Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Time For Great Mayors

It seems a good time to reprise a slightly edited post from July 5, 2006, which was also the June, 2006, City Journal column in Memphis magazine:

This is the golden age of great city mayors.

In Chicago, Richard Daley transformed “Beirut on the Lake” into one of the world’s great cities - sophisticated, vibrant, seedbed for an astonishing array of enlightened “green” programs.

In Denver and San Francisco, two restaurateurs – respectively John Hickenlooper and Gavin Newsom – transplanted their customer service credo into city services and designed revolutionary programs for the homeless. Also, Hickenlooper’s determined regional fence-mending produced a 70 percent approval rating in the metro area, and he in turn used this reservoir of good will to lead seven counties and 31 cities to pass a sales tax increase to pay for 119 miles of new light rail and commuter trains costing $5 billion.

In Atlanta, Shirley Franklin slashed 1,000 jobs as well as her own salary, convinced 75 companies to analyze city government at no cost and began a 22-mile linear park connecting 45 neighborhoods. Through force of personality, Jerry Abramson convinced Louisville citizens to approve the largest government consolidation in 40 years; New York’s Michael Bloomberg turned a projected $6.5 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus; Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley developed a unique computerized complaint system making city departments more accountable and as governor of Maryland, he is now applying the same approach to state government; Miami’s Manny Diaz moved the city bond rating from junk to A+ while rolling out a six-year program to rebuild the infrastructure; and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty delivered something thought impossible – stability and innovation.


In other words, cities are in an epic period of rebirth, and great mayors are the reason.

Memphis has had great managers, great motivators and great speakers. But there’s no argument that Memphis has had a mayor who measures up to the standards of today’s great mayors.

Mayor Willie W. Herenton, contrary to critics who tend to blame him for everything from the economic downturn to global warming, flirted with a “Nixon to China” brand of greatness, but in the end, it was not to be and now seems as elusive as his being cheered at halfcourt at FedExForum.

In truth, the concept of Willie Herenton has always been more compelling than the reality of Willie Herenton. To his political base, he has special status as the city’s first African-American mayor, and the voter loyalty attached to that milestone will not be replicated again.

With civic leaders, explanations for support have frequently begun with the sentence, “He’s better than….”

Outstripping Reality

When a political brand outstrips personal reality, it’s often a good thing for the politician. The formidable image silences critics, drives public opinion and overwhelms public discussions.

In Herenton’s case though, it’s no longer fair to him, and it’s not now fair to the city, because it has mutated into a mythology that polarizes every issue he touches. The seminal example took place just over year ago when he convened a meeting to consider his innovative proposal for merger of the two local school systems. On that day, he made the best researched and most detailed analysis by a public official of the $1 billion spent locally each year for schools, and he did it all without mentioning once that Memphis is the only major metro area in Tennessee where schools aren’t already consolidated.

And yet, none of the statistics, none of the projections and none of the historical trends were reported. Instead, the media fixated on the fact that the chairs of the city and county school boards – respectively, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler - were petulant no-shows at the meeting.

Losing The Pulpit

It was a defining moment in the Herenton Era, because it was at that moment that it became unambiguously obvious that his personality, not his positions or programs, would be the overriding factor defining the news from then on. In this way, it no longer mattered if he was right, because he was robbed of his bully pulpit.The sad truth of Memphis politics – and it is sad whether you like Herenton or not – is that the mayor no longer has the potential to be great, because the ultimate prisoner of the Herenton myth is now Willie Herenton himself.

Because of it, he was denied the chance to emulate great U.S. mayors who are creating bigger dreams for their cities that every one sees themselves being part of, reaching across political and racial boundaries and inspiring all of their citizens with the confidence to move ahead together.


Tom Guleff said...

Memphis needs a generational change election. If you’ve held political office, 8 years or more, please step aside, there’s work to be done.

Zippy the giver said...

He denied himself greatness by not completing his homework, blaming others for his failure isn't worth a nickel.
Same with all the other incumbents.
They need to step off.
Halbert and pickler showed their true colors too, but, the Memphis Media outlets are about the dumbest I've seen in this country. It's like they're either paid to be completely inept, hide ineptness through "drama" or they are just plain stupid and catering to themselves.
Investigational Reporting is NONEXISTENT here.
Sticking with a store in the interest of the citizens?
Not unless it's too easy.
What tools does a Memphis Mayor have to be great?
Sure isn't a competent media presence.
Judging by his appointees, he gave up a LONG time ago and just went for the money. When the DOJ can't slam dunk an obvious and bragged about case of city destroying, then he doesn't have any federal backup either. Antagonizing the governor wasn't a brilliant plan. Turning a blind eye to graft until you could appoint receivers of graft wasn't good either.

He couldn't run a city anywhere but into the ground, why does he suddenly think he can run the 9th district?

Political Science Major said...

Dear Zippy,
Political Science 101: The Congressional representative from the 9th district doesn't run the 9th district.

Anonymous said...

Shelby County already funds both school systems. Memphis voluntarily provides additional funding to the city schools. If the county were to be the sole provider, they would fund the city at the same rate as they fund county schools. If a judge decides that the city schools must be funded at the previous higher rate, then the county would be obligated to also fund the county schools at the higher rate to match the city schools.

But that isn't the biggest problem. This would lead to a combined school system, which would be the final nail in the coffin for Shelby county.

Smart City Consulting said...


The single source funding agreement provides for weighted funding for city students because of need/special ed, etc., and that's why there is a plan to go to the Legislature.

Single source funding is the most equitable way to fund schools and is long overdue, and there are numerous legal issues that would prevent it from leading to merger of the districts. (Although every other major city in Tennessee manages to have consolidated school districts without falling off the globe and the model of four districts under a single administrative umbrella still makes a lot of sense to us.)

Zippy the giver said...

It's time to get off the pot!
DO something, make a mistake and correct it quickly, but, get off the pot already. The tax structure here is designed by the mentally challenged and very STUPID.

PSM, if you're the guy bringing the money to the 9th, you are running the place to a bigger degree than most.

Steve's doing better than Willy did for the city.

Political Science Major said...

Gee Zippy,
Your view of power and politics is so naive as to boggle the mind.

Zippy the giver said...

Gee polysci, I've been on the inside of one of our ex presidents circles, you are naive, to a degree that is common.

Zippy the giver said...

Edmund Ford is running, maybe you can do a piece on what it takes to be a totally crap mayor.
Willy is already ratcheting up his hate machine now Edmund must chime in.
Start praying and putting wood at the base of city hall, you're going to have to burn them like witches to get rid of them.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Chicago in the sixties. Mayor Daley had a rule for all the city officials: You can go for the money or you can go for the power, but not both. Those who broke the rule ended up in prison. He also made sure that the assessor stuck it to those who would sit on blighted parts of the city. Instead of tax giveaways, those owners were prodded by tax policy to develop the blighted areas. The greatest rule of all was that you had to love the city. All of this is the exact opposite of what we have in Memphis.

Political Science Major said...

Working for MATA is not being on the inside of a president's circle.

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