As soon as new Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy takes his oath of office, he seems destined to be under the microscope. He takes office September 1 with high hopes for his ability to maneuver the partisan and racial shoals of county government and act as a mediating influence on the legislative body.

His election swings the 7-6 majority from Republican to Democrat, but on top of it, he becomes the first white Democrat on the body (although a couple of Republicans have had some sketchy credentials to run as R’s).

Perhaps the expectations aren’t realistic. The county commission is in desperate need of stronger leadership that can be a bridge between its factions, and perhaps, he can perform that role.

Some observers have suggested that Mr. Mulroy’s election will shift the focus of county government from suburban incentives for sprawl to urban redevelopment, but that’s probably wishful thinking..

In truth, Democrats on the Board of Commissioners have been just as complicit in encouraging sprawl as the Republicans, who have frequently voted to build new roads and new schools and rubber stamped requests for Planned Unit Developments (PUD’s) and zoning changes in hopes of stemming the out-migration of their base outside of Shelby County. Meanwhile, Democrats have bent to the will of developers as if they were not making a choice between investing in sprawl or in the urban core. In the end, there’s enough shame to go around.

Mr. Mulroy seems to have a different view of things, and although we’ve not been excited by his campaign to preserve a theme park that has no real market niche, he appears on the surface to be up for the demands of his new position. Then, there’s all the other new faces as a majority of the board of commissioners are replaced. Perhaps, in the honeymoon period for the new body, some new alliances and new working relationships can be forged for the future.

However, it’s worth remembering that what has kept the Board of Commissioners in conflict over the years has not been the 7-6 division along party lines, but the lack of a floor leader to put the votes together and exert the influence to make things happen. It’s been 12 years since someone played this role, which became increasingly more difficult with the overlay of partisan elections.

Some suggest that the Wharton Administration has failed in this role, and while its efforts at the commission meeting haven’t been commanding, it’s really not the role of administrators to be the commission’s floor leader. Only someone on the County Commission can play that role, because if you’re going to make it work, you’ve got to have a vote in your pocket to negotiate with.