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Memphis’ Political Morass

In this election year, it might be better to just close your eyes and listen.

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In an interview after he had been selected as the new interim

District 7 Memphis city councilman, a relieved Berlin Boyd admitted he had been temporarily been taken aback by a question from Councilwoman Janis Fullilove.

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At first, warmly referring to Boyd's previous interim tenure on the council after the resignation of former Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware, who also happened to be a candidate for this year's opening, Fullilove abruptly spit out a hypothetical inquiry into whether, if chosen, Boyd's loyalties would lie with the seventh floor (code for Mayor A C Wharton) or with the constituents he'd represent in the 7th District.

To his credit, Boyd was unwavering in his answer. "I am my own man," he said. "No one has given me anything in life. I have and will make my own decisions." With those resolute remarks there was no need for any additional follow up.

That exchange struck me as the epitome of the political morass in Memphis we have endured for decades. Never has a city administration and the council been at loggerheads as strongly as they are now. The past week's announced mediation settlement of the long-delayed funding for Shelby County Schools only reflected the great chasm of distrust, contempt, and miscommunication that exists between the seventh and bottom floors of City Hall. With a city-wide election coming in October, the level of rancor would only seem to be headed toward even greater depths of political grandstanding, divisiveness, and the embarrassing exploitation of racial bigotry from blacks and whites alike.

But, 2015 offers us a chance to get on track toward positive change, and I'll tell you why it should happen.

Since Councilman Jim Strickland officially entered the mayoral race, I have read the fervid Facebook comments of those who believe that a white candidate cannot possibly understand or embrace the hopes and dreams of a predominately black populace. But, isn't a mayor someone who is supposed to be a visionary leader for all citizens regardless of his own ethnic background? Isn't a mayor the chief executive who vows, "The buck stops here," and then comes before the city's governing body to make his case in person, rather than send others to do it for him?

Let's be brutally realistic. It's been almost 24 years since Willie Herenton became the first African-American mayor of Memphis. During his tenure, there were stellar successes, not the least of which was the extinction of many blighted areas in black communities that had come to symbolize degradation and hopelessness.

But tearing down those concrete facades did not really elevate the majority of the city's black — or white — population. Memphis is still one of America's poorest cities, and we still have one of the highest crime rates in the nation. Has black leadership on the seventh floor or black majority representation on the council changed the fact that 47 percent of Memphis' black children are still caught in the cycle of generational poverty? We should have learned by now that the color of our leaders' skin is irrelevant.

There are those who want to perpetuate the stale argument that a white man could only be elected to lead this city if the black vote gets split up among a handful of candidates, including the incumbent. I've lived in this city way too long to swallow the notion that because someone has my skin color, my life is automatically going to get better if he or she is elected to public office. When it comes to those we've voted for to lead this city over the past two decades, too many of us, black and white, have ignored the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our choices shouldn't be based on a candidate's skin color, but rather the content of their character.

That's probably why Boyd's heartfelt response to Fullilove's politically motivated question made such an impression on me. In this year of decision, we must closely look at those who promise results but whose track records would indicate otherwise. Go to political forums where you can see and talk to candidates, not just for the mayor's office, but the council, as well. Then decide who you think offers the best direction for this city. If it will help, close your eyes and just listen to what they have to say.

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