Kemp Conrad is Chairman of Memphis City Council and Councilman, Super District 9-1. Earlier this year, as part of this blog’s Looking Ahead series featuring the resolutions, insights, and commentaries of Memphians, we contacted Mr. Conrad, who asked if he could write later because of the pressures of the Council agenda at the time. Here’s his post:
By Kemp Conrad
After another season of cold, clouds, and rain, it is springtime in Memphis. And in my life too. Bradford pear trees have bloomed, as have some cherry blossoms, and now even the radiant golden forsythia. Soon the lavender redbuds will follow, the Chinese magnolias, and tulips will sprout from the ground. The numbness of cold wears away. Sun warms newly feeling skin.
For many, including my family, spring means spring break and a trip somewhere. As I write this, I am on a plane headed for somewhere warm. Surfing, yoga, reading, writing, reconnecting with family and living like a local for a week.
I love to travel and I am excited about this trip. I am usually ready to escape, recharge, reflect, and conjure up new ideas on how to improve myself, my business, and my town. I am a restless person with a restless heart, rarely content with the status quo, always fighting for future potential. I’m working hard on finding better balance here. It helps now that I realize that life is a journey with peaks and valleys. It’s not a destination.
But this time, leaving for a fun week felt different. After another truly productive and meaningful “Council Tuesday” at our twice monthly City Council meetings, it was really hard to leave our swashbuckling river town. There is so much momentum, so much positive energy, yet so much to do. Like a twelve round prize fighter, a big part of me wanted to just stay in the ring to keep swinging, keep fighting, keep struggling.
I feel that this will be a long, warm, bright spring and even a longer Indian summer because as a city, we are finally reaching our potential. I feel it every day now – can you? It’s been a long tough fight, yet I know our third century as a city will be our best yet. And we can all play a part in it. The momentum is finally building now, like a wave.
And what I have always loved about Memphis is that she is a big small town. ANYONE can get connected and have a material impact on people and the town, even someone like me. That’s special and unique.
There are so many folks working and fighting every day and night to will Memphis to who she can become. I’m so thankful and our town is worth fighting for. Memphis is a survivor. The yellow fever epidemic and the sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr. could not defeat her.
I grew up in the gleaming city of Atlanta but I grew deep roots Memphis after graduating from Rhodes. I love this town, perhaps because in many ways I think she reflects who I really am, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the underdog, gritty, soulful, hard-working, struggling, hopeful, forgiving, imperfect, yet resilient too.
For whatever reason, my calling to serve Memphis for the last decade has been mostly through city government via elected membership on the Memphis City Council. I cannot imagine a higher calling. This has been the public service privilege of my life.
We convene in the same chambers as the first City Council did in 1968, when members then worked hard to avoid a strike with sanitation workers. They failed. Dr. King was assassinated. Yet those members stayed in the arena and kept swinging. Memphis is better for their sacrifice and service. We must remember that as members, we walk in the giant footsteps of statesmen such as Lewis Donelson and Fred Davis.
To me, city government, more than any other form of government, has the biggest impact on people’s everyday lives. As council members, we are able to make government work FOR the people. At a micro level this means assisting folks get a pothole repaired, a street light fixed, or their trash picked up. Assisting in this way brings me great joy.
At a macro level, we craft major policy, often times years in the making, such as legislating and funding universal needs-based pre-k. We are able to bend the arc towards justice through major policy initiatives that lift people up and to assist them in reaching their potential. This is deeply gratifying. And there is much more work to be done.
But the work is not easy. I suppose nothing worth anything ever is. In city government, you can’t avoid tough decisions and tough votes that affect people’s lives in small and big ways. People who serve in Washington or the state legislature often just talk, pontificate, and vote on ideology and theory. Don’t get into municipal government if you want a future in partisan politics. You will twist your mind like a pretzel trying to figure out how this vote or that will affect your future political career. I’m mostly a gut player and this has helped me in my council role.
Politically, my skin has grown thick as armor, calloused through difficult votes. This shield has protected me from the constant incoming shelling from those that disagreed with the issue of the day. The barrage comes via email, at meetings and of course through social media. But the reality is that stuff hurts no matter how tough you think you are, or how scarred and leathery your shell has become. We are human. We have families.
But, it’s better to feel it rather than not. The latter damages your soul. It’s a compounding death spiral. The pain will find a place. I’m shedding that old skin now. It feels good, but it takes time. Learning to really feel is tough, often times one step forward, two steps back.
The toughest, most gut-wrenching votes were those reforming our pension and healthcare programs, shoring up our balance sheet to the tune of $750M while keeping our tax rate flat for the last decade. Not changing would have meant a 30%+ tax increase, destabilizing the city, and harming, if not destroying, the pension plan long term. I realize reasonable folks can disagree on this.
Like many American boys, I grew up admiring police officers and firefighters. They were my heroes. They still are. We can never pay them enough for the jobs they do every day, for the things they see and what they do. I read people and they speak to me through their eyes. It hurts to be seen the way I know I am by thousands of people I admire. And it’s humbling to know that despite those feelings, they would lay down their lives for me, and any of their fellow Memphians. There are so many amazing people that work for city government. I’m so grateful for them.
I still believe that call we made was the right one over the long term for Memphis, for the employees and retirees. Our pension plan is now strong. This year, we will fully fund it. Something else to celebrate. But sacrifice all the way around.
Today, Memphis is on the precipice of greatness and finding her stride, landing punches, reaching her potential, confidently leaning into spring. Consider this week alone the announcements – Union Row began closing on property for a $500MM mixed use development, closing of property in the Pinch District for multi-use development, the conversion of the Doubletree into a boutique hotel, $38M expansion of Le Bonheur heart institute, new apartments at Overton Park, the continued expansion of Graceland to include more movie production and up to 1,000 manufacturing and distribution jobs, a complete redo of the riverfront, the launch of the Memphis Express football franchise, and the USL soccer opener. All this just in the last week! Other examples of springtime in Memphis could be listed. More progress will follow. Confidence is building and this means capital allocators are investing time and money here – that means good jobs for Memphians.
But Memphis has always been good creating foundations for buildings. They are great, but at the end of the day they are just gilded projects made of dust. I am most hopeful around our focus on building foundations for people through transformational policy such as pre-K. Transportation equity is another critical matter that we will get right, connecting thousands more easily to a good job and a brighter future. And there is so much more to be done to lift people from despair, poverty, and homelessness.
This is my last year to serve on the Council, and I have the privilege of doing so as Chairman, elected for the second time by my peers, most of whom I consider friends. It’s an honor to serve them and I strive to honor them, you, and Memphis every day. I don’t always achieve that lofty ideal. As colleagues, we don’t agree on everything, but we have forged strong bonds, fused through the searing crucible of crisis and the hardest of decisions.
I’m hopeful that as we did in 2016 when I was Chairman, the Council will continue to work as a team, partnering with the Strickland Administration, County government, and other community partners to rack up wins more wins for Memphis. As a Council, our focus isn’t on who gets the most credit, but on how we can collaborate together to do the most good.
I feel like through the first five meetings of 2019, we are on the right track. Only nineteen more meetings to go. The time has flown by. I will deeply miss service on the Council.
But for now, I am going to ride some waves then get back to work, all while enjoying springtime in Memphis and points of light in our town that number in the octillions. I hope you enjoy the springtime too. Keep digging and leaning in, keep grinding, keep fighting. Don’t give up. But more than anything, keep loving, like I love Memphis.
Love Memphis, and she will love you back.