Thursday, August 12, 2004

Half-Bakered Talks With Carol Chumney!

And lives to tell the tale.

As I noted in the post above, the media stories left a lot of unanswered questions for me about the Memphis visit of the Iraqi delegation on August 2nd. As the days went by, there weren't any follow-ups by the papers or the television news stations to clear up the questions. So, I once again crossed from commentator to reporter by picking up the phone and contacting City Councillor Carol Chumney directly.

I introduced myself as the writer/publisher of Half-Bakered. She said, "Oh, yeah!" as though she had heard of it. I'm not sure if this was the case or if she was just being polite, but I was a little bit nervous now, as I'm a pretty harsh critic of hers.

I needn't have worried. Chumney talked with me for an hour. She was open and voluble. Really voluble. Once she got started, she had no problems keeping going! I actually had to interject myself at a few points. I don't say this to be critical, but in surprise. If she really did know who I was, she was awfully, awfully polite.

We started talking about the Iraqi snub at City Hall. She said that she has worked with the Memphis Council for International Visitors (MCIV) once before. The Iraqis were her second effort and that had started with an email from MCIV Executive Director Elisabeth Silverman. (I was told by another person that she had also been approached casually before this, which set the stage.) Chumney says that invites were hand-delivered to Mayor Herenton's office.

I pointed out that the time frame for the visit -- about two weeks from first email to visit -- seemed pretty rushed, but Chumney disagreed. She thought it wasn't too short a time frame. Reading her timeline does show, however, that substantive discussions didn't happen until the Friday before their arrival! Staff researcher Lisa Geater's document supports this. And those discussions almost immediately produced discord and a change of plans.

It had seemed likely that her relationships with her peers and the Mayor's office might have played a role in her working to help set up the visit. I tried to query Chumney about this but she demurred. She basically said what she's said in public all along: that she tries to be professional and she "wasn't going to get into any of that." Despite that, it does seem to me that the friction she seems to attract might have predisposed Brown to be less than co-operative.

While Silverman was doing the coordinating, Chumney tried to involve the Mayors and her Council peers. As her timeline notes, on Friday there was a snafu when Council Chairman Brown fretted over security concerns and then wanted to make sure that Police, Fire and other agencies were involved. Of course, they weren't and bringing them in this late, when other bona fides had already been presented, threatened the whole visit. Chumney left the matter of location in Brown's hands. He contacted Silverman and they moved the meeting to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau building at 47 Union Avenue. Brown alerted everyone else via email, not by press release as he once claimed. Somewhere in all this monkey-motion, there was another kerfuffle over who said what by whose authority. Frankly, it was more infighting than I could follow.

Chumney arrived at the CVB to find Silverman and the media, but no Iraqis. She then got a call alerting her to the misdirection of the Iraqi delegation and went over to see what she could do. By then, Joe Brown was showing his ass. Chumney got the Iraqis redirected and left.

All this led me to ask her some tougher and more general questions. Reading Chumney's timeline, listening to her remarks on television and talking with her on the phone, I kept getting this odd sense of things. In every discussion, I always get the feeling that ol' Carol Chumney is just there doing her job and everyone else seems to have the problem. There's no sense that she might be wrong, might not have handled things well, might not have ruffled some feathers unnecessarily. Carol's always in the right, just doing her job, and completely baffled by why others seem to have such a hard time.

I tried, after much apology and hem-hawing, asking her about this. She didn't seem to understand me. I tried to put it a couple of different ways, but she always returned to the same basic idea: she's only interested in issues and getting the job done. The problems that follow in her wake aren't hers, but her opponents. As she said, "I'm the one leading opposition."

I tried to refer her to her memo to WREG Newschannel 3, where she said:
It is not my intent to be controversial, however, in this particular closed society, any attempt to say anything other than what you are told to say or that is outside of the expected "groupthink", is apparently controversial. I call you to have more regard for the people of the city of Memphis and please tell the truth....

In the time when the media should show the advances that women have made in education, business, politics, the legal profession and medicine, when the media should be tearing down the walls of sexism and stereotypical perception, name-calling, and plain old-fashioned disrespect, you are perpetuating it with stories like this and give negative contentions to the same behaviors for which you would praise a man. I call you to the highest standard of your media and to your responsibility to all people to present the truth.
This language is very close to what she wrote in her Memphis Flyer guest editorial back in the Spring, about her first run-ins with other City Councillors in the wake of Mayor Herenton's Inauguration Day speech.

I tried talking with her about her charges of sexism, but she said that her letter to WREG3 was addressing what she saw "in that instance" as "unfair presentation." She talked about her feeling that WREG3 had set out to make her a scapegoat, and that a story by Tom Powell, felt like a set-up to divert attention from others (or issues, seemingly one of her favorite words) to her.

Mentioning other strong women on the City Council (Barbara Swearingen Holt, Janet Hooks and Tajuan Stout Mitchell) who are assertive and strong but still manage harmonious relations, Chumney lumped them in with the general opposition to her. She said, she don't point fingers back at them, that she's been called names. It's the "methodology they use to divert attention from issues."

None of which addressed my original question, but did illuminate even more clearly my impression of her as blameless in her own lights. It was spooky to hear, quite honestly. It seemed almost inconceivable that she might be wrong, or act wrong. She views herself as a buster of old ways of doing things, which makes her virtuous.

I dropped all that, as I wasn't getting anywhere, and mentioned that I'd heard more than few people on talk radio shows extol her as a possible Mayor. She said she was "flattered" but, again, she's focused on "issues" for her District.

So, my conversation with Chumney cleared up some of the events of the Iraqi snub and pretty clearly left Chairman Joe Brown holding the bag. There was a communications snafu the weekend before; I do believe that Chumney's personality and previous encounters helped to predispose Brown to negative assumptions about her motives and positions, in that he might have suspected her of "stepping out of her place" and trying to speak for the whole Council. Part of his reaction may have been driven by his need to re-assert prerogatives.

The hour also strengthened my belief that Chumney just can't accept that her poor relations with her Council peers have anything to do with her. I don't think she can even conceive it. In her world-view, she's just doing good; her opponents are protecting privilege, so any problems that result are theirs, not hers. She's a crusader; they are the bad guys. Her motives are never less than pure. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's delusion, but it is a rock solid unshakeable belief. Strange....

That said, she was a lot of fun to talk with. There were no lulls and no tense moments. She was a fountain of information, although I always had to consider the source. She's definitely good-humored and laughed quite easily. She likes Martina McBride.

If she really does sit down and read this blog, I hope it doesn't destroy any chances for further talks. I'd like another run at her perception of the bad will she generates in her wake. I also didn't get to talk much with her about policy and programs. She does worry at the heavy focus on the downtown; I'd like to explore that as it relates to her position on the Council.

Anyway, it was interesting, though it didn't change much about my views of her as a Councillor. My thanks to Councillor Chumney for her generosity and time.

[Note: I'm up way too late. My eyes hurt. My brane hertz. I'm not proof-reading this until tomorrow morning, so don't get upset.]

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