Thursday, April 08, 2004

Carol Chumney: Deep In It And Still Digging

Carol Chumney, District Five City Councillor, just doesn't know when to stop. Nor, apparently, does she live in the same world you and I do. How else to explain her latest behavior?

Some history, for those of you from out of town. Carol was a local lawyer who got elected to the State House. She served there, as she is wont to remind everyone, for thirteen years. Not with any great distinction, but a solid yeoman's work. Look at her campaign website and you'll see that she stays incredibly busy. She works so hard she doesn't seem to have a personal life. Scanning Google, I can find all kinds of things about her professional life -- programs, legislation, awards, offices, you name it -- but nothing about her private life. That kind of workoholism can't be healthy, I don't think.

But a couple of years ago, she set her sights on the Memphis Mayor's office and is angling towards it. That's why she skipped the last mayoral election, since Herenton was invincible, and went for a City Council seat. That way, she's visible, near to all the major events in City politics, and can build her campaign from the inside. It's all about the Carol.

When she took office on the Council, one of her first moves was to make overtures to Mayor Herenton. Unfortunately, for someone long in public life, she did it with a lack of finesse many found surprising. Not only did she meet with the Mayor, but she trumpeted that fact in a public scold that was printed in the Memphis Flyer.

Her tone was condescending and lecturing; she was telling others how to behave while upholding herself. She struck me then, and still does, as the kid in school we used to call an "apple polisher." The one who couldn't care less about others, did all her homework and study, had perfect handwriting, had every answer, was always vaguely sniffy to others, and focused all her efforts to the teacher. Another label was "grind" -- joyless, relentless, task-oriented. That student didn't have a lot of friends and wasn't known for being real social. But, by God, she was going to get the grades, the honors, the awards to get into a good school and.... Well, and.

While this was happening, the Council was embroiled in a nasty spat with the Mayor over comments he made in the first few weeks of his latest term and his usual high-handed, dismissive behavior. Their relations were deteriorating; Council unity seemed called for. She was seen as playing both sides while furthering her own agenda.

Chumney got a come-uppance. At a Council sub-committee meeting, a fellow Councillor tore into her for her behavior towards the Council staff (who are shared by members) and for her general demeanor. She blamed them. Then, later that day at the regular Council meeting, she was again upbraided by a different Councillor for over-reaching and not being deferent enough for a new Council member. You can read all that here and here.

She was stung, but like the true grind just plowed on ahead and tried to paint the others as the problem. She was just doing her job and not concerned about others' feelings. They needed to focus on the job at hand and recognise her efforts. That demeanor didn't go over at all.

The Commercial Appeal stayed out of this, since it involved the weekly alternative paper, the Memphis Flyer. The usual Commercial Appeal attitude is to pretend that the Flyer doesn't exist. Rather than name them, they once famously referred to the Flyer as a "local media outlet." But the Flyer responded to Chumney with this editorial, taking Chumney to task and giving her some mild advice.
First-term City Council member Carol Chumney, who either knows something the rest of the political world has forgotten or is showboating to the point of reckless self-caricature, was a surprise add-on to the aftermath of the County Commission's Monday-morning committee vote approving the University of Memphis basketball Tigers' move to FedExForum.

After Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, and university athletic director R.C. Johnson had each faced the mass of cameras, mikes, and reporters in a packed hallway, Chumney took her turn -- saying, in essence, that the council would give the matter, including some controversial financial proposals, proper consideration.

That Chumney chose to speak, in essence, on behalf of the council was, to say the least, an irony and probably a presumption. The former state legislator has angered several of her council mates by the combination of her general assertiveness, unusual for a newcomer, and specific criticisms of what she considered her colleagues' "petty" behavior in their ongoing, now largely dormant, conflict with Mayor Willie Herenton.
They were pretty strong by newspaper standards, but not rough, nor did they stray into the personal. It was yet another up-braiding for Chumney.

Her response was astonishing. The next week, she wrote this letter accusing the paper of sexism in its editorial:
It is mind-boggling and disappointing in 2004 that there are still those who think that it is in vogue to give a woman a public tongue-lashing. How is it that an individual with a bachelor's degree, a law degree, who is a 13-year veteran legislator and has been a public servant for almost two decades rates public ridicule and verbal abuse from anyone for simply doing what she was elected to do? What Neanderthal and childish mind-set thinks that a man has a right to give a woman a public verbal walloping in 2004?

Perhaps there are still those who would prefer a giggling, silly, barefoot girl whom they can simply control by making demands. It's this mind-set that creates problems for women in business today. Be on notice that I won't take verbal abuse and a public walloping from anyone without walloping right back. And thank goodness everybody down there at the Flyer had the good sense not to put their names to that editorial.
That's right. She threatened them. Go back and reread the editorial; there isn't a whiff of anything to support her wild accusations. The week after that, even Flyer readers agreed, and they tend to the liberal and sympathetic. Had she responded to the facts, or to their assertions, she might've made a case. As it is, she comes across as holding herself to be untouchable because of her presumed intent:
If we agree on the message, why can't we agree on the messenger? Perhaps you would prefer that a man had made these statements?
Lunacy. And coming from a public official, it seemed petty and demeaning to her office, a grownup acting like a child.

But oddly enough I think I have some understanding. I really think Chumney's politics come from the Seventies, from the orthodox liberal, feminist, progressive social reform Democratic politics of the time. Her reaction stems from that feminism, though I haven't a clue what made that connection in her. But Chumney's career also attests to her apparent belief that government is a force for good in the world, if the right people wield that power with the right intentions. If you question her, you might be questioning her goodness.

It became yet more grist for the mill, though the Commercial Appeal still held aloof. In fact, if you only read the daily, you'd never know this was happening! No need to report a City Councillor's public self-destruction, I guess. Or maybe earning a favor for later? Or possibly shaping future history, since if they didn't report it, it might not have happened, or will be relegated to the shadows of rumor. It's interesting that their Letters column has reader reaction to something they didn't report. We'll see what happens.

Then came her recent town hall meeting. (More here. Also, see the next post.) Chumney took it on herself to invite all the nominees for MLG&W President to speak. She over-reached again and was slapped for it, again.

So here we are. Chumney is burning bridges as fast as she can cross them. She is poisoning relations with her fellow City Councillors, something that will undoubtedly affect her effectiveness in producing for her District. She's developing a public image as a wild cannon, aiming and firing without regard for troop placement, angry at everyone else for not being where they're supposed to be. That's not leadership.

Someone, somewhere, needs to reach her. Quickly. I am fairly sure she sees herself as a crusading reformer, shaking up the status quo. There's a grain of truth to that. But the larger picture is that she's acting without regard to the power that everyone around her wields, power much larger and more pervasive than hers. She may soon find herself frozen out in ways both subtle and obvious, and we in her District will suffer. She's going from Robin Hood to Don Quixote.

We often joke in Memphis about needing to be saved from our leaders. In this case, it's terribly true. Carol Chumney isn't what she thinks she is, and who she really is will hurt Memphians. Stop, Carol. Stop now. Loosen the armor, dismount from the horse and put down the lance. Go and relax; rethink your tactics, if not your strategy.

Please. Soon.

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