The Daily News moderated a city council candidates forum this week for the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
Downtown was split in the recent redistricting of the council earlier this year. The area south of Poplar Avenue was moved to council District 6 and the area north of Poplar including Uptown remains in council District 7.
Seven of the 14 contenders for district 7 made the forum. Three of the four contenders for district 6 were there.
I asked how the candidates if elected would respond when the next city budget season rolls around in the spring and another council member proposes making this year’s 18 cent “one time only” property tax hike a permanent part of the city property tax rate.
Most on the panel said they would not favor extending the tax hike, but also said the city may very well need more revenue which it would have to get from somewhere other than the property tax rate. A few said they would have to know where the revenue from the 18 cents would go if it was renewed and made part of the property tax rate.
Several pushed a payroll tax but with the distinction that the tax should not apply to those who work in Memphis and live in Memphis – only to those who work in Memphis and live outside of Memphis or the state. There have been numerous legal opinions over the years concluding that such a distinction would not be legal.
The biggest disagreement and the best discussion, in my opinion, came as the candidates talked about the recent U.S. Census numbers that show the Memphis area has the highest poverty rate of any metropolitan area in the country.
District 7 contenders Raymond Bursi and Kemba Ford talked bluntly about their belief that the Memphis City School system was failing its students and not preparing them to compete in the workplace. It brought an equally blunt response from Rhoda Stigall and Clara Ford, candidates in the District 6 race and educators who have worked in the MCS system. They defended the school system and said it was unfair to put that much of the blame on teachers. They also pointed out that many of the other candidates were also MCS graduates who turned out pretty well.
Another dominant theme was the belief that the city of Memphis should do more of its business with Memphians.
Equally interesting were the life stories about what brought these candidates to the point of deciding to run for office. Campaigns are a mix of constant introductions to voters and opinions about what should happen. Both are valid topics for voters to consider.
Our politics gets some deserved criticism for being too much about personality and name recognition. But knowing where a candidate comes from can help voters get to the next step, which is how the candidates feel about a particular issue or what they would do if elected or re-elected. A balanced mix of the two elements is where voters can feel like they are taking less of a chance in weighing what one stranger promises to do versus what another stranger promises to do.
The forums are probably not the best use of time for campaign strategists who want their candidate blitzing toward the end of the early voting period – making contact with as many potential voters as possible. Those voters sometimes see the forums as a place for candidates to perform a well honed tap dance that delivers the message the candidates want regardless of what the questions are.
Some candidates get angry when they show up at a forum that features more candidates than uncommitted voters. Some uncommitted voters get frustrated when a large group of candidates show up and they don’t recognize any of them.
Having noted that, the DNA forum was an interesting discussion among a group of ten candidates across the district boundaries.
I cover more of these forums than I moderate. And it can be a perilous assignment because each candidate is watching to make sure their rivals don’t get an unfair advantage – a few more seconds to speak, always being called on first or last to answer a question.
What I found was that the candidates, this time around, really got drawn into the discussion. They were listening to one another for more than mistakes or points of attack to use in future encounters.