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VOL. 121 | NO. 107 | Monday, May 22, 2006

Coalition for a Better Memphis Ratchets Into High Gear as Election Campaigns Heat Up

By Andy Meek

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In politics, there's always tomorrow.

It seems like only yesterday when in January a fledgling group of civic and business leaders laid out, in a presentation at the University of Memphis, what was more or less a rarity in local politics: their plan to craft a comprehensive voters guide, one that would be distributed free to anyone planning to vote in the May elections.

The novelty of the group, dubbed the Coalition for a Better Memphis, quickly generated voter and media interest. And, as anyone knows who's heard about this fall's election ballot - the longest in Shelby County history - more races are coming up.

In political terms, that means tomorrow is fast approaching. And that's why the gears of the CBM's operational machinery began spinning furiously again last week.

Bet your bottom dollar

Last week, the group met for a debriefing of what members liked and what they'd like to improve this time around about their evaluation of candidates and issues. Next up on the group's agenda is forming committees, electing a board of trustees and officers and choosing co-chairmen.

"We're trying to get a little more of a formal structure in place, and then we'll start the timeline for the August election," said Dean Deyo, co-convener of the coalition and Chairman of the Leadership Academy.

For its first project, the fledgling voter awareness group only had the time and resources to concentrate on County Commission races that were decided this month. But look for that straightforward voters' guide to be expanded - and soon, CBM officials said this week.

One set of coming races the group has its eye on is for the seven seats on Memphis' new Charter Commission, a body that will, for the first time, comb through the city's lengthy operating document and look for changes that need to be made.

The seven charter commissioners will be chosen this fall, and by and large, they do not include any well-known political names - hence, the interest by the CBM in making sure voters know who's who.

"That's one race that's definitely right up our alley," Deyo said.

Candidates include Marsha Campbell, a mother of four and owner of a home-based tax preparation service. Christine Distler, a researcher in the University of Memphis' criminology department, also wants a spot on the commission.

"The public deserves to know something more than what might be presented to them in a print ad or a 20-second radio spot."
- Calvin Anderson
Co-convenor of the Coalition for a Better Memphis and a vice president of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

But not all the candidates are Average Joes taking a tentative leap into the political fray. Potential charter commissioners also include well-connected attorney and former Shelby County Commission member Buck Wellford, as well as Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery.

Also throwing a hat into the ring is John Branston, a columnist for the Memphis Flyer who once referred to the city as a rattling car engine and to the charter commissioners as mechanics who think they can fix it by re-writing the owner's manual.

Ready to learn?

So attention, class: As far as the CBM is concerned, the next voter education effort is about to get under way.

"The public deserves to know something more than what might be presented to them in a print ad or a 20-second radio spot," said Calvin Anderson, the other co-convener of the CBM and a vice president of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

In other words, Anderson and the rest of the group's civic and business leaders seem to say, politics as usual is about as useful as a Model T Ford.

Cardell Orrin, a founding member of New Path, a new political action group mostly aimed at young professionals, has been involved with the CBM since its inception. In Memphis and Shelby County, Orrin says, one of the nutrients that feeds the organism of political apathy is what he calls "the generation gap."

"One the one hand, you'll sometimes have all this experience in one position, versus new ideas, progressive thought and different leadership in another," he said.

"Like, one of Walter Bailey's big things is, 'My experience will be sorely missed from the Shelby County Commission.' But it's not like he's dying - people like that are just moving off of an elected body. They could always volunteer opinions and lessons learned from experience."

Building a public platform

Or, as in the new coalition's case, they could help the CBM as it offers a detailed report on political candidates and their positions on everything from municipal debt to unchecked real estate development.

By now, it's no secret the CBM can trace its history back to the Memphis Regional Chamber, which first noticed the success of a similar program, the Committee for a Better Atlanta. That led to a trip to the city to look firsthand at the effort.

Deyo and Anderson made the trek, as did officials from Methodist Healthcare, the Shelby County Election Commission, the Memphis Regional Chamber, Memphis Tomorrow, Bank of Bartlett, FaxonGillis Homes, FedEx, the Memphis Area Association of Realtors and others.

The way CBM officials decided to sculpt the program here is to send out information packets to candidates in races that will be rated. The packets include a questionnaire, which will be bolstered with information garnered from an in-person interview between the candidate and a committee of the CBM.

The first Voter Guide and responses from candidate questionnaires can be found at www.bettermemphis.org.

"For this fall, we actually have to have this information out to the public around the time early voting starts in August," Deyo said. "So we've got a lot to do between now and then."

PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
MORTGAGES 55 244 916
BUILDING PERMITS 158 699 2,751