We are now at the beginning of early voting. By Tuesday, polls will be open all over Shelby County, and until August 2 you will have an opportunity to exercise your franchise through early voting. This is a privilege that many of us take for granted, which is unavailable in many parts of the country. Yet, if recent trends hold true, approximately four to nine percent of registered voters will visit the polls during this voting cycle.
Looking at this reality, we must add the toxic cynicism that now is a part of the community’s disillusion with the political process. Many see no reason to vote or hope. With this in mind, I offer this thought:
Look past the election.
Candidates reading this may think I’ve lost my mind. Armchair cynics may say ‘amen’ before hearing the rest of the sermon. However, there is purpose behind this prose. First, if you begin to look at what you want to see after the election, two things should be happening. One, you must have an agenda of what the elected official must do for you. Second, you must then vote for that person that has this understanding closest to your agenda.
Why is this important? Because the political process dictates, in many ways, the quality of life for a community. Don’t understand? The recent cuts in insurance benefits for Memphis city employees and retirees – who did it? You? Me? No, it came through the legislative governmental process for the city of Memphis. Elected officials affect the ability of the business community to flourish, shaping everything from a business’ location to the taxes, if any, they will pay. They can affect where you work, the quality of your job, and how you travel to get there. That is why whom you vote for has importance.
With this in mind, let me go to the important terrain after the election. If you put your ear to the ground, many cry out for an agenda. What follows is an attempt to offer some talking points.
According to the 2010 Census, 30.8 percent of Shelby County businesses are black owned. Yet these businesses account for less than 1 percent of all countywide business receipts. This looks worse when you add the following wrinkles: government and unions have historically been the vehicles that lifted blacks to the middle class. With shrinking tax bases and unions under attack, the gains made over the last 40 years are under attack.
So, 53 percent of the County, and about 70 percent in the City produce less than 1 percent of business receipts, and the County government has awarded no contracts to any businesses that are a part of this population. Still think whom you vote for doesn’t matter?
In addition to the anemic business climate, another factor to include is the high level of blacks connected to the penal system through incarceration, parole, or felony convictions. Some estimates put one out every three black males in Shelby County in this situation. According to a 2008 article in The Commercial Appeal, Shelby County has the third highest incarceration rate in the country.
And in the landscape before both the public school system merger and the subsequent municipal districts, only 20 percent of high school graduates were college ready.
What is the answer? Here are some suggestions on measurements that can help the community, while keeping our politicians on our agenda:
• Breakup the size of contracts for those doing business with the city and the county. Because of the size of the contracts, reputable minority firms if they are fortunate, get the subcontracting crumbs. Judiciously dividing them up will increase opportunities. Only politicians can do this.
• Curb the amount of PILOTS overall, and consider a form of PILOTS or similar relief for small to medium size businesses. There are already advocates for part of this position. In addition, local business may need some initial assistance. They are the backbone of employment across this country. A better climate for them will bless all.
• Leverage redevelopment in Memphis within the 1-240 loop. The economic viability and investment in this community appears to be lopsided. Several projects have invested in areas near our communities, yet, with few exceptions, monies have not been invested in our communities. This is where credible non-profits, CDC’s, developers, and government can shape plans for this to happen. Crosstown, Beale Street Landing, Cooper Young and the Fairgrounds are fine, but what about Orange Mound, some parts of South Memphis, and North Memphis?
• Systematic solutions to recidivism. A systematic execution of helping the general population with rights restoration is overdue. Coupled with this is the need for potential employers for persons in this situation. Some of this is happening in various stages now, but acceleration is overdue.
There are other issues and solutions that could be cited that space and time won’t allow. In all of this, here is the most important part of this conversation. Look at the candidates, both incumbents and challenges. Ask, “Which one can execute these necessary things?” Then vote. After the election, observe what they do. If forward motion isn’t taking place, call them. Write them, with your name and address on the correspondence. Email them. And be clear that if action and forward motion doesn’t happen, the next election cycle will give you the opportunity to replace them.
Also, don’t act alone. Get involved with your neighborhood associations, push your church to be more active in this way, and work with your neighbors. Remember – you know the saying – “a closed mouth don’t get fed.”
(The Rev. Dr. Noel G. L. Hutchinson Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church, Lauderdale and the host of the TV show “Black Thought.”)