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Archive for October, 2007

I’m not the most avid reader of the Smart City blog, but my friend and brother Leftwing Cracker sent me a piece of theirs today that raised my eyebrows— And didn’t all at the same time.

From Smart City:

*Willie W. Herenton 16.38 percent
* Carol Chumney 13.35 percent
* Herman Morris 8.21 percent

Those abysmal numbers are the turnout from the city elections last Thursday. And that’s the top of the ticket— It doesn’t even factor in the trailing off that we typically see once we get to the bottom of the ticket and ordinary voters are starting to see names that they don’t recognize. I suspect that the typical full third quit paying attention by the time they got down to court clerk positions.

On November 2, 2004 (Black Tuesday, as most Democrats know it), voter turnout in Shelby County was 373,409. It was a presidential year, and both parties put on impressive Get Out The Vote campaigns.

Two years later, turnout was down a little bit. That’s to be expected— Midterm elections always draw a little bit less than presidential years. 284,217 turned out to vote.

The top four candidates for mayor got only 163,633 votes— And I’m defining “top” very loosely, as John Willingham’s sad 1118 votes were counted in that total (Total votes cast are not yet available from the Election Commission). We have yet to find out whether all were actually alive when they cast their votes, but those are the numbers as of now.

It’s clear that some things have to change— So the rest of this post is directed toward the members of the Charter Commission, who are the only ones in a real position to implement the necessary changes.

First, we need to change the election cycles in this city. We certainly can’t do anything about the federally mandated cycles— Nothing can change there, nor should it. Every two years sounds perfectly reasonable.

For the moment, let’s assume that you live in the Evergreen district in Midtown. You voted in the Shelby County primary on May 2, 2006. Three months later, you went to the polls to vote in the Congressional primary and county general election. In November, you went to the polls yet again to vote in the congressional general election. That’s three times in the span of nine months that you’ve had to take time off from work and get out and stand in line at the polls.

Of course, if you live in Evergreen, your State Senator, Steve Cohen, was sent to the US Congress in November. So on January 25 of this year, you voted in a primary to decide who would go on to the special election— Which you voted in two months later.

Your state rep was elected to fill the vacancy in the state senate— So it’s time for yet another primary in May 2007. And another general election in July 2007.

Three months later, it’s time for the city election. For Evergreen residents, that is eight votes in the last year and a half (Depending on where you live in the city, you might well have a runoff in a few weeks that could easily be alleviated by another of my proposals.).

Personally, I’m experiencing voter fatigue, and I haven’t had as many votes as them. I shared their fatigue part of the way, as my address falls into the same Senate district, but I was able to coast from March to October election-free— And even that seven months didn’t feel like much of a break.

We have got to quit holding municipal elections in an off year. I realize why the politicians that made that choice did so in the first place— It allows them not only greater access to the finest election staff out there, but it allows them to buy air time to annoy us with at a much cheaper rate than in a year where there’s a congressional, or God forbid, a presidential election season.

This isn’t about the cost of holding elections on off years. Democracy is always well worth an investment that pays off. But this one has not.

I can already hear you saying it. “But Rick, that’s going to be a ridiculously long ballot”. I’ve got such good hearing that I heard it before you said it. How about that? But don’t worry— I’ve got an answer for you.

There are elected positions that are so obscure that not even a politico such as I really gives much of a damn who fills them. Unless Republicans and Democrats use a different alphabet, I really do not care who is filing papers in the courts. And to be perfectly frank, the only people who do are the ones running for the position. I have no issue with a position such as that one being filled on an appointment basis. Unlike the voter, the Shelby County Commission/Memphis City Council would at least get the opportunity to confirm whether or not the candidates did indeed know the alphabet.

These positions exist merely as a Single A team for players to earn experience on before trying out for the AAA team. And that’s simply the wrong reason to hold an election.

For many Memphis voters, it’s still not over yet. The elections are a gift that just keeps on giving, as several city council races aren’t even over yet.

This could easily have been taken care of in one night rather than spreading the misery over several more weeks. And there is a solution that has been employed in areas before us, works very well, and gives the voter a much needed break.

It’s called Instant Runoff Voting.

It sounds a lot tougher than it is. Instead of simply voting for a candidate, you list your candidates in order of preference.

We’ll take the Mayor’s race as an example. Let’s say I walked in and broke it down with Morris as my #1 choice, Herenton as my #2, Chumney as my #3, and Willingham at #4 if I even chose to rank him at all (And it should be noted at this point that you are not required to pick so much as a second place.  If you were a hardcore Morris guy and wanted to be sure your vote went to no one but him, you would be well within your rights).

If the race was close enough to demand a runoff, judging from the results the other day, Morris would have been voted off the island first. His votes would be cast out, and my vote would have been among the thousands redistributed to Herenton and Chumney.

Might it have led to a Mayor Chumney? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But there is one feature built into Instant Runoff Voting that would have all political hacks salivating—

It completely nullifies the “spoiler” vote. Can there be any doubt that the Democratic votes Mary Wilder managed to leech would have ended up going to Desi Franklin?

That’s not to say that it would work out in favor of Democrats all of the time— In one of my favorite races this year, assuming that all of Joe Saino’s voters would have picked Kemp Conrad as their second choice, and Frank Langston’s would have made Shea Flinn their #2, Conrad would have won that race by 1500 votes.

But it’s not about partisan angling at this point. Voter apathy is spreading like a sickness across this city, and most elements of it— Namely Voter Fatigue— Are utterly preventable. We simply need leaders who are willing to step up and make the right choices.

And at this point, it falls on the Charter Commission. As they rewrite the Memphis City Charter, they need to ask themselves— Do we do right by the gladhanding politicians that thrive on vote suppression, or do we give Memphians a greater voice?

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I spent the day in the field with Team Flinn. And I’ve gotta tell you, it was a great experience. I’ve never witnessed field work from the perspective with which I had the good fortune to see it yesterday, and it was a humbling experience. I’ve never been one to undervalue good, old-fashioned shoe leather before, but I’ve never really seen The Sweet Science on display as it was yesterday when I rode along with Team Shea.

And the end result? A very good man got elected to the Memphis City Council despite steep opposition. When I told a good friend whose opinion I respect to a level that approaches hero worship that I would be riding along, he told me “I wish Shea had a chance”. To that very good friend, I can only say that sometimes… The best man really does win. I can honestly say that I’m proud of a city whose voting population realizes the value of such a man and elevates him to a position where he can serve the people of this city. And I can only think of one time that I’ve been as truly happy to be at a victory party as this one— It was the day we sent Steve Cohen to Washington DC, an event that propelled young Mr. Flinn to the Tennessee State Senate as an interim senator.

He was far from the only good person elevated to a position to serve the greater good on a day that will go down in history as the day that we elected one of the stronger city councils that Memphis has ever had.

Jim Strickland scored a decisive victory, racking up such an impressive win over Bob “Vote Bob” Schrieber that he likely coul have gone the distance even if only his early voting totals were applied toward the final tally. Having lost to Carol Chumney for the District 5 seat in 2003, he finally got his richly deserved and overdue victory.

Bill Morrison didn’t land a decisive victory, or any victory at all— But he was close enough to guarantee a runoff that will see the very best operatives in Memphis politics at his disposal. That’s a damn impressive turnout, considering that he was competing for votes in a field only slightly less crowded than a Kennedy family reunion at the shake joint.

The news was not uniformly good— Mary Wilder managed to siphon off just enough of the vote to keep Desi Franklin from the victory she deserved. My advice to all those who did anything to aid Mary Wilder in her abortion of a campaign— Bust your asses to make sure the Democrats mnage to win every single runoff. For you damn sure don’t want to be remembered as the Judas Goats that aided in the victory of Reid Hegepeth. And at this point in time, it is hard to regard it any other way.

Edmund Ford managed to keep the dying Ford Faction on life support until the next runoff, when he will be defeated by James Catchings.  Catchings is in the advantageous position of never having sounded utterly bugshit crazy during public meetings and never having been tainted by scandal.

Janet Fullilove and Wanda Halbert both scored convincing victories over their opposition, much to the surprise of absolutely no one. Joe Brown, Myron Lowery, Scott McCormick, and Barbara Swearengen Ware all held onto their seats.

And now, for the biggest race of the night.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked why I offered no commentary on the mayoral race. And that is simply because I had no guidance to give on it.

Were the city to be attacked by a weapon of mass destruction, I’m not sure I could say with any certainty that it would have a deeper negative impact than the last several years of Herenton’s occupation of the top office in this city. While he has performed some legitimately good tasks, including the redevelopment that turned some of this city’s most blighted spaces into its most coveted, it’s impossible to ignore a soaring crime rate that has once agained turned this city into #1 for all things terrible and last place for everything good. One cannot ignore the ego with which he invokes God as someone that has such a vested interest in his victory that the FEC should really screen him for donations, nor can I ignore the election season political Viagra that was an ill-advised football stadium so that we may give the Tigers a nicer venue to lose in.

Does this make me a “hater”? Well, if one must reduce political rhetoric to the level spewed by a three hundred pound Springer guest in a tube top and a “Please wax your business before wearing this” miniskirt shouting at the older brother who refuses to quit pimping her, then perhaps it does make me a “hater”. I hate seeing the good people of this city constantly denied the rich future that they deserve. I hate seeing a 50% plus dropout rate in a city being run by a former school board superintendent that seems to not have any idea what to do about it if he even cares enough to take action— Something that he has as, of yet, not proven. I hate the idea that anyone who opposes the kind of wholescale corruption and cronyism that we’ve come to expect of Mayor Herenton is dismissed as a “hater”. And I damn sure hate that his ideology is spread not through open and frank discussion, but through patronage in the form of $80,000 per year make-work jobs that seem to have no clear purpose when it comes to actually serving the people of this city.

But most of all, I hate seeing this city reduced to a state where race is the deciding factor in electoral politics. Just as the Republican Party has decided that it can thrive without a single black vote as long as they solidify the angry white vote, Mayor Herenton runs a photo negative version of the “Southern Strategy”, making a calculated wager that he can show all white voters that aren’t real estate developers nothing but scorn and derision and maintain his grip on power as long as he solidifies the black vote.

Does the lack of melanin in my skin make me a supporter of Carol Chumney? No. It is my earnest belief that she is at her best when serving as a hairshirt for the political structure that exists today— Not as the new leader of the power structure.

A dear friend of mine wrote that Herman Morris played the role of spoiler— Instead, I turn that idea on its head. Had Chumney not been enslaved by her own ego, she would still be on the City Council (Granted, Jim Strickland likely would not be) and we could have taken care of several of our problems with one vote.

I was loathe to report my support for Herman Morris before the election. Certainly not out of any sense of shame— Just the opposite. I watched the way things were playing out and saw that he could be portrayed as the “acceptable black candidate” in this race. There were reasons for my support that go far beyond skin deep. I genuinely liked the man and liked the platorm to the point that I coudn’t be bothered to give a steaming pile of Dubya what color his skin was.

And so I felt that, as happens from time to time, our endorsements could do more harm than good. Much as when Tom Guleff ran against Mark White in the 2006 GOP congressional primary. I genuinely like the man— But an endorsement from me would have done more to harm him than help him.

And that is the quandary I found myself in throughout this race. Expressing my admiration, my support of the candidate of my choice could easily undermine him with a cross section of the electorate. I will be a great many things to the candidates I support. “Albatross around the neck” (That’s a “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” reference for all those who haven’t studied fine literature) isn’t even in the top 100.

Am I entirely unhappy with the results in the mayor’s race? No. We were in a situation where the worst case scenario is four more years of what this fine city has already survived sixteen years of. I can always wish for more, and I want the people of Memphis to rise up and demand more than what they’re given now.

Mayor Herenton has a nasty habit of shitting into a bowl, sticking a spoon into it, and serving it up to us, telling us it’s actually chocolate soft serve ice cream. And no matter what the election results are, we must demand more as a city.

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