Politics » Politics Feature

On Rickey Peete: "An indictment against all of us."


Nothing is more hypocritical than the finger-pointing of white Memphians who say the political career of Rickey Peete illustrates some kind of inherent criminal shortcomings of the black electorate. True, Peete was elected four times by voters in his majority-black district, including three times after he had served a prison sentence for taking a bribe as a member of the Memphis City Council. He will forever have to live with the nickname Rickey "Re-Peete" after pleading guilty Wednesday to a federal bribery charge that, once again, was in performance of his public duties.

But it wasn’t only black voters who embraced and forgave Peete. He had plenty of friends, converts, fans, and enablers in the white community too. He was head of the Beale Street Merchants Association and worked closely with Beale Street developer John Elkington. He served on the boards of both the Center City Commission (CCC) and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), sharing the table with downtown's movers and shakers.

For five of his six years, he was chairman of the CCC board. "In spite of his failings, Rickey is a bright person who frankly did some good things for downtown," said CCC president Jeff Sanford. "No question, he advanced the CCC diversity program and in general was very supportive of the commission's efforts."

Peete has the proverbial smile that can light up a room. In City Council meetings, he was a sharp questioner and good listener who – unlike some members – didn't lose his temper or personally attack his colleagues.

"He was often the glue that held the council together," said council chairman Tom Marshall. "He was the person many of us would go to in order to quash any kind of racial anxiety on any given issue. He always looked beyond race for the sake of expediency and for professional handling of issues. It was an indictment against all of us that we trusted him, but that doesn't mean we went into our dealings knowing there was any dishonesty."

Who knows why he crossed the line not once but at least twice? As someone who observed him on and off for 20 years, I wonder if the board appointments and all those years of rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful did him more harm than good.

Nothing if not shrewd, Peete knew the connections, strengths, and weaknesses of the people he served with, and he could make an educated guess about their salaries and benefits. Many of them, like him, have political backgrounds. In Peete's mind, I think he believed he was their equal -- on a bad day -- in ability. He and the council passed the ordinances and the budgets and did the deals that made other people rich. One way or another, every politician comes to grips with that. Peete lived large and took bribes.

In court Wednesday, he stood before U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays and responded to the standard list of rote questions about his health, history, and legal representation. When Mays, who has a sly sense of humor himself, asked if anyone had ever questioned his mental health, Peete replied, "Maybe in a political context."

He took pains to say that he does not "have an ongoing relationship" with government informant Joe Cooper lest anyone get the idea that he is also a snitch.

But only he and his lawyers and the government know the terms of the deal for a prison sentence in the range of 41-51 months, which Mays could decide not to accept. Peete's posturing can't be taken seriously when he proclaimed his innocence and continued to serve on the council for six months after his indictment in order to max out his pension and influence.

As he left the courtroom Wednesday, Peete stopped to smile and shake hands with friends and a few reporters on his way to the elevator. Outside, he made a brief statement in front of the news cameras. Then he smiled and waved and climbed into an SUV.

That was Rickey Peete.

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