may2006Main Street Journal
May 2006
pp. 9-10

A group of professionals, businesses, non-profits, and community organizations in Memphis have recently banded together to form what they are calling the Coalition for a Better Memphis. With the goal of informing and educating Memphis voters, the group has developed a set of specific criteria meant to be a non-partisan evaluation of each candidate running in local races.

This past month, the Coalition for a Better Memphis released its first set of candidate grades, scoring each of the Shelby County Commission candidates running for contested seats. The CBM voter guide gave an overall score to each candidate on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the highest possible score. The scores are based on written questionnaires (not all candidates participated in the evaluation) and in-person interviews. These overall scores are further broken down into three general qualities (vision, qualifications and experience, ability to implement initiatives) and five specific issues (integrity and ethics, county debt, education finance, economic development and growth policies).

Did the Coalition succeed in offering non-partisan evaluations? It’s difficult to say. With no track record and only a small pool of participating candidates, the appearing trends are tentative.

The big winner though was Republican Mike Ritz, scoring 89. Ritz also received the highest individual score of 92 in the category of ‘growth policy’. The lowest scores were from two Democrats running in District 3 Position 1 — Adrian Killebrew and Georgia Malone — each receiving a grade of 50. Killebrew and opponent Del Gill (D) also shared the lowest individual score of 39, for ‘Integrity and Ethics in Government’ and ‘Growth Policy’, respectively.

Overall, Republicans received a higher average score of 76, compared to 70 for Democrats. Do these results reveal a conservative bias in the data? Perhaps not. In the one race where both parties are actually competing (District 5), a Democrat came out on top — Steve Mulroy, with an overall score of 86. It should also be noted that more Democrats than Republicans were evaluated, allowing for the possibility that its talent pool was diluted with lesser-qualified candidates.

The Coalition deserves praise for getting involved in the process, for having the vision of a better Memphis, for developing the evaluation system and bringing parties together, for shaking the tree of political power. On the other hand, it’s unclear how much these efforts bring to the table for the average voter in Memphis.

First of all, there is the question of whether voters are better informed after coming into contact with this material. If the candidates are already unknown quantities, are voters really aided by the evaluations of nameless, faceless entities? Do voters have a clear reason to hold the evaluations of a disparate group of 50 businesses and organizations in high esteem? Why does the uniformed voter care how executives from Time Warner or Memphis Restaurant Association feel about a candidate? Second, can the Coalition really reach uninformed voters and make a difference in the way they vote?

Organizers say the Coalition can “provide momentum for qualified candidates who may not have the name or connections to get off the ground,” or at least “help identify ‘nuisance’ candidates, like Robert ‘Prince Mongo’ Hodges.” However, does that tell voters anything they didn’t already know? Will Mongo voters stop voting for Hodges because he received a bad evaluation from the Memphis Area Association of Realtors and 100 Black Men of Memphis, Inc.? One would suspect not.
Still, the average voter will benefit from having access to the candidates’ raw questionnaires, and over time, once the CBM has developed a track record, voters will be able to qualify the scores and use them as factors in their own decision-making process, perhaps similar to how moviegoers treat a thumbs-up from Ebert and Roeper.

Friends of the Coalition have also posted a comprehensive Shelby County Election Guide (www.shelbycountyelectionguide.com) that voters may find quite helpful. It explains the duties of each elected office and offers various facts about the incumbents, term of service, salary, etc.

All said, the Coalition for a Better Memphis is a welcome newcomer to the local political scene.