"There are some things I don't apologize for," he says during a somewhat tense interview at his campaign headquarters on Union Avenue in Midtown. The generally soft-spoken mayoral candidate and former MLGW president is furious with the Flyer's John Branston for a recent column that correctly stated that Morris' Overton Park home never lost power during Hurricane Elvis. The reason his neighborhood didn't lose power, Morris says, is that it is served by underground cables, which helped minimize power outages.
"Nobody knows what my family went through," Morris says, smoldering at the implication that he got special service. "A huge tree came crashing through my daughter's roof, and, but for the grace of God, she'd be dead."
Contradicting his critics, Morris says his leadership in response to Hurricane Elvis is the crowning achievement of his time as president of MLGW, and he supports his claim with data relevant to the size of the disaster and the speed of the recovery. "We were able to get full reimbursement from FEMA," Morris says.
For a candidate whose measured speech and low blood pressure are considered a political liability, Morris' temper flare-up is perhaps more assuring than alarming. He's got some fire in the belly after all. He isn't afraid of his critics. In fact, he has long, painstakingly detailed answers for all of them. Here are a few:
Memphis Flyer: How will you manage Memphis' money? You were a driving force behind MLGW's failed $30 million telecom venture, Memphis Networx. Even in a good market environment, that kind of business requires the frequent investment of millions of dollars to create revenue streams paying tens of thousands monthly. Have you learned anything from the disaster?
Herman Morris: On further review and reflection, I probably got too ambitious in terms of making Memphis Networx a public/private endeavor. If we hadn't had the private investors with issues of "don't release our proprietary information," the media might have been less aggressive. That's the kind of thing that really makes the media's hair stand on end. Handled differently, it could have been built out faster, and it could have become profitable sooner, and we wouldn't have gotten stuck with the terrible deal we were stuck with.
So you still think Networx was a good idea?
It's not that the idea doesn't work. It just didn't work here.
There was a great deal of controversy over the generous benefit packages enjoyed by top executives at MLGW during your tenure. Again, you've never apologized. How will this sit with voters who are angry with the current mayor's reputation for cronyism and patronage?
[Former MLGW president] Joseph Lee is being investigated. I'm not being investigated. When I left MLGW, it was one of the best utility companies in the nation. Now it's one of the worst. Look, I try lawsuits. You put expert witnesses on the stand to explain some difficult math problem. Well, some juries' will understand every nuance of the complex mathematical equation, some juries' eyes will glaze over. At the end of the day it will come down to "I trust this man or I don't."
You've campaigned on a platform to reduce crime, reverse urban sprawl, and bring in jobs. Where do we get all the money and the skilled labor?
We've got to be smart about that. I'm an assembler of good ideas. I just visited with a company in Binghamton that does precision machine work for surgical devices, and another company that does similar skilled machine parts for NASCAR. These companies take people and send them to school to develop the level of skill required to do these things. I asked these people what it would be worth if employees came in with a competency level that would cut that learning curve in half ... if I could get these folks together with folks the academic arena. We did that at [MLGW] with the first two years of the utility's apprentice program. Now you can go to Shelby State and get a two-year degree as an apprenticed lineman.
Where does the money come from?
Fort Wayne, Indiana, deployed a total-quality-management tool called Six Sigma. They deployed this private-sector tool in their government in order to take something that usually takes 10 steps and cut it down to two. And they have enjoyed tremendous savings as a result. We have to be creative in applying private-sector approaches to a public arena. That's not always as easy in government as it is in private business because the bureaucrats are all in place. It's like storming the ramparts with rocks being thrown down on you.