Nov 17 2014

The Steve Ross Show – Episode 1

It took a week of work, from the first concept, to the interview, to the writing, the hours of editing and trying to remember how to do all the things I haven’t been doing for the better part of 2 years now, but the very first episode of a video blog I produced is now up and online.

You can watch it below or by clicking here.

I’m really proud of the Freshman effort on this. Its not perfect, and I know for sure there are things I want to change for future episodes, but considering this wasn’t even something I was considering ever doing just 10 days ago, I feel pretty good about it.

This episode includes an interview with former Shelby County Commissioner and U of M Law Professor, Steve Mulroy. I talked to him about the marriage equality decision handed down by the 6th Circuit Court of appeals just over a week ago, as well as issues related to the Federal bench.

I also touched on some of the top stories in national and statewide politics, as well as the just passed mid-term elections.

So, I hope you like it.

Special thanks to Steve Mulroy for being the first guest.

Also, thanks to comedian and progressive talker Matthew Filipowicz for inspiring me to throw myself headlong into the project. I got to meet Matthew when he was in town two weeks ago.

I also want to thank my beautiful bride Ellyn for putting up with my OCD and self-doubt while I was putting this thing together…and giving me some very good advice while I was putting the finishing touches on it.

So, there ya go. Hope you enjoy it!

Nov 05 2014

The Day After – 2014 Edition

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

Its been six years since the first bomb dropped on Democrats in Tennessee.

The 2008 election saw the State House and Senate fall to GOP control for the first time since Reconstruction. And while full GOP control may have been delayed for two years, thanks to some crafty behind the scenes maneuvering, it was only a brief delay in the total control that would come two years later.

That doesn’t make what happened last night any easier, but it does give us the opportunity to make some decisions about the future of the Democratic Party. And while the wounds may seem too fresh, and many may feel its too soon…this has been coming for six years now. No one should be surprised.

Where do we go from here?

I’ve waxed eloquent several times in this space about things the party, and progressives either in or outside the party, can do to try and turn things around. Privately, these thoughts have received some attention, but I’ve never seen any real action on them…and that inaction has led me to take a step back from some of the statewide issues, in favor of more local issues…that included a run for County Commission in 2012, among other things.

From my observations over the past six years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Democrats in Tennessee…and the south generally, are confronted with a two front battle: One is against a robust, well funded and well organized ideological opponent, the other a battle over the internal culture of the party, and the methods by which we might find a way to rebuild after these consecutive apocalypses.

It is the second front, not the first, that is the most challenging…but the lesson can’t be any more clear than it is now…three cycles after the initial fall: Our bi-annual pattern of last second ‘hail-mary’ passes can only be successful if the score is close in the first place.

For the past three cycles, it not only hasn’t been, but we’ve been sacked behind the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.

Recognition

A lot of good people lost yesterday. One loss that I take personally is Gloria Johnson from Knoxville.

Gloria came just 200 votes shy of a second term according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.

She’s a true fighter, who deserved a second term, in my humble opinion. And while we all knew she was against long odds, that didn’t stop her. She fought all the way to the finish. Unfortunately, she came up short.

My fear, in her loss, is that some will take it as proof that a fighter who stands tall for her beliefs can’t win in Tennessee. The fact is, by any measure she knew what she was up against and did it anyway.

GOP hack, Tom Leatherwood id’d her back in January of this year as one of the GOP’s top targets…and boy did they target her. The entire TNGOP mobilized against her.

I won’t speak for her but Gloria knew she might not have the kind of support a candidate in her position needs to win from some state Democratic groups…though I should note, The House Democratic Caucus, and several Democratic organizations in her area stood with her….even if it was at the very last second.

What’s most annoying is, there is no indication from available disclosures that the State Party was involved in her campaign in any measurable way. In fact, it appears she had to use a third party vendor, rather than the Democratic Party’s own tools to help manage her campaign…which, if true, is a travesty.

I’ll have to wait and see on the final disclosures that will come out later if they were involved…but considering the target on her back, it should have been ‘all hands on deck’ from the get-go.

The last second money doesn’t make it look like her fellow Democrats had her back. And if they did, they didn’t have it soon enough.

More Recognition

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees…Vote No on 1

Another group…or collection of groups I think is worth mentioning is the No on 1 campaign.

While they too may not have been successful at beating back the intrusion of state legislators into the medical decisions of women (and possibly men at some point), they outperformed all the other Constitutional Amendments on the ballot, keeping the margins close enough to keep hope alive well into the evening.

I’ve seen some comments on social media that have been less than flattering, I think the organizers of No on 1 should leave those comments where they are, and take solace in the fact that they ran a much better race than any other statewide progressive issue, or candidate.

The messaging was smart and efficient. The delivery was done well. The ground game, at least here in Shelby County, seemed to be well organized and vibrant.

But what no one could have planned for is the low turnout on our side of the ledger. 40,000 fewer voters in Shelby County, and 20,000 fewer in Davidson (as compared to 2010), most likely due to weakness at the top of the Democratic ticket hampered the No on 1 cause.

Congratulations and Thank You’s

Big congrats to my friend Lee Harris as he embarks on his first term as my State Senator. There are only five of you in the Caucus, so I expect you to be a big part in helping guide us out of the wilderness.

Congrats also to Sara Kyle, as she won her bid to complete the term of her husband…and former Minority leader.

Congrats to the members of the Shelby County House Democratic Caucus, but especially those who had contested elections: Larry Miller, Barbara Cooper, Raumesh Akbari, and G.A. Hardaway.

A special thanks to Dwayne Thompson for fighting the good fight in House Dist. 96.

A final thought

RestrEntrepreneur, and one time Democratic candidate for Shelby County Commission, Taylor Berger has been taking to his blog as of late to talk about the state of the Democratic Party in Shelby Co.

Even if you disagree with everything he has to say, we should welcome him into the fold. I’ve only met him once but he seems to be a smart guy with a lot of energy, and we need that.

His most recent post asks the question: “Will Democrats leave Tennessee after the wave of red that just washed across the state?”

Here’s my answer. You don’t lose until you quit. If you don’t quit, you might not win, but you don’t lose.

That’s something all Democrats across the South (hell, the whole damn country for that matter) ought to keep in mind as we lick our wounds for a bit before we jump back in the fray.

Buck up campers…we’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.

Oct 22 2014

The November Election Post I’ve Been Meaning To Write

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

Wedding Night After Party

Wedding Night After Party

Election day is right around the corner, and I’ve been meaning to do a post on all of the Constitutional amendments that are on the ballot this November…but I’ve been a little busy.

After 5 years together, my beloved Ellyn and I got hitched back on October 11th. Needless to say, the wedding plans took a lot of time to put together.

But now that the wedding is over, and so is the planning, I’ve got a little more time to think about the upcoming election…and especially the amendments.

They’re not that complicated, but they’re also not as easy to sift through as you might think.

With that in mind, I’m going to touch on the amendments in this post. I may write about the state and federal races later, and I’m working on a post about the City’s “Civil Service” referendum as we speak.

A note on Constitutional Amendments in Tennessee

For a constitutional amendment to pass in Tennessee, two things must happen:

1. The “yes” votes for the amendment must make up the majority.
2. Those “yes” votes must be greater than 50% of all the votes cast for Governor.

So, if you want something to pass, vote for someone on the ballot (write-ins don’t count) in the gubernatorial election.

And, if you want something to fail, you sure as hell better raise that bar a little higher by voting in the Governor’s race (again, write-ins don’t count).

I fully expect a TV station or two somewhere in the state will declare something having passed when it hasn’t crossed these two thresholds, but I’ll wait until election night to mock them for that.

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown.

Amendment 1 – Removing your right to privacy

Some people call Amendment 1 “The Abortion Amendment”, and if you just read the caption on the ballot, you might think you’re right.

But since the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the issue of government intervention in difficult health decisions been about privacy.

I’ve written about this extensively in the past.

The caption for Amendment 1 says:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

But the idea of the right to privacy in health decisions, and abortion, which is a medical procedure, are inextricably linked.

That’s what the TNSCOTUS ruled in 2000.

So, to make a medical procedure potentially “illegal”, which is what the majority of the TN legislature wants, is to take away the privacy in medical decisions away from patients.

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees
Vote No on 1

The Legislature can’t do this on their own…they need you, the voter, to eschew the additional privacy protections inherent in the Tennessee Constitution, so they can then further limit your choices on your medical decisions.

If you think this will stop at abortion, you’re sadly mistaken. The legislature could use this amendment to regulate any number of widely accepted medical procedures under the guise that they have effectively restricted privacy with this amendment.

Its ironic really. The political right consistently rails against government intervention in personal decisions…until it comes to medical decisions, then they don’t think you’re qualified to do it on your own.

If one were to be consistent, they would strike down this amendment with an overwhelming majority…because none of us want Ron Ramsey, or Brian Kelsey making medical decisions for us.

They’ve already proven time and time again they don’t have our best interests at heart.

I urge you to vote NO on Amendment 1.

Amendment 2 – Judicial Disco

Judicial retention (for Appellate and Supreme Court justices) has been a big topic in State politics for a while now. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s effort to remove TN SCOTUS judges in the August election was just the start of a fight that’s been boiling over since Ramsey took the top spot in the State Senate.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify it all…and enshrine a system similar to the current system in the State Constitution. However, the differences have many folks up at arms.

Currently, a nominating commission makes recommendations to the Governor, who then selects from a paired down field of candidates. That Commission expired in 2013, and wasn’t renewed.

Under the amendment, there would be no mandated commission (though Haslam has said he approves of the commission), and the General Assembly would have veto power over the selection by the Governor. In a state where a simple majority can overturn the Governor already, that’s a lot of political power over the judiciary from the legislative branch.

Opponents of the amendment say to vote no, because the current system, without the added step of the legislature approving of the nominations works, and we shouldn’t bend to the legislature just because they scare the be-jesus out of us.

Supporters I’ve heard from don’t really seem to support the amendment, per se, but say its better than direct election of Appellate judges (which would be a disaster by any measure). They fear that could happen if the Constitutional Amendment isn’t passed.

Opponents counter that even the most radical on both sides of the aisle don’t want that, and bills seeking to make that the law of the land consistently fail in committee.

To be honest with you, I’m still torn. But as a person who: a. doesn’t take kindly to bullies, and b. is ready to take out my policy brass knuckles at the drop of a hat to beat down really dumb ideas from Nashville (there is an ample supply), I’m inclined to vote No.

When someone’s being a bully you don’t bend to them, you turn around and kick their ass so they’ll leave you alone. That’s what needs to happen here.

Amendment 3 – Tennessee Tax Dystopia

Unlike Amendment 2, Amendment 3 is simple. If you want your sales tax to start bumping up to 14%…vote for it.

If you don’t, vote against it.

Tennessee already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation.

The Legislature, with the help of the Haslam administration, has been cutting taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy. As things get more expensive, and we keep underfunding every damn thing we have to fund…that revenue will have to be replaced somewhere…and the sales tax is the only place to go.

Sponsors of this Amendment, like Brian Kelsey of Germantown will say this saves the state from the tax hell of having an income tax…and by virtue, stops taxes from increasing.

But as anyone with half a brain in their head knows, the absence of a kind of tax doesn’t stop taxes in general from increasing. Come on dude…really?

Vote NO on Amendment 3.

Amendment 4 – Veteran’s Bingo “Gaming”

Amendment 4 is an effort to include Veteran’s organizations in the “games of chance” carveout that was enshrined in the lottery.

Currently, many not-for-profit organizations can hold fundraisers that involve games of chance (gambling, cakewalks, etc. but not bingo)…but Veteran’s groups can’t.

The reason goes back to a scandal in the 1980’s.

The amendment lays out some high hurdles for Veteran’s groups to be able to do this…and that’s actually my problem with the Constitutional amendment.

If the amendment just said the Constitution allows this type of organization to do this and the “how” may be regulated by the state, I’d probably be for it. But this amendment sets forth a specific policy prescription and safeguards, which, if they don’t work, will take years to change because they’ll require another constitutional amendment!

So while I certainly think Veteran’s groups do good work…and far too often they do work the state itself should be doing, I can’t support this amendment because it reads too much like a bill and not enough like a constitutional amendment…if that makes any sense.

So, I say vote No on Amendment 4.

So there ya go. Take it for what its worth. But most importantly, go vote.

Oct 21 2014

Roland’s Folly – Part Infinity

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland says the County has a legal problem.

See, back in 2007 and 2009 the County Commission passed two ordinances that established a prevailing wage and a living wage for workers who work for County contractors.

The idea behind the ordinances is simple: If the County is going to pay a company to do a job, that company should pay their workers either a living wage, or the “prevailing wage” i.e. the wage paid to the majority of workers working in a specific field…rather than lowballing workers in a tough economy at a time when unemployment was high.

It should come as no surprise that the Tennessee Legislature…led by Ron Ramsey, Brian Kelsey, Glen Casada and Beth Harwell just plain hated the idea that people should get paid enough to live on…or at least in line with market prices for labor of a specific type. So, they passed a law outlawing these kinds of ordinances.

That was in March of 2013.

Fast forward to today…18 months after the fact…Commissioner Roland has sponsored two ordinances that would overturn the County’s living and prevailing wage ordinances…because they’re against the law.

Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but both ordinances stand as a statement against the kind of interference from Nashville that has been the hallmark of the Ramsey/Harwell era.

Roland wants to overturn this because he says it puts the County at risk of a lawsuit. But the County has been abiding by state law since it was enacted…because state law has supremacy over local ordinances and all that stuff you learn in a basic Civics class.

By the way, County Attorney Marcy Ingram says changing the ordinances is necessary. But if you look at her track record of “opinion” you should find yourself questioning her legal judgement. If someone tried to sue the county for not complying with state law simply for having an ordinance on the books, that suit would be thrown out immediately, because, in fact, the County is complying. That the County has a law on the books that has been superseded by state law is unremarkable.

Now, you might ask yourself, why keep this on the books since its no longer relevant.

The answer is simple, because the people of Shelby County, through their elected leaders, passed these ordinances long before the State decided to intervene. In fact, there was an election between the passage of these ordinances and the passage of the new state law, and everyone who voted for the ordinances, including the author, was overwhelmingly re-elected…enshrining public opinion in favor of the ordinances. And in doing so, we made a statement about our collective values. For all we know, the state may decide one day to change their law, which would mean our ordinances…still being on the books, would be back…in full effect.

Terry Roland wants to make sure this never happens.

I hope the County Commission will take this opportunity to take a stand against the state’s interference, and reject Roland’s proposed ordinances and stand for fair wages for workers, even if the state’s GOP legislative leaders don’t give a damn about them (because that much is abundantly clear).

If you want to read the ordinances proposed by Commissioner Roland, you can find them here.

Living Wage Repeal
Prevailing Wage Repeal

Apr 12 2014

‘Bangers, Budgets and Bosses…a week in Memphis

So it was kind of a weird week in Memphis. That’s not unusual I guess, but the way things worked out leaves a couple of bad tastes in my mouth…so, I’ve taken to writing aging for now.

‘Bangers

Open carry is one of those things the NRA and groups like it have been pushing just about everywhere in the South.

I’m not a fan of open carry laws because I just don’t think its necessary, and when you remove the requirement that people get proper training to carry a firearm in public, you endanger public safety and the safety of the person carrying the firearm.

On the other hand, I’ve always found the argument by the “conceal-carry” set that a concealed firearm is somehow a “crime deterrent” disingenuous. If its concealed, its more likely you will have it stolen when someone with a gun in their hand gets the jump on you. If its concealed its less likely to give a potential armed criminal pause. If its out there in the open, it may cause someone to think a little before they act…or just kill you first and take your gun to continue whatever violence they intend to commit.

In any case, the bill passed the State Senate, but according to the linked report, will die in the State House because:

“Every gang-banger in Memphis will end up packing. Can you imagine?” – Rep. Steve McDaniel

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

McDaniel lives in a little town on I-40 over 100 miles from the nearest “Memphis gang banger”, but apparently there’s enough fear of such a thing in tiny Parker’s Crossroads, TN, that it would stop him for falling in line with the Tennessee Firearms Assn..

It probably helps that the filing deadline has passed and there’s no time to primary him they way they did Debra Maggart.

Betsy brought up the problem with that logic, though I’m not really sure what her point is…

But my buddy Cardell Orrin wins the day with this response to the specter of an “Open Carry Tennessee”…

I have no idea if this will pass the State House, but I hope it doesn’t.

All this proposal will do is lead to more accidental shootings and other mishaps, of which there are already plenty in this country.

Budgets

Its budget season, which is one of my favorite times of year…because you get to see policy both in action and inaction (see what I did there).

Tennessee Budget

The State rubber stamped Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget down to the dollar…leaving out promised money for teacher raises, tuition freezes, and other critical stuff. A proposed additional $2m dollars for rape kit funding was also struck down, because…Memphis. State lawmakers just hate us for some reason.

Shelby County Government Budget

Shelby County Government also released a proposed budget which was praised for lowering taxes and providing raises for County employees.

Looking into the guts of the proposal, it seems that while overall revenue is down by about $53m (due primarily to fewer federal government transfers) property tax collections are projected to increase by just under $2m (which accounts for the penny).

470 employees will be lost, most of them (440) due to the end of the Shelby Co. Head Start program. I haven’t seen news about who, if anyone, has received the federal funds for that program.

This is an election year, so a tax cut, even a small one, is a political instrument as much as anything else. After last year’s hike, any cut will be trumpeted to the hills.

In reality, this budget is a continuation budget. There’s no new great vision or direction to be seen. There’s no great look at what the County Administration wants the County to look like going forward other than “the same”. And with all the structural problems the County has (that they largely ignore) its hard to feel really good about this budget…unless all you care about is the political viability of using a tiny tax cut as a means to garner votes.

Shelby County Schools Budget

The County Schools also released their initial budget proposal to the County Commission to accolades from the body. The budget includes a reported 2316 real job losses and 2380 jobs that move to the six municipal schools.

The real way to look at this budget, is not against last year, but the last year of MCS, since the remaining SCS schools are primarily former MCS schools. Here’s a top level breakdown:

12-13 MCS 14-15 SCS
Employees 13,031 12,818
Enrollment 104,829 117,154
Pupils per employee 8.04 9.14
General Fund 901,799,827 961,298,645
Per student expenditure $8602.58 $8205.43

It should be noted, these numbers represent a “top level” funding and employee count, rather than an actual representation of where and how the money will be spent. So while the “per pupil” and “per employee” numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction, the reality of that will be determined by how the real budget works out…and some deeper digging into the guts of the numbers.

This represents the lion’s share of education funding for the County, but a true picture of education funding won’t be available until the six municipalities present their budgets to the County Commission. How those six seek to claim the remaining 20.6% of county money could possibly be an interesting fight.

University of Memphis

One budget I haven’t paid that much attention to in previous years is the U of M budget. But its an important one, that represents nearly $500m in spending in the area.

This year’s budget represents the first full year of re-prioritizing the University in the image of interim President Brad Martin…whom one must assume is acting on behalf of his friend and former employee, Gov. Bill Haslam.

What’s not certain is if the faculty will endorse the proposal, or if tenured members of the faculty will use their relative safety to fight back against these budget cuts and other proposed changes to the University.

Of course, tenure or not, a certain level of caution should be exercised, as the State government has shown a great deal of disdain for tenure generally (particularly in public education) and probably wouldn’t hesitate to change the rules to suit their desire to quash anything that challenges their supermajority status.

This will be a new area for me this year, but I think its as important as anything. The future of the U of M will play a big role in the future of the County.


The City of Memphis is set to release its budget proposal on Tuesday, so nothing to report there right now. Also, if this year follows previous years, the proposal itself won’t look much like the final budget, as priorities and funds are shifted.

Bosses

A Commercial Appeal article published after Thursday’s Democratic Mayoral Debate, quotes District Attorney candidate Judge Joe Brown as saying he’s something akin to a political boss. Brown was answering a question about the value of his endorsement in the upcoming May primary.

Here’s the actual quote:

If you’re a candidate, is there some value in having Joe Brown on your side? Are you hearing that a lot?

“Yes. In other words, who’s going to make the tough decisions? Alright, you want to do this, you want to do that. You can either work it out yourselves or if you can’t, I pick who I’m going to support. When I support you, that is important to your candidacy. … I’m not going to endorse in every race, but when there’s a big knock-down, drag-out, I’m trying to” — he was interrupted here by a well-wisher.

“So in other words, I smooth it out,” he said, returning to the conversation. “It’s called being boss.”

You view yourself in that role?

“No, that’s what they want,” he said.

Who? Bryan Carson?

“Sorta, kinda,” he said. Then, he characterized how the party talked him into running for district attorney, and his reasons for seeing opportunity there against incumbent Republican Amy Weirich. – via the Commercial Appeal

There’s no question that DA candidate Joe Brown could play a major role in the outcome of the August election. But some things are far less certain:

1. Brown’s influence on a May primary in which he has no competition. The May primary election has historically had incredibly low turnout.

2. The balance between Brown’s influence and the organizing efforts of the three Mayoral candidates (along with the other candidates in the primary contests).

3. Brown’s actual role as a boss.

Shelby County Democratic Party Chair Bryan Carson had this to say about the latter:

“He doesn’t have a role,” Carson said, adding a few moments later, “he has no influence on the Shelby County Democratic Party.”

So, not a boss?

“That was his characterization,” Carson said. “What I did, we needed a candidate for the top of the ticket.” – via the Commercial Appeal

I have a big problem with the characterization of anyone as a “boss”.

First of all, the bosses of old had patronage jobs to toss around. While this is still the case (to some degree) the depth of that influence has diminished in a world of greater scrutiny and dwindling budgets.

Secondly, Brown not only has no such jobs to dole out, but also hasn’t really been involved in local politics in any measurable way until recently.

Finally, the notion of a boss is a rally point for the opposing party. August is set to be a sleeper…except for local races, and for Brown to give the County GOP anything to rally on other than their slate of candidates isn’t particularly helpful.

But there’s another reason…the idea of a “boss” gives the perception of corruption…because of all of the things I listed above. That’s something we really don’t need.

We don’t need a return to the era of “bosses”, despite what some seem to think. The “boss” era in Memphis politics may be looked back on as a golden age, but it also set up all kinds of trouble that we’re still dealing with. More than I care to get into at this point.

Truth be told, there is no one in elective office in Shelby County, with the possible exception of State Sen. Mark Norris that has the political power to be called a “boss”. The political power structure is too diffuse to sustain such a person.

Further, I would argue that no elected official is seeking or could in any way lay claim to the title. There’s too much dissent, and not enough carrots or sticks being used to execute such power.

So while the notion of a “boss” and the perceived power and stability that title might hold for some may seem attractive, it just isn’t likely to happen here again. That’s something that presents both a challenge for the future, and a net positive for those who are willing to forge alliances to get needed things done in the community.

Unfortunately, there remains a “boss mentality” in the area…something that will take a long time for us to get over. The kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” that many feel for the era of bosses, and the new era of the unspoken “bosses” that play a large role in anointing political leaders in the area, is a bigger problem to deal with.

That’s another post for another time. But suffice it to say, we don’t need another boss, and Brown, even if he may think of himself as one…isn’t one.