Monday, March 28, 2011

A few political nuggets from Carol Chumney

After 17 years in politics, Atty. Carol Chumney offers a few tidbits.
    Now that the March 8 referendum election is over and Memphis and Shelby County schools now preparing to merge -- that is, if a judge doesn't nix the merger -- anti-merger opponents and pro-merger proponents -- many of them politicians -- continue to exert their influence and power to sway their constituents.
    But their constituents really wield the real power, said Bradley Watkins, organizing coordinator for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, during a neighborhood alliance workshop Tuesday evening at the MPJC offices at the First Congo Church on Cooper Street.
    A declared non-partisan, Watkins alluded to voter apathy and complacency during recent elections where germane issues were decided by a small percentage of voters. "People have voted every year since 1997, and you wonder why people don't vote. That's because they don't see results," he told 20 grassroots organizers from various neighborhoods.
    Watkins conducted the workshop at the onset and then yielded the floor to the evening's guest speaker, Atty. Carol Chumney, a former Tennessee legislator and former Memphis City Council member who expounded upon her experiences in both legislative bodies.
    But before she got to the point for which she was invited, Chumney recalled the early days at White Station High School when she first became politically involved. "I got involved in CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, a Memphis City Schools gifted and talented program), because they were trying to eliminate it," she said. "Then I lobbied in Nashville as a member of the student government at the University of Memphis."
    Chumney said she has always felt strong about democracy and encouraged the neighborhood organizers to get involved as well. "People have so much power," she said. "The whole city would change if more people get involved."
    Daniel E. Lewis of Ezra Morgan Associates wanted to know if it was politically correct to send politicians a certified letter if they are inaccessible and won't respond to a phone call, email or snail mail. Chumney said some people are leery of signing a certified letter and advised participants to vote politicians out of office if they are that inaccessible.
    After 17 years in politics (13 in the Tennessee House of Representatives and four as a member of the city council), Chumney said she never forgot those who helped her on the campaign trail, including the campaign workers who helped her defeat Paul Gurley in the 1990 Democratic primary for the District 89 seat that Democratic legislator Pam Gaia vacated for an unsuccessful run against Harold Ford Sr. in the 9th District Congressional race. Gaia switched to the Republican Party in 1994 to run against Chumney, the incumbent nominee, and lost as well.
    "I just out-worked her," she said. "I knocked on more doors."
    Chumney used the aforementioned scenarios to make a point that it takes effort and hard work to get anything accomplished.
    Other participants beside Lewis wanted to know how to get an issue before their representative or a legislative body such as the Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Commission.
    She offered the following tips:
  • Come up with a strategy. Remember, they need you. The smart politician keeps in touch.
  • When sending information to politicians, send a one-page letter. They won't read more than one page.
  • Be nice to staff. They can make you or break you.
  • You only need one spokesperson.
  • Stay positive. Don't attack the other side and don't make it personal.
  • If you're speaking at a council meeting or commission meeting, stay within the time limit.
  • Write thank you notes.
  • Use your elected friends for advice.
  • Count the votes in advance. If somebody says they're with you, it doesn't mean they'll vote for your bill.
    "No matter how long you've been in politics, you still get scared. So when you get in front of the council, you might get scared, but keep at it," said Chumney.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Memphians vote 'yes' to merge city and county schools

   After a contentious battle between combatants on both sides of the schools merger fight, Memphis voters made it clear in a two-to-one victory on Tuesday (March 8) that the Shelby County Board of Education should in fact assume administrative control of Memphis City Schools, therefore merging the two school districts.
   "It's a good day for Memphis," said former county commissioner Deidre Malone, who co-managed Citizens for Better Education, one of the pro-merger groups promoting "YES for School Unity."
   "While we're disappointed, we're not surprised," David Pickler, chairman of the SCS board, said during an interview after 17 percent of Memphis' more than 420,000 registered voters soundly defeated those opposed to the merger.
   With 100 percent reporting, a total of 71,424 voters had gone to the polls to have their say. Of that number 47,812 (67 percent) voted "YES" for the referendum to dissolve MCS and merge it with SCS, and 23,612 voters (33 percent) voted "NO" to keep the two districts separated.
   State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) -- who crafted a bill that passed both House and Senate and that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law which would delay the merger, if it should pass, for two and a half years to allow for planning -- spoke in a conciliatory tone when asked how he felt about the historic vote that effectively merges MCS and SCS.
   "This is a watershed event that will give us an opportunity to embrace reform in Shelby County," he said.
   Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said, "We got to start thinking forward now."
   Luttrell's counterpart in the city, Mayor AC Wharton, said, "The rough part of the journey is just beginning."
   Although Memphians used the ballot to determine their own destiny, both proponents and opponents of the merger are expecting several lawsuits and counter lawsuits to be filed. A judge inevitably will rule one way or the other.
   Pickler had said all alone that the issue would be worked out in court. But it was his repeated attempt to push for special school district status for SCS that prompted MCS board commissioner Martavius Jones to author a resolution as a counter measure to surrender MCS's charter, which in fact would force a merger with SCS.
   On Dec. 20, the school board voted 5 to 4 to surrender the district's charter to block the efforts of Pickler and the suburbanites who sought to freeze the boundaries to keep Memphis from consolidating.
   The Memphis City Council has since jumped into the fray to approve the surrender of MCS's charter and subsequently urged voters to decide the fate of MCS in a referendum.
   The County Commission is now seeking applicants so serve on a 25-member unified school board. Currently, there are seven SCS board members and nine MCS board members. Nine more are needed to reach the 25 mark.
   The deadline for applications is March 22. Interviews will be conducted March 23, and appointments will be made March 28, or a date afterward if the Shelby County Election Commission hasn't certified the March 8 referendum vote.
   Now that the referendum has passed, a transition team will be assembled to merge the two districts into one and to determine how best to educate 150,000 students. The unified school system will be called the Shelby County School District.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

From pulpit to politics: Pastors join merger fight

Dr. Maxie Dunnam, interim senior minister of Christ United Methodist Church, says the schools merger fight is a civil rights issue. More than 20 other pastors and ministers, such as Dr. James Netters, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., met at Metropolitan Baptist Church on March 4 to support the YES for School Unity campaign. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
   Activist pastors who support political campaigns or take positions on controversial issues don't always preach sermons on saving souls. Sometimes they preach about social issues and admonish their parishioners, for example, to resist the lure of crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and teen pregnancy.
   Dozens of pastors have taken a position in the ongoing controversy over the charter surrender of Memphis City Schools and the March 8 referendum that asks voters to decide if administrative control of MCS should be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education.
   It's not unusual for pastors to step away from the pulpit to support a cause and use their influence to convince others to do the same. Such is the case with Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. Noel Hutchinson, pastor of First Baptist Church Lauderdale.
   Montgomery and Hutchinson differ in their position on the schools merger. Montgomery and a cadre of pastors, including those with the Baptist Ministerial Association, oppose the merger, choosing instead to fix what ails MCS and to negotiate with Shelby County Schools.
   "My position is this: What we should do is not surrender the charter. We will not be accomplishing unity or lowering taxes," said Montgomery, who believes the issue has created a bigger problem. "This issue has heavily divided the community - blacks against whites, blacks against blacks, and whites against whites."
   Hutchinson and his group of pastors pledged to support the "YES for Unity" campaign. "After researching and looking at the detrimental effects of Shelby County getting special school district status and what that would do to Memphis City Schools, I decided to support the merger," said Hutchinson, adding, "If funding is cut from MCS, it would be tough to maintain MCS."
   When Hutchinson called a press conference on Feb. 18 to announce his support for the merger, a contingent of 20 pastors attended. Ten others were going to attend, he said, but couldn't make it.
   A diverse group of pastors, both black and white from various denominations, also gathered Friday morning (March 4) at Metropolitan Baptist Church "to raise our voice" in support of the merger, said Hutchinson.
   Dr. Stacy Spencer, pastor of New Directions Christian Church, said a separate but equal doctrine that had been the status quo for public education in the 1950's, "didn't work then and will never work."
   Two stalwarts in ministry -- Dr. James Netters, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, and Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former pastor of Christ United Methodist Church and currently the interim senior minister -- equated the brouhaha over the schools merger with the civil rights movement.
   "Like my good friend Rev. Netters said, this is a civil rights issue," Dunnam declared.  
    Whether the referendum passes of not, the likelihood of the merger debate returning to the forefront is expected, and ministers and pastors most certainly will continue to stand in the gap for those deemed voiceless and in need of spiritual intervention.
   Dr. Frank Thomas, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, said the schools issue is that germane that, no matter what happens after the March 8 vote, the group of assembled pastors would continue to push for a unified school district and stay the course after Election Day.  

The gospel of politics...

   The pulpit has often served as a soapbox, or "bully pulpit," since the epoch of organized religion. And lately, that soapbox -- whether it is in the church or on the street corner -- has been an effective tool for merging the tenets of the gospel with modern-day, social activism.
   Some pastors, for example, believe it's their responsibility and civic duty to engage in political and social issues. "Every preacher is not necessarily called when it comes to politics and social issues," said Hutchinson. "[But] after March 8, churches are going to have to stand up. If churches don't stand up, who will?"
   Montgomery said the pulpit should be used not only for the purpose of preaching the gospel, "but also for sharing information with parishioners that impact their lives." He said every pastor has a "theological and moral" responsibility to tend the spiritual needs of their parishioners as well as their "physical and material" needs.
   "This can be verified in the Book of James," said Montgomery, quoting from the passage that says, in part, "Faith without works is dead.'"
   Hutchinson also referenced Scripture, quoting from Jeremiah 29:7, which says, in part, to "seek the peace of the city." He deduced from the Scripture that pastors would do well to be well-researched, well-read and take a stand on social issues that are important to the community.
   Although the merger issue is receiving bipartisan support, just as much as those who are against it, "it's still not political," Hutchinson said.
  So, should pastors step out of one domain into another and still exegete Scripture without compromise or conflict?
   The social gospel that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached more than 40 years ago is evident today in the activism of pastors who are either "for" or "against" merging MCS and SCS. Several pastors on both sides have quoted Dr. King to validate their position.