Firefighters Endorse Kyle, Gibbons Proposes Independent UM Board

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Jim Kyle; Bill Gibbons
  • JB
  • Jim Kyle; Bill Gibbons
Memphis’ two entries in the Tennessee gubernatorial race each made a media splash on Thursday — Republican Bill Gibbons with a call to give the University of Memphis its own governing board and Democrat Jim Kyle with a ceremony in which he was endorsed by the Memphis Fire Fighters Association.

More interestingly for the long run, the thrust into the question of higher education by District Attorney General Gibbons, who has thus far focused on public safety, puts him on the same page, issue-wise, that has so far characterized the race by Kyle, the Democratic leader in the Tennessee state Senate.

And it highlighted a fact of life for both campaigns: Each candidate is seeking, beyond his own partisan political base, voters from the broad middle of the local Shelby County voting population. After his press conference Thursday, Gibbons acknowledged that he and Kyle were competing for some of the same voters — moderate or independent or just partial to both local hopefuls — who would have to choose between supporting Gibbons in the Republican primary or Kyle in the Democratic primary.

But, along with his admission, Gibbons gave a shrug, a gesture which spoke eloquently to his belief that the problem is more acute for Kyle, who doesn’t have the demonstrable long-term record of attracting voters from the opposite party that Gibbons himself does.

Gibbons elaborated: “I like Kyle. In fact, I told him last year that if he wanted to run for governor, he better do it now. This would be his best-ever opportunity. But he’s got a problem. As a state senator, he doesn’t have the widespread name recognition that he might have in some other office.”

Gibbons’ proposal for an independent board for the University of Memphis, made in the Central Avenue Holiday Inn that faces the northern rim of the university campus, was based, he said, on three factors — (1) UM’s certification by the Carnegie Institute as a research university, making it one of three in the state (the others being the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University, both independently governed); (2) UM’s “unique status” as an urban university, serving a city population and offering a growing number of post-graduate degrees; (3) an overriding need “to cut down on bureaucratic red tape,” both that of the state Board of Regents and that of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).

The Board of Regents, currently saddled with the oversight of six major institutions, 13 community colleges, and 26 technology centers, is over-burdened and slow to focus on the needs of individual campuses, Gibbons said.

Gibbons said the change to independent governing status for the University of Memphis would involve no major start-up costs “and in fact might save money.” Reminded that the proposal for an independent UM board had been made before, notably by first-time gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen in 1994, who has not proposed such a change while serving as governor, Gibbons said, without elaborating, that the idea had suffered historically from “benign neglect” and “turf protection.”
As indicated, Kyle himself has concentrated a good deal of his campaign rhetoric on the problems of higher education, and, he, too has called for revamping the Board of Regents, removing the technical institutions from the Board’s control and giving them their own supervising authority. Kyle has also made proposals for guaranteeing stable tuition costs for students on course to degrees. He has not yet focused on plans for individual universities but has promised to release a comprehensive plan for higher education at some point in the future.

Kyle’s endorsement by the Firefighters occurred at the Association’s local headquarters on Stage Road. In a prepared statement, Larry Anthony, president of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, said "Jim Kyle has a long history of working on our behalf and we trust him. We believe he is the candidate who knows what needs to be done and has the ideas and the experience to make it happen.”

Elaborating at the endorsement ceremony itself, Anthony said he thought Kyle would win the support of other labor organizations in the state. Expressing gratitude for the endorsement and for financial support from the Firefighters, Kyle said he, too, believed that his record would meet with the approval of other labor organizations.

In recent weeks, Kyle, both of whose parents were union members, has received the endorsement of such organizations as the Mid-South Carpenters’ Regional Council and the Memphis Police Association.

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