The Morning After

The only path to consolidation is a financial calamity.


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They say it's better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and leave no doubt. Well, it's also better to be thought a hopelessly divided community than to hold an election that proves it.

What else can you say about a referendum that united blogger Thaddeus Matthews and Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland? And Shelby County school board member David Pickler and Al Sharpton? And suburban mayors and the Shelby County Democratic Party?

United they stand, on one thing: Say no to consolidation. The victory party should be interesting. So much for "One Memphis."

It didn't take Sharpton parachuting into town last week to dance on the grave to tell us consolidation was dead on arrival. No majority-white suburban county has ever consolidated with a major majority-black city. And even in the cities where consolidation passed, as noted by Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier in their book City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?, black voters feared the loss of political power.

The lawsuit that could delay certification of the results is a long shot. Separate city and county referendums, as the authors note, are not unusual. The consolidation scorecard shows about 40 successful consolidations in 120 attempts.

This is the third time Shelby County voters have rejected consolidation with Memphis. On Monday, a group of reporters were talking about when and if it might come up again. Someone said two years from now, but I think it will take a financial calamity before we have another consolidation discussion. And if that happens, consolidation is more likely to be mandated somehow than voter approved.

Calamity means an actual calamity, as in municipal bankruptcy or a move by FedEx to another city. The threat of some future calamity won't do it. The unpopular mayor, Willie Herenton, tried that. The popular mayor, A C Wharton, tried that.

The Metro Charter Commission and Rebuild Government had an impossible job. A piece of legislation that gets loaded up with something for everyone is called a Christmas tree bill. The charter authors tried to do that, but it backfired. Opponents found something not to like. The second option was to go negative and run an all-out fear campaign, like several congressional candidates did in the closing weeks of the campaign. But that would have meant beating up on Memphis even more. It made more sense to call off the dogs. A split referendum was not going to pass, period. There was no urgency to an idea that wouldn't take effect for four years and whose tax impact would not occur for seven years.

If there was any silver lining to this cloud it was that some young black activists like Andre Fowlkes, Darrell Cobbins, and Wendi Thomas stepped up. The black voting bloc that Matthews, Sharpton, and AFSCME long for is a crock.

"Something good came out of this," said consolidation supporter and former city councilman Jack Sammons. "For the first time in my adult life, the community paused to reflect about where we are going."

What now? The suburban mayors and commissioners hole up and vilify Memphis. The municipal unions treat government as a jobs and benefits program. The Shelby County Democratic Party drives off the last remaining white Democrats. Memphis will continue to lose population and middle-class families.

FedEx founder Fred Smith said Plan B would be for the city and county mayors to make the separate governments smaller and more competitive. But in a recent meeting with reporters and bloggers, Wharton was skeptical about two-headed government even when the mayors are in broad agreement, and he has held both mayoral jobs.

There might have been a time when Smith's view would have counted for something. The political boss of Memphis for the first half of the 20th century was E.H. Crump. His biographer, William Miller, wrote this about him: "Whether it was a consequence of his Old South heritage or just nature, he was an absolutist. There was right and wrong, truth and error, and one man's point of view was not always as good as another's."

Not any more.

Memphis and Shelby County and the two school systems won't make serious cuts or pull together until there is a crisis. Warnings and appeals to idealism and a better future won't do it. There will have to be a calamity. And then it will be too late.


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