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.

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