The Ground Floor

That -- and Ground Zero -- are metaphors for the political present and future.

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To employ a modish metaphor, politics is a 24/7 process -- going on all the time, even in the non-election years that come along every three years.

The year just passed, 2001, was one of those. In some ways, it lacked the focused drama of the two previous such years -- 1993, which, among other things, saw the pivotal trial and acquittal of former congressman Harold Ford Sr. on bank-fraud charges; and 1997, much of which was taken up with Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's equally successful stand against "toy town" legislation from Nashville.

Victory in those respective endeavors gave each of these two titans a significant political boost for years to come. (In Ford's case, much of that would be passed along to his heirs and assigns -- notably Harold Ford Jr., his successor as U.S. representative from the 9th Congressional District and a hot political property on the statewide and national scenes.)

But 2001, the first election off-year of the new century, was marked by a series of events -- some distant, some near -- that may have more lasting aftershocks for more people over a longer time.

· Take the increasingly conflicted Tennessee legislature (please!). For the third straight year our state solons dissed the well-intentioned tax-reform efforts of Governor Don Sundquist and failed to produce a responsible budget that could pay for even basic state programs. As a result Tennessee is facing a half-billion-dollar shortfall for the next fiscal year and has already had to start pruning away at state parks and throttling initiatives in schooling, tourism, and economic development. Just for starters.

The state is now headed toward the bottom of the national rankings in categories ranging from basic and higher education (witness the increasingly unequipped laboratories and continued exodus of teaching staffs) to health expenditures (the once-promising TennCare system seemed on the verge of being abandoned).

None of this prevented the legislature from bowing to the frenzies of an enraged mob of anti-taxers which, on the memorable night of July 12th, besieged the state Capitol in Nashville, broke windows and shoved lawmakers, kept up a howling chorus, and prevented action on a compromise income-tax measure that would have required a statewide voter referendum to be fully enacted. Instead, the General Assembly voted to use up its share of national tobacco-settlement money just to pay its past-due bills then blew town, leaving the fiscal mess to worsen and fester.

On the high side, the state Senate finally passed legislation, promoted by Memphis' Sen. Steve Cohen for the last 16 years, that would allow the people of Tennessee to vote on instituting a statewide lottery, the proceeds of which would benefit education. (That vote will come next year and will be one of the highlights of a general-election ballot that will also see a U.S. Senate seat and the state's governorship open up.

· On the local scene, both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission spent much of their time, energies, and capital (both political and the other kind) on the issue of funding for a new sports arena to house the transplanted Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.

Here, too, protesters concerned about a new commitment of public-tax dollars forced second thoughts, but, unlike what happened in the case of the legislature, the differing factions on the council and, especially, on the commission worked hard to achieve a compromise and, in the end, were able to craft a measure that did not tie the construction issue to ad valorem (property-based) revenues.

Never mind that the future revenues finally pledged -- rental-car taxes and the like -- put the city and county in the position, Pollyanna-like, of betting on the come. Communities, like individuals, are entitled to wager on their futures, and polls indicated that a clear majority of local citizens were in favor of the Grizzlies/arena venture, which takes its place in what is, finally and indisputably, a bona fide redevelopment of downtown.

· Another major circumstance that presaged fundamental political change was statistical. Released in 2001 were the figures from the previous year's U.S. census, which showed that the demographics of Shelby County, like those of the city of Memphis a decade earlier, had taken the long-prophesied turn toward African-American predominance.

As in the case of the city earlier, this fact would not automatically determine the outcome of local elections, which continued to depend on relative degrees of participation by voter blocs and on other factors. But by the end of the current year, the extant candidacies for various local offices up for grabs next year made it obvious that blacks, running as Democrats, would be in hot competition for all local offices with whites, who (in the general election, anyhow), would be running as Republicans.

But certain situations -- the fact, for example, that various candidates for Shelby County mayor were making clear pitches to (or being pitched by) constituencies across racial and political lines -- augured a different political and social future than what Memphis and Shelby County got used to in the confrontational last half of the 20th century.

· The city and county are on the ground floor of the edifice that a new century and new perspectives will see constructed. And that metaphor, in more than one sense, is a reminder of another term that we all got used to in the tragic last quarter of the year just ending.

· Ground Zero: The devastation in New York has its counterpart in all our imaginations and in the local Zeitgeist as well. We know now that nothing can be counted on to endure, that elemental forces and unresolved conflicts can destroy the most harmonious purpose and the most developed plan. But, all the same, we sense an irrepressible spirit in the community, one that looks past economic downturns and the threat of the Apocalypse itself and is willing and able to keep on trucking.

For all of its storms and circuses, politics is and will remain the theater of the normal. For better and for worse, it is who we are. ·

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