City Politics and the Pending Anti-Discrimination Vote

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Councilman Shea Flinn discusses the shape of the anti-discimination study with contending parties Davis (l) and /Cole.
  • JB
  • Councilman Shea Flinn discusses the shape of the anti-discimination study with contending parties Davis (l) and /Cole.

A couple of significant actions taken by the Memphis City Council Tuesday evening have to be reckoned against the political calendar. Next year is election year for city government, and, while nobody on the current council is fool enough to consider running against Mayor A C Wharton, all the members will have to see to their own reelection (a just-passed referendum nullifies the staggered council terms that were approved in another referendum not that long ago).

And that means that, both for their immediate safety and their long-term prospects (A C can’t run forever, now, can he?), council members will be vying for position.

Tuesday’s approval by the council of a study of discrimination in city government is a case in point. Though clearly directed at the question of discrimination against gays — a hot-button issue which the Tennessee Equality Project and other representatives of the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgendered) community is pushing vigorously — the proposed inquiry has in theory a broader base.

In large part, the study’s general cast is to mollify critics of an explicitly worded anti-discrimination ordinance — one which was introduced on Tuesday and had the first, more or less pro forma, reading of three readings required for passage. Final passage of the ordinance is problematic, and the study, which will intervene time-wise, will be completed and evaluated before a third reading and a decisive vote. So promised Councilman Shea Flinn, sponsor of the study resolution.

Tuesday’s vote authorizing the study drew a single no vote — from Councilman Kemp Conrad, who based his opposition, he said later, on his aversion to “identity group politics,” and his sense that, however generally worded, the study will end up focusing primarily on the issue of discrimination involving the GLBT community.

“We might just as well look at discrimination against women, Republicans, left-handed people, or whatever,” said Conrad, dismissing the effort as a waste of time and resources.

Division on the Council

The issue of time is highly relevant. By its nature, a formal study (like one of those committees Mayor Wharton is fond of appointing) could either expedite or delay consideration of the subject if focuses on (a fact leading to the nearly unanimous authorizing vote). And it remains to be seen which is the case here. Flinn talked about a minimum period of six weeks, but forecast no end point for completion.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, both Jonathan Cole of TEP and Josh Davis of the Family Life Council, which adamantly opposes an anti-discrimination ordinance, expressed guarded support for the concept of a study — yet another indication of the ambiguity inherent in it.

There are hard and fast council advocates of an explicitly worded anti-discrimination ordinance. Two such are Flinn and Janis Fullilove, who made an emotional statement in session Tuesday in which she regretted that she had been talked into withdrawing her own anti-discrimination ordinance some months ago after an embarrassing episode in which, as she put it, she had “a good time dancing on a boat.” But she promised: “My voice will not be silent. This is the right thing to do.”

There are also diehard opponents — Conrad and Bill Boyd, for example. Most of the other council members fall in between, and while some profess an absolute open-mindedness and await the outcome of the study, others are frank to concede that they’d just as soon the vexing issue would go away before it requires a formal member-by-member commitment.

“This thing is liable to come to a head just before the filing deadline,” one member (who declined to be identified) worried after Tuesday’s meeting.

That anxiety was in recognition of the obvious fact that opinions are likely to be sharply divided in the larger Memphis community — with possible consequences at election time. The election date for next year’s city election is October 6, and the filing deadline will probably be set for a summer date, some months earlier.

No More Half Measures

Another action taken by the council on Tuesday could be regarded as predicated at least partly on a general desire by the council to hedge on controversy. Despite advance reports that Boyd intended to make an all-out effort to be elected chairman for the 2010-11 term, the council would vote unanimously instead for Myron Lowery.

That outcome could be credited to the general respect in which Lowery is held, as well as the fact that he had not completed his term as chairman when he interrupted it to become interim mayor after former Mayor Willie Herenton’s resignation in mid-2009.

But it is also a fact that Boyd is regarded as an active leader of the opposition to the anti-discrimination ordinance, while Lowery, though counted on the pro side, is something of a “bridge” personality on the council, more likely to calm such storms as may arise.

And well they might. The TEP and other GLBT organizations have made it clear they are no longer willing to settle for half measures like the anti-discrimination resolution passed by the Shelby County Commission in 2009. That one, avoiding any direct mention of gays per se, was a winnowed-down version of an explicitly worded ordinance originally introduced by Commissioner Steve Mulroy.

During this year’s election cycle, Mulroy campaigned on his sponsorship of the ordinance and passage of the resolution, while Commissioner Wyatt Bunker was able to campaign on what he boasted was the defeat of the ordinance.

Whatever emerges from the City Council’s deliberations between now and next October 6 is unlikely to bestow bragging rights on both sides of the equation.

See also Bianca Phillips' "Gaydar" blog.

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