H aving seen more than a few elections in this town over the past few decades, I often wonder, particularly when a Memphis municipal election comes around, if we just might be the Yard Sign Capital of the World. Mr. Google didn’t give me much help with answering that question, but I have to believe that we’ve earned that designation over the years, fair and square. For one thing, we are a city of yards; most of our people, rich and poor, live in single-family dwellings, and nearly all of those have a front yard of some sort. In the month before any major election here, our neighborhoods can start looking like funky corn fields, with messages-on-a-stick popping out of the ground almost everywhere. This year I’ve noticed a new theme behind the cardboard onslaught; for whatever reason, this season’s mayoral and city council candidates seem to have come to the conclusion that bigger is indeed better. No matter that an exhaustive 2012 study in The Atlantic on the eve of the last presidential election determined that “lawn signs don’t make a discernable difference to electoral outcomes.” Nope, this year’s crop of candidates has no qualms about plunking down, complete with sandbags, signs so large that they’re beginning to resemble casino billboards. All this, just for the chance to serve as members of the city council or as mayor. Talk about thankless tasks. Mayor Wyeth Chandler (see inset) presided over Memphis during arguably its bleakest twentieth-century decade (1972-1982) in the wake of the King assassination. Here’s how Chandler, in this magazine, described the challenges of holding that position in 1981: “The mayors in the major cities of this country have the toughest job in all of politics. Their funds are being cut, the services that are being demanded are costing more, and the resentment against taxes is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Sound familiar? Were he still with us today, however, Wyeth Chandler would probably be amazed to see just how much more difficult being Mayor of Memphis has become in the past 30 years. With pension and health liabilities eating away at the financial solvency of cities all across the country, with road, hospital, and school infrastructures crumbling, and with profound national reluctance among citizens in urban as well as rural America to raise taxes in order to pay for improvements that are way beyond necessary, our urban places are more highly at risk today than ever before.
There are a handful of cities, however, where genuine progress has been made in many of these areas. This month, we have invited for the third year in a row a mayor from one of those particular cities to visit ours, as part of Memphis magazine’s annual “Summons to Memphis” series, and to tell about his efforts to shape and transform his own urban landscape. Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, the first-ever four-time mayor in Oklahoma City, will be the keynote speaker at this year’s “Summons” luncheon on Monday, September 14th, at The Peabody. (This event is open to the public; for tickets and other information, go to summonstomemphis.com, or call 901.521.9000.)
During Cornett’s decade in office, Oklahoma City has attracted an NBA franchise, invested over $2 billion in schools and quality-of-life infrastructure, and developed one of the most robust economies in the country. A lifelong Republican, Mayor Cornett’s progressive policies on health and wellness, urban design, and downtown redevelopment led him to be described in 2012 by Newsweek as one of “the five most innovative mayors in the United States.”
We deliberately scheduled this year’s “Summons” event in September, just a month before our own municipal election. Our hope is that Mayor Cornett’s insights will prove valuable in helping you decide how to vote in October.
At the risk of seeming self-serving, I am encouraging all our readers to consider attending; our last two “Summons” luncheons (Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans in 2013, Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville last year) were sellouts, and those of you who have attended in the past know just how important it is to get this kind of perspective on the issues that confront all of us as urban Americans. Thanks for your consideration and support.