Politics » Politics Feature

Past and Prologue

For politics, 2017 was a year of numerous preamble events that will continue as major influences in Election Year 2018.

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Perhaps miraculously, given the ever-accelerating nationwide rate of exposed horndogs brought low by accusations of sexual harassment, no prominent Shelby County or Tennessee political figures had bit the dust by year's end, but the prospect continued to exist.

Meanwhile, women were finding other ways to come out from under male domination, notably by steadily increasing their prominence as active political candidates.

The effect was most noticeable in the Republican primary for governor, where, of the seven GOP gubernatorial candidates active at year's end, four were women. Another Republican, 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn was widely considered the favorite in her race for the U.S. Senate, while Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos was one of three viable candidates for the Republican nomination for Shelby County mayor.

And women — young ones, at that — were hastening to fill positions of public influence and distinguishing themselves in offices already gained. Prominent among the latter were two Memphis state representatives, Raumesh Akbari, named Legislator of the Year by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and Woman of the Year by the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, and Karen Camper, winner of the Women of Excellence Award from the National Foundation for Women Legislators.

Nor should the accomplishments be overlooked of youthful activists such as Tami Sawyer, who galvanized local sentiment toward the dismantling of monuments to the Confederacy.

The statue issue, involving ultimately the expunging of memorials to such avatars of the age of slavery as Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, preoccupied Memphians throughout the year, resulting in determined responses by local public officials, including direct action from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and the city council and formal support from Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and the county commission.

Strickland and the council had their differences early in the year, but the mayor was considered by many to be a tacit supporter of, or at least acquiescent in, the council's unanimous decision at year's end (angering a significant corps of activists)  to re-submit for a new referendum an experiment in Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), planned for the 2019 election cycle and authorized by a prior referendum of the city electorate in 2008.

Meanwhile, Luttrell and the county commission were able to agree on a few matters in the course of the year, including the establishment of new, more inclusive standards for contracting with locally owned small businesses (LOSBs) and enterprises operated by women or minorities (MWBEs). And the two branches of county government were able to concur on a 2017-18 fiscal budget that contained both employee pay raises and a modest decrease in the property-tax rate.

But the year also saw the continuation — and, in some ways, the worsening — of an ongoing power struggle between the county mayor and the commission. Stemming originally from disagreements about the disposition of surplus county funds in fiscal 2015-16, the schism had come by 2017 to be a no-holds-barred dispute over essential prerogatives and the balance of power itself.

One objective desired by a bipartisan commission majority was the appointment, after the model of the Memphis City Council, of an attorney who would function at the service of the commission alone. This aim was foiled by the administration, which cited the county charter as calling for the county attorney, a mayoral appointee, to represent both the executive and legislative branches. Unsurprisingly, County Attorney Kathryn Pascover concurred.

As a stopgap, the commission was allowed to employ former Commissioner Julian Bolton, a lawyer, as a "policy advisor," and that was the status quo until late in the year when newly elected commission chair Heidi Shafer unloosed a bombshell by contracting, in the county's name, with an outside legal firm to pursue damages against a broadly construed network of opioid distributors. 

Ruling on an injunction request by Luttrell to halt the action on grounds that the charter gave him oversight of legal contracts, Chancellor Jim Kyle ruled for the mayor, who maintained that he intended anti-opioid actions of his own, but urged the two branches to mediate a joint action on the legal front, "in the public interest." A few more legalistic hairs would be split, but that's essentially where the matter stood on the eve of a year-end deadline for joint action that Kyle had suggested.

And Shafer and the commission had added one more provocative (and ironic) flourish — the hiring of Allan Wade, the city council's attorney, to oversee any further court action vis-a-vis the mayor.

On the state front, the General Assembly was moved, after extensive debate and compromise, to approve an increase in the state gasoline tax proposed by Governor Bill Haslam as a means of pursuing overdue improvements in roadways and other aspects of state infrastructure.

The Republican-dominated legislature, often given to silliness and parochialism, acted constructively in other ways as well. Turned back — at least for the session — were a bill that would confine transsexuals to bathrooms of their birth gender, a "natural marriage" proposal aimed at invalidating same-sex unions, and an "open carry" gun bill.  

Other questionable bills did make it through the filter of common sense, however — including one, billed as a hearing-protection measure, that would allow unbridled sale of silencers for firearms. And on the session's last day, a fateful measure obliging Memphis to submit a de-annexation plan on short order or submit to a Draconian plan of the rural-dominated legislature's devising made it through both chambers. 

Those are some highlights of the political year, and many of them will continue to cast their shadow on election year 2018, as matters unfold.

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