Horserace Politics and Determining the Track

Via Polar Donkey
Yesterday, after a long absence, our good friend and master map maker Polar Donkey resurfaced to point out the inadequacies of Alan Wade’s redistricting program.

Those light spots you see in the map to your left. Those are precincts that aren’t included in Wade’s incomplete list. All in all there are about 15 of them. In addition, there are some precincts included in the list that no longer exist. Maybe this is what took Wade so long to get it together on this project.

This morning, Smart City called the process a “punch line”, and wonders why a demographer wasn’t employed in the process. That’s a really good question. I wonder if Attorney Wade is as good at plumbing or electrical work as he is at demographics. Maybe the Council should task him with that. I’m sure there’s some stuff around City Hall that needs some “fixing”.

Both the Daily News and the Commercial Appeal have stories out on the stands this morning about redistricting, though mostly about the horserace and not the problems of determining the track. Which is exactly what this is.

Of course, Jackson Baker picked up on that story a month ago.

While horserace politics is what most election coverage and much of political punditry has been restricted to over the past 15 years or so, you can’t have a race without a track. The track in this case is the way the districts are drawn. The importance of paying attention to the track and the way the track is drawn is that it determines who can run in the horserace. That’s a process that few people know about, including many elected officials and political writers, because it’s only done once every 10 years. That gives everyone plenty of time to forget.

But as the Daily News points out, the proposal before the City Council would effectively cut 3 candidates out of the race, at least two of whom, I know have spent a good deal of money on their campaigns, based on the snazziness of their printed materials.

Few people seem to be questioning the process. Few people seem to notice or care that today, just 10 days before the filing deadline, there are a number of questions regarding who will be in, and who will be out, as well as the justifications for those changes. What’s worse, because there are “missing precincts” in the list, there is no question that this list will change again, and once again a level of uncertainty will be cast on potential candidates.

For two and a half months now I’ve been calling for this process to be more transparent. Transparency in the process would have likely avoided many of these issues and also might have sped it up. Because the City Council decided to once again solely use their attorney, much of this process is likely shielded behind attorney-client privilege, an unnecessary wall that hasn’t been a feature of other redistricting proposals both here in Shelby County and other counties in the state that have recently redistricted.

This is the modern version of the “smoke-filled room” that was a feature of our political system in the days before television, and that was largely responsible for deciding who could run when and where. There is no transparency in a smoke-filled room, except for those who happen to be included.

On July 19th the City Council will meet to approve this proposal. Because so little attention has been paid this process, it’s highly likely the Council will just approve what’s before them, problems and all, leading to a legal challenge. This is, by definition, the antitheses of “good stewardship” on at least two levels:

First, because the process has had delay after delay (the first of which began on April 19th), none of which have been fully explained or accounted for, the entirety of it has been shrouded in mystery. The Council could have easily avoided this by merely instructing Wade to employ a demographer who he would oversee, much like the process that went down for the Metro Charter Commission.

Second, because the City Council has exercised virtually no leadership on this issue, including setting timelines and benchmarks for the process to be complete, the process has been allowed to drag on for an additional two months. In talking to people who do this kind of work for a living, I’ve found several capable individuals who have indicated that the timeframe for this project has long since past.

This all goes back to something I wrote over a month ago about walking and chewing gum, a skill that nearly four years in this City Council hasn’t seemed to master. Long-term issues that ultimately impact the budget are pushed off until the three months that are set aside for the budget. In the nine months in between, few proposals are put forth, and even fewer are passed that might help correct those budget issues in the future.

Procrastination is a feature of both this Council and Memphis City government at large. How then, can we expect to rebuild the lost growth this city has experienced when the can is continually kicked down the road?

There are many good and thoughtful people on the Memphis City Council and in the Memphis government. Some I agree with, others not so much. My agreement with them isn’t required to make them good and thoughtful. What is required is a willingness to make a huge cultural shift in government from what we have now, to a government that can justify its actions because it is committed to a rigorous program of accountability. The Memphis City Council has a duty to be a check on the goings on of City Government, to enforce a level of accountability, to the degree that it can. Instead, it has allowed itself to be little more than a zoning board most of the time, something that only it can correct.

After the 2007 election, with 9 new members, there was an opportunity for the City Council to be that check. The fresh blood, the new ideas brought with it some pitfalls, most notably the school funding issue, but since that time there has been little willingness or vision to address the issues facing a declining city, or any proposals to help right the ship going forward.

In the time since that election, hope for progress on issues that face Memphis have slowly faded as constituency after constituency has found their concerns falling on far too many deaf ears. Councilman Boyd’s comments, the day of the final vote on the CVS Pharmacy that “it doesn’t matter how many people you bring, I’m still voting the same way”, illustrates some of the problem. Certainly, the Councilman knew that the meeting before, and the meeting after would feature almost no civic participation from the community at large. That lack of participation allows the Council to act, or in many cases, choose not to act, in any way it deems fit.

And that’s also part of the problem with this particular issue. Redistricting is not as in your face as an ugly building being built within 2 miles of 9 other ugly buildings that serve the same purpose. Redistricting is not a series of blighted empty houses crumbling and ultimately lowering property values and property tax revenues on Spottswood between Josephine and Highland. But it is a serious issue that deserves serious consideration because it helps determine who will run where and what issues those individuals will bring to the forefront of the public’s eye. That this Council has allowed this process to proceed in this manner, is nothing more than a manifestation of the lack of proactivity that has been a feature of the past several years.

There an old saying that “Leaders just lead”. While I’ve devoted a fair amount of this post to criticizing the City Council, I also think there are several potential leaders on that body. I wish they would just take the mantle of leader and just lead, despite those also serving on the body who primarily seek to distract, distort, and disguise their intentions. This council needs a Drill Sergeant to help push things forward and point out the inadequacies of both the system and the body itself. This council needs a staunch advocate who will challenge the status quo and demand results from both their counterparts, and the other organs in City Government. It is time for that kind of leadership to emerge to place the focus where it belongs from the horserace politics that have dominated our political discourse, to determining the track to help guide our way forward. Until that kind of leadership emerges, we’ll be stuck running on the same track over and over in circles, stirring up some dust, but not really moving forward.

We can’t afford to continue running in this same circle.

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