Sharon Webb ended an four year political odyssey this week. The Memphis city school board member ended her service with what is arguably the most important school board vote in decades, certainly the most important of her tenure.
For Webb, this began in obscurity when Webb, unknown in politics, defeated the Memphis city school board’s then longest serving incumbent Carl Johnson in 2006.
Webb’s chief political advantage was that she wasn’t Johnson. She didn’t believe in campaigning for office because she said her political victory or defeat was in God’s hands.
She came on the school board at a time when the dynamics of the elected body were changing as well. School board members remained solid political practitioners but they weren’t nearly as high profile as they had been from the era of the 1970s to the mid 1990s.Then school board races and campaigns commanded public attention in the odd year city election cycle with the Memphis Mayor’s race and races for the Memphis City Council.
School board members were now serving staggered terms and their elections had been moved to even numbered years, down the ballot from a lot of more high profile county, state and federal races.
Then Webb got more ambitious and ran for the Memphis Charter Commission that year and won a spot on the body that reviewed and put on the ballot changes to the city charter.
Anyone who is two for two in retail politics has obtained some degree of ambition, even if they didn’t start out with any beyond seeing what would happen.
She decided to go for three and joined the record setting field of 25 contenders in the 2009 special election for Memphis Mayor.
This time she campaigned despite her earlier declaration about the futility of campaigning. Her profile still wasn’t very high. But she did accept an invitation to appear on one of the television cattle calls for a very large unwieldy tier of candidates. And she managed to separate herself from the pack which is precisely where the rapid political decline began.
Webb never claimed to know all or even most of the fine print or ins and outs of school board policy and public policy. Her questions and comments always reflected that on the school board and the charter commission. She wanted an explanation that would help her in making a decision. Her demeanor was sunny and completely without malice. Her religious beliefs were deeply held. She never attempted to impose them.
During the televised forum, Webb was asked to come up with two examples of actions she would take as mayor. She didn’t and the clip got a lot of replays. Webb took a lot of criticism. Eight years into her political odyssey, a lot of voters had discovered Sharon Webb.
Up until this point you could have inserted any analogy to “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and it probably would have worked. Now, it was just an old movie playing at a time for politics without a learning curve.
Webb drew six challengers when it came time for re-election in 2010. Webb returned to the practice of not campaigning. She finished third.
In the charter surrender discussion, Webb was resolutely for the move and made her point with the same basic questions that marked her tenure.
“Why did everybody get upset?” she asked of the furor that followed the proposal of the surrender. “Help me understand because I’m the weakest link on the board,” Webb added possibly with just a hint of sarcasm.
She asked if the school board had won two court orders requiring the city to pay the school system $57 million. It had. And had the school system collected that to date? No. She invoked two Bible stories in making her case for a charter surrender – Solomon and Jonah – to make the point that faced with a possible loss of more money in tax revenue she believed the board had one option.
What happened after that would be a matter of faith – civic as well as religious.
Unlike other board members who questioned whether Shelby County school leaders would neglect the educational needs of city school students if the two systems merged, Webb never questioned that if a merger is the decision, Shelby County school system educators would do their best for whoever’s children were in their classrooms.