Friday, March 02, 2007

Real Leadership Is Putting The City's Interest First

The Joseph Lee fiasco has become political theater, but at the end of what is now destined to be a three-act play, the ending will be the same.

Mr. Lee will exit stage right.

The die is cast, and while Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton tries to wring every ounce of political gain out of it, it becomes just a sad spectacle for our city.

F In Math

Here’s the political calculus of the mayor’s advisors in explaining the reason for his refusal to accept Mr. Lee's resignation:

1) As long as MLGW is in the news, so is Herman Morris, the former utility president who recently announced as a candidate for city mayor, and some of the mud that splatters on Mr. Lee will also hit Mr. Morris;

2) Mayor Herenton can’t appear to cave in to pressure from Council members like Carol Chumney, also a candidate in the upcoming election for mayor;

3)If Mayor Herenton removes Mr. Lee now, it only emphasizes that it was a bad decision to give him the job in the first place and after dismissing Mr. Morris; and

4)This is a red meat issue for the mayor’s base, who responds favorably to his refusal to bow to the power structure, and the undertow that this is a white-directed conspiracy to take down a prominent African-American leader and it is led by a favorite old scapegoat, The Commercial Appeal.

It’s A Matter Of Time

In the end, the advisors reason, Mr. Lee will likely have to leave his MLGW job any way, but it will at a time and place of the mayor’s choosing. And that will happen only after more time has passed, the air has cleared and the mayor proves that he cowers to no one.

We admit that math was never our best subject, but as far as political calculus, none of this adds up to us. In the end, in doing this, the message the mayor sends is that he puts his personal political gain ahead of the best interests of Memphis.

Even if Mayor Herenton is making points with his base, he is, at the same time, hardening the opposition by those who see him as divisive, obstinate, erratic and imperious, driving up his seriously climbing negatives even more. For the first time in his 16 years as our city’s top elected official, he is politically vulnerable, and polls show devastating problems with white voters and growing erosion of African-American support.

It's way too early for straw polls to mean much, but the fact that he's not fared well in recent ones when pitted against potential candidates could foreshadow a major shift in our political landscape.

The Witching Hour

The comment that illustrates his political strategy perfectly is when he blamed the firestorm of criticism about Mr. Lee’s performance at MLGW as a “witch hunt.”

To use his metaphor, if it is a witch hunt, it is because Mr. Lee himself admitted to being a witch. The attempt to paint Mr. Lee as a victim of media savaging makes about as much sense as blaming Britney Spears’ hairdresser for her baldness.

The mayor seems to forget that the media didn’t decide that Mr. Lee was guilty of special treatment for City Councilman Edmund Ford. Mr. Lee admitted it himself in the delivery of a prepared statement following his testimony to the federal grand jury that seemed more like a perp walk than public contrition. Meanwhile, rumbling inside MLGW about other revelations suggest that the controversy if far from over.

In the end, the mayor needs to quit reading The Commercial Appeal and answer his office phone. It’s not reporters who are mad, discouraged and disdainful. It is the public. He ignores that seminal fact at his own peril.

I And I

What the mayor needs to remember is that everything isn’t about him. More precisely, this is about restoring public confidence in a public utility that only a few years ago was one of Memphis’ proudest success stories. Surely, there is at least one thing that can rise above the normal political machinations of City Hall, and shouldn’t MLGW it?

After all, this isn’t Mayor Herenton’s utility company. It isn’t Mr. Lee’s. It is the public’s.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what your think of Mr. Lee. All of us who know him like him, but what matters most now is that Mr. Lee can no longer perform his duties as president. Mayor Herenton admitted as much when he blamed the controversy on internal sabotage at MLGW. Of course, the simplest way to have thwarted internal sabotage was to treat Councilman Ford like every other MLGW customer and cut off his electricity. You really can’t complain if someone shoots you after you've loaded the gun for them.

A Salvage Operation

Most of all, Mayor Herenton has done Mr. Lee a disservice. Yesterday, Mr. Lee tried to do the honorable thing and resign. It was a wise thing to do to salvage his reputation and continue his career in Memphis.

He had the opportunity to show that he understands the depths of the damage being done to MLGW and that he would do what’s right for the utility. In refusing to accept his resignation, Mayor Herenton has set up Mr. Lee for the day when he will be forced out, and at that point, Mr. Lee will not have the good will that would have greeted his resignation yesterday.

Of course, if Mr. Lee really wants to resign, there it is dependent on the mayor accepting it. Even in City Hall, indentured servitude is against the law.

There’s still time for Mr. Lee to salvage things, and he does that by resigning outright. If he really wants to serve the mayor best, he would do it because only then would he protect the mayor from himself.