VOL. 8 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 19, 2015
Council's New Crop
By Bill Dries
They ran in the considerable shadow of the most competitive Memphis mayoral race in a generation. The new Memphis City Council that takes office with Mayor-elect Jim Strickland in January isn’t necessarily a generational shift. It doesn’t signify a wholesale ousting by the electorate, either.
New city council members left to right: Worth Morgan, Frank Colvett, Patrice Jordan Robinson, Martavius Jones, Jamita Swearengen and Philip Spinosa
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
But the council now setting up shop for a four-year stay at City Hall will oversee and implement the broader change voters sought in the 2015 Memphis elections. And the council’s daylong sessions twice a month will offer the best view of what that change will look like when it has to get seven votes to pass.
Some are already trying to count to seven.
Council member Janis Fullilove said a new council member, whom she wouldn’t identify, approached her about forming a voting bloc.
“I said, ‘Seven votes on what? Just seven votes on any issue?’” she recalled.
She said the council member-elect replied, “How about a black issue?”
“I said, ‘Well, what is a black issue?’” Fullilove added. “I think you have some people coming aboard thinking that they can kind of bum rush, so to speak, or strong-arm their position on the council.”
She says it has happened on the existing council, too.
Fullilove said compromise is essential to being on the council, and no two council members have an identical ideology.
“And you have to learn how to put something aside and learn how to compromise if you want to get anything done in this city,” she said. “I think that’s going to be a lesson for not only the new council members coming here but those who have been having their way.”
“You have to learn to put something aside and learn how to compromise.”
– Janis Fullilove
District 5 councilman-elect Worth Morgan has heard the talk about voting blocs.
“I don’t know about voting blocs,” he said after the Dec. 1 orientation session for the six new council members. “We had some good, just friendly conversations about everybody getting to know each other on an individual basis. I’m an independent thinker. I don’t subscribe to one bloc or another. At least no one’s had that conversation with me.”
Council member Alan Crone, appointed to fill the vacancy created when Shea Flinn left for a job at the Greater Memphis Chamber, says there has been a voting bloc of sorts on the council.
“There was a definite bloc of votes for pension reform and some of the other financial decisions that had to be made,” he said. “My view is that voting bloc kind of held up – but not because there was a bloc, necessarily, but because they all agreed on it. I find that those things kind of shift around.”
Crone did not seek election to a full term and leaves the council with the new year.
“Personality-wise, it changes quite a bit.”
– Alan Crone
“Personality-wise it changes quite a bit, I think,” he said of the council. “A lot of new ideas hopefully. A lot of new energy. There is still a fair amount of carryover.”
Eight of the nine current council members first elected to the body in 2007 have been together at City Hall for eight years.
The ninth, Flinn, left earlier this year.
The nine were part of the largest turnover of council seats in the 48-year history of the mayor-council form of government. They also were part of the largest return of incumbents to the council four years later in 2011.
Come January, half of that core group of eight will leave the council.
The change of six council seats in 2015 was voluntary – incumbents running for other office or just not seeking another term.
All seven council incumbents who sought re-election won easily.
Meet the new members
The council’s racial balance of seven black members and six white members remains the same.
The political experience is different, and most of the new council members are familiar with the practice of politics in general.
District 4 councilwoman-elect Jamita Swearengen, a behavioral specialist with Shelby County Schools, is the daughter of the late Circuit Court Judge James Swearengen and the niece of former city council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.
She’s worked in numerous family and other local campaigns over the years and has served on the local Democratic Party’s executive committee. She ran for the Tennessee legislature 19 years ago.
Like her aunt, Swearengen emphasizes the role of neighborhood associations in communities struggling to redevelop themselves from the grass roots up without displacing those who live there currently.
“I think it’s very important to revitalize our neighborhoods, to support the businesses within the community,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the parks, community centers and libraries, which we have a shortage of. We only one swimming pool in the district. … I’m here to push that issue.”
District 2 councilman-elect Frank Colvett is the treasurer of the Tennessee Republican Party and also an experienced politico.
“My whole life I’ve been in and around politics,” he said, recalling his father’s role as treasurer in the campaigns of Republican Congressman Robin Beard in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Robin would come to Memphis and I would lose my bedroom to the Congressman,” he recalled.
Colvett himself interned as an aide to Beard’s successor, U.S. Rep. Don Sundquist, who later became governor of Tennessee.
“I’ve always been the guy that’s been very happy to be in the background, studying the numbers, fundraising, doing budgets,” he added.
That changed when District 2 incumbent Bill Boyd became the final council incumbent to decide not to seek re-election just before the filing deadline.
“It was the perfect storm that I could jump in, have a good impact and help my city,” Colvett said. “It was time.”
Super District 8-3 councilman-elect Martavius Jones is a financial planner by occupation. Politically, he was the Memphis City Schools board member who proposed the surrender of the school system’s charter in late 2010. That led to the one-year merger of MCS and Shelby County Schools before the demerger into seven public school systems in the county.
Jones has been tenacious in his accounting of the tax dollars Memphis residents pay and where it goes. In that way, he is likely to be the successor to outgoing council member Wanda Halbert on the issue.
Jones is like many of the other council members who say the city’s finances are their priority.
“There’s going to have to be some type of revision,” he said. “Especially when we do not have a growing or increased revenue source.”
Jones is among those who want to explore some kind of change in employee and retiree benefits for police and firefighters, who were the most vocal and visible during City Hall protests in the last year as the council approved across-the-board changes in city employee benefits.
“We don’t necessarily have to have a separate pension plan for the first responders,” he said. “But perhaps having a different calculation in how their benefits are paid.”
District 3 councilwoman-elect Patrice Jordan Robinson served with Jones on the Memphis City Schools board and on the post-merger Shelby County Schools board.
It’s an experience different from that of a council member, but one that she says is no less valid. And the council’s recent history includes members who came to the body from the school board.
“We need to know where we are financially,” Robinson said. “Where we are as it relates to what was the vision, what was the strategic plan? Is that the vision of the new council?”
Robinson also knows that enthusiasm can drift along with the job description.
“After you’re there for a while, you feel like all you are doing is putting out fires. … We may just be some new people that are added to the putting out of the fires. I believe that we bring a new perspective, not just a new army of firefighters,” she said. “That’s the biggest challenge that I’ve found in public office. All of these fires they keep putting up, trying to get the real work done, it’s really difficult.”
District 7 councilman Berlin Boyd isn’t technically new to the council, but he is embarking on his first four-year term as a city councilman. He has served twice as an interim council member, including an appointment earlier this year replacing Lee Harris, who was elected to the Tennessee Senate.
“I think that the overall dynamics of the council will just be dramatically different,” he said. “We’ll actually have three women on the council this time. … We’re going to have some new faces, some faces that are not accustomed to being on a body like this.”
New and returning council members agree the general message from voters was, in a word, change. And many said time is of the essence in producing some start to that change in what several predicted will be a very brief “honeymoon” with the electorate that voted out Mayor A C Wharton – marking only the second time in 24 years that an incumbent mayor has been ousted.
Super District 9-2 councilman-elect Philip Spinosa said he wants to “make a quick impact” as the new council sets the stage for a longer-term approach to changing the city’s financial trajectory and approach to fighting crime.
“Change takes a long time,” he added. “And I think it’s going to be a long process to change things that needed to be changed for a long time.”
Strickland has said his first budget proposal as mayor, due in April, is likely to be a modest start toward larger changes he wants to make in the city’s priorities.
Spinosa, a FedEx account executive, is the newest to politics in general among the six new council members.
Spinosa said his priority initially is public safety, but he also said it’s not as simple as putting more cops on the street.
“It’s a daunting task,” he said. “It’s going to be hard work. But that’s at the core of everything.”
District 5 councilman-elect Worth Morgan agreed, terming public safety “the number one responsibility of government.”
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” he said. “There are a lot of different policy issues that come into play. … That plays into poverty and economic development and things we can do on the side of education here in Memphis.”
Morgan also argues for a rapid start but not because of anxious voters.
“I do think we are going to have to move fast on some issues just because of the way the state Legislature works,” he said.
Morgan specifically wants the city, along with the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office, to have a voice in the Legislature’s coming consideration of new sentencing guidelines for state felons.
Morgan worked in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2010 campaign, making political connections statewide that he believes can help create a relationship that’s largely nonexistent now. Wharton at one point ended the city’s lobbying presence on Capitol Hill in Nashville.
“I think I’ve got some good relationships,” Morgan said of his connections with legislators from other parts of the state who hold leadership positions. “It’s easy for me to pick up the phone and ask a lot of questions and try to come to a solution and get Memphis hopefully a better seat at the table. It’s first going to have to come from the mayor’s office and the district attorney’s office.”
Morgan has opinions on how the laws should be changed but declined to state them, saying he wants to hear others’ opinions. That is certain to mean a front-row seat for Morgan in the lively local debate about crime and punishment, mass incarceration and deterrents other than prison in the county that contributes the most people to the state prison system of any statewide.
Friends in 5th floor places
Incoming council chairman Kemp Conrad said public safety, specifically raising the police force from 2,000 to 2,400, is his priority in leading the council.
“We’ve got to be smarter about how we do things,” he said.
He also said Strickland, as a former council member, should represent a shift in the relationship between the mayor and council that may be the most noticeable change at first.
“Get them on the team on the front end,” Conrad said. “Then you’ve got champions down on the council to help get things done and help rally the support of other council members.”