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E Unum Pluribus

Political unity can exist in local government, until ambition or gravity or whatever casts it asunder.

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At a time when the concept of bipartisan cooperation, at least on the national and statewide levels, is honored more in the breach than in the observance, local politics still affords some instances of the principle in action.

The oft-contentious Memphis City Council, for example, was able to put aside racial and partisan differences to align itself unanimously behind the idea of accepting the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter. The motivation was clearly that of defending the city's sovereignty and right of self-determination against challenges from other political jurisdictions.

As council member Bill Boyd, a white Republican conservative representing a quasi-suburban constituency, put it when the council, early in January, made the first of its two votes in favor of accepting the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter: "We are all Memphians, and we're all representatives of the citizens of Memphis."

And on February 10th, when the council responded to the General Assembly's passage of the Norris-Todd Bill by reaffirming its prior decision with a second vote, council member Wanda Halbert, a black Democrat from the inner city, preceded her vote with the announcement that she had not favored dissolution of MSC originally but that she felt the city's sovereignty was under attack and needed defending.

Similarly, the Shelby County Commission, almost evenly divided on both racial and partisan lines, has of late found in the ongoing school crisis a basis for a clear working majority. Republican members Mike Carpenter and Mike Ritz have consistently combined with Democratic members who, like themselves, represent city-based districts, in order to pursue the common goal of constructing a unified all-county school board.

Partisan solidarity of a sort is by no means wholly absent from the commission's dialogue on the matter, however. Commissioner Heidi Shafer who, like fellow Republicans Ritz and Carpenter, represents District 1, a mixed urban-suburban area, has generally sided with Wyatt Bunker, Terry Roland, and Chris Thomas, GOP members from District 4, a sprawling area that takes in most of suburban outer Shelby County.

Like those members, Shafer has resisted both the commission's newly established timetable for creating an interim all-county school board and the rationale for its doing so. Though District 1 overlaps Memphis' eastern perimeter and its western suburbs, Shafer would seem, like Bunker, Roland, and Thomas, to be a proponent of an independent public-school apparatus to serve the suburbs.

On the occasion of a recent rally opposing school merger and on behalf of a potential Germantown Municipal School District (one which would require additional taxpayer subsidy), Shafer wondered out loud "if by trying to make things more equal we are not making them equally miserable."

For whatever reason, Shafer and the three Republicans representing District 4 have come to represent a dependable bloc on a variety of issues. They have opposed Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell on his desire to establish a unified county IT system and on a number of other issues relating to the county mayor's assertion of administration prerogatives.

At least part of their motivation would seem to be that of loyalty to some of the rank-and-file Republicans who were elected last fall to administer this or that clerkship or department of county government. Though a Republican, Luttrell has tended to gravitate toward demonstrations of common purpose with his fellow chief executive, Memphis mayor A C Wharton, a Democrat who, like the county mayor, finds it fairly easy to put partisanship per se on a back burner.

But resistance to the administration and to the Luttrell-Wharton partnership on given issues is something that often seems to transcend party lines. One of those issues concerns the degree to which various commission members view with suspicion and misgivings the newly created joint city-county enterprise called E.D.G.E. (for Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County).

Designed to unite under a common umbrella a variety of agencies charged with overseeing economic development, the new organization got approval from both the city council and the county commission, but not without needing something of a hard sell, particularly with the latter body, where there has been palpable resistance both to E.D.G.E. itself and to particular instances of industrial recruitment.

Though both mayors, along with the Chamber of Commerce and then-Governor Phil Bredesen, made a point last December of ballyhooing the forthcoming transplantation of a vast Electrolux plant from Quebec to Memphis, several members of the county commission, in both parties, found fault with that particular recruitment — most of the objections focusing on the role of both city and county government.

Bunker, for example, saw a deviation from pure free enterprise in the heavy governmental share of the initial investment — $20 million each from city and county government and another $100 million from the state, out of a start-up total of $190 million. Democrats Walter Bailey and Henri Brooks also demurred, Bailey wondering about the disproportionate amounts contributed by local and state government, and Brooks, bearing down on the question of whether Electrolux was in full compliance with the Title VI (equal opportunity) provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In the end, the commission would approve the county's end of the start-up subsidy, but not until Electrolux exec Tom Vining had undergone a fairly serious grilling.

More of the same occurred this week in the wake of the announcement that Mitsubishi Electric would be building a new facility here to manufacture electrical transformers. The subsidies required of city and county were far less than with Electrolux, both absolutely (only $1 million was required of county government) and proportionally, in that the company itself was footing most of the start-up bill.

Even so, there was some flak from the commission, which, for better or for worse, has become something of a minefield on the local economic development front. Democrat James Harvey, who has made no secret of his intent to challenge Wharton in this year's mayoral election, complained about the secrecy that the two mayors were insisting upon in their industrial recruitment efforts, prompting Wharton to call such criticism counterproductive and liken it to a "Chihuahua nipping when the big dogs go by."

In the end, Harvey joined his colleagues in bestowing his blessings on the Mitsubishi plant (whose executives, however, experienced another interrogation from Brooks on Title VI issues). Harvey also made it clear, though, that he thought both city and county government were in danger of becoming easy marks for predatory industries looking for a cushy deal. And yes, he said, he intended to make that a campaign issue.

Which is to say, politics is still politics, and, for fair reasons or foul, political motives tend to work against the kind of unity which commission chairman Sidney Chism likes to call "lockstep" (an adjective he's been known to favor the Republicans on the commission with). Likewise, overriding political motives can forge an unusual degree of unity, as the aforementioned school issues have on both the city council and the county commission.

If there is a local body permanently unsuited to the concept of unity, it would seem to be the Memphis City Schools board, which may or may not be on borrowed time, depending both on whether next week's referendum on transferring MCS's authority to SCS succeeds and on how long subsequent litigation could delay a merger.

While the MCS board exists, however, it will apparently continue to be a hotbed of disagreement — the most recent evidence of which came Monday night when Superintendent Kriner Cash, an opponent of merger, precipitated an argument over the exact meaning of "yes" and "no" votes regarding next week's referendum.

In the resultant fallout, Tomeka Hart, a pro-merger member, departed, protesting the "inappropriate" political context of Cash's remarks. (Coincidentally or not, she had been billed as a guest of honor at a fund-raising event elsewhere in the city.) And three opponents of a merger — Sara Lewis, Kenneth Whalum, and Jeff Warren — proceeded to hold forth (and not for the first time) on the nature of their opposition, thereby ensuring that the answer to the question "Whatever happened to ... ?" (filling in the blank with the name of one of the above) could not be answered with a response of "Who?"

At least for the time being.

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