By now most everyone is familiar with the term "tipping point" thanks to the bestselling book by Malcolm Gladwell about how little things can make a big difference.
At a time when Memphis is being called the second-most violent urban area in America, when a fire has turned the next big downtown thing into the next bad downtown thing, when the City Council has been asked to raise taxes to hire 650 more cops, and when thousands of people leave the city each year for neighboring counties, it's reasonable to wonder if Memphis is at a tipping point.
With a year to go until the next city election, the man who will have a lot to say about that is Mayor Willie Herenton. His 16th year in office could be either his greatest or his worst. Even though he sometimes gets booed at public appearances and blasted on the radio and in letters to the editor, a longer and more balanced view of Herenton's career suggests that he will rise to the occasion and that 2007 will see him at his best, which is better than anyone else in local politics.
Here's why: Before the tipping point there was the "tilt factor." In Memphis, that term was coined by former Memphis City Schools administrator O.Z. Stephens, a colleague of Herenton's when the mayor was a teacher, principal, and superintendent. The tilt factor was the point where white-student enrollment fell off the table and a school went from mostly white or mixed to all black. Stephens put it at about 30 percent. He saw it happen dozens of times in the 1970s and '80s, after the onset of busing and the Plan Z desegregation plan, which Stephens co-authored.
As a young superintendent, Herenton's response to the tilt factor was to start and support the optional-schools program. Its purpose, as former Grahamwood Elementary School principal Margaret Taylor recalled last week, was "to keep all the white students from leaving the school system." This is the same man who is now accused of driving Memphians away to DeSoto County.
Over the next 25 years, all but about 10,000 white students would leave anyway. But Herenton's advocacy was crucial to getting the program started and defending it against opponents. His next big move as superintendent was to close 18 schools. His successors have been unable to close more than a handful of schools even though the combined enrollment (and more important, the number of graduates) of the four smallest city high schools is now less than the enrollment at either of the two largest high schools.
Herenton has said several times that more schools should be closed. He has recommended for at least 10 years full or partial city and county consolidation, with or without separate school systems. He proposed rebalancing city and county property taxes 10 years ago. He explored the sale of MLGW, whose pension obligations could one day outweigh the benefits of public ownership. All of these proposals were dropped, maybe because of Herenton and maybe because Memphis wasn't at a tipping point.
Herenton's crime proposals were, in part, a response to meetings with Memphis Tomorrow, an elite group of business leaders. Ken Glass, president of Memphis Tomorrow, said crime has taken on "greater urgency" and Herenton and Police Director Larry Godwin must use "known, proven ways" to fight it. The model will be New York City and the "broken windows" approach outlined in Gladwell's book.
Herenton kept his own counsel and told the businessmen that crime was going to get worse before it gets better. He'll need all the help he can get to sell his crime plan. By opposing a payroll tax and recommending efficiency studies but ducking consolidation, business groups have left the mayor and City Council no options besides a tax increase to pay for 650 more cops. Citing a big drop in the number of fire calls due to code improvements, some council members think fire stations can be closed to shift more money to police. But that was before last week's rash of downtown fires.
At his best, Herenton can lead a New York-style turnaround in Memphis. At his worst, he could lose key supporters and his job.