Joe Ford’s billboards and paraphernalia employ the slogan “Voice of the People,” an apt phrase for the interim county mayor to adopt, suggesting populist concerns while simultaneously providing cover for his recurrent grammatical lapses.
Though Ford’s meanings are never unclear, his syntax often runs close to the edge and sometimes over it, as when he proudly claimed during Tuesday’s NAWBO debate with Mark Luttrell that “I have ran a calm citizen-involved open-door government.”
Since 70 percent of the constituency of Shelby County government resides within Memphis’ borders, and since the history of big-city mayors everywhere is replete with plainspeak vocabularies, Ford’s occasional run-ins with the language are as likely to endear him to voters as to put them off. Call it the Huey Long effect. The familiar phrase “politics ain’t beanbag” neatly encapsulates the idea.
Indeed, when both candidates were asked to identify any potential weakness they might have, either in educational preparation or political background, Ford was serene in his confidence: “I don’t see a weakness,” he said. “I’ve got six years of college, I’ve ran the office with distinction. I think most of you here can vouch for me on that. I think if you had to grade me right now, grade me A to F, just think about it, I’m going to continue that service.”
He then went on to note an extensive governmental vita — six years on the city council and seven years on the county commission, having served as chairman of both, plus the last five months as mayor. “Everything has come along just fine.”
Luttrell’s answer to the same question:”I’m not a ‘hail fellow well met,’ I’m pretty strictly business. I’m sometimes not as warm and fuzzy as I should be, that’s what my wife says. I take a great deal of pride in trying to be a good listener.”
That answer underscored the basis of one of the several disagreements between the two debaters. Ford, whose residence is in Bartlett these days, was quick to proclaim his unalterable opposition to city/county consolidation, rushing to do so even before he was questioned about it per se.
Luttrell was, on the surface at least, more measured: “I have not been an advocate or proponent. I pride myself on listening to what people have to say. We have a Charter Commission, and I don’t know what they will say. Mayor Ford or Mayor Luttrell are not going to decide consolidation…you the voters will. “ And he repeated: “To say you’re against something [when] you don’t know what it is” would be an “injustice” to the Charter Commission” The idea was to “wait and see what they have to say.”
On the surface, Ford’s championing of suburban resisters and Luttrell’s profession of urbane open-mindedness constituted something of an anomaly, political party-wise, but the real distinction was that Ford was centering himself in populist feeling while Luttrell’s sentiments were more abstract.
The same kind of distinction showed itself when the discussion went to the efficacy of out-sourcing county services. Luttrell, stating his mantra that he ever sought more efficiency in government, said, “We need to take a look,” while Ford made it clear he was “totally against” the very idea of out-sourcing. There were 6300 county employees, he said. “I want to keep them working. People lose jobs and benefits when you out-source.”
The two candidates differed also on the issue of Payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), the means whereby new businesses and industries are enticed into the county with tax breaks.
Ford took the hands-on point of view: “We’ve got to have the PILOT programs in Memphis. Take them away and it’s hard to balance our budget. They [the new businesses] do pay taxes.”
Luttrell, however, while acknowledging the usefulness of PILOT concessions, insisted they couldn’t be “the only component” of industrial recruiting and noted that Shelby County issue more PILOTs than “Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga combined.” He suggested a focus on other issues — “a strong educational system, safe streets, amenities in the community.”
Ford and Luttrell differed even on whether Shelby County’s was a “weak mayor” form of government, as most observers of its structure would suggest.. Ford — again, hands on — said he had not found it to be the case, that there were ways in which the county mayor had more power than the city mayor, citing his greater control of responders to the recent disastrous flood.
Luttrell, who has worked the structure from the vantage point of the Sheriff’s Department, a sizeable enclave with control over its own budget, saw the mayor’s office as depending on cultivation of relationships with other department heads.
Predictably, the two differed on whether the Med’s future had been safeguarded during Ford’s tenure. “I have saved the Med!” the interim mayor declared (no matter what the sheriff might say, he added), and he cited a series of funding increments — city, county, state, and federal — which he had labored to achieve.
Luttrell was skeptical. “Speak to anyone close to he Med, and they will tell you the Med has not been saved, it survives to fight another day.” All the funding sources Ford had boasted about had been stop-gap, meaningless without the long-term “business plan” which Luttrell insisted was necessary.
So it went. If there was a defining edge to the two candidates’ disagreement, it was that of incumbent versus challenger. Even on the issue, dear to the NAWO hosts, of what a county mayor might do for women owners of business, Ford talked in terms of seed money available and touted his task forces on the subject, while Luttrell promised to increase support for small-business initiatives and lamented the current lack of venture capital.
Ultimately, Tuesday’s forum suggested, for all the differences of race, party, constituency, and personal manner, the election could come to a case of what has been done already versus what else could be tried.
And for those who missed the forum? Fear not, there will be more of these to come.