Politics » Politics Feature

Mixed Tidings on the County Commission

The famously divided body agrees (!) on an administrator, Quran Folsom; plus, the school voucher issue and Jim Kyle redux.



The Shelby County Commission, which increasingly cleaves into two opposing camps, urban and suburban, experienced its usual bipartite division on several votes Monday at its regular biweekly meeting in the county building, but it reached an unusual near-unanimity on one important matter — the selection of a chief staff administrator.

That would be Quran Folsom, who for some years has served as senior executive assistant for Memphis City Schools and was a staff assistant for U.S. senator Lamar Alexander before that.

Folsom succeeds Clay Perry, who was elected chief administrator on October 8th and informed Chairman Mike Ritz on the same day that he would not be able to serve, pleading health reasons. Perry, who has been on leave since then, will continue in his former position of assistant administrator, however. 

Folsom's election was in the face of resentment expressed by some commissioners that the chairman had stage-managed her selection and circumvented a complicated selection process like that which had resulted in Perry's being named in October. But the dissenting members — essentially members of the commission's suburban Republican bloc, like Terry Roland — who deplored what he called "the process of having things shoved down our throat" — were careful to praise Folsom and to distinguish between her and Chairman Ritz.

In fact, Heidi Shafer, one of the corps of four commissioners who are in more or less constant objection to what they consider Ritz's dictatorial management of commission affairs, delivered in rapid succession a philippic against the chairman's modus operandi and a speech extolling Folsom, whom she made a point of embracing after the vote.

Folsom demonstrated something about the liveliness of her mind when, during discussion of her candidacy, Commissioner James Harvey asked her if she felt capable of dealing with "13 people who think they're kings and queens."

"I've got 23 now," Folsom answered, referring to the members of the ad hoc Unified School District board, which temporarily includes holdover members from the boards of the soon-to-be-merged Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools system, as well as seven newly elected permanent members.

Harvey pronounced himself satisfied and got in a nod to Ritz as well: "I respect our chairman, and if he says you're good, you're good with me."

The vote for Folsom was 10 to 3, with Roland, Wyatt Bunker, and Chris Thomas all demurring but speaking no ill of the candidate herself.

• The municipal-school issue, subject of this past week's ruling from U.S. district judge Hardy Mays, which found unconstitutional a piece of 2012 legislation enabling the immediate creation of such districts in Shelby County, may not be the only piece of Tennessee education-related legislation destined for the courtroom.

A state judge in Louisiana has just struck down a voucher system in that state whereby public funds were allocated for private institutions. And critics of voucher programs maintain that they subvert public school education and divert needed funding from established school networks.

Tennessee is right up on the cutting edge of this issue, with a long-pending voucher bill from Germantown state senator Brian Kelsey certain to get serious consideration in the forthcoming 2013 session of the General Assembly. A "task force" convened by Governor Bill Haslam has reportedly already conferred its approval of the voucher process as a component of Haslam's educational reform agenda.

The major question remaining would seem to be how soon and just what would be in the bill. Here's an item from this week's Tennessee Journal on the shape of things to come from Ron Ramsey, the state's lieutenant governor and speaker of the state Senate and the most influential state official other than Haslam himself.

Ramsey told the periodical that, in appointing the Senate's education committee, "he plans to make sure there are sufficient votes for an 'opportunity scholarship,' or voucher, program."

• It would seem to be painful enough for Tennessee Democrats that their party now holds only seven seats in the 33-member state Senate — a fact leading to jokes that the Democrats could caucus in one of the Capitol's now largely unused phone booths.

But that tiny remnant of a once dominant party proved large enough to indulge a little fratricidal bloodletting when it recently came time in Nashville to elect officers for the forthcoming 2013 legislative session.

Senator Reginald Tate of Memphis launched a challenge to Jim Kyle, also of Memphis, the party's longtime leader in the Senate and a onetime possibility to become speaker before the recent drastic shrinkage of Democratic fortunes in Tennessee.

The vote was 4-3 in favor of Kyle, who acknowledged later on that he was "disappointed" — either by the narrowness of the margin or by the mere fact of the challenge, which may have been the result of residual bitterness among some of the surviving Democrats stemming from the 2012 primary race between Kyle and fellow Democratic incumbent Beverly Marrero.

Kyle also voiced a suspicion that Tate might have been encouraged to run against him by Ramsey, the Republican speaker of the Senate, with whom Tate has enjoyed cordial relations. More than most Democrats, Tate has proved willing to accept Republican initiatives — particularly on some of the school issues Democrats have tried to mount a resistance to in the last two sessions.

The vote was taken by secret ballot, so how the balloting went was subject to some guesswork later on. Tate himself seemed fairly sure, though, of who the swing vote for Kyle was. At the Cannon Center in Memphis on Thursday night, where he made a brief appearance at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Tate was asked about his narrow loss.

"Yeah, it was Ophelia Ford," he said, with a shake of the head sidewise.

Kyle clearly does not intend for his position of power, however truncated, to be merely honorific. Within days of his reelection as Senate Democratic leader, he made public his own initiative to resolve the still simmering controversy regarding Shelby County's public school future. Kyle invited state education commissioner Kevin Huffman to help mediate the matter. (See cover story, p. 19.)

In a conversation with the Flyer, Kyle also theorized that the state Democratic Party, despite its recent weakness in state elections, retains the capacity to win major statewide office if it applies the successful tactics of the Obama presidential campaign in its in-depth targeting of key areas. He suggested that U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican incumbent who has already announced for reelection in 2014, might be vulnerable to a challenge from a right-wing GOP opponent, who in turn would be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.

Kyle disclaimed any ambition for himself in that direction, and another public figure whose candidacy for such an office had been coveted by Tennessee Democrats may also be out of the running. That would be actress Ashley Judd, a native of Kentucky and a sometime Tennessean who played a prominent role as an invited guest of the Tennessee delegation at the 2012 Democratic national convention in Charlotte, N.C. In fact, during the roll call for President Obama's renomination, Judd actually cast Tennessee's votes.

But, if an item this week in the online periodical Slate is accurate, Judd is more likely to run against U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, if she enters politics at all.

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