Politics » Politics Feature

Memphis as Vietnam: Richard Smith Urges Kumbaya in Nashville

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Bet you never heard this said before: "Memphis is to Nashville as Vietnam is to China."

Huh? That dandy little syllogism was stated on Saturday by an influential person in a position to know: Richard Smith, son of FedEx founder Fred Smith, and the current president and CEO of the Memphis-based shipping and logistics giant.

For the record, Vietnam to one Fred Smith — once upon a time, at least — was where the senior Smith served as a Marine Corps officer during one of the most bitter, demanding, and ultimately frustrating wars in American history. Vietnam to this Richard Smith, a hands-on corporate executive whose style of leadership involves a fair amount of world traveling, is a rapidly industrializing Pacific-rim nation whose modernizing landscape includes a generous number of beachfront resorts.

Richard Smith and friends. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Richard Smith and friends.

Smith's remark was made to a mixed Memphis-Nashville audience gathered for a post-gubernatorial reception sponsored by the Memphis/Shelby County legislative delegation at B.B. King's in Nashville. The Nashvillians present included several legislators — notable among whom was House Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin.

The thrust of Smith's impromptu remarks, as a whole, was that the long-running rivalries between the two Tennessee cities should be shelved and subordinated to an era of cooperation and mutual support. And the aforesaid analogy to far-Eastern nations amounted to an acknowledgement that Nashville is the economic pathfinder in Tennessee, as China is in Asia.

"When I come here and see all those cranes," Smith said, his hand making a circuit meant to encompass the ever-burgeoning spread around him of metropolitan Nashville, "I think, 'We're next!'" In his home base, Smith doesn't just run a mega-company. He is one of his city's apostles of economic expansion and is highly involved in its politics behind the scenes. He acknowledges, for example, a working relationship with Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd, an African American whose close ties to the the city's business elite have made him controversial with inner-city Memphians and declared social progressives.

Smith was not the only speaker at the reception, which was a spur-of-the-moment brainchild of the Shelby delegation, in tandem with such fellow Memphians as David Upton and city council chair Kemp Conrad.

Others from Memphis included Mayors Jim Strickland and Lee Harris; Democratic House leader Karen Camper; state Representative Antonio Parkinson, the delegation chair; state Representative G.A. Hardaway, legislative Black Caucus chair; Children's Services Commissioner Valerie Nichols; and Lang Wiseman, deputy to Governor Bill Lee.

Among the Nashvillians were state Representative Jerome Moon; state Senator Jeff Yarbro; and the aforementioned Casada. The tone of kumbaya across racial, party, and regional lines was unmistakable, reflecting what one might hope is an augury of things to come.

Casada, for one,  had spent several days in Memphis the previous week in consultation with local business, civic, and government leaders about ongoing and potential undertakings. Whatever divisions may come with the forthcoming legislative session, they were not in evidence on Saturday.

• The special election for the vacant District 32 state Senate seat was due to end on Thursday of this week, with Shelby Countians George Chism, Heidi Shafer, and Steve McManus competing with each other and with Tipton Countian Paul Rose for the Republican nomination. Democrat Eric Coleman is unopposed in the Democratic primary. General election date is March 4th. A week of early voting concluded on Saturday with an unexpectedly high vote total in Tipton County.

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