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Looking for a Leader

Don’t cast your vote based on a candidate’s fund-raising abilities.

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For the more than 30 years I lived and reported in Memphis, it always pained me that thousands of people live out their lives in anguished anonymity. Many of these folks have accepted their sad lot in life based on their faith. I've always had a hard time comprehending that.

On my final day of work as a television reporter last week, I led a visiting PBS documentary team to a few of the most desolate and blighted areas of the inner city, so they could get a feel for the desperation that continues to plague many of the 28 percent of Memphians living below the poverty line.

In North Memphis, we found an elderly woman overseeing the care of her pre-school grandchildren, ages 2 and 3, by herself. She told me her home was the only house on the block that hadn't been boarded up and abandoned. She pointed to her left and told me that two drug addicts had burned down the house next door. She believed those who had been living in the empty house on her right had been responsible for poisoning the dog that had served as her family's only protection against the neighborhood's rampant crime. Her house was now being "guarded" by a small Pekinese a family member had given her.

When I asked her about safety concerns, she said whatever happened to them would "be the Lord's will." I thanked her for telling me her story and quickly turned to walk away so she wouldn't see the tears welling in my eyes.

It was with that memory still searing my brain that I read a newspaper article last weekend about the hundreds of thousands of dollars being raised by candidates running for Memphis mayor in October's citywide election. The more I read, the angrier I got. I know money is often described as "the mother's milk of politics," but it has worsened in recent years due to increased money coming from sources outside the city looking to influence local politics.

What really irritates me is the amount of money being spent to gain a mayoral office that doesn't pay as much as the candidates will spend to get it. It's just another disheartening example of the power of special-interest groups to put the blinders on those who seek elected office — men and women who otherwise might use the mantle of that office to strive for transformative change.

The success of fund-raising efforts should never serve as the main barometer for how voters cast their ballots. If you take your right to vote seriously, go online and find out exactly where the candidates' money is coming from. In Memphis, though I haven't looked yet, I'd be willing to gamble the names of the donors are quite familiar — as well as the motivations behind their financial support.

I'm now retired, officially, and for the first time in decades I will not be here to report on election night. But I will exercise my right to vote through absentee ballot. My choice for mayor will not be made based on fund-raising amounts. Having been to nearly every nook and cranny of this city, I will vote for the candidate who takes his case to the streets, who walks the walk and doesn't just spout the rhetoric of change. I want to vote for a leader who doesn't emerge from a limo surrounded by a photo-op entourage when he or she visits Orange Mound, South and North Memphis, and Frayser. I want a leader who does more listening than talking when it comes to learning about the needs in those imperiled communities. I want a leader who will take that information and use it to devise a comprehensive, no-nonsense plan to attack poverty, blight, and unemployment.

And I want an elected City Council not mired in personal agendas or racially motivated political partisanship. I want a leader who doesn't use the past as an excuse for not envisioning a progressive future. This city has yet to reach its full potential, but that potential is there.

And when it comes to divine intervention, I still believe the Lord helps those who help themselves.

Les Smith is a former reporter for WHBQ Fox-13.

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