that I have faithfully represented the African-American community, and the results show that the voters know that.”

Hart, a lawyer, was elected to the MCS Board in 2004, defeating longtime incumbent Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge. She served as the Board President from January 2008-June 2009.

Friday, May 27, 2011

In Quick Turnaround, Kyle Files Bill to Repeal Anti-Discrimination Ban

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Jim Kyle during debate last Saturday
  • Jim Kyle during debate last Saturday
As the metaphor has it, the fat lady has sung — which is to say, the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly came to an end on Saturday — but she may have a few unexpected extra verses to warble.

In addition to several bills that were shelved or left hanging — the “innovative school districts” bill that had troubled the Shelby County Commission, the Don’t Say Gay bill of state Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), among others — some bills that did get through are already being revisited.

There is, for example, the very real probability that a bill intended to cut Planned Parenthood out of the loop for federal Title X family-planning funds was nullified by add-on language that is just now coming to light. A provision was added (or retained, against the wishes of sponsor Campfield) stating that the defunding provision “shall not be construed to supersede applicable provisions of federal and state law." Meaning, the status quo on Title X funding shall be observed.

And another controversial measure, HB600, banning anti-discrimination ordinances by local jurisdictions, is sure to be challenged early in the next legislative session. State Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Senate’s Democratic leader, has already filed legislation designed to repeal that measure, which drew intense last-minute opposition from several major Tennessee industries, including FedEx of Memphis.

In signing HB600 into law, Governor Bill Haslam had said the business opposition had come too late to affect his judgment. Acknowledging that “the business community was late to the party,” Kyle said the new law was still “worth a second look.”

Gay and lesbian activists had lobbied extensively against HB600, and much of the business opposition was in the context of author Richard Florida’s thesis that economic innovation is largely dependent on the input of a “creative class,” which includes gays, high tech specialists, and other heterodox types.

Kyle said that reaction from constituents in Memphis Shelby County, where anti-discrimination ordinances were still being actively considered, had also prompted his filing the bill.

Monday, May 23, 2011

GADFLY: Boo! Armageddon Came and Went and We're Still Here!

So what does that tell you about these Biblical endtime prophets?

Posted By on Mon, May 23, 2011 at 6:02 PM

If you're reading this, I suppose you should rejoice that the end of the world didn't happen last Saturday, as the kooky, self-professed prophet of doom, Harold Camping, the octogenarian televangelist who made a similar prediction in 1994, prophesied. Congratulations for being a survivor, and, more importantly, for not buying into this goofball's apocalyptic scenario.

Camping's not the first, and he undoubtedly won't be the last, to confidently predict the end of the world. I'm reminded of the New Yorker cartoon showing a Christ-like figure holding a sign that reads “The End Is Near” chanting, as he walks down a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, to the obvious alarm of his fellow pedestrians, “10-9-8-7...” Remember the Heaven's Gate episode of the 90's? In that one, dozens of believers committed mass suicide because they bought into the prediction, brought on by the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, that the earth's demise was imminent, but that they would be saved/resurrected by an alien spacecraft supposedly flying behind that comet.

If you think that's fanciful, you're obviously not familiar with the precepts of a couple modern-day, broadly accepted, so-called religions, whose tenets aren't far removed from that kind of inanity. It's enough to make a rational person wonder whether there's anything that's presented as biblically-based, as Camping's prediction supposedly was, that wouldn't be accepted by a credulous, religion-besotted public that has long since replaced what passes as “faith” for science or common sense. But, I digress. Back to doomsday predictions.

If you think this most recent prediction of Armageddon was absurd (aside: knock, knock; who's there; Armageddon; Armageddon who; Armageddon tired of these stupid Armageddon predictions), ask yourself where you were on Monday, December 3rd, 1990. If you were anywhere near Memphis, you should remember a prediction of localized annihilation by a self -professed climatologist, (my disdain for whose practitioners has been well documented in comments I posted in memphisflyer.com in connection with the recent flood) named Iben Browning.

Browning confidently predicted a “major” earthquake (7 on the Richter Scale or greater—-the 2010 Haiti earthquake was a 7) along the New Madrid fault that would rival the one in February, 1812, during which the Mississippi River flowed backward and Reelfoot Lake was formed.

Unlike Camping, whose earlier, similar, prediction fizzled, Browning claimed (dubiously, as it turns out) accuracy in predicting the Mt. St. Helens eruption, as well as the Mexico City quake of 1985 and the Loma Prieta (California) quake of 1989. The surprising thing is how generally-accepted this charlatan's prediction became. The town of New Madrid, Missouri was inundated by journalists from around the world, prompting one resident to say he was more concerned about being run over by one of the dozens of media trucks that suddenly swamped the area than by any earthquake, while the local media in Memphis ginned up a combination of fear and anticipation about the imminence of the earthquake the likes of which had never been seen before and, thankfully, hasn't since.

Offices in Memphis closed and many workers spent time in basement shelters in anticipation of the event. Schools in four states shut down, earthquake insurance became unobtainable, flashlights and bottled water (which had yet to achieve cult-like status) were sold out, and people left the area in droves. All of that for a prediction that wasn't even biblically based. Admit it: if you were here, you probably bought into the prediction to some extent, even if you didn't prepare for your inevitable demise. So, should we be surprised that as many people as did bought into Mr. Camping's prediction, especially when, for so many, the Bible trumps science?

Dr. Browning died a few short months after his bogus prediction, probably from sheer disappointment, and while it would be cruel to wish the same fate for Mr. Camping, one can only hope he has learned his lesson, and will never be heard from, ever again. But is there any doubt some other false prophet will come along to take his place, or that some religioholics among us will credit the next yahoo who predicts yet another doomsday based on biblical certitude? Heaven help us. I hope not.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

House Democrats Laud Haslam, Look Askance at Ramsey

The governor "worked with us," Turner says, while "the cowboy down the hall" got most of what he wanted, "to the detriment of the state."

Posted By on Sat, May 21, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Turner (seated) and Fitzhugh in action during session
  • Turner (seated) and Fitzhugh in action during session
Speaking to reporters in Nashville during an end-of-session press conference Saturday, Tennessee House of Representatives minority leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Democratic caucus leader Mike Turner of Nashville found positives as well as negatives to talk about regarding the GOP-dominated legislative session coming to an end.

After Fitzhugh had enumerated a list of programs Republican Governor Bill Haslam had been instrumental in funding or restoring — public TV, extended unemployment benefits, disaster relief, TennCare services among them — Turner said, “The governor worked with us. He went out of his way to try to listen to us. He tried to accommodate us on everything we asked. Some things he couldn’t get there on, but he bent over backwards.”

Both Turner and Fitzhugh referred to Haslam as “a good person” — Turner going so far as to say, “Maybe he’s above partisan politics a little bit.” The Democratic caucus leader said, "His problem is not with us, but with [Lt. Governor Ron] Ramsey and the Senate."

The two leaders’ estimate of Lt. Governor/Senate Speaker Ramsey was less than rosy. Indirectly referencing an image from last year’s TV commercials for Ramsey, then a GOP candidate for governor, Turner called the ranking Republican parliamentary leader “the cowboy down the hall,” contrasting him with Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and GOP House majority leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, both “good people.”

Turner repeated an evaluation of the session he had made a day earlier: “Ramsey wins. He got most of what he wanted, to the detriment of the state.” He said the Republicans offered no jobs legislation and suppressed attempts by the Democrats to provide such bills.

Both Democratic leaders lamented what Fitzhugh called “the attack upon teachers, certainly not a good way to end the session.” The reference was to a Conference Report bill, close to Ramsey’s own original version of a bill to ban collective bargaining by public school teachers, that was passed early Saturday. The bill eliminates the collective bargaining role long held by the Tennessee Education Association and substitutes a “collaborative conferencing” arrangement involving multiple organizations, with school boards having the final say in disputed matters.

Fitzhugh repeated an observation made earlier by “one of my Senate colleagues” [State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga} that Tennessee had gone from “Race to the Top” last year to “Dive to the Bottom” this year.

Fitzhugh and Turner agreed that Republicans inheriting one-sided power in the legislature after last year’s elections had suffered what Turner called “culture shock.”

Elaborating, Turner said, “Early on, they might take our advice. They didn’t know what they were doing.“ Later on, relations turned partisan and rancorous but, in Fitzhugh’s opinion, had become more harmonious with consideration of the budget. “It [the rancor] tended to return with the teachers’ [issue},” Turner said. And Fitzhugh concurred.

President Cites Model of Booker T. Washington High School in Weekly Radio Address

Obama says the Memphis school's achievements suggest a better route to educational progress than No Child Left Behind.

Posted By on Sat, May 21, 2011 at 10:31 AM

President Obama giving his weekly radio address, Saturday, May 21
  • President Obama giving his weekly radio address, Saturday, May 21
President Obama used the occasion of his weekly radio address Saturday to cite Memphis' Booker T. Washington High School, which he visited on Monday to deliver the school's commencement address, as a model to the nation for educational change, away from the example of No Child Left Behind.

The President's remarks, in full:

This week, I went to Memphis, Tennessee, where I spoke to the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School. Graduations are always happy occasions. But this commencement was especially hopeful — because of just how much the kids at Booker T. Washington High School had overcome.

This is a school in the middle of a tough neighborhood in South Memphis. There’s a lot of crime. There’s a lot of poverty. And just a few years ago, only about half of the students at the school graduated. Just a handful went off to college each year.

But folks came together to change all that. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal and devoted teachers, they started special academies for ninth graders — because they found that that’s when a lot of kids were lost. They made it possible for students to take AP classes or vocational courses. Most importantly, they didn’t just change the curriculum; they created a culture that prizes hard work and discipline, and that shows every student that they matter.

Today, four out five students at the school earn a diploma. 70 percent continue their education, many the first in their families to go to college. So Booker T. Washington High School is no longer a story about what’s gone wrong in education. It’s a story about how we can set it right.

We need to encourage this kind of change all across America. We need to reward the reforms that are driven not by Washington, but by principals and teachers and parents. That’s how we’ll make progress in education — not from the top down, but from the bottom up. And that’s the guiding principle of the Race to the Top competition my administration started two years ago.

The idea is simple: if states show that they’re serious about reform, we’ll show them the money. And it’s already making a difference throughout the country. In Tennessee, where I met those students, they’ve launched an innovative residency program so that new teachers can be mentored by veteran educators. In Oregon, Michigan and elsewhere, grants are supporting the work of teachers who are lengthening the school day, offering more specialized classes, and making the changes necessary to improve struggling schools.

Our challenge now is to allow all fifty states to benefit from the success of Race to the Top. We need to promote reform that gets results while encouraging communities to figure out what’s best for their kids. That why it’s so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year — so schools have that flexibility. Reform just can’t wait.

And if anyone doubts this, they ought to head to Booker T. Washington High. They ought to meet the inspiring young people who overcame so much, and worked so hard, to earn their diplomas — in a school that believed in their promise and gave them the opportunity to succeed. We need to give every child in America that chance. That’s why education reform matters.

Thanks for listening, and have a great weekend.

Does the Neutered Version of Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Actually Liberalize Sex Education?

Key Democrats in the state Senate maintain that, as rewritten in the Senate version that passed Friday, it does just that, repealing old prohibitions.

Posted By on Sat, May 21, 2011 at 8:44 AM

Stacey Campfield
  • Stacey Campfield
Has legislative outlier Stacey Campfield, whose success rate in getting his bills passed is one of the lowest ever, finally broken through — but in a way contrary to what the state Senator from Knoxville intended?

Take the history of Campfield’s pet bill for the legislative session destined to end this weekend: SB 049, notorious throughout the Western world as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — which would, in the language of itrs original caption, “prohibit…the teaching of or furnishing of materials on human sexuality other than heterosexuality in public schools grades K-8.”

For a legislator who, as a House member, offered such bills as one requiring the issuing of official death certificates in the case of abortions, “Don’t Say Gay” was arguably subdued. But the bill kicked up a storm of public outrage and garnered ridicule — for the state and the legislature — from the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and pundits galore.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian organizations and mainstream civil liberties groups saw the bill as no laughing matter.

As the chronology of developments concerning SB049 on the General Assembly website makes clear, the bill pursued an erratic course through the 2011 session, continually being placed on hold, one way or another.

And it is evident from the linked video clips of formal discussion provided by the site that Campfield and his bill were a source of discomfort, even for the legislature’s new conservative leadership.

As the Senate kept kicking the can down the road, the House didn’t even bother doing that. Assigned to the House General Education subcommittee after its filing back in February, the House version never got off the shelf for any kind of discussion thereafter.

But finally on Friday, May 20, the last full day of actual legislating, SB 049 got its day in court after innumerable deferrals. It actually got voted on in the Senate and was passed, 19-11.

The end of Western Civilization as we have known it? Not really. The bill was significantly amended. No longer does it ban the mention of homosexuality per se. Now it merely restricts classroom instruction in grades K through 8 to “natural human reproduction science.”

Making the best of his situation, Campfield professed to be satisfied, saying the revised bill would achieve the same ends he had in mind. But others disagree. As the clear-minded iconoclast Jeff Woods noted in Nashville’s City Paper, “Democrats argued the amendment actually liberalizes state law, which now makes it a misdemeanor to teach any kind of sex education before the ninth grade.”

And Woods quoted state Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga), one of the legislature’s foremost remaining liberal lights, to the end that “the bill would essentially overturn a 40-year-old state law that prohibits the teaching of sex education in the early grades.”

Said Berke: “We have been steadfast in our desire to say that we should not have age-inappropriate material in grades K-8, going so far as to make that a criminal misdemeanor if you violate that. What we’re doing here is passing something just to pass it, which will actually allow people to teach this.” [our italics.]

Asked by the Flyer what his own take was, Democratic Senate leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) concurred. “Andy’s right. He’s a knowledgeable lawyer, and I trust his judgment. For the first time ever, you now have a law that says you can teach sex education in kindergarten.”

So, can it really be that Stacey Campfield has got a modicum of movement, only to discover that his bill, should it ever pass the House in some future session (and that’s anything but a slam dunk), actually legitimizes the very kinds of things he set out to prohibit?


Friday, May 20, 2011

Legislature in Mad Dash to Go Up or Down on Key Bills as Session Nears End

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:30 PM

UPDATE: House passes conference report that substitutes "collaborative conferencing" (whatever that is) for teachers' right to collectively bargain. Details to follow in separate post.

State Senator Herron inveighing against tort reform measure
  • State Senator Herron inveighing against "tort reform" measure
The Tennessee General Assembly has entered, groggy and feeling over-burdened, into what is certain to be its last few days of the 2011 legislative session. Members’ original hope was to finish up with business by at least Saturday, but last-minute actions on bills and appropriations may continue through Monday or Tuesday.

As a measure of the fatigue induced in members of the House of Representatives by a marathon session Thursday, devoted largely to debate on a bill concerning the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers, there was this inadvertent double entendre by the House Finance chairman, Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Franklin), as he urged members to remain accessible during a blizzard of late-night committee meetings:

““So, please make yourselves very liquid tonight, and bear with us timewise.”

(Or maybe, in a legislative environment famous for late-night tippling, the double entendre was intended, after all.)

The teachers’ collective bargaining bill (HB130 in the House version, SB113 in the Senate version) remained up for grabs as debate began Friday morning in the House. At issue was whether the “compromise” House version passed late Thursday, providing for a modicum of collective bargaining, would prevail, or whether the harsher Senate version, abolishing all collective bargaining, would.

Meeting on Thursday evening, the Senate, on party-line votes, rejected the milder House amendments, returning the sterner bill to the House, which had to decide on a version to accept. A conference-committee version was looking more likely.

Needing only the formal House ratification of a modest Senate amendment, a “tort reform” bill to establish caps on jury awards in medical-malpractice and personal-injury cases, seemed certain to achieve final passage Friday.

The bill, pushed as a “jobs” measure by proponents (on the theory of removing disincentives for small businesses and new industry) provides a ceiling of $750,000 on “non-economic” or quality-of-life awards, and one of $500,000 on punitive damages. In “catastrophic “ cases, such as injuries leading to quadriplegia, third-degree burns over much of the body, or loss of two limbs, the maximum non-economic limit would be raised to $1 million.

In vain did state Senator Roy Herron (D-Dresden) point out during debate in his chamber that the maximum cap would allot, assuming a full life-span, only $29 dollars a day in the actual case of a young women whose injuries resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic. The bill was also opposed from afar by Tennessee's former Republican U.S. Senator, FredThompson.

Surprisingly, the Senate, which had been putting off action on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill of state Senator Stacey Campfield, passed a modified version of the measure Friday morning so that it no longer makes reference to homosexuality per se but bans any “teaching in grades kindergarten through eight of anything involving sexuality unless it relates to natural human reproduction science."

In reality, Campfield’s bill, modified or otherwise, is dead for the session, since the House Education subcommittee, which long ago concluded its business for the year, shelved the bill in February. (See also Bianca Phillips' take.)

As the legislature heads into its Last Roundup, other notorious bills have either been seriously modified or knocked off track altogetgher.

• The “Sharia Bill,” SB 1028 (Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro), shorn of references to Islam or any other religion and now called the Material Support to Designated Entities Act, was up for votes Friday in both Senate and House. As written it would regulate proven “security threats” as determined by the state Attrorney General’s office.

• The “Creationist Bill,” HB 368 (Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville), which presumes to guarantee “critical thinking” in the classroom on issues like evolution and climate, passed the House some weeks ago but was taken off notice in the Senate.

• The Voucher or “Equal Educational Opportunity” Bill, SB0485 (Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown), which would provide public funds for designated low-income students to attend private schools, passed the Senate but was relegated to “summer study” by the House Education Suibcommittee, in one of its last acts.

• Likely to pass the Senate on Friday, after passage by the House, was the controversial “Innovative School District Bill, “ (SB0252, Senator Jamie Woodson) which would fix the boundaries of any school district gaining such status, thereby potentially providing Shelby County’s suburbs, nervous about the pending merger of Shelby Country Schools with Memphis City Schools, with one more — and a decidedly quicker — way to dodge that bullet.

• And the bill to ban the passage of anti-discrimination workplace measures by local jurisdiction (HB600, Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin) has already passed both chambers and awaits action by Governor Bill Haslam.

(Expect UPDATEs as legislative situation clarifies over the weekend.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whalum Makes Election Plans; Ritz Sizes Up Chairman's Race

Posted By on Thu, May 19, 2011 at 12:28 PM

Whalum; Ritz
  • Whalum; Ritz
  • • Regardless of what happens to Memphis City Schools (the very existence of which is one of the matters at issue in the current school-merger federal trial), you will have firebrand MCS Board member Kenneth Whalum to kick around some more — at least for an election cycle.

    Whalum told the Flyer this week he intended to pull a petition from the Election Commission for the District 4 City Council seat currently held by Wanda Halbert or the Super District 8 seat now held by council chairman Myron Lowery.

    ”Or I might run for mayor,” Whalum said.

    UPDATE: In following through on his intentions, Whalum has apparently pulled a petition to run against chairman Lowery, as indicated, and one for mayor, as also suggested, but, instead of pulling a petition for Halbert's District 4 seat, Whalum has apparently drawn a petition to run in Super District 9 against incumbent Shea Flinn.

  • • Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz tells the Flyer that, contrary to our earlier report, he is not to be counted among the potential supporters of either of the two active candidates for the next chairmanship cycle — current vice chair Mike Carpenter or current chair Sidney Chism.

    ”I told Sidney that I wouldn’t be supporting his effort to repeat his chairmanship and upset the traditional rotation between Democrats and Republicans,” said Republican Ritz.

    Chism is a Democrat, and tradition would hold that vice chair Carpenter, a Republican, would rotate into the chairmanship. But Ritz is opposed to Carpenter, as well. “I have made it clear that I couldn’t support Mike for the chairmanship,” said Ritz, who, like four other Republican commissioners, chose not to support Carpenter’s vice-chairmanship bid last year.

    Carpenter has often voted independently of the other GOP members on key issues and won the vice-chairmanship on the basis of his own vote plus that of the commission’s Democrats. As Ritz notes, Carpenter’s chance of reassembling that coalition seem difficult to impossible as a result of Chism’s own active campaign for a second consecutive term.

    ”I don’t see how either he or Sidney can get enough votes to win,” Ritz opined. Was he himself entertaining the notion of seeking the chairmanship as a substitute for Carpenter in the party-rotation cycle?

    ”Not without a commitment of enough votes in advance. Been there and done that.” Ritz said, apropos his hopes of winning the vice-chairmanship in the previous round. The vote for the 2011-12 chairman and vice chair will take place in August, and all bets are off. As Ritz noted,“There are too many issues for us to consider between now and then. Votes are going to change back and forth.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

GADFLY: Obama Not the Only One Moved to Tears by BTW’s Triumph

The Booker T. Washington graduation ceremony was awesome, in the truest, as opposed to the overused, sense of that word.

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 7:29 AM

Marty Aussenberg
  • Marty Aussenberg
I'm about to reveal something about myself that may surprise my detractors: I'm a big crybaby. Of course, I cry at movies—-all that crescendoing music never fails to jerk my tears, as it's intended to. Is there anyone who can keep a dry eye when they watch the scene in “An Affair To Remember” where Cary Grant realizes Deborah Kerr didn't meet him atop the Empire State Building, as they had arranged during their shipboard romance, because she was the victim of an automobile accident on the way to that appointed rendezvous?

Or how about the final scene in “Rudy” where, in spite of being a walk-on, his fellow Notre Dame football team members carry him off the field after he finds a place on the team roster, even if only for a single game? I cry when I see examples of animals suffering. And, even though I'm not much of a patriot by the standard of what passes for it these days, I cry when the Star Spangled Banner is sung, no matter how badly, at the start of athletic events. As an immigrant to this country, brought by parents who sought refuge from what they experienced at the hands of the Nazis, believe me, I know what patriotism really is, but I also know what isn't.

So it should be no surprise that, just as Obama admitted about himself, I watched most of the Booker T. Washington graduation ceremony on Monday through teary eyes, and, if you watched the festivities, you know I wasn't the only one who did. I frequently bemoan the overuse of my least favorite word in the English language these days, but if there was ever a time its use was called for, that ceremony was it: It was awesome, in the truest, as opposed to the overused, sense of that word. And, of course, the reason the whole graduation event was awesome was that it was (in a phrase repeated so much, it almost became the cliché du jour) inspiring.

The day was a triumph, all the way around: For BTW, it was a triumph for stick-to-it-iveness and, to use the Dale Carnegie term, the power of positive thinking. It was a tribute to an indefatigable, albeit preternaturally young, principal, and to the ability of the denizens of a subculture in Memphis whom most folks have given up on or counted out, to surmount the obstacles, both natural and manmade, that have been placed as impediments to their success.

It came at a particularly poignant time, against the background of a school-merger battle in which BTW represents what the suburban school districts view as the quintessential bogeyman of the urban school district they may be forced to take over, namely as a threat to their desire to maintain a lily-white demographic. ‘In your face, Germantown, Bartlett, Arlington, Collierville, and the county school board members and state legislators who are trying to help them maintain their pre-Brown v. Board of Education profiles,’ is what BTW has, in essence, said. ‘We're every bit as good as you, in educational achievement, and in so many other ways, and probably a whole lot better. You'll be lucky to have us as in your school system.’

The day was also a triumph for Memphis, a city which, it sometimes seems, never catches a break when it comes to its depiction in the national media, or in getting its fair share of positive attention. Who among us hasn't watched in dismay as Memphis got skipped over for achievement after achievement, whether it was the siting of the Rock 'n Roll museum, the award of an NFL franchise, or the location of businesses and industries that would help mitigate deepening poverty and unemployment problems. That is starting to change, subtly, with recent announcements on the economic development front, and yet Memphis still gets tarred, albeit unfairly, primarily for its crime problem.

The national media never seem to get it right about Memphis, and failed to once again by making it seem that the city had been entirely inundated by recent flooding. BTW's victory in the White House's “Race To The Top” contest has the potential to take some of the sting out of all that negative publicity, and show the world that, even in a neighborhood with, yes, a crime problem, good people can overcome bad situations.

And, finally, the day was a triumphal one for Barack Obama. Coming, as it did, on the heels of one of the greatest accomplishments of any wartime president since Harry Truman made the difficult decision to drop the nuclear bombs on Japan that hastened the end of World War II, his appearance in Memphis was an opportunity for Obama to burnish his image and standing by displaying something he has mastered so well, the common touch.

I have major problems with our current president, from his failure to deliver on so many of the promises he made to get elected to his seemingly never-ending capitulation to the intransigent methods of the conservatives in Congress. And yet who could fail to be touched by the way he related to those BTW graduates, bending over to console one of them who was reduced to tears by the enormity of the moment, hugging some of them as they received their diplomas, complimenting them on their achievements, or encouraging them to pursue their goals.

It didn't hurt that Obama showed his sense of humor either, by laughing heartily when the student who introduced him suggested that where the President was born was now one of the many must-know facts about him, or by jesting about the prospect of becoming the principal of his daughters' school to control unwanted (by a father) advances by boys.

I won't dwell on the negatives about the days' activities, which, in my opinion, included the unfortunate politicization of the event, including the presence of politicians who didn't belong in the room, and the sophomoric way the local broadcast media handled their coverage. Suffice it to say, BTW and Obama carried the day, and Memphis was (and will be) a whole lot better for it.

For more takes on the occasion, see also here and here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Obama Tells BTW Graduates Their Success Resounds "All Across America"

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2011 at 3:07 PM

A topical tribute to the President
  • JB
  • A topical tribute to the President

Giving each one of the 155 graduates of Booker T. Washington a handshake and a send-off into the post-graduate world that, surely, none of them will ever forget, President Barack Obama delivered, as promised, the school’s commencement address Monday at the Cook Convention Center.

Obama was formally introduced by Christopher Dean, the student who was featured in BTW’s prize-winning video that won out over other schools’ entries in the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge — the prize for which was the President’s appearance at graduation.

Young Dean had been shown in the video in a state of anguish some years ago as his housing project was being demolished, a fact which would alter his place of residence and which he had then feared would make him ineligible to continue his studies at BTW, the historic predominantly African-American high school on the rim between downtown and south Memphis.

President Obama congratulates a Booker T. Washington graduate
  • JB
  • President Obama congratulates a Booker T. Washington graduate
But Dean had, as the President himself would note, persevered at BTW through the medium of “two bus rides each morning,” and he was on stage with cap and gown Monday to give some tongue-in-cheek details about this year’s commencement speaker. Usually, Dean noted, one would explain who the speaker was (chuckle from audience), what his job was (larger chuckle) and where he lived (still larger chuckle). And also, Dean said with perfect timing, “where he was born.”

That remark got huge laughter from the 3,000-odd people present, including Governor Bill Haslam, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell, and former congressman Harold Ford Jr. And it prompted a prolonged display of Obama’s trademark ear-to-ear toothy grin on the room’s overhead screens.

In his commencement remarks, the President said he gets emotional at graduation ceremonies. "Every commencement is a day of celebration. I was just telling somebody backstage, I just love commencements. I get all choked up at commencements. So I can tell you already right now, I will cry at my children’s commencement. I cry at other people’s commencements. But this one is especially hopeful. This one is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, 'The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods,' 'The schools are too broken,' 'The kids don’t stand a chance.'

"We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, “Yes, we can.'"

Obama then went on to note the accomplishments that, along with the video, allowed BTW to prevail over other entries in the Commencement Challenge. They included a soaring graduation rate which has led to four out of five students getting their diplomas and the fact that 70 percent of BTW’s graduates had resolved to go on to pursue further studies. He reviewed several curriculum changes at BTW — special 9th grade academies, AP classes, participation in robotics competitions. "And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture — a culture that prizes hard work and discipline...."

Booker T. Washington had “proven that we can’t accept excuses,” Obama said. “Success is possible. And, if success can happen here, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. And if it can happen anywhere in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And if it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America.”

The President recalled for the audience some facts of his own upbringing, including the fact that he, like many of the Booker T. Washington students, had been raised through difficult times by a single mother, but that his mother and grandparents had “refused to permit me to make excuses,” encouraging him to pursue the education which had led to his current status in life.

“Not a single one of you has had anything handed to you on a silver platter,” Obama said, and he went on to recount as examples some significant travails in the lives of young Dean and another Booker T. Washington student, Eron Jackson.

Congratulating the graduates, the President concluded, “Thanks for inspiring me, and God bless you!” He then took his place in line as each student’s name was called to receive a diploma, giving each of them a handshake and often a hug as they crossed the stage.

Participating in the graduation proceedings and assisting the President in awarding diplomas were Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, MCS Chief of Operations Roderick Richmond, and MCS Board president Freda Williams.

Before taking part in the commencement exercises, Obama had a private reception in a nearby ballroom with Mayor Wharton, members of the congressional delegation, and victims of the ongoing flood.

See also here and here.

Principal Alisha Kiner and President Obama enjoy a musical interlude before BTW graduation
  • JB
  • Principal Alisha Kiner and President Obama enjoy a musical interlude before BTW graduation

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash Listens as Obama Addresses BTW Graduates
  • JB
  • Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash Listens as Obama Addresses BTW Graduates

Two tall men, Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken and former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, draw a crowd before BTW graduation ceremonies
  • JB
  • Two tall men, Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken and former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, draw a crowd before BTW graduation ceremonies

See also here and here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Truce Reached on Injunction Issue in Shelby School-Merger Case

Posted By on Sat, May 14, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Had the Shelby County Commission just agreed to an injunction against itself? The same injunction against proceeding with its interim school-board plans that the commission had in theory been resisting for weeks in federal court?

“Yes,” acknowledged District 5 Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a consistent presence in U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays’ courtroom and a lawyer, though not one serving in this case.

But Mulroy characterized the deal, proposed Friday by special commission attorney Leo Bearman and accepted by Shelby County Schools attorney Lawrence Giordano and a battery of lawyers for other interested parties, as a trade-off — a “goose and gander” affair.

What the various parties involved in this first court case involving the imminent merger of Memphis City Schools with SCS had done was agree to take no actions outside the normal conduct of business until such time as Judge Mays could decide the entire ongoing litigation on its merits.

And Mays, liberated from having to consider the injunction, indicated that he would do so in short order, specifying “next month” as his target date for a ruling on the case at large.

The suit, filed by Shelby County Schools in February, asks for a declaratory judgment against MCS’ vote to surrender its charter last December and the Memphis City Council’s subsequent vote to ratify the charter surrender. Added as a defendant later was the commission, which had followed up those earlier actions with a plan to appoint 25 members to a newly redistricted all-county school board, from among almost 200 applicants.

For almost two months, courtroom attention had been focused on SCS’ injunction request, which was supported by the state Department of Education in deference to the Norris-Todd Act, an alternative route to MCS-SCS merger enacted earlier this year by the Tennessee General Assembly.

Mays had asked the various parties to the suit to try to reach a settlement, but informal efforts of that sort, followed by mediation, first by an appointed mediator and later by Mays himself, had achieved no agreement.

Until Friday, when Bearman made his surprise proposal for a mutual stand-down on immediate action, the commission attorney had been consistently maintaining that a delay, any delay at all, in appointing the proposed interim school board would constitute an “abandonment” of justice for residents of Memphis, who were entitled to representation on a board constructed in accordance with the one man/one vote provision of the landmark Baker vs. Carr Supreme Court decision.

That position was based on the claim, vigorously disputed by Giordano on behalf of Shelby County Schools, that Memphis City Schools had ceased to exist as a legal entity on February 10, the date of the City Council’s vote to ratify the MCS charter surrender.

Given that the MCS board had continued to meet and that MCS superintendent Kriner Cash had been received to present his latest budget request to the county commission earlier this week, the status of MCS — acknowledged by all parties to have at least a de facto existence — had become one of the chief debating points during the two days of hearings in Judge Mays’ court this week.

Another point of contention was the proper means of merging the city schools with Shelby County Schools — the charter surrender route, sanctioned by Chapter 375 of a 1961 private act, or Norris-Todd, based on a series of general legislative acts and spliced onto an all-Memphis referendum on transfer of MCS’ authority to SCS.

That referendum, which was authorized by the MCS board at the same December meeting as the vote for outright charter-surrender, passed by a 2-1 majority on March 8. Norris-Todd, hitched to the referendum results, provides for a 2 ½-year planning period to end in August 2013, after which — a key point for SCS and suburban sentiment — a pre-existing legislative ban on new special school districts would be lifted for Shelby County. The MCS majority which opted to dissolve the city school system did so with an expressed fear that SCS was on the verge of gaining legislative sanction to become a separate special school district.

Just as Giordano, on behalf of SCS, had challenged the legality of the charter-surrender route (maintaining in court that the MCS vote, at most, merely signaled an “intent” to liquidate itself), so had Bearman — supported by City Council lawyer Allen Wade — disputed the applicability of Norris-Todd, maintaining that its legal precedents were relevant only to special school districts and that MCS, created as a special school district in 1869, had ceased to be on under the terms of a 1925 statute.

This and other overriding issues will doubtless be resolved in the expedited judgment promised by Judge Mays now that the injunction matter has been, in effect, waived on Bearman’s surprise initiative.

As for why that happened, it could be that Bearman and Wade and representatives of the other parties predisposed to allow the county commission to proceed had simply taken note of Mays’ candid suggestion Friday that he was “reluctant” to approve a 25-member board before final disposition of the case.

The other motivating factor apparently was the concession extracted from Giordano and other parties to the current litigation — that their pledge to suspend any contemplated action outside the normal run of business would include the sale or purchase of property and participation in any legislative initiative to create an “innovative school district” in Shelby County.

Legislation to enable this newest wrinkle in special school districts is now being fast-tracked in the closing days of the General Assembly. A bill by state Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) would authorize up to five county systems to become such model districts and would fix their boundaries.

Supporters of a complete merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools have become anxious about the prospects that the bill could provide a back door for sealing the current SCS system from the city schools. They also are concerned that suburban municipalities might be trying to arrange the sale or lease of county school properties as a prelude to creating their own separate municipal school districts.

The truce arranged Friday was a means, finally, of holding everything in place until Judge Mays can rule on all the outstanding issues — and that ruling is now just around the corner.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Mano-a-Mano Developing in Contest for Chairmanship of County Commission

Posted By on Thu, May 12, 2011 at 9:32 PM

Sidney Chism; Mike Carpenter
  • Sidney Chism; Mike Carpenter

It won’t happen for a couple of months yet — sometime in August, in fact — but a serious battle is shaping up in the Shelby County Commission over next year’s commission chairmanship.

The two contenders are Mike Carpenter, current commission vice-chair, who by tradition would be expected to ascend to the chairmanship, and current chairman Sidney Chism, who has decided to buck that selfsame tradition and is seeking a second term.

All kinds of backstories are mixed into this scenario, including the fact that Carpenter, a Republican from District 1, which encompasses Memphis’ suburban rim, has pursued a largely independent course on the commission since his first election in 2006, enough so to periodically antagonize his five fellow Republicans. Carpenter became vice chair last year by adding his own vote to that of six Democrats.

As for Chism, a Democrat from District 3, s south-side enclave, he has never made a secret of his wish to serve as chairman for two consecutive terms. And two years ago he was instrumental in preventing a second chairmanship term for fellow Democrat Deidre Malone, who was about to launch a campaign for county mayor. Chism’s vote and that of Democrat Steve Mulroy went instead to Republican Joyce Avery,

Both Chism and Carpenter have lined up some cross-party commitments. Chism can count on votes from the GOP’s Mike Ritz and Terry Roland to go with an indeterminate number of Democrats. Carpenter has probable support from Democrats Mulroy and Henri Brooks and hopes to get other votes from members of both parties.

If Chism should prevail, more than one tradition would fall. Besides deviating from the expectation that a vice-chairman automatically ascends to the chairmanship, such an outcome would also break with the habit of alternating Democratic and Republican chairs year-by-year.

Push Finally Coming to Shove in Federal School Merger Case

Posted By on Thu, May 12, 2011 at 9:31 PM

Judge Mays on break from courtroom during case
  • Judge Mays on break from courtroom during case
After a marathon all-day session Thursday in U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays’ courtroom, the stage was set for an ultimate ruling by Mays on an injunction which the Shelby County Schools board has requested to halt forward movement on an ambitious Shelby County Commission plan to create an interim all-county school board.

Scheduled to lead off the hearing's second day on Friday morning was attorney Lawrence Giordano, a Chattanooga import who represents SCS and who came in for some rough treatment Thursday during questioning by Mays. The judge, who had spent five weeks trying to coax the various litigants into an agreement, mixed non-stop quips with penetrating, quasi-Socratic interrogatories of the lawyers in the case.

Giordano was asked repeatedly by Mays what his reading was of a 1961 private act cited by the Memphis City Schools board as justification for surrendering its charter and effecting de facto consolidation with SCS. Mays also sought Giordano’s interpretation of the Norris-Todd Act, a merger-transition plan passed earlier this year by the General Assembly.

In the face of apparent skepticism on Mays’ part, Giordano persisted in saying that the act, Chapter 375 of Private Acts of 1961, expressed at most an “intention” by the MCS Board to give up its charter, while preserving the active existence of the board pending final merger in August 2013 under terms prescribed by Norris-Todd. The latter, said Giordano, "supereceded" and "modified" Chapter 375.

Citing language in Chapter 375 which seemed to call for an immediate dissolution of the MCS board in the wake of the board’s vote to dissolve last December, Mays asked, “What does the plain language of that tell you?” After a long pause, Giordano answered cryptically, “It tells you precious else.”

On the key question of Provision 3 of Norris-Todd, which enables the creation of one or more special school districts within Shelby County after completion of SCS-MCS merger in August 2013, Giordano seemed to maintain that only the entire, newly merged city/county system could seek special school district status before acknowledging, under prodding by Mays, that suburban entities could combine to break off and form their own separate school district.

At several points the SCS attorney seemed to have difficulty formulating replies to Mays’ questions, which concerned several competing legal precedents and were based on the briefs and testimony of various principals in the case. At one point, Giordano attempted to resolve a seeming contradiction in his presentation this way: “If I said it, I don’t agree with myself, apparently.”

Giordano was not the only lawyer caught off guard. Each of the attorneys in turn — for such entities as the City of Memphis, the City Council, the stat Attorney General found themselves confused and sometimes speechless as Mays relentlessly probed for inconsistencies in their positions. Nor was Mays easy on himself. “I must have been wool-gathering,” he said once, confessing he had failed to grasp a lawyer’s statement.

The one lawyer who seemed most able to deal with Mays’ questioning on even terms was Leo Bearman, attorney for the Shelby County Commission. Bearman made an elaborate case in favor of the immediate dissolution of the MCS board under terms of the 1961 Act, which became effective, he said, upon a February 10th vote by the City Council which ratified the MCS board’s surrender of its charter.

Bearman argued further that a subsequent referendum by Memphis voters approving a transfer of the MCS charter to SCS was essentially symbolic and secondary to the Council action and, most intriguingly, that Norris-Todd was irrelevant to the process because its mechanics were based on the incorrect assumption that MCS was a true special school district rather than a municipal district without taxing authority.

Sooner or later, it will fall to Judge Mays to determine the pecking order of the various legal authorizations cited by the several disputants in the case, to resolve such matters as whether MCS still exists or is defunct, and to adjudge the relative merits of Chapter 375 and the Norris-Todd Act.

In the meantime, he will at some near point pronounce on the SCS request for an injunction against the county commission’s going ahead immediately to appoint a 25-member interim school board. The commission’s plans are based on the assumption that a successor organization to SCS, based on the one-man/one-vote precepts of Baker vs. Carr, must be created to administer the former MCS schools.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Corker: The Enemy Is in “Bad Actor” Pakistan, Not Afghanistan

Posted By on Tue, May 10, 2011 at 8:36 AM

Senator Bob Corker in DC
  • JB
  • Senator Bob Corker in DC

WASHINGTON —If Bob Corker, the junior Senator from Tennessee and a certified heavy lifter on both the domestic and foreign-policy fronts in Washington, had his way, the United States would follow up the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with some dramatic policy reversals both there and in neighboring Afghanistan.

The kernel of the problem, as he sees it, is that America has been “fighting a war in a country where our enemies are not,” while, “on the other hand, we’re providing aid to a country where our enemies are.” In the course of an interview with the Flyer last week in Washington, Corker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the discovery of the Al Qaeda chief’s elaborate sanctuary in Abbottabad, a suburb of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, provides the United States with a “relationship-changing opportunity.”

Corker discussed the problem at some length and also made the case for the CAP Act, a spending-cap bill he had proposed as a preamble to raising the U.S. debt ceiling — an issue that just now has Republicans and Democrats at loggerheads.

The senator began by saying that in Pakistan the armed forces are the major ruling force. “The Army supplies adult supervision for the country. Politicians are of a very different level.” The fact that bin Laden had been occupying a compound adjacent to the nerve center of the Pakistani military command indicates that the country’s government had been “either in cahoots with bin Laden or incompetent, neither of which is particularly good,” especially since there is “a lot of nuclear weaponry” in Pakistan.

“I think we’ve known for a long time that Pakistan plays both sides. They’ve been able to get aid from America by being a bad actor. It’s a leverage they use. I just left a Foreign Relations Committee meeting where I talked about this. Whether they’re in cahoots or incompetent, this has been an embarrassment for their country, and it provides a relationship-changing opportunity.”

On Pakistan as the true center of Al Qaeda activity:

“The fact is, if you travel through Afghanistan, as I’ve done many times, and you talk to our military leaders, they’re unbelievably frustrated, because they’re fighting a war in a country where our enemies are not. And on the other hand we’re providing aid to a country where our enemies are. To me, and this is what I really pressed hard in this last hearing on, this is where our focus needs to be.

“In the ‘FATA,’ the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Balochistan, and the former Northwest province, that’s where all the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, their accounting network, they’re all there. It’d be my guess that the second in command in Al Qaeda is still there. So to me this creates an opportunity for us to bear down on ridding that country of the enemies that we’re fighting in Afghanistan but happen to reside in Pakistan.

“I’ve been very skeptical about the efforts there for some time, and General [David] Petraeus has asked that we show patience through this fighting season, which will end in November. And I’m willing to do that. But — our men and women in uniform, I hold them in highest esteem in carrying out their mission, but much of what they’re fighting there is just criminality. I mean, one of the areas I was in, there was a prison nearby, there was about 1500 folks locked up there, and only 80 of them were extremists. The other 1420 were there because of criminality. So much of what our soldiers are fighting there is criminality. Again, the head of the monster, if you will, exists in Pakistan.

On the nature of Pakistani relations with bin Laden:

“And I see what’s happened now. Because it is such an embarrassment to the Pakistan military and intelligence service — whichever it is who are incompetent — It’s still tremendously embarrassing . This area is like the West Point of our country, where Osama bin Laden was killed. Literally, it’s like some other person being harbored at West Point.

“It’ll be interesting to know what we find out as time goes on. I’ve written a letter to Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton requesting that they share with us what involvement they’re aware of, and I think that will happen in the very near future. But I think we have an opportunity like we’ve not had to really force the issue in Pakistan about them not really making — You know what they’re really doing is — they’re harboring, they’re not harboring, they’re allowing people to exist there directing the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan

“[But] I’m not ready to say that they were in cahoots. I don’t think there’s anybody yet that really knows.”

On the risk element in the American raid that resulted in bin Laden’s killing:

“ I absolutely believe there was risk involved. I don’t want to say more than I should, but there was no question that the president took a risk, and I’m glad that he did. There’s no question that they took a risk going into that compound. There were a lot of things that pointed to the fact that that’s where he was, but there are also questions, and I would say within the intelligence community different opinions as to the likelihood of his being there.

"It was something that took — it was no sure thing. I’m glad that he took that calculated risk, okay? The Navy Seals are just exceptional. I’ve watched — I’ve been able, I’ve been in Afghanistan and watched what these Navy Seals do at night. Pretty incredible!”

On the credit due the Obama administration for the success of the mission

“Ultimately, the president had to make a decision as to whether to send the Navy Seals. There was risk involved. In other words, it was not a sure thing. It wasn’t a sure thing that it was even where Osama was. It also wasn’t a sure thing obviously that it would be successful. You’ve seen what has happened in the past with presidents who have visions that go awry, so I think you have to give the president a lot of credit.

“This was such an issue of interest that there was an all-Senators briefing, and it was such a unique briefing that 74 Senators showed up. 74 senators never show up for a briefing. This was one of great interest that was well attended.”

On Corker’s proposed CAP Act, which, among other provisos,would impose a mandatory spending ceiling on federal spending that, over a 10-year period, would bring expenditures down from their current level of of24.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the level of 20.6 percent:

“It’s the only mechanism that today has bi-partisan, bicameral support — bi-partisan support in the Senate, bi-partisan support in the House. It’s understandable. It’s being focused on because it is the only bill out there in that regard. I know the administration doesn’t like it. So they’re working against it. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has spoken against it. In spite of that the bill has been gaining momentum. I’m going to go in the House the next few weeks and make a presentation to House members, even though they’ve already introduced it there. Jim Cooper [D-5th District] of my own state and Jimmy Duncan [R-2nd District] of our own state are the lead co-sponsors on each side there.

“[In the Senate]Clare McCaskill [D-MO]was my original co-sponsor. She still is, but Joe Lieberman [Ind., CT] has joined the effort. Joe Manchin [D-WV] has joined the effort. Another senator on that side of the aisle has mentioned that he was interested, so we’ll see. What I’m trying to do right now is just make other senators aware on the other side of the aisle. We’ve got to have 60 votes to pass it, right? Just to make them aware of what it does because I know it’s going to be demagoguged, and what I’m saying to those that I know probably are unlikely co-sponsors today , what I’m saying to them is, Just listen. Know what this does. We’ve got a debt ceiling vote coming up. I want you to be aware of what the CAP Act does.”

On Administration hopes of avoiding a trade-off:

They’re not going to get a clean debt ceiling vote. That’s not going to happen. They may attempt it. It’s never going to happen. So the CAP act, the way it’s designed, it could be attached to the debt-ceiling increase, which would dramatically change the character of spending. I’ve said for months and months and months, there’s no way I’m voting for this debt-ceiling increase unless we do something to dramatically change the character of spending in this country The CAP act accomplishes that. A lot of people are looking at it as that statutory vehicle that if that ceiling passes, ought to be attached to it.

On the difference between the presentation he’ll be making in Congress and the one on capping spending that he made throughout Tennessee last year:

This one is a little bit shorter, because I’m giving it to politicians. You know, you can’t hold their attention long. It focuses more on the bill. We use some of the same slides that we used in Mnmphis, but because we want to focus more on the bill than on what got us here, it’s a little different.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Congressional Officials Check Out the Flood Threat in Memphis

Posted By on Mon, May 9, 2011 at 10:07 AM

from left: Nations, Cohen, Luttrell, Alexander, Blackburn, and Fincher
  • JB
  • from left: Nations, Cohen, Luttrell, Alexander, Blackburn, and Fincher

Rather famously, the need to cope with natural disasters in a shared geographical area is an incentive to the pooling of responses and the overcoming of political differences. For the most part, such has proved to be the case with the great 2011 weather pandemic, which has loosed torrential rains, tornados, and floods upon much of the American South — notably including Shelby County and West Tennessee.

The visit to Memphis on Friday of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Marsha Blackburn, Stephen Fincher, and Steve Cohen, of the 7th, 8th, and 9th congressional districts, respectively — was a case in point.

Along with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, the four federal office-holders — three Republicans and a Democrat — underwent a briefing presided over by local Emergency Management director Bob Nations and other preparedness/response officials, then toured the Memphis waterfront to see first-hand the looming threat of rising floodwaters, as well as the considerable damage already inflicted on the rim of the Mississippi River. Also on hand was state Representative Antonio Parkinson of Memphis.

The briefing was conducted in the Emergency Operations Center at Shelby Emergency Management Headquarters on Avery Avenue. Taking part were Nations; Rich Okulski of the National Weather Service; Brian Waldron the Ground Water Institute; Colonel Vernie Reichling, district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers; Major D. Craig Hamilton, deputy commander of the Memphis Corps District; and Tom Minyard, chief of engineering and construction for the Corps. The subsequent bus tour of the affected riverfront was overseen by Nations and Steve Barry, Emergency Operations Manager of the Corps.

The various emergency management officials took turns at the briefing, offering a rundown on conditions up to the moment and on further complications to come. Okulski began by providing water-level readings on the Mississippi River at Memphis: 46.1 feet as he spoke, “the second highest level since we began doing readings in 1927, just behind the ‘37 flood, which was 48.7,” with the level destined to rise by stages to 48.1 by Wednesday the 11th.

Throughout the briefing, on a corner of the room’s back wall, real-time video images from a helicopter were being projected, showing just how high the water was. Clearly visible were the submerged intersection of Beale St. and Riverfront Drive and widespread flooded areas — involving households on the western edge of Mud Island and industrial areas on President’s Island. (“Islandized” would be the euphemism used by Nations on the later bus tour to describe the latter.)

“I’ve been reading a book called Wicked River, and this river is definitely wicked,” said Colonel Reichling, who described the wide arc of Corps operations underway now on a 24-hour basis — roughly, from Cairo, Illinois, in the north to Natchez and Vicksburg in the South. He and others stressed the importance of the Corps’ decision last week to blow holes in the Birds Point Levee in the Missouri bootheel, an action which resulted in the inevitable flooding of homes and farmlands in that vicinity but one which relieved pressure on extensive downriver areas, including Shelby County and the rest of west Tennessee.

It was the consensus of the various emergency management officials that blowing the Birds Point Levee had been necessary to forestall what might have been a 50-ft. water level here, one that would have been truly catastrophic.

When it came time for the members of the congressional delegation to speak, significant political differences emerged in the way they spoke of the crisis and the way in which it was being managed.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our Shelby County community,” said Luttrell, emphasizing what he saw as a high degree of local coordination — among governmental agencies, media, faith-based organizations, and citizens at large — in meeting the emergency. That same tack was taken also by Alexander (“I’m here to complement Shelby County”) and Blackburn (“I’m pleased that we’re able to meet here as a team”).

In his remarks, both at the briefing and later, when the group’s bus tour did a stop at the Pyramid, where volunteers were hastily sandbagging the building’s perimeter, Cohen emphasized federal action.

As the Corps’ Reichling had done, Cohen mentioned a book, John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and related it to the “heritage” of Memphis and Shelby County, a saga, as he saw it, in which Washington, D.C., played a large part.

The federal government was providing much of the funding for the current control efforts, Democrat Cohen noted at the briefing. “There are people who tell you that the federal government doesn’t do anything. They want to slash and burn. The federal government is here to help. It will always be here to help.” By implication, his statement took in the Republican colleagues who were with him. It also took in past luminaries, like “Mayor Crump, former congressman Crump,” who in the wake of the ’37 flood, “got a lot of money.” All in all, said Cohen, “the 9th district has been served well.”

The GOP’s Fincher, a Crockett County farmer and gospel singer who won his seat in 2010 by employing anti-Washington rhetoric, sounded a different note. “Washington is a great place to visit, but home is home,” he said. Like the other Republicans, he stressed local reaction, “how we react as a team, as a group,” and he responded to Cohen in such a way as to both agree with the Memphis congressman and to pay homage to the current Republican emphasis on reduction of federal spending.

“As someone said before, we don’t want to be on the backside of this thing, Congressman Cohen, and not have the money to fund the things that are important for our communities and our districts and our state.”

on site at the Pyramid
  • JB
  • on site at the Pyramid

Variations on the same kinds of remarks were made by the congressional group in an impromptu press conference at the Pyramid, held amid busy scenes of volunteers — military, Corps, civilian —— shoveling sand into polyethylene bags and piling them up in a network of protective walls. Cohen once again touted “the federal government [as] an integral part of any disaster program, an integral part of our lives” and warned, “Funds are being depleted from other projects.”

For his part, Fincher once again confined bragging rights more locally: “What makes our state great is the way we come together,” and stressed “how important Memphis and Shelby County are to the state.”

Mixed in with the boilerplate and ideological pronouncements and legitimate expressions of concern were some light remarks. At the Pyramid, Cohen wished out loud for Bass Pro, the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t suitors for rights to the building, to show up with “some boats,” just in case. And, on the bus ride back to Avery, as she looked out the window at flotsam moving by in the raging Mississippi, Blackburn observed, “Well, I think there’s going to be a lot of driftwood to pick up.”

On that bus ride back, there was a good deal of sober reflection, as well. Blackburn had earlier wondered how the threat of floodwaters on President’s Island — where several operations had shut down by way of precaution — might impact future industrial recruitment. Now, she asked what the immediate threat to the Pyramid was — to which Luttrell, reflecting on this much-discussed subject, observed, “There’s probably water already in the Pyramid.”

Fincher brought up the subject of the areas in upper West Tennessee affected by the blowing of the Birds Point Levee. Though he supported that action and saw it as draining off potential tides that could have drenched large portions of his district, he commented on the inevitable damage the diversion of floodwaters had caused to nearby farmers. “There’s something else — how much farmland is impacted by this. This is critical in the Ag community. A lot of farmers had crops contracted.”

In the subsequent conversation, it emerged that nobody really knew the degree to which the proprietors of those farmlands might be compensated — or by whom. Steve Barry, local emergency management director for the Corps of Engineers, observed that the Corps had “flowing rights” over these lands, most of which had already been impacted, and said the Corps had “decided that water on water would not augment the damage.”

Not long after that note of uncertainty, and some subsequent uneasy conversation about last year’s flooding of Nashville by the previously unfeared Cumberland and about the simultaneous presence of Alexander’s Senate colleague Bob Corker at tornado-damage sites elsewhere in Tennessee, the tour bus returned to the Avery Ave. site from which the it had departed an hour or so earlier.

Considering the implications of the emergency — past, present, and projected — Luttrell tried to do some positive summing-up. City, county, state, and feds — they all had begun to relax their sense of turf-protection and separateness. “The various governments have all surrendered a little bit of their autonomy. We’ve started coming together, clearing up our lines of communication.” As for the various emergency-management agencies on hand and here for the duration, “We’re on a first-name basis with all these folks now.”

Whatever comes next, for better or for worse, that intimacy is likely to be increased for a while.



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