Since 1995, the Memphis City Council has had an uneasy and unofficial working arrangement that acknowledges the fact that seven members are black and six are white.
That has changed this year with the forced absence of black council member Barbara Swearengen Ware because of her alleged involvement in a car-inspection kickback scheme. The council is now evenly divided between blacks and whites, and a vote along racial lines is possible next week when it takes up the budget.
A budget must be approved before the end of June. So far, so-called shared sacrifice proposals from Mayor A C Wharton and various council members have flopped. Last week the council voted 8-4 against a proposal from Councilman Harold Collins to increase property taxes 18 cents, but that was basically a parliamentary move that did not settle the issue.
Raising the tension at City Hall, along with the absence of Ware — a veteran known for her budget savvy and civil rights credentials — is another proposal to privatize the city's sanitation department. Several members of the AFSCME union came to last week's meeting wearing T-shirts or carrying signs saying "I Am A Man." Privatization proponents Kemp Conrad and Reid Hedgepeth were targeted in a YouTube video that compared them to Henry Loeb, the mayor of Memphis during the 1968 strike that led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The net effect of all of this is gridlock, an unbalanced budget, and some hard feelings. Council chairman Myron Lowery, who has served since 1991, says members are aware of the negative message sent by votes along racial lines and work to avoid them when they can. But that's tough to do this year.
"Lets face it, in this case, the 13th member is African-American and we have a majority African-American council, and the main subject that has hit us this year has been sanitation workers," he said. "And that is an emotional issue that lends itself to history and sensitivity of African-Americans because of the '60s."
Councilman Shea Flinn, who is white and joined the council in 2008, put it another way.
"A vote only matters if it creates or breaks a tie. We are conscious of the racial divide and oftentimes go to great lengths to avoid it," he said. "Members who don't want it to be a black-white vote concede some stuff. But now it's like there's no music at the dance. Everyone retreats to their corner."
He said the budget experience this year has been "awful" and was made worse by the videos featuring members of Conrad's and Hedgepeth's families in campaign clips juxtaposed with documentary clips from 1968. AFSCME has denied making the videos, which appear under the "Tennessee Labor" banner.
On Collins' motion to hike property taxes by 18 cents, black council members Wanda Halbert and Edmund Ford Jr. joined their six white colleagues in opposition.
Halbert said she is unsatisfied with the options on the table so far but could possibly vote for a tax increase as a "last resort." Ford did not rule out changing his vote but also said a tax increase "needs to be last on our list." He said Collins' proposal "was not a good offset" for the discarded proposal to privatize parking meters and raise some $20 million in a one-time deal.
Several weeks ago, Flinn proposed a "one-time special assessment" to property owners to settle the lingering $57 million debt to Memphis City Schools. He said he has "not seen the council take anything out of the budget" that would make him vote for a permanent property tax increase.
The history of Memphis for at least 50 years has been driven by race. Legal remedies, such as busing and the 1991 federal court ruling eliminating runoffs in mayoral and at-large city elections, have had unintended results. White candidates can win African-American district races if multiple black candidates split the vote, and some black candidates have won at-large elections, including Minerva Johnican in 1983 and Lowery and Kenneth Whalum Sr. in 1995, when blacks first became a majority on the city council.
Lowery said that, except for the AFSCME issue, the budget conflicts are not so much issues of race as they are differences of philosophy. But he sees another storm coming this summer.
"Mark this: The story in the next months will be redistricting," he said. "Raleigh is becoming blacker than anticipated."
Raleigh is represented by Bill Morrison, one of the council's six white members.