Sunday, October 18, 2009
Landslide Grounds New Political Landscape
Memphis needed a mandate.
Yes, Mayor-elect A C Wharton got it, but it was the city that needed it.
We’ve been limping along for eight years or so with no sense that we had anyone in charge, someone with a compelling vision and the public credibility and ability to lead us out of the wilderness, someone who can cast off the civic lethargy that has gripped up for too long.
While Mayor Wharton doesn’t need to play Moses to our wandering tribe, he will have to play Obama for a city demanding change in short order. There is so much that has to be done now and there’s no chance of his doing them one at a time. He has no choice but for daily multi-tasking that will be the theme for the next two years and a skill every one of his directors will have to cultivate.
Waiting For A Great Mayor
That’s why Memphis badly needed a mandate.
Our city needs a reason to shift from despairing about things to becoming hopeful about the future. Our city needs someone who can summon up all of the resources in the public and private sectors to focus on the game changers that can transform our city’s trajectory. Our city needs momentum and nothing can jump start it more than a leader with the overwhelmingly broad-based support that gives him a unique opportunity to make long strides in a short period of time.
In other words, Memphis desperately needs a leader, a city mayor whose landslide gives him a special stature that means he can take charge of his bully pulpit with a no bull attitude. Memphis needs a city mayor who can ask for help from local business leaders and social entrepreneurs with the confidence that they will step forward.
In other words, it’s all about the kind of clout, authority and standing that gives a mayor the chance to be a transformative leader like Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Memphis has had some good mayors, but we’ve never had a great one. Eighteen years Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton had his chance but in the end, it all unraveled as his behavior grew more erratic and his leadership more divisive.
As a result, Memphis has languished for eight years and it shows. While Nero fiddled, Memphis was burning and its worrisome trends not only continued but they quickened.
Today, about 35% of Memphis workers are either unemployed or have not looked for a job in so long that they are no longer included in the unemployment rate. The number of people living in poverty in Memphis is equivalent to the population of Chattanooga, and the poverty rate in Memphis has risen 27.2% since 2000, and the poverty rate for adolescents has climbed 45%.
Memphis is losing an average of three middle-income families a day and five people a day with college degrees. Inside the 1970 city limits of Memphis, population is down 28% and density is cut in half, making public services more costly and meaning that public facilities are often located in the wrong places.
We’ve said it before and we say it again: Memphis has no margin for error.
To put it even more directly, we do not have five years to float unfocused and uninspired. We have to make strides. We have to do an awful lot of things right. But first, it requires Mayor Wharton to restore confidence for a government that most people believe is a central part of the problem.
Ultimately, that’s why the most pressing question facing Mayor Wharton is this: where do I best invest the power of this mandate for the greatest change?
With so many clear needs, there are almost as many answers for what he needs to do first as there are activists. But on one thing, there is no confusion, and Mayor Wharton knows it. If the trend lines for Memphis do not change, our future is sealed and it won’t be pretty.
Mandates are magic. They breathe life into the system. They inject dynamism into the body politic. They arrest the kind of political grandstanding and sniping that come with lesser victories. They act to amass new resources and renewed energy behind a leader who can leverage them to change things.
While President Obama was right when he said we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for, it’s hard to find a city that’s making important progress that also doesn’t have a strong mayor with a bold agenda propelled by a clear mandate for something new and different. Like the president, Mayor Wharton’s task will be to lower expectations, always a necessity for anyone in politics, while juggling multiple political hot potatoes and producing evidence that change is taking place.
Killing The Status Quo
Here’s the harsh reality of politics: most winning elected officials are never more popular than they are on election night, so before the honeymoon subsides, Mayor Wharton has to make the most of it.
The best news for him is that the people said emphatically that they are willing to follow him, and by inference, that others who oppose him do so at their peril. With slightly more than 60 percent of the vote and an approval rating more than one-third higher, odds are that he can bring the executive and legislative branches back into balance in City Hall.
Over the years, Memphis City Council had no choice but to fill the void left by a disengaged Mayor Herenton and it has shown courage on more than one occasion while the mayor sat mute in his seventh floor office. But city government cannot operate on less than all of its cylinders, and the wear and tear of an administration that was rudderless and adrift has taken a terrible toll.
That is likely to be Mayor Wharton’s opening salvo – to send the forceful message that if people are defenders of the status quo and of the same old ways of doing things, they are in the wrong line of work. Also, we suspect he will send the message that the days of independent fiefdoms, turf warfare and directors freelancing – such as hiring fellow church members and making appointments without mayoral approvals – are over.
The Right Theme
He’s already made it clear that a top priority for him is to change the culture of city government. There is almost no goal that he can set that is more important or harder to accomplish. But it is without question the right one to have.
In fact, if all of the 34 planks of his platform were stripped down to the thread that held them all together, it was a theme of culture change.
For a large percentage of Memphians, City Hall has come to symbolize all that is wrong with their city – dysfunctional, lacking vision and no clear plans for progress – and it exhibits the attitudes that penalize our city’s progress – racial division, decisions based on who you know rather than what you know, territoriality and lack of alignment of our energy and our goals.
As the mayor of county government, Mayor Wharton no doubt often felt like a prisoner in the weak mayor form of government that Shelby County has. In that government, he really controlled about 25% of the county budget and employees, and like all county mayors, his visibility was based on his willingness to elbow his way into the spotlight and create his own events to get attention.
There’s no mistaking that we can name the head of county government mayor and he can have as many employees and a budget as big as Memphis’, but in the end, it’s the city mayor who gets the headlines, the regular media coverage, the most public attention and has the largest megaphone.
That’s why the world as he has known it will change for Mayor Wharton when he takes the helm of city government. The Memphis mayor heads up a strong mayor form of government. He can change the goals and the direction of 6,000 employees with the issuance of a memo. He has the preeminent position of leadership in the city, he speaks with a voice that is amplified and dissected by the news media, and while his actions are analyzed and criticized by the talking heads, but no one has more control over the Memphis destiny.
There are the critics – subdued somewhat by the landslide on election night – who continue to believe that Mayor Wharton cannot succeed: he is not tough enough, he is not decisive enough or he is not willing to take the risks needed to effectuate change. He’s heard the criticisms before of course, and early on, he seems to be sending the modulated message that when stripped down says, “just watch me.”
And every one will be, particularly during his honeymoon period. The length of the grace period for new mayors is never preordained, and as a county mayor shifting to become city mayor, it’s possible that his will be shorter rather than longer, because the public does not expect there to be a learning curve for him.
Building Political Capital
There’s nothing like getting 61% of the vote to give you the currency you need to extend your honeymoon. And that message was not lost on City Council members up for reelection at the same time that Mayor Wharton runs for a full four-year term in 2011. If they are defined then as impediments to the mayor’s agenda, it could prove to be a high-risk venture.
Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery – who had done an admirable job as mayor pro tem - made the point on election night. He said the Wharton campaign had more money and a much better campaign organization. The possibility that those same weapons could be turned on critics or obstructionists is a sobering thought already whispered between a few Council members.
So, in the end, what should Mayor Wharton invest his popularity and support to accomplish? Here’s what we think his vision should be: to create a “no excuses” government known for its innovative programs, for its development of change agents, and for making the strategic investments that create, retain and attract talent.
Of course, underneath such a vision are an array of programs that have to be accomplished – from better parks and libraries to institutionalizing an office charged with developing talent; from streamlining city government by reducing the number of divisions and managers by one-third and the workforce by 15% to getting serious about creating a real digital government; from functional consolidation plans that never seem to find a successful end (such as fire and engineering) to looking for ways to add others like information technology (Memphis spends $20 million a year and Shelby County spends $11 million); from scaling back tax freezes to equalizing tax policy; and those are just a few.
No Rest For The Weary
There are pressing issues commanding attention after years of neglect, and many of them are about getting the basics right. After all, the public aren’t normally a demanding group. They just want government to get a few things right - safety, cleanliness, efficiency, responsiveness and a dollar’s worth of value for every dollar in taxes.
In addition, there are threatening issues on the horizon, chiefly the city government budget process that begins in only a couple of months. It would have been tough enough in normal times, but add in the school funding issue and it becomes an immediate test that could be a defining moment for the Wharton Administration.
Getting through that successfully could be the best honeymoon present of all.