The Big Issue of 2007 is Political Leadership, not a New Stadium

John Branston's take on the Mayor's latest proposal.


Another year, another big-ticket sports proposal.

So it has been for 20 years – The Pyramid, the NFL chase, the expansion of LibertyBowl Memorial Stadium, AutoZone Park, the NBA, FedExForum, now the stadium again.

The thing about proposed new teams and new buildings is that they take so much of the oxygen out of the room. They divert the time, attention, and resources of political and business leaders and the media from other issues, no matter how much political and business leaders and the media insist that is not so.

The truth is that there is a limited amount of space in our pages and newscasts and attention spans, even if you’re Robert Lipscomb, the city’s ever-ready go-to guy. Priorities matter. Crime, for example, did not become a priority because Memphis set a record for murders in 2006 (it did not) but, rather, because some people with influence made it a priority.

On Monday, Mayor Willie Herenton served up a pitch for a new stadium sandwiched between urban blight and public safety in the context of a prayer breakfast where a speaker asserted that there is not enough religion in politics and Herenton himself said, again, that he has a divine calling to be mayor of Memphis.

Guess which story led the news.

Fortunately, the question of a new stadium can be answered quickly this time: No, not now. What’s more, the business leadership and the Memphis City Council know it, which is one reason you didn’t see any of them standing alongside Herenton Monday at his press conference.

The University of Memphis football team, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and the Southern Heritage Classic have made the best of a 41-year-old facility and put more than 50,000 fans into it on their best days. If the locker rooms leak, call a plumber. Besides, the biggest problem at the biggest game of the year – Memphis v. Tennessee – wasn’t wet floors or a cramped press box, it was incompetent people who didn’t open enough gates to get fans in their seats before kickoff or get them through the concession lines quickly.

But that’s not the main reason the answer should be “not now.” The overriding issue facing Memphis in 2007 is Herenton and, secondarily, the makeup of the corruption ridden and increasingly irrelevant Memphis City Council. This is a city election year. Herenton is running for an unprecedented fifth consecutive term. All 13 city council seats will be on the ballot. Two current members are under indictment, one has resigned, and several others may decide not to run again.

Memphians and the media spend a lot of time and space discussing the merits of basketball coach Mike Fratello and his slow-down offense and assistant football coach Joe Lee Dunn and his leaky defense. Fratello, Dunn, Dana Kirk, Larry Finch, Tic Price, Charlie Bailey, Chuck Stobart, Rip Scherer – coaches routinely get canned and are often rehired by someone else where they’re a fresh face and a better fit.

A slow-down city with a leaky defense is another matter. Memphis is unique among big cities in having the same mayor for 16 straight years going on 20 straight years if the electorate is willing. Herenton knows the electorate has changed since 1991, with thousands of former Memphians, mostly white, moving outside the city limits. He doesn’t need a majority of the votes, like he got in 1995 and 2003. He only needs more than anyone else, like he got in 1991 and 1999. Although he denied that his State of City speech was a kickoff to his reelection campaign, he made it pretty clear how he will run.

He’ll rally black ministers and their congregations and wrap himself in his compelling personal story and his religious convictions and the theme of Nehemiah on the walls of Jerusalem.

He’ll point to solid accomplishments such as the city’s bond rating, downtown housing revival, and rebuilt housing projects. He’ll trot out white supporters such as Kevin Kane and Rick Masson. He’ll reward loyalists such as Janet Hooks, Joseph Lee, James Netters, Sara Lewis, Benny Lendermon, and Gale Jones Carson with better jobs in government or government nonprofits.

He’ll say his directors are doing a wonderful job, all evidence to the contrary.

He’ll pay lip service to the city council, whose indignity speaks for itself.

He’ll continue his habit of belittling reporters who disagree with him or ask him questions he doesn’t like by calling them “young man” or “rookie” or “what’s her name.”

He’ll ignore the rants of Memphis bashers who live outside the city or aren’t going to vote for him anyway.

He’ll talk about big difficult issues like surplus parks and urban blight – why wait 16 years to call for a relatively modest $50-million bond issue to tackle this? – then let most of them fade away.

And, as he sometimes reminds reporters, he’ll sleep well at night because he knows that for all the whining Memphians do about the same old politicians they almost always reelect them because they have the power and the prestige and the jobs and other goodies and anyone hoping to unseat them faces long odds and long days.

And we can go back to talking about a new football stadium. — John Branston

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