Van Turner: The Compromiser 

In the course of years, individuals in organized groups start to differentiate into what anthropologists call "archetypes" — specific behavior types that can be discerned to recur periodically over the long span of human history. One of the best-known archetypes is that of the messiah — the would-be savior who emerges to attempt drastic alterations in the pattern or fate of a body politic. The scale for that archetype runs from benevolent saintly figures to charismatic demagogues. There has been no dearth of either sort in political history.

Van Turner
  • Van Turner

And then there is something we might call the Henry Clay archetype. Known as the "Great Compromiser," Clay was a towering figure in American politics during the early 19th century, famous for resolving seemingly intractable disputes by finding and advocating middle-ground positions.

The Henry Clay of the Shelby County Commission is Van Turner, a Memphis Democrat who consistently interposes between squabbling factions and finds compromise solutions that resolve the quarrel. Such was the case again Monday when an intervention by Turner made it possible for the commission to approve an MWBE program requiring the county to give African Americans and Caucasian women special consideration to remedy what Equal Opportunity Compliance director Carolyn Watkins had determined to be discrimination in contracts and purchasing.

The measure almost hit a snag when Commissioner Heidi Shafer objected that, by not specifying all women as such, including Asians and Hispanics, the measure was "actually regressive." Various other members of the commission insisted on an immediate vote on the measure as written, seeing Shafer's objections as essentially semantic, but enough fellow Republicans sided with her to ensure further discussion. A largely unspoken issue was that, if the ordinance were amended, it would require an additional reading — meaning that the issue would have to be held off until the new year.

It was then that Turner materialized with a resolution that bridged the gap between the two contending factions, leaving the existing classifications of the ordinance intact but adding a provision that gave the EOC director Watkins free rein to apply the terms of the ordinance to such other groups as she deemed appropriate.

More debate ensued, but the key moment came when Shafer said she found the provisions of the resolution satisfactory. That allowed for a final vote approving the ordinance by a decisive 11-2 vote. The commission went on, by a 12-1 vote to approve a companion measure applying similar remedial provisions to locally owned businesses, strengthening their potential future share of county purchases and contracts.

The two ordinances together allowed the commission to end the year on a positive note and, temporarily at least, resolved a long-standing wrangle over the disparity issue. As audience member James Johnson said, appropriating a famous World War II quote from Winston Churchill, "This is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it's the end of the beginning."


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