Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland remembers putting on his tie in front of a mirror this month after learning he won the Bobby Dunavant Public Service Award.
“I knew Bobby Dunavant; Bobby Dunavant was a friend of mine and you are no Bobby Dunavant,” Strickland said to himself in the mirror, altering the famous political putdown used by Lloyd Bentsen against Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate.
Strickland and Shelby County Jury Commission director Clyde “Kit” Carson were picked for the award by a committee of Dunavant family members and leaders of the East Memphis Rotary Club.
The committee honors one elected official and one non-elected official each year.
They will be honored Wednesday, Feb. 26, at a luncheon at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis sponsored by The Daily News and the University of Memphis.
Coverage of the luncheon in Friday’s edition of The Daily News will feature more on Carson’s 33-year career in Shelby County government from the Circuit Court Clerk’s office to the Jury Commission.
Like Strickland, Carson knew Dunavant and regards Dunavant as a model for government service. In Carson’s case, his job involves the ability to manage large numbers of citizens, many of whom are new to the justice system, in an efficient manner when they report for jury duty.
This is the 10th year of the awards meant to foster an example of and discussion of what good government means.
“I just think he was a remarkable man and was the example of what all public servants should be like,” Strickland said of Dunavant. “Mr. Dunavant’s desk was right behind the counter. He was helping people just like all of his employees were.
“To me, that symbolized so much that he led by example. He knew the information better than anyone, including most lawyers. He was right in the middle of it.”
Strickland was elected to the council in 2007 and re-elected to a second four-year term in 2011. He is chairman of the council’s budget committee for a second consecutive year.
“I think the City Council meets the definition of good government better than the public would think,” Strickland said. “There’s a lot of different parts of ‘good government.’ I think it’s a combination of intelligence, hard work and ethical conduct.
“And for the most part, my experience with City Council and city employees is that they meet that definition.”
The council is a legislative body, which is different public service terrain than administering a courthouse office. The council is a group of 13 making decisions by majority rule.
“I don’t think spirited debate and spirited differences hurt good government,” Strickland said. “I think being a lawyer has helped me in that way because we are trained to argue but not take it personally that somebody might have a different opinion. I think as long as you do that, there’s nothing wrong with disagreement.”
Strickland usually applies a lawyer’s habits in his council inquiries. He writes a list of points or questions on a legal pad and goes down them methodically in an even tone with a pause to regroup between items.
“At times, it can get a little bit emotional,” he said. “But for the most part I think the council has been very good at handling differences professionally. There are times where I don’t understand the position that is against my position. I’m sure there are times when people don’t understand my position. For the most part, we make our case, we vote and then we move on.”
Strickland’s interest in politics began around a kitchen table during summer trips – or in his case as close to the kitchen table as he could get.
“I remember as a kid when we’d go visit my mother’s family up in Indiana – they were all really interested in politics,” he said. “They would be sitting around the kitchen table. I’d be kind of trying to hang on and listen to them and they’d be debating politics. That just really interested me.”
He remembers Jimmy Carter being the first presidential candidate that made an impression on him. And even though he wasn’t alive during the lifetime of President John F. Kennedy, Strickland is among those in the city’s Catholic community for whom Kennedy’s legacy was a powerful cultural presence and definition of politics.
“I am Catholic and being Catholic is very important to me,” Strickland said. “I was drawn to learn more about him and I was not even born when he lived. Reading about him and the speeches he gave were pretty inspirational to me. Those things kind of piqued my interest in politics.”
Later he interned in the Tennessee legislature for Memphis Democratic state Reps. Alvin King and Dan Byrd. And he worked in the City Council campaigns of John Vergos and Jack Sammons.
“I’ve actually become biased toward local elected office. I think you have more effect,” Strickland said. “You can actually see the results of your efforts by hiring more police officers. Whatever we do directly affects the city of Memphis.”