For Mayor Willie Herenton, there was good news and bad news related to the visit to Memphis Tuesday of one of his illustrious counterparts: outgoing Nashville mayor Bill Purcell. The bad news first: Though, of course, it might not have been meant as a reflection on our own mayor's candidacy for reelection, some members of the Memphis Rotary Club, where Herenton introduced Purcell for this week's luncheon address, floated an interesting idea afterward. They affected to wonder privately if Purcell could be talked into taking up residence in Memphis and running for mayor here. Seriously, folks, he won't. After an upcoming spell as a fellow at Harvard University, Purcell is almost certain to get set to run for governor of Tennessee in 2010. Indeed, over the next few years, you can expect to see Purcell speaking from Tennessee podiums ranging from here to Bristol.
Now the good news: In the course of a compelling speech to the Rotarians, in which he cited all the good things that have come to Nashville under his two terms, Purcell engaged in some special pleading for the idea of metro government. As he put it, "Metropolitan government is the smartest thing that Nashville ever did." And, during his summing up on that point, Purcell suggested that if Memphians wanted a government that was too big, too expensive, and too political, they should keep things just the way they are.
All the while Nashville's mayor was saying these things, Herenton was up there on the dais smiling. As well he might. For in his appearance before the Coalition for a Better Memphis last week (see Politics, p. 16), Herenton cited his well-known belief in metropolitan government as the one most important concrete proposal he intended to put forth if reelected to a fifth term. As stale as the idea may have sounded at the time, it was certainly revivified when Purcell itemized the positive effects of metro government in the three areas he considered most important to Nashville: education, public safety, and quality of life.
Ay, but there's the rub. Systems of government are one thing. The people who run them are another, and when Purcell discoursed upon how he happened to choose his top police official — a seasoned cop with recent credentials in New Orleans and Washington state, selected after a national search — what he said contrasted starkly with the reality of what we have known in Memphis: serial police directors, mainly yanked up from the ranks by Herenton and sent back to them at various intervals.
Herenton, who made a point of noting that the popular Purcell, a former state legislator, had been term-limited out of office as mayor, may be right in his own estimation of the value of metropolitan government, but in his four terms so far, he has not been able to make the case for it with residents either of the city or of the county.
To what extent this is Herenton's own fault is a subject worthy of debate in its own right (yet another reason why we regret the mayor's shunning the opportunity for back-and-forth encounters with his electoral foes this year). But our mayor is right in one respect: As Purcell's testimony corroborates, the idea of metro government itself is well worth reconsidering.