Politics » Politics Feature

The City's Turn

After a period of domination by county government, the action has shifted across the plaza.



There has been much talk of late about public attention, as well as the initiative in significant public actions, passing from the Memphis City Council to the Shelby County Commission.

And certainly the very fact of the county's current half-cent sales tax referendum, an initiative that has basically trumped prior tax proposals of both Memphis and the county's suburban municipalities, served to underscore the primacy of county government in state law.

But as the current week began, it was city hall, and the dramatis personae on that side of Government Plaza, where the action was, with the fate of two significant issues hinging on actions of city government figures.

One highly controversial issue was certain to be resolved Tuesday when city council members faced off on the matter of an antidiscrimination ordinance sponsored by Councilman Lee Harris, which either would or would not, by the end of the day, contain workplace protection within city government for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexual and transgendered persons.

The showdown paralleled one that occurred on the county commission back in 2009, when a measure brought by Commissioner Steve Mulroy was passed endorsing freedom from discrimination for county employees, though explicit reference to LGBT concerns was omitted and the matter was technically downgraded from an ordinance to a resolution.

It was the third go-round in recent years for an anti-discrimination measure on the council, and this week's action had been preceded by a weekend rally by the Tennessee Equality Project at the National Civil Rights Museum. Both circumstances assured a rise in temperatures during debate on Tuesday.

The other issue that stood to be influenced within the province of city government before the week was out was that of the very county tax initiative which had forced the cancellation of a similar referendum, one affecting only city residents, that had previously been placed on the November ballot by the council.

Both Mayor A C Wharton and Councilman Shea Flinn, author of the city's tax initiative, were profoundly upset by the county's preemptive action, sponsored by commission chairman Mike Ritz, and did their best to lobby commission members to sustain a veto of the referendum action by Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell.

But the veto was successfully overridden on the commission, and thereafter discussions began between key members of county and city government to secure some kind of joint public support for the county tax hike, which would, in the words of Chairman Ritz and Commissioner Mulroy, offer the city the proverbial half a loaf. Passage of the county's version of a half-cent tax increase would, after deductions for school funding countywide, still leave the city at least half the proceeds for general budgetary purposes that it had sought.

As the week began, the prospect of significant joint action in support of the county tax hike seemed highly possible.


• I am not making this up: Joe Cooper — yes, that Joe Cooper, the former county squire, perennial candidate, and twice-convicted felon — is considering running in 2014 for the District 5 seat on the Shelby County Commission now held by Steve Mulroy.

Cooper was defeated for the position in the 2006 Democratic primary by Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor who is prohibited from running again in 2014 by county charter prohibitions limiting a commissioner to two terms in office.

"I think people are tired of all the commotion and crazy stuff on the commission," says Cooper, who believes that he would be able to facilitate public business and reduce some of the current confusion because of his experience as a member of the old county court (precursor of the commission), as well as his many years of serving as an official aide, go-between, and deal-broker for seated politicians and people seeking access to power.

Of course, some of that experience resulted in two felony convictions for Cooper, who served a prison term in the 1970s for bank fraud and another in 2008-2009 for money laundering in connection with a scheme in which Cooper, then a car salesman, arranged car loans for drug dealers by using third parties as signatories of record for the purchases.

Cooper's sentence for the latter offense was reduced in return for cooperating with the FBI and the Department of Justice in setting up sting arrests for two longtime associates — then city council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford Sr. — who were charged with accepting bribes from Cooper in return for their votes in favor of city ordinances. Peete pleaded guilty, and Ford, who was exonerated in a jury trial, pleaded not guilty.

"I know I've got some baggage, but I also know how to get things done," says Cooper, who most recently has been involved in a variety of business enterprises with wrestler/announcer Jerry Lawler, a longtime associate. (Lawler is now recuperating from a serious heart attack suffered just days ago while broadcasting a wrestling event in Canada.)

Cooper had been an influential member of the Shelby County Court prior to his conviction on the 1970s bank fraud charges, which stemmed from his having prevailed on friends, many of them well-placed, to make loans in their own names, thereafter turning the money over to Cooper, who pledged to supply the funds for repayment. That Cooper was punished for these "nominee loans" while his helpers weren't was an unusual aspect of the prosecution, which some besides Cooper himself saw as being politically motivated.

Over the years, Cooper attempted several business ventures — restaurants, especially — with varying degrees of success, none of them long-term. He also made several runs for local office and assisted other officeholders, notably Minerva Johnican, whom he served as CAO during her tenure as Criminal Court clerk. He also for several years orchestrated an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless on Beale Street.

Cooper says he does not believe he is affected by legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in the wake of several scandals involving officeholders, including Peete, prohibiting them from running again for political office after their conviction for felonies committed during their tenure in office.

Norma Lester, one of two Democratic members of the five-member Shelby County Election Commission, has been appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to fill a vacancy on the state Registry of Election Finance. The board oversees and enforces state election laws.

Lester, a longtime Democratic activist, is a retired nursing administrator. Her appointment, announced Thursday, fills a position that has been vacant on the six-member board since last year. Lester was one of three names submitted to Haslam by the state Democratic executive committee.

The governor also has the opportunity to name a member to the board from a list submitted by the state Republican executive committee.

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