Politics » Politics Feature

A Pair of Showdowns

The county commission reexamines “minority” employment; three Democrats play to a “nice guy” tie.

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Just what does the term "minority" mean when applied to equal-opportunity provisions of government hiring and contracting in Shelby County? The issue got a workout at Monday's Shelby County Commission meeting when Commissioners Henri Brooks and Walter Bailey objected to two seemingly routine constructions items listed on the Consent Agenda for the meeting.

Consent Agenda items, as against items specified as Regular Agenda, are items expected to encounter no opposition. Frequently, however, such items are pulled off the agenda at the request of individual members and subjected to discussion before voting on them.

Brooks, in particular, is a watchdog on items involving federal grant money and has them reassigned to the Regular Agenda to make sure they observe the Title VI equal-employment strictures of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

A similar issue was at stake when she and Bailey interrogated Shelby County Public Works officials about one item, in particular, calling for roof replacement of a county structure on Mullins Station Road. After asking about the distribution of jobs on the construction project, Brooks was told that 29 "minority" workers would be employed, a clear majority of the work force.

Brooks probed further: How many of those were blacks? None, she was told. They were all Hispanic. In the hurly-burly of discussion that followed, it was explained by Public Works administrators, including director Tom Needham, that Hispanics comprised the brunt of the work force for all three firms that bid for the project.

Commission chair James Harvey, an African American like Brooks and Bailey, spoke to what he regarded as the unfortunate truism that both blacks and whites were less inclined these days to do hard labor "under the sun," a term — and a point of view — swiftly objected to by Bailey, who opined that the bidding companies actively discriminated against African Americans.

In the end, a commission majority, including Harvey, voted to refer the contract matter back to committee and in the meantime to establish an ad hoc committee to reexamine the county's hiring and contracting policies so as to make sure that the employment of blacks, who now constitute a majority of Shelby County residents but remain a "minority" in Title VI terms, is actively sought.

• The obvious first question about last Thursday's first extended debate of Democratic county mayor candidates at the Professional Building on Airways is: Who won? And the answer is clear: The sponsoring Shelby County Democratic Party, which is still trying to regain its health after the electoral wipeout of 2010.

All three Democratic candidates vying in the Democratic primary of May 6th for the right to oppose Republican incumbent Mayor Mark Luttrell in August — Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, former Commissioner Deidre Malone, and former school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. — gave good accounts of themselves.

They managed to suggest their differences, some in fairly bold shades, but they did so without the kind of unpleasant in-fighting that could foster alienation later on among party factions.

Indeed, there was a moment toward the end of the debate when the three competed to see who could intone variations on the phrase, "We are all nice people," with the greatest enthusiasm. And all made the obligatory promise that they would support whichever of the three should get the party's nomination.

But each, as indicated, had their moments of clear self-definition.

Mulroy, who has championed anti-discrimination and living-wage proposals, among numerous other such issues, defined himself, no doubt correctly, as having been the county commission's "most progressive activist" — able thereby, in a phrase that thrust in both an ethical and an electoral direction, to "heal the racial divide."

The way for a Democrat to defeat the Republican incumbent county mayor, Mulroy said, was not to parrot the other party's rhetoric but to "be consistent" and present an "aggressive contrast." Two cases in point were the commissioner's advocacy for universal pre-K and for a stepped-up blight-reduction program.

Whalum, pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church in Orange Mound, was equally determined to differentiate himself from the other two, but his way of doing so was to declare himself unabashedly as a partisan of Memphis concerns, rather than as some bridge-building exponent of Shelby County as a whole. He made much of the fact that he, uniquely of the three, had opposed the December 2010 surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.

Two of his chief issues are basically intramural ones — an insistence that city government make good on its delinquent $57 million maintenance-of-effort debt to Shelby County Schools, soon to be a de facto city system; and that, in order to strengthen city neighborhoods, SCS keep open the nine inner-city schools it has marked for closing.

Malone, a PR executive with a mixed business/governmental résumé, has a longtime record of activism within the Democratic Party, name recognition from two terms as county commissioner and a previous mayoral race, and a history of involvement with a variety of civic causes.

One of the latter is her membership on the EDGE board, the cross-governmental public/private body that establishes local industrial recruitment policy. Opponent Mulroy made an effort to turn that credential into a two-edged sword in Thursday night's debate by suggesting that the "people who sit on the board right now" had been lax in providing construction opportunities for women and minorities and guilty of promising results "that have just not happened."

Malone countered that by expressing pride in her membership, noting that the deals struck to attract new Electrolux and Mitsubishi plants, widely suspect as giveaways, had preceded her involvement, and insisting that she had been "adamant" about bringing labor to the table.

Mulroy's somewhat veiled challenge to Malone on the EDGE issue was one of several thrusts by one candidate against another that might have led to serious controversy but didn't. In Thursday's debate these tentative efforts came out of periodic candidate-asking-candidate segments devised by debate host Greg Coy of Fox Channel 13 to conform with the model of the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates of 1858.

Malone launched two sallies of that sort that she deigned not to exploit to any real conclusion. She asked Mulroy a direct but vaguely stated question about the Title X credentials offered by Planned Parenthood in 2011 when the commission majority opted instead to shift federal funds for women's services to Christ Community Health Services.

All that did was give Mulroy — who had joined with the majority back then, as he has said, so as to impose strict monitoring conditions — a springboard for his consistent demand, backed by Planned Parenthood advocates, that the Title X contract be rebid now in light of a weak statistical performance by CCHS.

That was as nothing, however, to Malone's surprising neglect of Whalum's potential bombshell answer when she asked if the former school board member, who has made a major campaign issue of the $57 million owned by the city of Memphis to SCS, had not at one point argued that the city should not make such a payment at all.

Whalum, clearly more than a little abashed, admitted that he had, later contending somewhat lamely that at that early point in school board litigation versus the city there had not yet been a court ruling in the board's favor.

What the candidates basically did was leave small trail markers on paths they might pursue closer to the May 6th primary vote, when the competition will presumably have become more heated.

Future joint appearances by the three candidates may well see them picking up on the aforementioned trail markers and leaving behind some of the comity on display Thursday night.

Early voting for the May 6th primary extends from Thursday of this week through Thursday, May 1st.

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