Most new mayors enjoy several months of a “honeymoon period” when their popularity is at its highest and they use it to create momentum behind a vision and an agenda for the future.
Gallup defined the honeymoon period as the months when a politician’s popularity is more than 55 percent, but more commonly, people now concentrate on the first 100 days.
But Jim Strickland’s 100 days, which ended April 10th, were defined more by reactions than actions. After deriding former Mayor A C Wharton’s far-reaching 100-day plan in 2012 as more rhetoric than results, it came as no surprise that Strickland did not roll out something similar. However, if he had, it would have been overcome by crises erupting almost weekly: body camera deployment for MPD, MATA’s financial situation, the search for a new police director, minority business issues, climbing debt payments, more money for pensions, and replacement of the city radio system.
The snowballing problems were accompanied by an avalanche of unanticipated costs, now exceeding $100 million. Negative budget dynamics could not be glossed over any longer. The perfect storm of too little money, too much need, and big bills coming due blew in with gale-force winds.
If things weren’t complicated enough, raw emotions were injected into City Hall with the suddenly escalating murder rate, zoo parking on the Overton Park greensward, and pressure from Nashville toward deannexation.
While most major crimes saw major decreases in recent years, no one foresaw this year’s remarkable doubling of the murder rate over the first quarter. Other cities have experienced similar trends, but the fact that this happened in Memphis during the first months of a mayor who had raised expectations by making crime reduction a centerpiece of his campaign did him no favors.
Critics contend that Strickland’s crime reduction programs are largely an extension of Wharton’s, but Strickland loyalists say development of a new plan of attack was slowed by the need to conduct a national search for a new police director. Criminologists are conflicted about the reason for the sudden spike in murders in many American cities, and that’s certainly the case in Memphis, where it was met with City Hall’s longtime default position: hire more police officers.
Strickland spoke during the campaign about the need for Memphis to have more prevention and interventions, but like Wharton before him, he has little money for them because of the strains to fund $246 million a year on police firepower.
Adding to the torrent of emotions was the dispute about using Overton Park’s greensward for overflow zoo parking and the vote by the city council to side with it. Only a few months ago, Strickland campaigners had counted every yard with a “Save The Greensward” sign as a vote for their candidate, so the speed in which his motives became suspect was testament to the volatility of the issue.
Add to these the emotions unleashed with the deannexation bill in the Tennessee Legislature that could give as many as 100,000 Memphians the opportunity to leave the city, and Strickland found himself in a political cauldron unlike any new mayor in modern Memphis history. After the Legislature decided to hold the bill until next year, the city council appointed a committee to determine if it’s in Memphis’ financial interest to reduce its footprint.
Some City Hall observers concluded that after eight years on the city council, the new mayor deferred to them when the analysis would normally be something a mayor should direct. More likely, it was a way to emphasize to the council that he will improve relations between the executive and legislative branches. For years, council members complained that the Wharton administration withheld information, and there’s evidence that they were right.
All in all, it must seem a long time ago to Strickland that he was saying on the campaign trail: “Make no mistake — my goal is change: Violent crime will be reduced, more roads will be paved, neighborhoods will be cleaned up, blight will be reduced, and city government will execute on a vision.”
With controversies at every turn, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions about his brand of mayoral leadership, because it’s still evolving. However, his first budget, which is now beginning its hearings before the city council, will more than anything give the strong indications of whether events have overtaken those campaign promises.