The political figure is Edward Hull "Boss" Crump, a Memphis mayor, congressman, and political kingmaker in the first half of the 20th century who died in 1954. In the last month or so, three people that I consider well-informed and responsible types have suggested that I look into the fire department, which has 57 stations and accounts for 25 percent of the operating budget. Moreover, they suggested that it all goes back to Crump's insurance company, which was one of the biggest in the South in its day.
So I asked Crump scholar G. Wayne Dowdy, archivist at the Memphis Public Library and author of "Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis."
"They spent a lot on the fire department and used it to promote the city," said Dowdy. "It was one of those things in the 1940s and 1950s that they talk about, along with Memphis being the Cleanest City in America. It had a nationally recognized fire department and one of the lowest number of fires. You see that over and over again."
But Dowdy said it's a stretch to say that Crump was fire-conscious in order to financially benefit his insurance company.
"I have never seen that," he said. "He publicly distanced his insurance company from city government. There were no city contracts with the Crump Insurance Company that I have been able to find. He was a successful businessman and made a lot of money and had one of the largest insurance companies in the South. But the evidence suggests they took great pains to separate those two."
Dowdy adds, however, that any diligent politician can gain favor by putting a fire station in a neighborhood because "if your house is ever damaged you want firemen there quickly." And a prudent businessman, needing some property insurance, might well decide, all things being equal, to buy it from the agency bearing the name of the most powerful man in town.
So I say, let's give the old boss a break. Our fiscal problems have more recent causes.
Without mentioning Crump, Mayor A C Wharton passed out a handout to members of the Memphis City Council this week purporting to show that Memphis spends three to four times as much of its operating budget on police and safety than Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga. The implication was that some cuts may be forthcoming.
If so, you can expect cops and firemen to squawk. Several members of the police brass were on hand at the council the other day when the mayor spoke in executive session. When the budget goes downstairs, we can expect to see a lot more of them.
Footnote: Wharton's handout had some puzzling numbers in it. For example, it gives the population of Memphis as 602,435. I can't find a number that low in any census in decades. The most recent numbers are 670,902 in 2006 and 669,657 in 2008. Nashville's population in the handout is pegged at 668,428, although the 2006 census estimate puts it at 552,120. Few things can throw a debate off course more quickly than city-to-city comparisons using bad numbers.