News » Cover Feature

The Politics of Strange

Just how did local government get to be a game of 52 Pickup - with jokers, knaves, wannabe royalty, and lots of deuces?



On Tuesday of last week, anyone inclined to either mysticism or post-modern physics might have started looking for the tear in the universe. Something weird was leaking in. Up in the well of the Shelby County Commission was audience member Richard Fields, a once-respected attorney who had long since become the very definition of a loose particle.

And Fields, who had managed to get on more wrong sides than a fly's eyeball since a misguided run at king-making (and king-breaking) a few years back — one which ended with then Mayor Willie Herenton, his onetime patron, accusing him of employing a stripper to run a political blackmail scheme — was making sense.

Well, almost. Fields, who continues to insist he was maligned in the Herenton matter and a multitude of other embarrassing situations, was addressing a current scandal in Chancery Court involving an employee's apparent theft of some $1 million in public funds.

As if unaware of the irony involved, he then launched a carelessly wide-ranging assault on several individuals, including county attorney Kelly Rayne, whom he called "incompetent," made unsourced allegations of oral sex performed by employees on chancery officials, told Commissioner James Harvey, who was commenting on the chancery situation, that he had no right to speak, and was finally gaveled into silence by commission chairman Sidney Chism, who must have wondered if a full moon had somehow risen in broad daylight.

After the smoke had cleared from Fields' unscheduled intervention, Commissioner Mike Ritz (who expressed concerns later that he'd been upstaged) was able to make a more orderly presentation regarding the chancery matter.

For, after all, there was that missing $1 million, said to have been diverted from the proceeds of tax sales by a Chancery Court bookkeeper named Brandon Gunn. Question: Why do bookkeepers yield to temptation and keep trying to make off with such fantastical amounts when it seems almost inevitable they'll be caught?

Hold that one: Here's another. What was Joe Ford thinking of last Christmas Eve when the former city councilman, county commissioner, and interim Shelby County mayor wrote two checks totaling $5,800 for as many Rolex watches — and apparently either didn't, or couldn't, or wouldn't pay for them as late in the game as last week, nine months later. That was on the same day, Wednesday of last week, that clerk Dewun Settle got canned for his less than stellar oversight of the Chancery Court kitty. Ford was served a warrant for property theft and had to turn himself in.

Ford seemed to have had some sort of understanding with Las Savell, the late former owner of the jewelry store the watches came from, one not binding on Savell's successors, who swore out the warrant.

Still: strange.

It had been strange all week and would continue to be, if you include within that definition such dramatic and positive reversals of fortune as that which, at week's end, happily befell the aforesaid Herenton. The onetime Titan, who after two years of ignominious decline, including a 4-to-1 defeat in a hapless electoral challenge to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, seemed to regain every vestige of his former dignity and stature with the unveiling of his mayoral portrait at a memorable and well-attended evening in the Hall of Mayors.

It was as if, during a season in which a city of Memphis election was headed to completion with minimal chance of surprise and even more minimal public attention, such fates as determine human destinies had resolved on shuffling the cards and re-dealing them. And the new deal that resulted looked like nothing so much as a game of 52 Pickup.

As a case in point, once again to the Shelby County Commission. Anyone who has attended recent meetings of the commission has observed the obvious: There are people on that body who just don't agree about issues. Worse, from time to time they don't seem to like each other.

This is especially true when it comes to Democrat Steve Mulroy, a Midtown resident and a University of Memphis law professor in civilian life, and Terry Roland, a boisterously outspoken Republican and store-owner from the hinterland of Millington.

On gay rights (Mulroy for; Roland against), school consolidation in Shelby County (Mulroy for; Roland against); political philosophy (Mulroy's a professed liberal; Roland's a hardshell conservative); or just on general principles, the two hardly ever see eye-to-eye.

But duking it out? Fist to fist? That's a stretch, even for these two. Two weeks ago, on the day the commission met to resolve the matter of who was going to serve in the seven new seats created for a unified all-county school board, things came to a head.

That morning, Mulroy was on hand early and had gone to the commission library, a room on the same floor as the commissioners' offices, to look something up.

He was promptly joined by Roland who, as Mulroy tells it, stalked up and confronted him nose-to-nose, with fists doubled up.

Again, as the Democrat recalls things, the Republican commissioner, in a hard-edged version of his distinctive drawl, said something to the effect of this: "You and I are never going to agree. There's only one way to settle things. We're going downstairs, and I'm going to whip your ass!"

Mulroy maintains that he tried to respond with a joke, and Roland responded, "I'm not kidding! We're going downstairs and settle things with our fists!" There may have been an epithet along with that, Mulroy thinks. In any case, there was little doubt in his mind that Roland was dead serious.

And, he says, he tried to defuse things by saying, "Sure thing, Terry. In fact, let's call up the media, get some cameras down there, and put on a show for television." Or words to that effect.

To that, Mulroy says, Roland gave him a menacing stare and stalked away.

Roland, of course, did not agree with that account.

"Aw, heck, I was just kidding with him!" the Republican commissioner said when first asked about it. In fact, says Roland, it was he, not Mulroy, who threw out the facetious idea of putting on a public exhibition. "I remember my exact words. I said, 'Why don't we have a celebrity boxing match?' And I thought sure he knew I was joking."

Roland went on, speaking in a soft and mock-cordial tone. "Hey, tell him he's going to be all right. I don't pick on elderly people, children, or invalids." The commissioner did not indicate which of those things applied to Mulroy.

Mulroy would stand by his account, moderating it only to the point of saying, "I do not believe Roland was actually intending to engage in fisticuffs. I do think he was trying to physically intimidate. That is, he was hoping I would think he might actually be serious, and be intimidated as a result, even though, in fact, he wasn't planning on actually throwing a punch."

As for Roland, he continued to simmer, eventually accusing Mulroy of having "violated the Sunshine law" by trying to hustle up a vote for one Chris Lareau on the new interim Shelby County school board. That, said Roland, was how that conversation in the library actually got started. Whatever the merits of that allegation, Mulroy himself didn't vote for Lareau, an eloquent advocate of school-system unity but a dyed-in-the-wool conservative on the social issues Mulroy took seriously, during several rounds of voting.

Again: strange.

It was all a little much for the venerable Walter Bailey, who has made a habit recently of viewing his colleagues' conduct with alarm. At the commission's next meeting, the same one at which the chancery matter came up, Bailey solemnly read a statement which did not mention Roland by name but referred obliquely to conduct by an unnamed colleague which had "ignominiously" earned public attention and demonstrated "questionable judgment" that "reflected adversely on the rest of us as public servants." He concluded, "[W]hen such action reflects on us negatively, it becomes our responsibility to at least express disapproval, otherwise it could be mistaken as the norm."

Give Roland his props. "Ditto," he responded, which under the circumstances was king-sized chutzpah. As a final commentary of sorts on the incident, Roland hung a pair of bright-red boxing gloves on a hook outside the door of his commission office.

All that was lacking was a limerick from Mulroy, who is given to composing or even improvising variants of that vintage doggerel form to commemorate public occasions. (Mulroy, famously, is less than bashful, materializing often in print and TV interviews, and appearing — check it for yourself — in the near background of every photograph taken involving a political context. His only rival in that regard is city councilman Shea Flinn, an even more frequently photographed local official. Whence Flinn's prominence? Aside from his high level of activism on the council, equivalent to Mulroy's on the commission, there is the fact that, as one editor acknowledged, "He's the cute Beatle.")

The Shelby County Commission has no patent on angry exchanges between members. A few weeks back, an exchange of emails between two members of the Memphis City Council reflected not only a serious disagreement over a prior council matter but larger discontents simmering on the council regarding personalities, issues, and procedures.

The immediate argument was between District 4 member Wanda Halbert and council chairman Myron Lowery, holder of a District 8 Super-District position. Halbert was one of two council members whose early departure from the meeting of Tuesday, August 2nd, seems to have provoked a key rules change from the eight members who stayed behind to keep a quorum.

The rules changes, voted on as the last item of business at that meeting and approved 8-0, restricts members to a five-minute time limit in their comments on any issue before the council.

After reading about the rules change in the Flyer, Halbert dispatched an email to Chairman Lowery and other council members, accusing them of being "SILLY and UNPROFESSIONAL," in the course of stating several other complaints about the council's action.

Lowery's response to Halbert's email was just as intense. He observed that Halbert had so far received no reply to her original email from other council members and said, "That's because you are not well respected by your colleagues." He also responded to criticism from Halbert concerning several council members' past action in recusing themselves from voting on specific items.

"HOW DARE YOU !!," wrote Lowery, going the all-caps route himself. "WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION YOUR PEERS ABOUT THEIR MOTIVATION? ... [W]e can never be a team as long as you are illogical and emotional ...."

Oddly, Lowery would sign off from this remonstration with his usual good-natured valediction: "Take care."

The tensions on the council and the commission owe something, of course, to the unusually dire predicaments both legislative bodies have found themselves in for the last several months. The council had been faced for years with an ever-worsening revenue crisis that had made the preparation of a budget for fiscal 2011-12 an unprecedented ordeal.

Even after that conundrum was dealt with, the council had to deal with continuing pressure from members of city employees' unions who, understandably resentful of the 5.4 percent pay cuts they'd been required to take, along with serious reduction in their benefits, sued city government and demanded remedial action by the council. On top of that, the board of Memphis City Schools, in one of its last acts as a self-contained, independent body, had threatened to cancel the coming school year if the city didn't knuckle under and start an immediate payback of the $57 million the courts had decreed it owed MCS — a legacy of an ill-fated 2008 decision by the council to cut school funding.

And, on top of that, the council, like all other legislative bodies, both local and statewide, had been consumed with the complications resulting from the ongoing merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, a consolidation forced by the decision of the MCS board, fearful of the specter of an imminent special school district in the suburbs, to surrender its charter. To all local entities, and to state government itself, which responded with the Norris-Todd bill to confine and direct the process, the merger had enormous educational and fiscal repercussions.

The strain of the schools upheaval had, all things considered, been greatest on the commission, where sentiment on the matter was uniquely divided, with elected representatives of the city and the outer county directly confronting each other on the matter.

Roland's acting up, which often saw him hurling imprecations at Mulroy and other school-consolidation supporters on the commission, seemed to accelerate geometrically as the merger process wore on, especially in its more recent stages, when the commission became directly responsible for appointing an all-county school board. On one occasion, the Millington commissioner left the auditorium stage during a deliberation on the appointment process and sat out in the auditorium with the spectators, heckling his colleagues and denouncing the process as a sham.

Did the Democrats on the commission, all of them urban residents, favor school consolidation? Then, said Roland, that proved that the Democrats were in control and were imposing their partisan will. As for cases like that of Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter, also a merger supporter, "If he's a Republican, I'm a Russian tank driver!"

Nor was Roland alone in his partisan sentiments. His two colleagues from District 4, which encompasses territory wholly outside the city limits of Memphis, had their moments, too. When they were able to put together a coalition to defeat Jim Kyle, the state Senate Democratic leader, who had put himself forward as a school-board prospect, Chris Thomas would exult, "We finally got one!" And Wyatt Bunker made a point of denigrating Kyle, respected across the aisles in Nashville, as "a political hack."

Even Roland seemed taken aback by that, asking reporters present to temper their judgments with the knowledge that Bunker, who had returned to cast his vote after an emergency hospital trip for an orthopedic problem, was "on dope." (Bunker had acknowledged, upon arriving back in session, that he had been dosed with morphine.)

This is not to suggest that only Republican officials are capable of edgy or unusual behavior, nor that partisan rancor is the only source of it. True, to take a somewhat broader view geographically, members of the lopsided GOP majority in the 2011 session of the Tennessee legislature were responsible for introducing bizarre measures like one (the so-called Don't Say Gay bill of Knoxville state senator Stacey Campfield) that would have forbidden the mention of homosexuality in public-school classrooms, and another, by Murfreesboro senator Bill Ketron, that would have established an independent currency for Tennessee.

But neither of these measures made it all the way through to passage (the coming session of 2012 is another story, of course), and perhaps the most bizarre of all strange measures was the infamous "Road Kill" bill of 1999, a triumph of bipartisanship that was co-sponsored by state representatives Tommy Burchett (R-Knoxville) and Tommy Head (D-Clarksville). Also referred to by the informal caption "you kill it, you grill it," that bill would have allowed the state's motorists, encountering dead animals by the roadside, to collect and eat the unfortunate creatures without fear of legal reprisal.

And on the local scene, probably even Roland has to take back seat to Democratic commissioner Henri Brooks when it comes to inspiring pure terror in the targets of her wrath. Brooks, who sees herself as the authentic expression of Shelby County's African-American constituency and the champion of its interests, is famous for her grillings of the denizens of Shelby County government, be they high or low. Her targets (objects of vendettas, contend Brooks' critics, usually well outside the range of her hearing) have included the commission majority which supported the awarding to the late builder Harold Buehler of vacant lots for development as rental properties (Ritz, no slouch at interrogations, either, joined her on that one); county Homeland Security director Bob Nations; and County Community Services director Dottie Jones.

On the cityside, inner-city councilman Joe Brown has made his inevitable catchphrase "in so many words or less" proverbial as a prelude to his lengthy complaints about suspected misdeeds affecting his working-class and poverty-line constituents. (Brown got some international notoriety a few years ago when he interdicted a group of visiting Iraqi legislators and kept them out of City Hall on security grounds.)

And regarding that forthcoming city/county school merger, two members of the newly constituted 23-member interim all-county school board are Kenneth Whalum and Diane George, automatically included by virtue of their carry-over membership on the MCS and SCS boards, respectively. Members of the local press corps have taken to speculating whether a working alliance is possible between Whalum and George, both of them famously go-it-alone types and scourges of their previous boards' leadership.

Whalum, the highly unconventional pastor of New Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, had zealously opposed the MCS charter surrender, once threatening to resign in protest of it, and continues to frown on consolidation. George is more of an unknown quantity, though she presumably favors an ultimate suburban breakaway into a special school district, like her political ally Ken Hoover, whom she supported in his 2010 race against her personal bete noire, David Pickler, the perennial SCS board president whose public statements in favor of SCS's becoming a special district may have ignited the whole merger controversy.

As for Pickler, that former cynosure of discontent is all Kumbaya now, professing to do his best to make the merger, scheduled to take place in 2013, succeed so as to produce a new, improved school system for everybody's sake.

In a context of Shelby County's ever-fermenting social and political environment, that may be the strangest thing of all.

"Hakuna Matata," also from The Lion King, meaning "Not to Worry."

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