Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, returning from a lobbying blitz at Tennessee Legislature in favor of more state interference in local educational decisions, said “the feeling (there) is Big Shelby is an albatross on the state…they would cut us off the end of the state if they could.”
We’re not particularly surprised by anything the Nashville Tea Partiers who have taken over state government would say. What interests us more is what Mayor McDonald replied, or if he replied at all.
He could have said that if our community is cut off the state, Tennessee would no longer have its largest private employer, FedEx, and the company with the most revenues.
He could have said that if we were cut off, Tennessee would no longer have the city with the most Fortune 500 companies in Tennessee, with revenues four times greater than those in East Tennessee and 20% greater than Middle Tennessee.
Sense of Loss
Mayor McDonald could have said that if our community was cut off, Tennessee would lose an economy larger than 12 states and the state’s single largest economic engine in the form of Memphis International Airport.
He could have said that if Memphis were cut off, Tennessee would lose St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the nation’s fourth largest orthopedic device manufacturing center, University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences, and University of Memphis’ nationally ranked graduate programs – audiology (#6), clinical psychology (#71), law school (#140), rehabilitation counseling (#17), speech-language pathology (#12), education (#127), psychology (#117), and math (#119).
He could have said that if Shelby County were cut off, Tennessee would no longer have Graceland, Stax Records, Sun Records, and National Civil Rights Museum.
He could have said that because Shelby County is so important to Tennessee’s economy, Lamar Alexander, when governor, issued his first executive order to get propel Memphis’ economy forward and it’s why current governor Bill Haslam has said that Tennessee’s success depends on Memphis’.
Getting It Right
Mayor McDonald could have said that no city our size has been chosen by more national organizations for their work – Brookings Institution, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Gates Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, and more.
He could have said that if Shelby County were cut off, Tennessee would lose its most diverse community, and by far, the state’s most interesting big city.
He could have said that our city is like our music: it is imaginative, independent, no-holds-barred, and honest. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is nevertheless authentic and special.
He could have said much, much more about why his home county is so special, but we fear that he said nothing.
Undermining Local Majority Rule
If anything, comments by our own legislators have been a major factor in fueling Capitol Hill attitudes about our community. As a result, some rural legislators talk about Shelby County as if it’s a third world nation. They can’t grasp the concept of a majority minority county and reflexively see white suburbanites as victims.
It is an attitude that partially, only partially, explains the Tennessee Legislature’s attempts to undermine majority rule in Memphis and Shelby County.
Time and time again, suburban legislators have proposed bills to reverse decisions by our own local governments and to mandate specific ideological positions on the Democratic majorities of Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners. It is cynical, manipulative behavior, but based on the wide-ranging grandstanding undertaken by the present majority in the Legislature, it is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Some of it relies on the poor knowledge of local government by the public, some of whom probably were elated to see that the Tennessee Senate took courageous action to approve displays in local government buildings of the Ten Commandments and important American historical documents like the Declaration of Independence. It’s yet another gratuitous gesture aimed at implying that they are fighting the brave fight for religion in the public square, except for the fact that the 10 Commandments and these other documents have been on display in public buildings in Memphis and Shelby County for more than a decade.
But back to the Big Shelby insults, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Politicians from our county bad mouth their own home county in Nashville, vilify some of their fellow citizens, and feed an “us versus them” mentality. Recently, a town mayor said that if the towns didn’t get their own schools, it would result in an exodus of people. Of course, if that happens, it will never occur to them that their rhetoric, their dire warnings of disaster, and their fear of “the other” helped create the climate for the exodus.
That’s not to say that the Big Shelby sobriquet doesn’t have a history that extends far beyond the current partisan, racially-driven posturing. Although his first action as governor was to create the Memphis Jobs Conference in 1979, Mr. Alexander often commented that he just didn’t understand Memphis, and even Governor Phil Bredesen said that anytime he was involved in Memphis it was a problem.
Part of this perception gap exists because Tennessee hasn’t elected a governor from Memphis in 51 years. In the intervening years, former Governor Ned McWherter was the most frequent visitor to Memphis, but then again as a West Tennessean, it was familiar territory for him and he said he enjoyed being here.
Walking Your Walk
Generally, however, over the decades, visits from the governor of Tennessee to Memphis and Shelby County are few and far between. Visits from the people in charge of our legislature are virtually nonexistent, and that’s why when any of us have the opportunity to provide a more positive, balanced understanding of our community and to speak with some community pride, it’s a shame when we don’t take it.
Speaking to Leadership Memphis four years ago, Mayor McDonald called on every citizen to be part of creating a “regional good feeling” and dealing with reality instead of stereotypes. “If we sit down together and work together (as a region) and get excited about ourselves, we can make the kind of future that we all want.”
It’s well-said, and hopefully, that’s what he’s saying in Nashville.