Monday, May 08, 2006

Need For Coalition For A Better Memphis Extends Beyond Election Season

Primary elections are about a candidate identifying a base and talking about the red meat issues that its members care about. The general election is about broadening the base to appeal to more than the true believers.

Unfortunately, in county elections here, we rarely have the second phase, because districts are so carefully drawn to preordain them to one political party or the other. As a result, there’s normally not even a challenger from the other political party in places like the Republican suburban district or the Democratic urban district.

This is why while there are 13 county commissioners, only three have opposition on the August general county ballot, and political insiders only see a serious contest in one of them.

As a result of the party interests institutionalized by the partisan county elections, candidates normally are frozen in the first phase of a campaign, the part known for its partisan rhetoric, such as every Democrat railing against privatization or every Republican promising to lower taxes.

Unfortunately, because there’s normally no general election where candidates from both parties compete to sell their differing viewpoints, there’s little pressure for most candidates to move beyond the partisan rhetoric to develop substantive plans for Shelby County Government.

We never learn how the Democrat plans to hold down the costs of government if an operational option like privatization is summarily taken off the table. We never learn how the Republican is going to vote against every tax increase while encouraging suburban sprawl.

It was in response to this parallel universe that The Coalition for a Better Memphis was created and why it is such a welcome development. This year, as promised, the Coalition “qualified” candidates running for county commissioners and announced their “grades.”

But, perhaps, The Coalition for a Better Memphis would serve the community’s interests best if it did more than just weigh in at election time. Rather, it could seriously elevate the political debate if it stayed engaged after the election, pressing winners for detailed plans of action.

So far, in the interview process, some candidates have gotten away with offering up the normal hyperboles and vague (if sometimes conflicting) promises. It happens when the questions are general and the grading process isn’t precisely spelled out. (In some races, it was arguable that candidates got the highest grades when they said the least.)

Backers of the Coalition concede that the organization has some work to do before its next entry into the election process, however, it was a promising first step that the Coalition took with the county commissioners’ elections.

Yes, in truth, its impact was probably limited, and there are deep suspicions by some political activists that the endorsements were predetermined. But such complaints were also heard when the Committee for a Better Atlanta – the prototype for the Memphis group – began its work there. The complaints were expected as a byproduct of a political scene that breeds conspiracies by the hour.

That said, for the most impact, the Coalition should make the interviewing and grading process as transparent as it can so candidates and voters understand the context that it’s using to determine if a candidate is answering “right” or not.

Back to our point about the Coalition staying engaged after the election, let it be said that whatever the Coalition can do to stimulate greater interest in local elections and increase understanding of what’s at stake is good. It’s clear that Memphis has a cancerous voter confidence problem. In the county primary elections, the turnout didn’t even manage to break into double digits.

Perhaps, if we want to engage the voters, accountability must become more than just an election cycle issue. Perhaps, the Coalition could truly transform the civic discussion by reporting back to the voters on a regular basis about whether politicians are doing what they promised.

The upside to this is that it would require every candidate who becomes an elected official to offer up specific, measurable plans for the future. It’s would no longer be enough for a candidate to answer a question about economic development by saying that he’s for more economic growth, fine turning tax freezes and looking closely at smart growth. Instead, he would have to say what he would precisely do to improve the use of tax freezes and to make growth financially sustainable.

There are no serious accountability in the process now, and the media do not seem inclined to play this role in a structured way. Here's a vacuum that the Coalition could fill, and in doing it, it would fulfill the full potential of its founding vision.


LeftWingCracker said...

If we only had a daily newspaper..

I agree with most of this, and I'm an old hack from way back. One thing, process-wise, that needs to happen is to have smaller, single-member districts for both the city and county.

That would cut them down to size so that door-to-door campaigning would be feasible, and thus less reliant on money. You will note that the single Commission district that will be competitive in August is also the smallest one; Steve Mulroy won by knocking on nearly every door in the district.

Also, at redistricting time, take it out of the hands of the body being redistricted, and turn it over to a NON-partisan commission.

Then, maybe we'll see some action.

Smart City Consulting said...

Leftwingcracker: Good points and we agree with everything you've said. SCM

Anonymous said...

I submitted to the Coalition process... it was a mistake I won't make again and will attempt to warn others of the "snake hole."

I was interviewed by a panel of about six that only included one Black whom I consider to be an intercity republican and the remainder were Whites whom I did not know.

The local Democratic Party has undertaken the effort to develop a convenant of beliefs, values and strategies for metro Memphis. The Party can be reached at and offers our plan as an alternative to independents and other organized parties.

I firmly believe in partisan politics particularly at the local level. It seems the most effective local change would be the development of smaller single member districts for both County and Memphis governments.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

"The local Democratic Party has undertaken the effort to develop a convenant of beliefs, values and strategies for metro Memphis."

Don't see one on their website, Where is it?

"I firmly believe in partisan politics particularly at the local level."


autoegocrat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
autoegocrat said...

Democracy is what happens between elections.

BraveCordovaDem said...

There is an effort underway at the present time that might be related to this post. On August 3, we Memphians will be voting to 1) have a Charter Commission authorized and 2) to elect 7 members to the Charter Commission.

It's low interest elections like this that groups like the Coalition have the most impact. Also, there is another group headed by John Lunt (who headed the petition drive for this vote) to elect a "slate" of candidates.

A lot of things are needed to update the City Charter and to correct abuses over the past 30+ years. One thing the Commission can do is to have only single member districts. The argument against is that the members only serve their parochial needs but history has shown different, that single member district members have shown more productivity than at-large or "super district" members. Perhaps one reason is that they are less beholding to special interests to fund their campaigns.

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