On Polls and Votes

Can traits that make Chumney unpopular with colleagues win over voters?

Posted by John Branston on Thu, May 17, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Two things that are often not what they seem to be: close votes in the Memphis City Council and polls showing the standing of Memphis mayoral candidates five months before the election.

Last Friday, a committee of the council voted 3-2 to withdraw funding for the $29 million Beale Street Landing project. But that doesn't mean the proposed riverboat landing and architectural monument at Beale Street and Riverside Drive is dead. The full council will have opportunities to replace the funding, perhaps as early as this week.

One of the three votes against Beale Street Landing was cast by Carol Chumney, who also happens to be leading Mayor Willie Herenton and challengers Herman Morris and John Willingham in the election polls.

Neither the committee vote nor the polls matter very much, but here are four reasons why I think Chumney will continue to make news this summer.

First, she is independent to a fault, which suits her fine, even if her colleagues see it as counterproductive and grandstanding. Her supporters see a diligent council member who is demonstrably not better off financially for having been a public servant.

Second, she favors upending the status quo. She is a radical in a way that has nothing to do with feminism or war or national issues and everything to do with local issues and priorities.

Third, when she takes a position, you may not agree with it but you know what it is. Her refusal to join in the censure resolution of Joseph Lee because it was irrelevant was unpopular but turned out to be correct.

And, fourth, unlike her fellow council members and the Memphis business establishment that supports Herenton with its money but not its mouth, she accepts the fact that this year you are either with the incumbent or you are against him. You're in as a mayoral candidate or you're out. And she's in.

Does this mean that Chumney would be an electable and effective mayor or that she is even an effective council member? Not necessarily, although my personal view is "no" on the first count and "yes" on the second.

But it does mean that Chumney, by being Chumney, brings clarity to issues and helps put them in clearer perspective?

Beale Street Landing, for instance, is a signature Herenton project. The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) is a Herenton creation staffed by former Herenton division directors and their spouses and supported by a board of Herenton appointees. Herenton and the RDC say the landing would bring more local and out-of-town visitors to Tom Lee Park and downtown. Chumney calls it a "boondoggle" in the tradition of Mud Island and The Pyramid.

Both Chumney and her colleague Scott McCormick, one of the two committee members who supported Beale Street Landing, correctly see that the funding vote is really a referendum on both the project and the RDC. Without a big project — the Front Street Promenade, the land bridge, relocating the University of Memphis law school, Beale Street Landing — the RDC is the "Riverfront Maintenance Corporation." You don't need three former division directors and a full-time PR person to do that.

Beale Street Landing and the RDC will probably survive because the City Council is also hooked on big projects. They make headlines and photo opportunities. They get federal funds. They create jobs and goodies and opportunities to repay favors to campaign contributors and fellow council members. This is the stuff of politics and, sad to say, the news business. On New Year's Day, Herenton proposed a new stadium and a new program to fight blight. Heard much about blight since then?

Many of the votes that make headlines at the City Council never amount to anything — think Lee's non-censure and the investigation of MLGW, the non-removal of Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete, the non-reuse of the Fairgrounds and The Pyramid, the non-annexation of 2006, and the 2007 efficiency study that will wind up on the shelf. So much of what goes on at the council is just for show.

Herenton knows that, just as he knows that a telephone poll putting his support at 20 percent or less reflects "free" votes that don't really count. The vote that counts will be in the October election.

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