Thankfully, we’ve finally arrived on the other side of an election cycle that was beginning to feel interminable. In the end, after all the sound and fury, it signified nothing when it came to upsets in local voting.
As expected, the referenda on increasing the local option sales tax and the gas tax went down in flames as did George Flinn’s challenge to unseat U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s legislature turned even redder and the state itself becomes irrelevant in presidential elections. More relevant for the blue island that is Shelby County is whether being part of a state now securely as part of the Republican firmament works to our detriment.
Nationally, it’s clear that the Democratic Party has a structural advantage in presidential elections – starting each election with around 210 electoral votes – and because about 40 states are held firmly in a D or R orbit, our current version of national elections (as long as the electoral college remains in place) is in truth an election for 10 states with the rest of us acting merely as spectators.
The Red Menace
In state politics, our community may get the blues with even less help from a legislature that is now redder and more conservative. The notion that this group will have anything approximating an urban agenda is about as possible as them mandating the teaching of evolution in Tennessee classrooms. It’s more likely that our majority African-American urban area will be more and more an afterthought in legislative lawmaking (unless it is about laws designed to put Memphians in their place).
The current situation is the extreme progression of a long-held attitude in state government that Memphis is at its best when it is simply avoided. Whether the Governor was Lamar Alexander (R) or Phil Bredesen (D), they operated on the general philosophy that a day not spent in Memphis was by definition a good day.
The lack of a compelling urban agenda at the state level will be exacerbated by the political realities associated with a divided Congress. It is likely that as the inevitable cuts are made to the federal budgets, programs essential to Memphis will take some direct hits, and Congressman Cohen and his Democratic colleagues will have little influence to stop it.
Speaking of Mr. Cohen, he returns to Congress after an overwhelming victory over Dr. Flinn with renewed satisfaction that the Memphis seat appears to be his for as long as he wants it. Results of the election were in effect preordained from the day he filed for reelection and his convincing victory was no surprise.
Blowing With Cohen
What was surprising was how the congressman, already laboring under a reputation for petulance and vindictiveness, was even more thin-skinned as he faced a “real” campaign from his latest opponent. It was little wonder why Dr. Flinn wanted to get Mr. Cohen into a televised debate because there was such a high probability that the Congressman would implode.
Dr. Flinn ran the more professional campaign – although there was no way for him to win – and while Mr. Cohen tried to put a pretty face on his TV ads by calling them authentic, they in truth looked like the youtube video of someone running for Student Council president, replete with the “keep going with Cohen” slogan. The triteness was only surpassed by a campaign sign in Germantown that labeled the candidate “of Germantown for Germantown” as if a non-Germantown resident could actually run for an elected position in the town.
Meanwhile, as we predicted, the two tax questions went down to lopsided defeat. It was the election equivalent of a “pox on all your houses” message from the electorate. The vote to increase the local option sales tax by half a cent was doomed from the beginning. The decision by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to call for a quick referendum was precipitous and undercut the time needed to put together a convincing campaign and raise the money to pay for it.
While the proposal to increase the gas tax to address MATA’s budget shortfall (after City Council cut its budget) also failed, its chances were reduced by the undertow created by the sales tax referendum. In the end, a larger percentage of voters cast a ballot in favor of the gas tax increase although MATA and its advocates never put together a formal campaign or raised any money.
Invest in Memphis Campaign
As for the sales tax, any opportunity that it had for passage was eliminated with the confusion associated with the campaign promise that it would fund Pre-K but without any promise in place from the school board that it would be spent for that purpose. The mixed signals and the scuffling to try to put together a campaign with too little time were in the end too much to overcome with an issue that had too few changes in the first place.
That said, City of Memphis now has a decision to make and it’s whether to put a city-only sales tax increase on the agenda in the next couple of years. With sufficient time to put together a well-funded campaign and put together an “Invest in Memphis’ Future” campaign in which voters could see how clearly how the sales tax increase could improve their lives, it’s possible to envision a referendum with better odds than the one that just took place.
For example, as part of that citywide investment campaign, City of Memphis could pledge to use part of the $60 million in new revenues to make pre-K available for all Memphis children. In addition, with a budget dominated by the costs of police and fire services, city government has been unable to make the investments that are needed to improve community centers, maintain parks and sports fields, restore service to libraries, and much more.
It seems like the perfect time for Memphis to invest in its quality of life assets and to create a budget that is balanced in more than revenues and expenditures. More to the point, it needs to be balanced in services that are needed for a city that is safe, clean, and green. If we want to send a message about our confidence and commitment to the future of Memphis, this is it.