Shakedown 2: Role Reversal

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton
Memphis Mayor AC Wharton
After the announcement from Memphis City Hall that Jack Sammons would be taking over as the City’s CAO, I wrote this post, pondering the issue as either a shake-up or a shakedown.

At the end of the post I posed a question:

Is this shakeup the move of a leader who recognizes he’s got a problem and is trying to fix it, or is this a shakedown of the city’s business community/Poplar corridor voters, basically saying, stick with me or else?

In light of recent events, it seems the answer is neither. The power in relationships that brought this along are exactly reversed from my original assumptions.

Shakedown: Who’s Driving the Bus?

The first clue came in this post by Toby Sells of the Memphis Flyer.

There are two very telling quotes in this post, that have become more telling in light of recent events.

The first, is that Mayor Wharton wouldn’t comment on the discussions to install Sammons in the post.

Lets think about this, if you’re trying to “shake-up” your administration in a way that brings a sense of additional political competence to the equation, wouldn’t you be ready to talk about it? The idea that “negotiations” are the stumbling block here lead one to believe that Mayor Wharton isn’t driving the bus on this one, but going along for the ride.

Second, when asked if this might bring more changes to 125 N. Main, Mayor Wharton said, “It might”.

This also brings a “driving the bus” question. First of all, as a Mayor, if you had division directors that you had lost confidence in, its your prerogative to replace them. But Mayor Wharton is either playing coy, or he truly doesn’t have an opinion on the issue. If that’s the case, then one has to wonder if he really wanted to replace Little with Sammons, or if he’s being pressured externally to do so.

Then there’s this little gem from Informed Sources.

Here’s the money quote from Susan Adler Thorp from about 1 min 10 seconds in.

Susan Adler Thorp:Because it really was created by some strong supporters of Mayor Wharton’s in the business community. Because we all know Mayor Wharton’s numbers have fallen, in the African-American community, in the White community, and in the business community. …He apparently has not been raising the kind of money for his campaign that he has in the past. So this was an attempt to recreate some faith in the Mayor’s ability to have a strong administration…and that’s what happened.

Mary Beth Connley So are you saying the finanial support was going to be pulled or reduced or removed if he didn’t replace George Little? and why?

Susan Adler Thorp: Well, there was a little threat there that there would not be any financial support. So, did the Mayor buy in to this? I’m not so sure, but as George Little confirmed, it looks like political strategy to help him raise money for his political campaign.

The quote Thorp is referencing is from this CA article that I linked in my last post, where Little is quoted saying:

“I’ll tell you what I don’t bring to this job, and I don’t mind saying it. I’m a longtime civil servant. … Where I can’t serve the mayor is in terms of political strategy.”

All these things together make it clear, the Mayor is being taken for a ride he didn’t buy a ticket for, and didn’t want to get on.

Quid pro quo?

Anyone who’s watched Silence of the Lambs has an idea of what quid pro quo means….It’s latin phrase that literally means “something for something” or, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

So what kind of ‘back scratching’ is the business community after? Bill Dries is on the case:

Little said Monday that the administration is prepared to move ahead with changes to police and fire operations as well as begin movement again on its bid to outsource more solid waste sanitation services.

These are the things the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce have been pushing since day 1 of the Wharton Administration. And while Police and Fire services have endured a great deal of pain over the past several years, that pain isn’t satisfying the business community. They want more.

Now it seems they’ve finally taken the opportunity to force the Mayor’s hand using the thing they excel at most…money.

Political Fallout

One thing’s for sure… If I were Mayor Wharton, I’d be thanking my lucky stars that this snow happened when it did. It effectively put any discussion of the goings on with the Sammons situation on ice…literally.

Because there are some serious political problems with the appointment.

The first issue is getting it done. With State offices shuttered, and reluctance from the Republican County Mayor, Wharton has a little bit more time, with the issue out of the spotlight, to decide just how hard he’s going to push the issue in the coming days.

Secondly, the question of how much money will Jack Sammons command as the CAO of the city is ripe for being played up in the media. Les Smith at Fox 13 took a cursory glance at that earlier this week.

But while the money may ultimately be a drop in the bucket, its the appearance that will hurt the Mayor more than anything else. As Thorp points out on Informed Sources, the Mayor’s support across the board is flagging. One has to question how installing a new CAO under extreme political pressure will play with the public. My sense is it won’t play well, even if Sammons did it for free.

So now comes the question of political strategy. Specifically, will the promise of the money faucet actually help the Mayor in his re-election bid with folks who aren’t a part of that world?

Lets be very clear here. There’s no question that money is required to make a real go of it in October. And there’s also no question that Mayor Wharton has some real competition for those big money donors in the race.

But money alone doesn’t win elections. The truth is, there’s a promise…a contract if you will, between voters and elected officials. That promise comes right down to making people’s lives better, in some measurable way…and there’s plenty of room for debate that the Wharton Administration has fulfilled that promise.

Crime reduction and job creation are the biggies here Bluff City. But there are also some other promises that are more localized to specific constituencies that play a large role in their support. And while there’s no question the unemployment situation in Memphis has gotten better (10.1% in 2011 to 7.6% in 2014), the median household income over the same period of time (not adjusted for inflation) has dropped and the number of households making less than 35,000/yr has increased.

So while there may be more people employed, working people in Memphis aren’t making as much money today as they were four years ago. If you need one metric to gauge discontent…the “are you doing better now than four years ago” question comes back as a no.

The Long Road to October

With all these things in mind, one has to wonder who will emerge as the candidate that speaks to the wants and needs of the long ignored regular folks in Memphis?

Narratives haven’t been launched, and the field is nowhere near being set, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in place ready to take up that mantle. And with dissatisfaction with the status quo being high, the contest is ripe for someone to come forward with a message that’s geared toward regular working people, that doesn’t, at the same time, rely on the oft heard policy tropes that keep getting forced down our throats.

The truth is, there hasn’t been a real public policy discourse about the direction of the city in a long while. Most of the conversation has been about these supposed “gotta do it” issues, with no other options presented.

Maybe the city doesn’t have any options. Or maybe it suffers from a lack of imagination and intellectual curiosity. Maybe instead of focusing on cutting services (which has been the hallmark of the past 8 years) we need to be looking for ways to increase our tax base. That’s something I never hear coming from City Hall quite frankly.

As for the cutting, I think its fine to study the size of various divisions of the city. I think its fine to consider that maybe there’s money being spent poorly. But if tax rate is as big of a deal as some folks think it is, then increasing property values ought to be a big part of the equation, and to do that, we have to start working on parts of town that are typically ignored.

That might also be a good strategy to reduce some of the property crime, not to mention violent crime in the City.

I’m just saying, the city seems to cater to one group of people, and its a pretty damn small group.

But for politicians to change their song and dance, it takes citizens, and a damn lot of them, to start singing a new tune. That means enough of us have to be on the same page that there’s something there to dance to. And, we gotta keep singing it until they get it right.

Otherwise, we’ll keep getting the same song and dance over and over again…no matter how little its doing for us, or how poorly its performed.

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