Saturday, April 25, 2009

Michael Oher, All American

A Hollywood story straight out of Memphis.

Posted By on Sat, Apr 25, 2009 at 4:27 PM

Ole Miss football player and Memphis native Michael Oher is the darling of this year's NFL draft and a known quantity since Michael Lewis' bestselling book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which is being made into a movie.

He's been all over the media lately. Read more about Oher-mania at Sing All Kinds.

A Flick Called "Flick"

Saturday's fare at On Location: Memphis International Film Festival

Posted By on Sat, Apr 25, 2009 at 9:56 AM

Screening tonight is Flick, a grindhouse-style mix of horror, comedy, and music, starring Faye Dunaway as a one-armed cop from Memphis(!).

Bartlett native Jeremy Benson's Live Animals will also be shown. The made-in-Memphis film is a bit of torture/shock horror in the vein of the Saw or Hostel franchises and stars veteran local actor John Still as a "white slave" trader.

But wait! There's more. Read all about it in Sing All Kinds.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Herenton Asks Council to Fund Schools

Mayor: "We need to do what is best for children."

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 4:22 PM

Mayor Willie Herenton wants the Memphis City Council to give Memphis City Schools the amount of funding it asked for last year.

The mayor made the request Friday in a letter delivered to council members asking that they not "play games" with the budget he presented Tuesday.

The text of the letter follows.

"At the risk of appearing to be defensive or offensive, I want to make it very clear that the Administration has developed a sound budget and we are not going to play games over schools funding.

"In my judgment, the council should not have decreased the funding for schools and should not have lowered the tax rate. You ignored my advice and some council members are threatening to undo a balanced FY 2010 operating budget to hedge your mistake.

"My advice to the Council is to reinstate the previous 0.82 tax rate allocated for schools and let's moves [sic] on to other priorities for the city. In the final analysis we need to do what is best for children."

If the council does that and does not make any changes in the rest of the budget then it there would almost certainly be a property tax increase for city residents. The council managed to cut the tax rate last year by cutting some money for schools.

Witness "The Witness"

Friday's fare at On Location: Memphis International Film Festival

Posted on Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 2:19 PM

The On Location: Memphis film festival gets underway full boar on Friday at Malco's Ridgeway Four. The feature attraction on Friday could be Bi the Way, a documentary about the apparent increase in bisexuality among younger generations of Americans in recent years. Also screening tonight is The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, about the experience of Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, the only person on the balcony with Dr. King when he was killed.

Read more about the festival and watch film clips at Sing All Kinds.

Herenton vs. Cohen : A Primer for Tourists

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 12:19 PM

(An abridged and somewhat different version of this article appeared this week as a background piece in the Nashville-based insiders’ newsletter Tennessee Journal.)

MEMPHIS, a city which has grown accustomed to political shock-waves, received yet another on Tuesday when, immediately after delivering a rosy prospectus to his city council regarding a proposed budget which he said would entail no tax increases and no new cuts in services or personnel, fifth-term mayor Willie Herenton adjourned to the nearby Hall of Mayors for a brief press availability.

Several reporters went to the press conference armed with questions concerning the enabling role of federal stimulus funds, downplayed by Herenton in his remarks, or the fact that the mayor’s budget had not reckoned with some $56 million of withheld funds which pending litigation may ultimately compel the city to make over to Memphis City Schools.

Herenton glided over a couple of preliminary questions on these matters and then announced that an aide would distribute copies of an announcement concerning the oft-speculated-on issue of what came next for him after the mayoralty. He then strode off, leaving the reporters to peruse the single-page announcement in a state of gathering amazement.

What Herenton announced on that single sheet was that “after receiving considerable encouragement from citizens to become a candidate in 2010 for the U.S. House of Representatives Ninth Congressional District” he would shortly be forming an exploratory committee to pursue that purpose.

No one, literally no one, had foreseen such an eventuality, and amid the general asurprise was a growing minority suspicion that the mayor’s congressional bid was a red herring of some sort – perhaps to offset close scrutiny of his optimistic budget, perhaps to divert attention from a host of other troubles.

It was, after all, a truly dumfounding development, setting up a potential showdown next year between two watershed political figures – Herenton, 69, the city’s first elected black mayor ever and Memphis’ longest-serving chief executive, and second-term 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, 59, who, after a lengthy career as a controversial and influential state senator (the state lottery was his proudest creation) had been elected twice as the white representative of the overwhelmingly black 9th congressional district.

As a stunned Cohen noted in his response to the bombshell announcement, he and Herenton had been de facto allies with what had been presumed to be a “positive” working relationship. The mayor had publicly endorsed Cohen in his 2006 general election race against independent candidate Jake Ford, and, though he was said to be miffed that the cautious congressman had not reciprocated during Herenton’s own reelection race against two opponents in 200, there had been no public hint of discord between the two political titans.

There was, in any case, a significant overlap between Herenton’s support base and Cohen’s, and there was abundant confusion in political ranks as to which way to go should the race actually develop.

AS A SIDESHOW of sorts, one of the first observers to weigh in on Herenton’s behalf was the Rev. George Brooks, the black preacher from Murfreesboro who had dogged both of Cohen’s previous congressional campaigns with anti-Semitic mailings and public statements. Brooks promptly opined that Herenton might be “a good choice to take on Cohen.” Yet to be heard from were the Armenian-American activists who, angered by the congressman’s disinclination to support congressional censure of Turkey for a long-ago genocide, stalked the congressman in 2006, resulting in Cohen’s forcible ejection of documentarian Peter Musurlian from a press conference at his home.

But Herenton is by no means dependent on such eccentric outside sources of support to give Cohen grievous difficulties in his 2010 reelection effort. The mayor has, after all, campaigned five times in the precincts of the 9th District, the core of which is Memphis’ heavily African-American inner city. He has won huge majorities each time in the area, which accounted for his narrow 1991 win over white incumbent Dick Hackett and his relative close-shave victory in 2007 over two serious challengers.

In the meantime Cohen, who out-polled a dozen or so black opponents in the 2006 Democratic primary, has seen his assiduous courtship of his African-American constituents and his close attention to their concerns pay off at the polls. In his 2008 reelection effort, he blew away well-funded primary challenger Nikki Tinker, an African-American corporate lawyer who had finished close behind him two years earlier, beating her four-to-one in the district at large and almost as badly in the black inner city.

An all-out campaign by Herenton would seriously jeopardize Cohen’s new-found support among black Memphians and potentially exacerbate ethnic divisions that had largely gone dormant.

Cohen’s district office provides constituent service comparable to that provided by his congressional predecessors, Harold Ford Sr. and Harold Ford Jr. In Congress, he has faithfully, even vigorously, supported the kind of bread-and-butter issues that would appeal to his working-class and poverty-line constituents. He has pursued funding for projects advantageous to inner-city neighborhoods and for such financially troubled black institutions as LeMoyne-Owen College. And he has received national, even international acclaim for taking the lead in prompting Congress to formally apologize for the institution of slavery.

Along with his Judiciary Committee chairman, the venerable John Conyers of Michigan, who has several times journeyed into the 9th District to support him, Cohen is a sponsor of a bill to provide single-payer national health care. All the while, he has maintained his standing with the relatively posh, civil-liberties-conscious white inhabitants of Memphis’ Poplar Avenue corridor. And, increasingly, he has cut a substantial figure in Washington, having earned plaudits for his close interrogations of Bush administration officials in several committee hearings, and ascending to the chairmanship of the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law in the current Congress.

In a little over two years, Cohen has managed to achieve a degree of national attention that rivals or surpasses that achieved in a longer period of time by predecessor Ford Jr., who went on to become something of a media magnet himself.

All that is seriously threatened now. Even if Herenton should ultimately bow out of a confrontation with Cohen – in the same way that the freshly reelected mayor’s notice of imminent resignation in early 2008 turned out to be illusory – he has already jostled Cohen’s equanimity and roiled the potentially turbulent social sub-currents of the 9th district. Cohen might have to deal with opportunistic challenges from other politicians, awakened by Herenton’s unexpected action.

BUT IF COHEN has problems to confront, so does Herenton.

For at least two years the mayor has been the subject of nonstop rumors concerning possible criminal charges related to his business undertakings. Those rumors achieved a high level of credibility when some months ago it was confirmed that the FBI was actively investigating Herenton’s role in promoting a relocation of the downtown Greyhound Bus Terminal on public policy grounds and then profiting from the resultant land swap through some sleight of hand involving a business partner. That partner, Elvin Moon of Los Angeles, is reportedly now cooperating with the feds in their investigation.

Even before these difficulties surfaced, it was clear from Herenton’s general deportment that he was tired of his mayoral duties. He can boast of several achievements during his 17 ½ years’ service to date, notably including an impressive degree of redevelopment in downtown Memphis and a stabilization of the city’s financial base (though in recent years Memphis’ bond ratings have fluctuated somewhat in relation to economic dips and rises). But key projects close to the mayor’s heart, ranging from his proposal two years back to build a new football stadium to his consistent advocacy of city/county consolidation, have gone nowhere, and, at some cost to his pride, Herenton has conceded that his own provocative personality may have put a damper on prospects for the latter. The mayor had been involved in several running disputes with his council, and, though considered to be without racial bias personally, had not been averse over the years to playing the race card when it suited his political purposes.

Herenton has all but acknowledged that he resolved on running for a fifth term in 2007 for reasons of pride. He was determined to frustrate a coalition of disillusioned business leaders and former associates who had tried to arrange his retirement from office – even, charged Herenton, to the extent of plotting to set him up with a female seductress by way of blackmailing him. The mayor’s determination to run again was further fueled by the identity of his two major opponents – maverick city council member Carol Chumney, with whom he had often feuded, and Herman Morris, whom Herenton had forced out as the head of Memphis Light Gas & Water, the city’s quasi-public utility.

Once successfully reelected, however, Herenton’s attention drifted to a scheme to resume the Memphis city schools superintendency from which he had been forced in 1991 (the year of his first mayoral election) in the aftermath of dual sexual and administrative scandals. Though aided in the plan by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, another consolidation proponent who would almost certainly have acceded to the city major’s job in a special election, Herenton encountered cold shoulders on the city school board, which eventually turned to an out-of-state candidate, Criner Cash of Miami.

The mayor had meanwhile, with great fanfare, announced his intention to resign the mayoralty. Once spurned by the school board, that declaration became inoperative – a circumstance that makes many observers skeptical concerning his congressional-race balloon. Reinforcing the doubters was the fact that Herenton had often derogated the job of congressman, pointing out that a big city mayor enjoyed Numero Uno status while a congressman was but one out of 435. And finally there was the matter of the ongoing federal investigation, which showed no sign of going away.

EVEN SO, there is nothing so far to indicate that the race won’t happen, and, upon recovering from his initial shock, Cohen began to sound a note of jaunty optimism, likening the face-off with former ally Herenton to the “Thrilla in Manila” confrontation in 1975 between boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The same metaphor had occurred to political observers.

It was uncertain as to which of the two politicians linked up to which of the two pugilists, but it is worth recalling that that climactic 1975 encounter, which resulted in a narrow Ali victory, ended with both contenders badly battered and in a state of exhaustion from which neither ever fully recovered.

All Oldies All The Time

Cohen, Herenton: more of the same? And where are the young?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 10:13 AM

Where are the young?

A lot can be said about a theoretical political match-up of Steve Cohen and Willie Herenton, but three days after the mayor's surprise announcement, what's striking about Cohen-Herenton is not how different they are but how much alike they are.

The differences are as obvious as black and white and tall and short.

But the similarities stand out, too.

When the 2010 congressional election rolls around, both will be over 60. Both have been eligible for AARP membership since 2000 or earlier (disclosure: me too), and by 2011, Cohen, like Herenton, can start drawing Social Security.

Both are Democrats.

Both are male and single.

Both are career public officials who got their first public jobs in Memphis in the 1970s -- Herenton as school superintendent and Cohen as a member of the Shelby County Commission.

Both held on to an elected job -- Cohen in the state senate and Herenton in the mayor's office -- so long that burnout and fatigue and ineffectiveness became issues.

Both won key elections with less than a majority of the vote – Herenton the 2007 mayor’s race (42 percent) and Cohen the 2006 Democratic primary (32 percent).

Both have been household names in Memphis for years. Google "Steve Cohen" and Memphis and you get 45,400 entries. Google "Willie Herenton" and Memphis and you get 34,700 entries. Google "Fred Smith" and Memphis and you get a mere 19,900 entries.

Both formed their fundamental philosophies in the 1960s and 1970s, when the big issues were the war in Vietnam, desegregation, busing, and Watergate.

Both have childhood memories of teeter-totters instead of Twitters.

Both were around when Stax and Elvis and disco were alive and well.

Both remember Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown.

Both are three times as old as Derrick Rose and old enough to be Josh Pastner's father.

Both are tied to the old guard of the Democratic Party, which makes them formidable candidates. They're both "80 percenters" -- politicians who can win the all-important 80 percent or more in multiple precincts in an election.

Both have aspired to hold other political jobs -- county mayor for Cohen, city school superintendent redux for Herenton.

Both have long associations with Republican senator Lamar Alexander and Democrat A C Wharton, who are also in the over-60 club.

Being young and bright is no guarantee of success in politics. Witness the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, and Cohen’s vanquished opponent Nikki Tinker. But if I'm active in New Path or Mpact Memphis or Memphis Tomorrow or Young Democrats or Young Republicans or campus politics -- especially if I'm a woman -- I'm all over this one.

There are three big-time political jobs in Memphis -- county mayor, city mayor, and Ninth District congressman, especially with all that stimulus money flowing.

Where are the young?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Schools and Sex

Local organization releases report.

Posted on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 8:32 PM

A teacher's assistant at Melrose High School recently was charged with sexual battery for allegedly fondling a 15-year-old female student in the computer lab.

This comes just days after the school's assistant principal was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, after an 18-year-old student filmed two other students, both minors, engaging in a sex act.

Which might make one wonder: What is going on at Melrose? And the area's schools?

Read all about it in Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff: the Blog.

Pastner Addresses Boosters

Coach says U of M Team could "take a step back."

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 3:04 PM

University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner says fans should be prepared for the team to possibly "take a step back" before he gets the program back on solid footing.

In a letter to members of the Rebounders boosters club, Pastner, who replaced John Calipari as coach, vows to "do things the right way, and that begins by building a strong foundation from the grassroots up."

The text of the letter: "First off, I wanted to thank all of you for your tremendous support for not only myself, but for the entire Tiger Basketball program. I've said this before but I will say it again because it is the absolute truth: this is YOUR team, the city's team.

"We are going to do things the right way and that begins by building a strong foundation, from the grassroots on up. This isn't something that will happen overnight because we won't cut corners. It may even be the type of situation where we have to take a step back in order to get two or three steps ahead.

"I can assure you that we will always be positive, loyal, principled, energized and enthusiastic. There are great things ahead for Tiger Basketball and I appreciate all that you do to help make this one of the best programs in the country.

"Go Tigers!!!

Josh Pastner"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Brainstorming the Herenton Candidacy (cont’d)

The newest theory of Willie Herenton’s bizarre and wholly unexpected challenge to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 8:50 PM

The newest theory of Willie Herenton’s bizarre and wholly unexpected challenge to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen is that he’s looking for a face-saving way out of a job, that of Memphis mayor, that he’s sick of, and a political race for another office gives him a proper way out.

One scenario: He keeps the job in City Hall, calls on his formidable inner-city network of supporters (backed up by a still impressive political war-chest), wins and then resigns as mayor. County mayor A C Wharton, whose term-limited tenure will be expiring, can run as an anointed successor without waiting out the time until a regularly scheduled city election in 2011.

Alternate scenario: Herenton resigns the mayor’s office (probably later this year, as soon as the council chairmanship of Myron Lowery, a probable opponent for Wharton, expires – so that someone else, politically harmless, becomes interim mayor, then does all the rest indicated above.

What if he’s indicted in the meantime, you ask? Well, he’s entitled to a jury of his peers, right? And we know from previous elections involving other inner-city avatars (Harold Ford Sr. and Herenton himself, after his forced dismissal as school superintendent) that the mere imputation of wrongdoing, by however well-established a source (perhaps especially by a well-established source) can be offset, at least politically, by an aroused supportive community.

(Where exactly do jury pools come from, anyhow? And just when would a trial – potentially of a sitting congressman – come?)

And, hark! – yet another theory: that what Herenton is really doing is putting on a bigtime feint, setting up prospects for a deal with Cohen, the designated local authority on candidates for the still unfilled job of U.S. Attorney. None of this gets spelled out in any kind of exact way – how could it be? -- but the supposition would be that somehow a horse trade beneficial to Herenton might ensue.

If this is indeed a motive, a strong pre-emptive rejection by Cohen could cause it to backfire.

A corollary to these and other theories of the Herenton congressional candidacy is that it will be fully synchronized with county mayor Wharton’s planned race to succeed him and that, if the race actually does develop, a Wharton endorsement of Herenton’s candidacy will dutifully follow. (For what it’s worth, the county mayor has already picked a candidate to succeed him as county mayor – current county commission chair Deidre Malone; he’s on the host committee for an event of hers later this month.)

We’ll keep thinking on it. Meanwhile, keep in mind that all of this has been reports from the field where people insist on engaging in brainstorming -- not statements of fact or even likelihood.

Earth Day Update: Project Green Fork

We check in with the non-profit with a mission for greening area restaurants.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 5:19 PM

On Sunday, Project Green Fork will hold a fund-raising dinner at Tsunami. At $100 a pop, the tickets are pricey ... and all (90 of them) sold out.

It's an amazing show of support for the non-profit, which is dedicated to helping area restaurants become more environmentally friendly.

When the Flyer first checked in with Project Green Fork's founder Margot McNeeley some nine months ago, McNeeley was still working out the details and using Tsunami as a test-case.

Project Green Fork has since certified 12 restaurants, among them Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Tsunami, Miss Cordelia's, and Sole Fish Cafe. Their most recent client was Central BBQ -- a particularly challenging endeavor for both McNeeley and Central BBQ, because the restaurant has a large take-out business that used a good deal of styrofoam.

Project Green Fork recently got its 501(3) non-profit status that will allow to McNeeley to pursue "green" grants.

Today, Earth Day, McNeeley tells us that she has taught two yoga classes, consulted with two restaurants, and worked on the details of Sunday's dinner — all while awaiting news of her niece's or nephew's impending birth (her sister is in labor as this is being written).

She also imparts a little earth-loving advice for the local restaurant patron:

"Support those restaurants that are making an effort to be green -- recycling, not using styrofoam. They don't have to be Green Fork clients."

Brickhouse Brown Aims, Shoots

Flashy, former Memphis wrestler tells all.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 1:56 PM

Ronald “Brickhouse” Brown, the self-proclaimed “master of seduction,” certainly lived the life of a hustling professional wrestler at the end of the independent era and the dawn of the WWE.

And the man can still talk trash with the best of them. Brown's new DVD finds the aging pretend gladiator dishing on drug use and orgies ...

Read more at Sing All Kinds.

Herenton Presents His Budget

As expected, Mayor Willie Herenton presented the City Council Tuesday with a no-tax-increase budget, but he got some sharp questioning about school funding that sets the stage for future battles.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 9:38 AM

City Councilman Jim Strickland got Herenton to admit that the budget he presented is based on the same tax rate as last year, when the council cut the contribution to schools by $56 million. If a court orders the city to put that back, the council, not the mayor, will be on the hot seat.

“Then that’s your challenge, not mine,” Herenton said.

The City Council chambers was full, with many teachers wearing red shirts in solidarity.

Herenton said he managed to present a budget with an $89 million surplus and three-percent raises for employees – none of whom will be laid off – because “we just leaned on the division directors” to make cuts.

The only specific cuts he mentioned were in library hours, parks, community centers, and golf courses. He said the city got some federal grant funds to hire extra police officers, but he did not indicate whether stimulus funds are a key part of the budget. He said a buyout plan for city employees will not be offered again this fiscal year.

The proposed operating budget is $617 million. The mayor said local sales tax collections are down 3 percent and state collections are down 6 percent.

Fred Smith’s “Conversation” with City Council

FedEx CEO Fred Smith offered the Memphis City Council a vision Tuesday that includes public safety, playing up Memphis’ strengths, and a cautious approach to consolidation.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 9:37 AM

Speaking at the invitation of Chairman Myron Lowery, Smith met for an hour with the council in executive session and gave his opinions on a wide range of subjects. It was the first time Smith has met personally with the council since the expansion of the Liberty Bowl and the building of the Pyramid in the late 1980s.

Saying America is going through the worst economic challenge of his lifetime, Smith said “I’m pretty optimistic longer term and reasonably optimistic in the nearer term” because businesses will have to start replenishing their inventories later this year.

That was the starting point for his first piece of advice. “The source of all wealth and material well being comes from the private sector,” he said, and government can only provide citizen safety, efficiency, public education, and economic opportunity.

He suggested Memphis “pick your spots” and play up health care, biomedical research, tourism, higher education, and transportation and logistics. He said the city school system probably has too many schools for the number of students it has, but he said several times that he was making no recommendations and realizes the council has to take the political heat. Asked if he ever considered going into politics, he said “never.”

On consolidation of city and county government, he seemed to favor a single mayor but separate school systems and other operating divisions, much like FedEx has separate operating divisions.

“In business, you can centralize into mass inefficiency” and lose your feeling for the market, he said.

He praised the Memphis zoo, to which he has personally contributed several million dollars, and Shelby Farms as “world-class” amenities.

He is staunchly opposed to raising taxes.

“I don’t think Memphis needs more taxes. What Memphis needs is more economic activity.”

Council members were respectful but not awed. When Smith noted that Nashville has benefited from a surge in economic activity, councilwoman Barbara Swearengen War pointed out that Nashville also has consolidated government.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mayor Herenton and Fred Smith Appear Before Memphis City Council

Herenton presents budget; Smith offers advice.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 6:23 PM

Read both stories at John Branston's City Beat.

Herenton Considering Run for Congress

Mayor forming committee to explore options for 2010 race against Cohen.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 6:21 PM

Minutes after presenting an address to the City Council offering more of his previously announced rosy budget prospectus, Mayor Willie Herenton adjourned to the Hall of Mayors, where he answered a brief question or two about the budget, then had his administrative assistant, Toni Holmon Turner, hand out copies of a bombshell announcement: Herenton is contemplating a run in 2010 for the 9th District congressional seat now held by fellow Democrat Steve Cohen.

To say that the mayor's announcement was a surprise is a considerable understatement. There had been rumors, ever since Cohen did not give Herenton an outright endorsement during the mayor's 2007 reelection campaign, that Herenton was displeased with the congressman, whose own race in 2006 he had supported enthusiastically.

After instructing Turner to pass out copies of the statement, Herenton walked away with aides and did not take further questions.

This is the text of the statement handed out to the media Tuesday afternoon by Herenton:

“The transition from public service to the private sector has been contemplated by me for a considerable time after retirement from my current office.

“However, after receiving considerable encouragement from citizens to become a candidate in 2010 for the U.s. House of Representatives Ninth Congressional District, I am seriously evaluating the opportunity to represent the Memphis community at the federal level. My thirty years of public service has uniquely prepared me to represent Memphis at the federal level as our national leadership faces some very difficult challenges.

“I am forming an exploratory committee and anticipate making a decision in the near future.”

See Jackson Baker's Political Beat for more as this story develops.

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