Sometimes we think there must be something subliminal in the oaths of office of our mayors about defending the status quo at all costs.

We thought of it as Memphis’s former mayor Willie W. Herenton, announcing for Congress, ushered us back into the parallel universe that he inhabits, a universe where personality always trumps policy, where rhetoric always obscures record and where division is always beats discussion.

We thought of it as we listen to the small town mayors, faced with the prospect that the public will get to vote on merging city and county governments, desperately fight to keep the present state of affairs after years of complaining about City of Memphis and Shelby County governments.

In many respects, the behaviors by Mr. Herenton and the town mayors are similar – it so often about their political egos, their personal politics and pedaling fear and division for their own self-interest.  Both want to shout down any ideas that don’t agree with their orthodoxy.

Staying Away from the Record

In rolling out his campaign, Mr. Herenton reminded us more than anything how much we’d enjoyed Memphis without him.  And his political consultants are right, if we were Mr. Herenton, we’d be talking about everything but his record as mayor, particularly the last eight debilitating years.

The question of whether a Caucasian can represent the majority African-American district is a valid one, but as usual, Mr. Herenton takes a philosophical question and takes it to a level at its most crass and raw.  Of course, to him, any white person by default is unqualified to be U.S. Congressman for Memphis, but suggestions that somehow Steve Cohen is part of the white power structure are silly, because Congressman Cohen knows full well what discrimination and bias feel like.  We fully expect for the Herenton rhetoric to eventually blur the lines between campaign rhetoric and anti-Semitism.

Actually, when Mr. Herenton shows his photograph of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation and asks what the profile for a Congressman for Memphis should be, we’re conclude that it should be a young African-American woman.

In the final two terms of his career as Memphis mayor, he boasted about his legacy for downtown, while sidewalks were crumbling, streetscapes were haphazard, urban design was sloppy, maintenance was nonexistent, alleys were deteriorating and vibrancy was as scarce as a retail store on Main Street.

What Happened to the Great Man?

When he left office, about 35% of Memphis workers were either unemployed or had 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 had become the equivalent to the population of Chattanooga, and the poverty rate in Memphis had risen to 27.2% since 2000, and the poverty rate for adolescents had climbed 45%.

His leadership had produced a city 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 fell down 28%, making public services more costly.

For those of us who remember him from the days when he won his historic election way back when and was poised to be one of Memphis’ great mayors, the overriding feeling is simply one of immense sadness. How did that person come to this? How did he lose all self-perception and self-worth? Where did the inspirational man go who once inspired superintendent job offers from New York and Atlanta?

It’s a Memphis tragedy. There’s the argument about whether great men make history or history makes great men, but in this case, history apparently just overtook him and he ended up being the stereotype of the self-indulgent politician who treats his city as if it’s his to do with as he wishes, no matter how much damage he does along the way.

While it is impossible to doubt his deep love for his city, it’s inarguable that his rhetoric and actions on several occasions hastened its decline.


Meanwhile, there are our town mayors in Germantown, Collierville, Millington, Lakeland, Arlington and Bartlett.  If you simply say the word, consolidation, in front of them, their reactions would make Ivan Pavlov proud.

To listen to them, you’d think that their proximity to Memphis is just a geographic curiosity and that their cities will do just fine as the rest of the county sinks.  At the same time, Germantown City Administrator Patrick Lawton, the consummate professional, told The Commercial Appeal: “Most of our population works in Memphis and the surrounding areas.”

Decade after decade, the mayors of the towns whose life and health depend solely on the life and health of Memphis have absolutely gagged over the notion that consolidation could be a better, more efficient form of government for Memphis and Shelby County.  In the “it’s all about me” world in which we live, they predictably deliver a kneejerk reaction against a government structure that a majority of Shelby Countians support. Then-Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton merely advanced it as an issue worth examining and the small town mayors came out with their guns blazing. One said: “We are unequivocally opposed.”

No matter than no proposed charter had not been written or that they could get involved in the work of the Charter Commission to seek the safeguards that they want.  Instead, they’re stuck in time – about 40 years ago.

Stonewalling to their Detriment

The truth is that if the citizens of the towns went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow with a consolidated government in place, they’d never know the difference. After all, the new metropolitan government would bear much more reflection to the present county government than to the present Memphis city government.

Doing nothing to improve city and county governments is the same as a decision about the future, because Shelby County government is destined to wither away, delivering nothing more than state-mandated services and bearing little resemblance to what it is today. Meanwhile, Memphis will continue to annex in keeping with the annexation reserve agreements signed by the small towns. At that point, there will be a city government in control of two-thirds of the land area of our county.

As a result, the real disservice is for the mayors to continue their stonewalling, thus ordaining their towns to be dominated in the shadow of Memphis.  At a political level, it’s equally mysterious since they espouse basic Republican principles abhorring big government, but they oppose eliminating one of the two big governments here altogether.

If the mayors are so certain that voters outside Memphis will never approve this government, then what are they worried about? In an incomprehensible mangling of the “one man, one vote” principle, in the end, their voters not only have one vote, but ultimately, veto power as well.

Changing Trajectory

That’s because it doesn’t matter if a majority of Shelby County citizens would prefer a new government, what matters more is whether citizens outside Memphis prefer it. After all, for creation of a better government, there are two referenda and the concept must pass in both – one for voters inside Memphis and one for voters outside Memphis.

It seems a peculiar invention since we are all county residents, and it’s confusing why some votes have more weight at the ballot box than others. But it’s the law in Tennessee, and it would take a complicated, time-consuming change in the state Constitution to make it more rational.

So, the mayors and their citizens – and the increasing number of people living in unincorporated Shelby County – have extraordinary clout on whether the rest of us can get the government that we all want. In the end, however, this isn’t about unity and singing Kumbaya around a communal campfire. More to the point, it’s about doing something dramatic to change the direction of our region – yes, region, because the troubling indicators are not for Memphis only; they are regional.

There are some who suggest that the mayors are hunkering down because of the changing demographics of the area outside Memphis and making their last stand against black Memphis.  Some of the comments by one of them at the Charter Commission is disturbingly race-based, but it defies the reality that unincorporated area of Shelby County is hardly a bastion of white elites and every town, except for Germantown, has a growing minority population.

Real Leadership

Another curious tendency by these town mayors is to treat our county’s major employers as enemies.   They whisper that some major companies are supportive of Rebuild Government, the group created to support a conversation about what a new government could be, as if those companies would do anything to hurt their towns.  It’s a peculiar charge considering that the major employers in several of the towns are these very same companies, so it makes little sense that they would do anything to hurt the suburbs where major facilities are located, where so many of their employees live and where profits are found.

Finally, it’s ironic that in their own cities, the town mayors take great pride in their processes to engage the public and to consider new ways of doing business. As we’ve written before, there are lessons that the rest of Shelby County can learn from these towns, particularly quality of life issues such as park and outdoor recreation.

Willingness to take a seat at the table and talk about how they think Memphis and Shelby County Governments should be changed is not political weakness. It’s the essence of real leadership.

After all, government merger doesn’t have a template or a preordained organizational chart. It does not have a rule book.  It is just the opposite. There are as many versions of city-county mergers as there are places where it has been approved. In this way, we have the very real chance to remake a new government in our own image, reflecting our values and our aspirations.

Doing Something Differently

Clearly, the current governmental structure does not work. It is duplicative, it is too wasteful and it is too bureaucratic. Perhaps, just once, our community could be the first in developing what a high-performing government ought to look like in today’s highly competitive world.

There is much that the towns have done right. Memphians need to acknowledge that.

Conversely, there is much that Memphis has done right. All Shelby Countians need to acknowledge that.

Ultimately, we can play our familiar “we versus they” game yet again. But, it is a zero-sum game and in the end, it is a stalemate, and in this case, that is as good as a loss, one we can ill afford.