Politics » Politics Feature

Verdicts Reversed

Cooling its jets, the Shelby County Commission changes its mind on redistricting and other matters.



Commissioners Henri Brooks and Justin Ford conferred during Monday's session. - JB
  • JB
  • Commissioners Henri Brooks and Justin Ford conferred during Monday's session.
It is hard to find a proper analogy for what happened in Monday's public meeting of the full Shelby County Commission. There aren't many such dramatic reversals, either in history or in fiction, to draw on.

It was virtually the same collection of individuals who had participated in last Wednesday's bloodletting on the general government committee, with the one addition of James Harvey, who had been in North Carolina on business for an elongated period of time.

But the outcome on Monday, in every particular, was virtually the exact opposite of what had happened in the committee meeting. Let us count the ways: Back then, a clear majority of commissioners was insisting on forcing to completion a redistricting plan based on the current model — four large districts with three members apiece, with one single-member district, more or less in the center of the whole constellation, intended to be a "swing" district.

At last Wednesday's committee meeting, the members present passed, by a compelling majority, a resolution of censure against two commissioners, Terry Roland and Mike Ritz, for having used the word "bribe" to describe one of the ingredients of a redistricting proposal, which had been made by Commissioner Brent Taylor, who, coincidentally or not, was chairman of the general government committee.

The commissioners present at last Wednesday's meeting — again, a full boat, minus Harvey — also passed a resolution changing the body's rules of order so as to permit the peremptory dismissal by majority vote of the commission chairman. The resolution was clearly aimed at current chairman Sidney Chism, whose major crime was in being on the other side of the ongoing redistricting impasse from the apparent majority. And it was no secret that the resolution was cocked and ready to be fired at Chism on Monday, should the majority not get its way on passage of 3-C, the "continuity" plan for redistricting.

On Monday, however, all of this momentum was reversed and went backwards on itself.

Perhaps it was the long-missing Harvey's clear declaration, fairly early in the debate on the redistricting plan (first-up Monday of the controversial measures), that he favored single-member districts. (Harvey had been claimed as a likely supporter by last week's majority.)

And perhaps both Harvey and Commissioner Henri Brooks, who had formerly lined up behind the "continuity" plan but now reversed herself, were properly impressed by the emphatic testimony of local NAACP officials and other African-American leaders in favor of single-member districts. (Brooks also cited urgings from her constituents to that effect.)

Or maybe it was Ritz's announcement that he would shelve the plan, based on two-member districts, he'd been sponsoring and instead embrace the concept of single-member districts.

Whatever the case, the commission vote on Monday was a decisive 8-5 against 3-C. Everybody's reckoning afterward was that those eight votes, at a minimum, could be counted on in favor of some future version of single-member districts — presumably one in accordance with the racially proportionate formula insisted on by Brooks and Harvey. A super-majority of nine votes is required to pass a redistricting plan on third reading.

When Taylor's censure resolution came up, Roland availed himself of the opportunity, offered by Taylor, to repudiate the offending word "bribe" (though he repeated his former characterization of Taylor's proposal for a suburban development grant as "illegal"). And, though many of his colleagues are privately skeptical about his claim that he had been misquoted by The Commercial Appeal and have so assured the CA reporter on that score, Roland was dismissed from the resolution.

Ritz not only declined to deny that he had used the word "bribe" (to this reporter, as it happened), he doubled down and defended his use of the term, saying that it still seemed to him to describe Taylor's offering of public funds as part of a complicated formula to induce acceptance of a compromise redistricting plan. He also suggested that Taylor's attempt at private negotiation with Roland via a third party was a violation of the Sunshine Act.

In the course of his argument, Ritz passed out copies of the package originally prepared by Taylor and dispatched via an intermediary. "I think this is the first time some of the black commissioners have seen this," Ritz said, thereby offering them an out, via this indirect reference to the suburban grant, from their previous vote.

After a good bit of verbal to-and-fro, with commissioners seeming increasingly reluctant to press the issue, Taylor withdrew his resolution.

When it came time for the rules-change resolution affecting Chism's tenure, commissioners seemed likewise to have become lukewarm about the whole idea, and, after the kind of convoluted wrangle about proper procedure that has become a staple of commission meetings, the commission — with the consent of Wyatt Bunker, whose resolution it was — voted convincingly to "postpone" (i.e., table) the motion.

To sum up, in the space of five days, the commission reversed itself on each of three key points that had seemed to be leading up to a virtual civil war.

Among the obvious winners were Chism; Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who, weeks ago during the first discussions about redistricting, was the solitary vote in favor of single-member districts; Ritz, who had basically turned the tables on his accuser (though Taylor was levelheaded in his acceptance of the fact and could not be deemed a loser; in fact, he maintained his status as an honest broker); Brooks, whose reversal on redistricting had been key; and Melvin Burgess, a seldom heard commissioner whose call this time for a formal retreat meeting of the commission in the near future was also a major element in the day's détente.

A possible loser was Justin Ford, who only recently was the major force behind the "continuity" plan and who seemed baffled at times by Monday's various reversals. Unlike the case at recent commission meetings, Ford's influence on the debate this time was minimal. His setback could be temporary, of course, and he has the option — like Bunker, who touted Burgess' proposal for a retreat — of moving further in the direction of what would seem to be a new consensus.

The stage would certainly be set for some former backer of the "continuity" plan to play the Nixon-goes-to-China role of peacemaking convert.

• As noted online this week in "Political Beat Blog" at memphisflyer.com, the fallout of legislative and congressional redistricting continues.

As a result of the final redrawing of legislative maps, Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis finds himself in state Senate District 30, along with incumbent Democrat Beverly Marrero. Kyle points out that much of District 30 — notably in Frayser and Raleigh and elsewhere north of Summer — coincides with his former District 28, while Marrero notes, similarly, that significant portions of her former House District 89 lie within the newly configured Senate district.

While the two Democrats muse on their forthcoming showdown, G.A. Hardaway, whose House District 92 has been merged into fellow African-American Democrat Barbara Cooper's District 86, is getting mention as a possible candidate in Senate District 30, which has a 60 percent African-American constituency. For the moment, though, Hardaway says he's focused on pressing forward as a party to litigation against the overall redistricting plan.

Meanwhile, the extension of congressional District 8 into a sizable hunk of eastern Shelby County has prompted a good deal of speculation about possible competition from local Republicans for incumbent 8th District congressman Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in Crockett County. Memphis city councilman Kemp Conrad says he's had encouragement to run and is considering a bid.

Others whose names have figured in speculation include former 8th District candidate and ex-Shelby County commissioner George Flinn; former U.S. attorney David Kustoff, who ran for Congress in the 7th District in 2002; state Senate majority leader Mark Norris; and state senator Brian Kelsey.

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