Politics » Politics Feature

Baker’s Dozen

Twelve stories that dominated politics in 2010.

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This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive, nor is the list necessarily ranked in order of importance. And yes, of course, there are bound to be inexplicable omissions that will occur to the absent-minded (and mortified) author just as soon as this list sees print.

1) Dropping the Bomb (MCS vs. SCS): The biggest story of the year — maybe of the decade, or even of the 20 years of the Flyer's existence — was the late-breaking one involving the two public school systems in these parts and the "nuclear options" they arrayed against each other. Aside from the gravity of the issue itself (the radical transformation of the way public education is organized in Memphis and Shelby County), the confrontation had other repercussions both local and statewide.

After the Memphis school board's 5-4 epochal vote on Monday, December 20th, to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools, thereby occasioning a referendum early next year in which city voters could confirm the de facto consolidation of the city schools with those of the Shelby County system, numerous uncertainties remained:

Might advocates of a special school district in Shelby County (the specter of which had forced the MCS vote) try for that status anyhow? Would other legislative obstacles to unification be enacted? Would white flight be accelerated? How would the outcome in Shelby County affect efforts statewide to generate new school districts with full taxing authority? Those were just a few of the genies in the bottle.

2) The August Election I (local results): Arguably, the November election (third, fourth, and fifth in this list) had more issues at stake and more repercussions, but the total wipeout in the Shelby County general election of candidates nominated by Shelby County's Democrats, nominally a clear majority, was a telling commentary on the party's predicament in 2010 — especially since Democratic candidates had easily taken the four county positions up for grabs in 2008.

2a) As a sort of codicil (making this list a true baker's dozen), a major part of this story was the continuing protest from defeated Democrats alleging fraud and/or inexcusable inefficiency by the Election Commission so as to alter the results. Chancellor Arnold Goldin would disallow calls for a new election.

3) The November Election I (consolidation): Locally, the chief result of the fall election was to sound an apparent death knell for city/county consolidation, at least for a generation. The key word here is "apparent," because the voters' 2-to-1 overall rejection of a hedged and cobbled-together Metro Charter countywide (more than 4-to-1 outside the Memphis city limits) did not prevent a near-resurrection of the issue on the Shelby County Commission nor the unanticipated end run of the MCS charter-surrender vote, which could conceivably revive prospects for political consolidation overnight.

4) The November Election II (national results): A year earlier — at a point equidistant between the Obama presidential landslide and the then looming off-year election — Democratic losses were expected in the nation at large but not on the scale that ultimately developed. Whether because of a reaction against the administration's health-care act or unease over Obama's leadership or the fact of unrelenting unemployment, the Democrats got taken to the woodshed for something that was more beating than spanking. And the still unpopular Republicans, without ever having had to retool since their own losses in 2006 and 2008, were the beneficiaries.

5) The November Election III (statewide results): The proportions of Democratic defeat in Tennessee, too, were unexpected. It had been obvious that the state, which tilted Republican even in 2008, was acquiring an ever redder complexion, but the turnover in 2010 of the state House of Representatives — from a virtual even-steven status to a 2-to-1 majority for the GOP — had the looks of an indelible paint job.

And the obliteration of known-quantity Blue Dogs like Roy Herron and Lincoln Davis (in the 8th and 4th congressional districts, respectively) by out-of-nowhere Republicans was a clear, easy-to-decipher message. Moreover, the Democrats' would-be gubernatorial sequel, Son of Ned Ray, never got off the storyboard as Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, the GOP nominee, easily waxed the hapless Mike McWherter.

6) The August Election II (statewide primaries): Yet another augury of the political shape of things arose from a statewide primary season in which few Democratic contests developed and fewer still generated any interest. Republicans, meanwhile, were fiercely competitive with each other, in legislative races and, especially, in congressional match-ups — like that in West Tennessee's 8th District, which saw newcomer Stephen Fincher, a farmer/gospel singer from Frog Jump(!), turn back two well-heeled physicians, George Flinn of Memphis and Ron Kirkland of Jackson, in the nation's most expensive congressional primary race.

7) The August Election III (gubernatorial results): Here, too, the story was all GOP, with the aforesaid Mike McWherter, a Jackson beer distributor, acquiring the Democratic nomination by default, the rest of the party's original field having read the political tea leaves and opted out. Fueled by money (his family's Pilot Oil wealth and a well-oiled fund-raising machine), personal attractiveness, and an industrious (if unrevealing) campaign, the moderate Haslam would eventually pull away from the rest of the Republican field, including gonzo-styled Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp and the state's arch-conservative lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey.

8) Step Right Up and Have a Slug, Mister! (gun legislation): In a reprise of the previous year's legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly repeated its jump through parliamentary and legal hoops, enacting a series of far-reaching bills (some of them redesigned to avoid constitutional issues that had invalidated them the year before) that established the right of gun-permit holders to tote their sidearms virtually anywhere at any time, including public parks and — famously or notoriously (pick one) — bars. Enough momentum was left over for an expected push in 2011 by gun advocates to eliminate the need for permits altogether.

9) Mayoral New Brooms: A C Wharton, who had left his job as Shelby County mayor upon winning a special election for Memphis mayor in 2009, set out to demonstrate that critics of his previous governing style as too bland and P.R.-conscious had misread what had actually been his entrapment in a weak-mayor system. Installed in the strong-mayor Memphis job, Wharton devoted most of his first year to cleaning house, systematically uncovering corruption and inefficiencies and expunging their perpetrators. His successor as Shelby County mayor turned out to be two-term sheriff Mark Luttrell, the Republican victor (what else?) over Democratic interim mayor Joe Ford. A skilled diplomat like his predecessor, Luttrell served notice of his intent to consolidate such internal functions (like the county's several  IT offices) as he could.

10) Tea Parties: Dismissed in some quarters (face it, in our own) as Astroturf phenomena when they first materialized in 2009, these groupings, both formal and informal, of discontented citizens, mainly but not exclusively conservative, put down real roots in 2010 and were vibrant enough to have held a national convention in Nashville (keynoted by Sarah Palin, no less) and numerous enough to have feuded among themselves over which candidates were most deserving of support. When they agreed on a candidate, that candidate did well.

11) GLBT Efforts: If At First You Don't Succeed ...: Persistent efforts were made throughout 2010 by the Tennessee Equality Project and other organizations to enact city ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons — both in city government and in the workplace at large. Sponsors on the City Council like Janis Fullilove and Shea Flinn strove earnestly, but their measures inevitably ended up road-blocked for one reason or another. At year's end, hopes remained high for another try, which might at least result in a generally worded antidiscrimination resolution like the one sponsored and passed in 2009 by Steve Mulroy on the County Commission.

12) Environmental Activism: It was the year of the Greenline, of bike trails, of Tiger Lane, and of organized efforts of various other kinds in Memphis and Shelby County to create sustainable habits and environmentally friendly projects.  The Sierra Club and other green activists weighed in on behalf of favored candidates during the election year and discovered their own potential strength during a series of group think sessions overseen by interim county mayor Ford. With mayors Wharton and Luttrell espousing their cause and with allies on the City Council and County Commission, 2011 was sure to be a case of MTK — journalese for More To Come.

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