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Are You Ready to Vote Smart?

September 12, 2015

Big decisions are looming for Memphis – decisions that will affect your health, safety, quality of life and pursuit of happiness. And you, my friend, are key to what decisions will be made.

Are you certain who would be the best Mayor of Memphis for the next four years? Do you know who would come closest to representing your own views, values and priorities on the City Council? Are you clear about what the City Court Clerk does, and why your vote matters in choosing who fills that office?

how to be an informed voter

From Friday, September 18 to October 8, 2015, you have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to have your say in who will lead our city. To elect the folks who will decide how much of your household income will be diverted to pay local taxes, and how those dollars are spent. To elect a Council member you can depend on to be responsive when city problems become “up close and personal” with your family.

Over 10,000 Memphians voted smarter in local 2014 Elections by reading our Back in River City voting guides.  Back in River City’s 2015 Vote Smart Guide to Memphis Elections will be published next week, just in time for early voting. We’ve been working on your behalf for months, researching candidate positions and attending forums,  gathering facts and insights, sifting through political promises and puffery so that you can enter the voting booth with confidence. Follow us today to receive your Guide, and share the news with your friends: together, we can  Make a Better Memphis.


Feed Your Soul and Get Your Motown Fix July 10-12

July 1, 2015


If you can’t afford tickets to Motown the Musical coming to the Orpheum July 14-19 (or you’re not an Orpheum season ticket holder and, like me,  refuse to sit in an upper balcony for a road show), this deal is for you. Just days before Motown the Musical’s opening night, you can enjoy your Motown favorites sung by an extraordinary Memphis cast and feed your soul to boot. The summertime music-and-more spectacular The Gospel According to Soul will be back with three performances July 10-12 after a three-year hiatus. This theatrical gem, produced by Pastor Dwayne Hunt of Many Thousand Gone fame, will move you, body and soul, and feed you with the bread of life.

Not Just Another Church Musical

jesus-gospel-of-soulIf you haven’t seen one of Dwayne Hunt’s productions, you will be amazed and moved by the professional quality of this first-class show.   Pastor Hunt is one of Memphis’ under-publicized theatrical treasures. Before he became a minister, he studied and excelled in musical theatre in college. His unique skill set enables him to write, direct, and stage productions that deliver audience impact equal to any Orpheum road show. Each cast includes a sprinkling of professional actors. Some are members of the Abundant Grace Fellowship congregation, others  leap at the chance to be involved in a Dwayne Hunt production. Both Many Thousand Gone and The Gospel According to Soul have been staged for multiple years, and  several key cast members have been involved since the shows’ beginnings. That rarely found experience infuses their performances with more depth, nuance, and authenticity every year.

There’s a Reason It’s Called Soul Music

The Gospel According to Soul is akin to Jesus Christ Superstar, substituting the joy, rhythm and passion of vintage Motown music for the rock-opera-meets-Broadway strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s biblically-inspired masterpiece. The music of the 1960’s and 1970’s that Baby Boomers dubbed “Soul Music” retells the story of Jesus of Nazareth in a way that even non-believers find compelling.  This soul-stirring night of theatre will inspire and entertain you in ways you may never have felt before. Like Many Thousand Gone, I found The Gospel According to Soul to be unforgettable. Both shows will be don’t-miss events on the Settles’ annual calendars as long as they are performed.

You can also expand the horizons of at-risk Memphis youth by making a contribution via GoFundMe. Fifteen dollars will treat one student to this professional quality theatrical production. Many of these children have never  seen a live stage performance of this caliber. The campaign hopes to treat 200 young people who participate in programs sponsored by Grace Center for the Performing Arts Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis, The Husband Institute ( a ministry of The Pursuit of God Church in Frayser), and Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church in South Memphis. Multiple studies have shown that exposure to the arts can redirect and improve the lives of underprivileged youth. Students with high levels of involvement in the arts tend to have better academic outcomes, higher career goals, and more civic involvement. Most of us have heard or witnessed stories of lives transformed by a visit to the ballet or a magical night in a dark theatre. Reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance have revealed numerous inspirational, real-life journeys of young people whose passion to engage in the performing arts has enabled them to overcome adversity, suffering,  and onerous challenges.

Russell Ferguson, Season 6 discovery, So You Think You Can Dance

Russell Ferguson, Season 6 discovery, So You Think You Can Dance

Join Eddie and me at The Gospel According to Soul. The show sold out in 2012, and was last seen in 2013, so don’t wait to get your tickets. Tickets for the three performances, gospel dancersall at 7:00 p.m. at Abundant Grace Fellowship (1574 Shelby Drive at Millbranch in Whitehaven) are available online at Eventbrite for $18.93. Trust us, this is biggest entertainment bargain in Memphis. Take your children (or grandchildren, if you are MOCA’s* like us), your Boomer parents, your church group, or a bunch of friends. Group discounts are available.

* (Memphians of a Certain Age)



Saturday, April 18: Walk in Her Shoes to Help Victims of Domestic Violence

April 15, 2015

dv child drawingChances are, a family you know has been wounded by domestic violence.  DV is equal opportunity and non-discriminatory. It rips through families across all demographic groups: the old and young, rich and poor, the nameless and famous; and is present in just about every ethnic group. In 1996, the FBI reported that 30% of all female murder victims were killed by a husband or boyfriend. Although the majority of DV victims are women, men are also victimized by abusive spouses and lovers, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Domestic violence is the crime no one wants to talk about. Its victims – the abused along with family members who witness abuse –  are filled with both fear and humiliation. Victims typically feel that they somehow deserved the emotional, psychological or physical battering they received. They are bound to their abusers – wife, husband, parent, chlld, lover – by loyalty, love, law, and/or economic dependency. Their abusers routinely keep them silenced by threats of more violence against themselves and their children, parents, or other loved ones.

A 1991 survey sponsored by the Commonwealth Fund estimated that one in every three women in the U.S. experiences physical or sexual abuse by a husband or boyfriend at least once in her life. The American Psychological Association reported in 1996 that 40-60% of men who abuse women also abuse children.

DV is the crime that keeps on giving. Children who grow up witnessing and experiencing violence in the home are more likely to engage in aggression and violence themselves. Battered children often become batterers when they grow up.

child i see the violence

Shelby County has the highest incidence of domestic violence in the state. Domestic assaults comprise roughly 10 percent of all incident reports filed with the Memphis Police Department. MPD’s most recent data (2012) show over 850 DV reports monthly; children were present in the home in 80% of those cases. Domestic violence complaints may include threatening, harassing and obscene phone calls; stalking; simple and aggravated assault; attempted assault; intimidation; verbal abuse; elder abuse; child abuse; theft and malicious damage to personal property of an abused person; violation of protective orders; kidnapping; and homicide. Tennessee’s 1997 law defining domestic violence is broad based. It applies not only to intimate partners or former partners, but also to roommates, dating partners, and relatives. Assault cases involving siblings also fall under domestic violence statutes. When the 1997 law was enacted, reported DV incidents increased by 24 percent in the following year.

There is no quick cure for domestic violence. Like other cultural evils of the 21st century, it is complex and multi-Domestic-Abusedimensional. We are, however, learning more about how to break the silence that prevents victims from coming forward. Organizations in every state  provide safe havens, counseling, encouragement and other resources to help victims and their families.

The more that women captive in DV relationships know

  • that they are not alone,
  • about the resources available to them,
  • that they can extricate themselves from what seems to be an unescapable situation,

the more DV crimes will be reported, litigated, and the perpetrators incarcerated.

Gregory M. Jones is the founder of Walking In Her Shoes, a national organization dedicated to ending the cycle of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual abuse.  Walking In Her Shoes  encourages national dialogue about DV and connects victims of DV to resources in their states.  Gregory founded  Walking In Her Shoes in May 2011, one month after his cousin Tasha Veney was murdered at a day care center by the father of her children. The organization sponsors awareness events in cities across the country. Donations go to help DV victims and their families, often including burial expenses.

Walking in Her Shoes event.

Walking in Her Shoes event.

This Saturday,  April 18, 2015, Gregory Jones and Walking in Her Shoes come to Memphis. Sponsored by Tammy Gaitor Miller of Butterfly Evolution, the free three-hour event (10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.) includes a mini-conference and awareness walk. The four speakers have known DV first hand and now work to support other DV victims, prevent DV, and educate the public.

  • LaShanta Rudd is an author, speaker, founder of Serving In Christ Outreach Ministry, whose programs include Hope and Glory Women’s Shelter.
  • Gregory Williamson is a barber, entrepreneur, ordained minister, speaker, and co-founder of Circle of Life Transformation Center. The Center works to help DV ex-felons re-enter society as responsible, productive citizens,  and mentors young men at risk for violent crimes.
  • Ginger E. Lay of Atlanta is an entrepreneur, speaker and advocate against domestic violence.
  • DeSanta Page of Memphis is a speaker and advocate against domestic violence.

The event will be held at Caritas Village, 2509 Harvard St. (near Sam Cooper Blvd. and Hollywood). Join us in speaking out for those who fear to raise their voices against domestic violence.

walking in her shoes flyer

Confronting America’s Original Sin, Celebrating Our Redemption

April 12, 2015

appomattos-court-houseOne hundred fifty years ago last Thursday, April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced the hard truth that it was over. He said he would “rather die a thousand deaths” than surrender to Gen. Grant. But it was over, and he knew it: his Northern Virginia Army in tatters; shoeless, starving, less than half its earlier number, beaten beyond recovery. And so the two great soldiers met at Appomattox Courthouse. Lee surrendered, and the U.S. Civil War was all over, as they say, except the shoutin’. Six hundred thousand men dead. Families and farms and livelihoods destroyed. A would-be nation humiliated into submission.

The cemetery at Shiloh battlefield.

The cemetery at Shiloh battlefield.

For four million Americans who had been enslaved by whips, chains and threats of death, something new and wondrous entered their lives: Liberty. They would continue to suffer and struggle and sometimes die to secure the rights due them, but their world was forever changed.

railroad_depot destroyed cwar

The abomination of human slavery is a chapter in our country’s history that we cannot excise. After the war, it took an entire century and the rule of law for black and white people to live and work and sup together in the South. Even now, under our country’s first President of color, one can argue that some are more equal than others in the daily scramble of American life. Revisiting our forefathers’ inhumanity to Man is uncomfortable for 21st century white Americans. We don’t understand it, and it stirs up messy emotions from remorse to mortification. But confront it we must. Ignoring it is cheap grace.

cotton_plantWhen I was a young girl, I remember my father telling me,

Everything you have or ever will have, you owe to cotton.

In the play Many Thousand Gone (final performance tonight at 7:00 p.m.),  conflicted planter Parker Long is confronted with the evil he has done to his fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in his Christian faith.  After his moment of epiphany, he ruefully acknowledges to his wife, Cornelia,

Everything we possess, those Negroes have made it from their sweat.

Image source: 12 Years a Slave.

Image source: 12 Years a Slave.

I didn’t fully understand how incomplete my father’s insight was until I first saw Many Thousand Gone at Abundant Grace Fellowship two years ago. The play, written and directed by the church’s divinely talented Pastor Dwayne Hunt, is the history lesson missing from our textbooks. From the words and songs, prayers and laughter and tears of slaves, we learn what daily life was like in the ante bellum South. It is at once achingly difficult to watch, inspiring and uplifting.  Many Thousand Gone is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit. We see “first hand” the courage and character and faith it took for the enslaved to endure; and yes, not only to endure, but to prevail.

I will never see a cotton field or boll again without a vision of the African Americans whose toil and sweat made it grow, slave's scarred backand with it, the Southland. Slavery is the thorn in America’s side that will ever continue to prick. It is our Holocaust.  It is inextricably woven into the fabric of our history. To ignore slavery,  to avoid a full and complete understanding of how a country founded on equality allowed it to happen, deprives us of seeing Truth. And without Truth and clarity, we cannot begin to learn and heal from our transgressions.

It would have been easy to create a much darker play retelling the story of Southland slavery, one infused with anger and whites-shaming. Instead, Pastor Hunt created Many Thousand Gone to “educate, inspire, and promote reconciliation.” In the end, there is shared joy among slaves and white abolitionists that the blood of 600,000 soldiers  was not shed in vain. White Americans institutionalized slavery and allowed it to stain our new country for 246 years. It is also true, however,  that white people caused slavery to end, both its trading in England and the Americas and the legality of human bondage.

Growing up in Memphis in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I knew only what I was told and what I read about the Old South and the rationale for segregation. My historical knowledge of the Civil War was Technicolored by the romance and tragedy of Gone With the Wind. I didn’t have any black friends until long after Rhodes College (nee Southwestern at Memphis). It was a long time before I understood the truth of ante bellum days – or thought I did.  Until I first saw Many Thousand Gone in 2013, I did not know many facts I lacked. That additional knowledge helped Eddie and me to commit ourselves and our resources to furthering reconciliation in Memphis by any means God revealed to us.


God’s plans for his children are often surprising, taking twists and turns you never see coming.  Eddie and I could not have imagined in February 2013 that two years later we would be playing Parker and Cornelia Long in Many Thousand Gone at Pastor Dwayne Hunt’s request. We are not actors. We are utterly overwhelmed to be in the same company as the extraordinarily gifted performers in Many Thousand Gone. But we have learned to live into the roles of sinners who were changed, roles we live out every day. Playing Parker and Cornelia before  Memphis audiences – confronting our history and honoring those who lived through it – has been a great blessing to us.

This year’s run of Many Thousand Gone ends tonight, Sunday April 12. Come out if you can (purchase tickets online at If you can’t make it this year, watch this preview on YouTube of a previous year’s performance. Back in River City will remind you next February when Many Thousand Gone repeats its annual run. Pastor Hunt, members of his talented congregation, the actors he recruits (and Eddie and me, if he will allow us) will keep this faith-infused history lesson of our country’s redemption alive as long as it takes for every American to embrace one another in reconciliation and brotherly love.

If we can make it happen in Memphis,  it can happen everywhere.

lorraine motel protestor

This post has been updated from its original version.

We’re Not Slackers – We Just Blog that Way: Or, What We Did on Our Winter Vacation

April 5, 2015

Never mind that we have been on sabbatical from blogging on Back in River City since the November election. As those of you who follow us on Facebook know (Don’t be left out; go there now to Like and Follow us), Eddie has been faithfully and frequently covering Memphis public policy issues while I have been held captive by Other Stuff I Just Gotta Do.

lucy and ethel candy gif

While I’ve been generally AWOL for the past few months, my partner in all things Memphis has become a familiar face wherever local public policy is held up to public scrutiny. After three-plus years of frequent attendance at council, commission, school board and MATA meetings, the overheard comment has changed from, “Who IS that guy?”

Butch and  Sundancewho are those guys

to, “Where’s Eddie?”

waldo i'm hereI’m thinking about creating a Where’s Waldo spin-off. Instead of a tall, nerdy guy wearing a striped shirt and beret, Where’s Eddie? would feature a white-haired, retired-lawyer type with glasses and a bionic ear, looking spiffy in his bow tie, formulating a tough question or pondering where truth is. The problem is, no one has to look hard for Eddie. He is always easy to spot  – on the front row, or as close to the speaker as allowed. (Being hard of hearing has its occasional advantages.)

cohen townhall jan 2015

Congressman Steve Cohen’s January 2015 Town Hall meeting. Image source: Commercial Appeal

In February, Eddie’s investment banking experience enabled him to offer insight and ammunition to Council members who objected to Mayor A C Wharton’s debt restructuring proposal as presented by Finance Director Brian Collins. The Council eventually approved the plan (8-4) on March 17, but this scoop-and-toss shenanigan is certain to hurt Memphis in the long run. (For details, see Eddie’s March 4, 2015 comments on our Back in River City Facebook page.) Eddie continues to meet with members of the Council, advocating for their facing the hard facts of the City’s outstanding financial obligations.

Jim Strickland at March 17 City Council meeting during debt restructure proposal. Note white-haired man with bionic ear front right. Image source: Commercial Appeal

Jim Strickland at March 17 City Council meeting during debt restructure proposal. Note white-haired man with bionic ear front right. Image source: Commercial Appeal

Memphis’ deteriorating financial condition is an issue that most citizens – and, regrettably, most elected officials – do not understand clearly. Folks around here tend to get aggravated when you compare Memphis to Detroit. But denial is never a good long-range strategy.  We yearn for a mayoral candidate and a flock of new city council members with financial as well as political savvy who will make such comparisons unnecessary.

Last week, Eddie and Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland  met with financial officers at Regional One to better understand 1) how the medical center will be affected by ACA,  2) how much providing health care to indigents actually costs Shelby Co. taxpayers, and 3) what will be the real impact on Regional One of passing or not passing Insure Tennessee.

Regional One is one of those local entities like Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) whose complete financial positions, including debt, sources of revenue, and investments do not appear on the city’s financial statements. Back in River City is digging to learn more about these agencies and the impact their decisions and spending have on residents’ quality of life in Memphis and Shelby County.  We will report throughout the year as new information and insight come to light.

For the past nine months-plus,  Back in River City and our favorite in-cahoots-with blogger and government watchdog searching dog with magnifying glassJoe Saino have been meeting with Shelby County Schools to improve their public transparency. With great thanks to Supt. Dorsey Hopson and SCS board member Chris Caldwell, we are delighted to announce that SCS will soon open a public reading room.  Anyone will be able to visit the reading room to request and review documents that fall under the Tennessee Open Records Act. These include contracts and agreements with vendors; financial records including proposed projects and expenditures; academic planning, analysis and progress reports;  instructional materials, and more. SCS is working to make many documents available on their website. Textbooks will also be made more easily accessible. This may be a lengthy process, but the wheels are turning. Back in River City will report full details about the reading room when it opens.  Following several meetings with Supt. Hopson, Mr. Caldwell, Joe Saino, and SCS staff; Supt. Hopson created a task force in late 2014 to ensure public input (including two SCS parents) into the process of affording fuller transparency. Both of us at  Back in River City (yep, Eddie and me, his ancillary ears) serve on this task force.

Open records has gained importance as a topic of conversation in this mayoral election year.


During the media’s Sunshine Week (March 15-21, 2015), the Commercial Appeal reported on Memphis city government’s routinely snail-like responses to open records requests from the public. The paper’s own  request to the city for email correspondence with a former employee suspected of possible fraud has still not been answered, a year later. Many aggrieved public comments and a CA editorial later, Mayor Wharton asked Mike Carpenter, Executive Director of the Plough Foundation and former County Commissioner and city official, to review the city’s open records process and recommend improvements.  Mayor Wharton’s first executive order after his 2009 election committed his office to

“open government, transparency and establishment of new standards [to] facilitate the expansion of the public’s access to its government .  .  .”

Election years have a way of making unfilled promises receive new attention. Thanks, CA!

This year is a big one for local elections. Memphis will elect a new mayor, and all City Council positions will be up for grabs. At this date, four incumbents have announced they will not run for a 2016-2020 term. As major issues evolve, Back in River City will continue to offer perspective and information. Remember to follow our  Facebook page for frequent commentary and linked articles on a variety of Memphis matters that matter. (Hat tip to Ken Welch and his podcast A Memphis Conversation. Plug or plagiarism? You decide).

birthday cupcake 3 candles

One last item of shameless self-promotion:  Back in River City recently marked our third anniversary!  2014 was a great year. We had over 25,000 hits and 12,000 unique visitors, each viewing two posts on average. Over 2,000 people are considered regular followers. Our most popular post was the 2014 Voters Guide to the Judicial Elections, closely followed by our post on Dr. Ben Carson’s April 2013 speech that “legitimate” local media declined to cover. The Ben Carson post has been the most popular ever since it was posted, drawing people to our site through Google and other search engines weekly. (Interesting, huh? Stay tuned for more about Dr. Carson,  his presidential prospects, and the black conservatism movement’s impact on Memphis politics.)

Eddie and I appreciate each and every one of you. We look forward to more good times as we share our love for Memphis, our memories and hopes,  and work with you to make things better for all who call River City home.


Shelby Co. Voters Guide: Cohen v. Bergmann (9th Congressional District Race)

October 27, 2014

This is the last of our seven posts on key races and issues on the November 4, 2014 ballot. Back in River City earlier covered Amendments One, Two, Three, and Four; Tennessee Senate District Races 29 and 30; and City of Memphis ordinance 5512. Early voting is underway at these locations. For a sample ballot, click here.

9th Congressional District

Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District was created in 1823. It survived until 1973, when Tennessee was cut down to eight districts because the 1970 census showed our population had not grown proportionately with the rest of the U.S. After better results in the 1980 census, the 9th District was re-established in 1983. New boundaries were drawn to create a black-majority district, according to Wikipedia. Harold Ford, Sr. was elected to represent the new district in 1983, after representing the old 8th district since 1975. His son Harold Ford, Jr. followed as congressman from the 9th District from 1997-2007.

Click here for interactive map of the 9th District.

Rep. Steve Cohen

steve-cohen1Steve Cohen ran unsuccessfully against Harold Ford, Jr. in the 1996 primary.  When Harold, Jr. decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Steve Cohen ran again. This time, he trounced Jake Ford (Harold, Jr.’s younger brother) and Rep. Mark White, winning 60% of the vote and breaking the Ford dynasty’s hold on the seat. (Jake Ford ran as an independent candidate.) Rep. Cohen has since easily beaten three African-American challengers in Democratic primaries for the seat: former Ford aide Nikki Tinker in 2008; former Mayor of Memphis Willie Herenton in 2010, and Memphis Urban League president and Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart in 2012. He also sailed through each general election. Republicans made no attempt to capture the seat in 2008. In 2010, Rep. Cohen won with 74% of the vote over black Republican Charlotte Bergmann. In 2012, the Congressman walked away with 75% of the vote against challenger Dr. George Flinn, a white Republican.

By most accounts, Steve Cohen does what a congressman representing Shelby County is expected to do. He stays true to the liberal Democrat Party platform and supports President Obama. His office is responsive to constituent concerns. He works to bring home federal grant money. He seldom misses the funeral of an influential African American who dies in Memphis, and makes time to show up for barbecue in Orange Mound when he’s in town. He even attempted to join the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) when he first arrived in Washington in 2007. (The CBC said, uh, thanks, but No.)

For the most part, Rep. Cohen is liked by his district, 60 percent of which is African American. He is smart and hard working. He earned his political spurs by serving for 24 years as a state Senator. He is revered by Midtown white liberals and ardently supported by East Memphis Jewish voters (Rep. Cohen is Tennessee’s first Jewish congressman.)   So popular is Rep. Cohen that many Memphians claim he is unbeatable.

But all is not sparkling with fairy dust in Cohen-land.  He embarrassed himself and his constituents in 2013 when he was caught tweeting ILU (texting abbreviation for I love you) to a voluptuous, 21-year old  blonde model  during the President’s State of the Union message.He  initially denied romantic involvement with Victoria Brink, then  divulged that she was his daughter by a former friend-with-benefits. Later, a paternity test revealed that Ms. Brink was not his daughter; he had been misled. Rep. Cohen then made national news by tweeting about a tow truck driver’s josh to him that he must be black because his Cadillac had broken down and he was having paternity issues. News commentators deplored the tweet as racist. Rep. Cohen’s response to the flak was,

“My constituents don’t look at me as a white person. They say, ‘You’re one of us. And I took it was [sic] a compliment. I hear it in Memphis all the time.”

Rep. Cohen’s 9th District detractors – both black and white –  called the  comment  pandering to the African-American voting block that  keeps him in office.

Despite Rep. Cohen’s robust and widespread popularity among local Democrats, a significant percentage of his African-American constituency want him replaced, either because he is too white or too liberal. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supports gun control, gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana – positions that rankle both blacks and whites with traditional views.

TN_LotteryConservative black ministers in Memphis have long been offended by Rep. Cohen’s progressive stances, reaching back to his persistent and ultimately successful sponsorship of a state lottery  when he was a Tennessee State Senator. In 2005, he was one of only three Senators to vote against the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment,  later approved by voters in a statewide referendum.  In this year’s campaign for re-election, Rep. Cohen faced Rickey Wilkins, a well known black attorney with strong Memphis political ties. A commenter on a September 2013 article in the Memphis Flyer put into writing a rumor heard throughout the city:

What Cohen fail [sic] to understand the [sic] majority of the black ministers are not going to allow him in their churches to speak as they did in he [sic] past….The word is out “Shut Cohen Out”

In the end, Rep. Cohen defeated Mr. Wilkins by a typically Cohen-style margin of 66%-33%. That said, Mr. Wilkins won a higher percentage of the vote against Rep. Cohen than had any previous challenger.

The local news media, who passionately support Rep. Cohen, have not mentioned the Congressman’s greatest point of vulnerability in the 2014 election: his irrelevancy.  As a Democrat in a solidly Republican House of Representatives, Steve Cohen can do little of substance for the people of Memphis for the next two years, especially in the lame duck term of an increasingly unpopular President.

Charlotte Bergmann

charlotte bergmann 2010

Full  disclosure:  I met Charlotte Bergmann two years ago after seeing the movie Runaway Slave, which she helped to bring to Memphis. She introduced me to Frederick Douglass Republicanism (more about this below) and quickly became a dear friend to both Eddie and me. With the license granted to bloggers but not to professional journalists (and with apologies to Rep. Cohen, whom I do not know personally), I will refer to her as Charlotte. 

It takes a gutsy Republican to go up against popularity and voter loyalty on the scale of Steve Cohen’s. Not one bothered to run in 2008 against the Democrat incumbent after his first term. Then, out of nowhere, Charlotte Bergmann appeared in 2010. A political newbie who was unknown to the public, Charlotte won 25% of the vote against Rep. Cohen in the general election in 2010. She ran again in 2012, but lost in the primary to Dr. George Flinn. Dr. Flinn ran a $1.6 million campaign, primarily financed by his own funds. In the general election against Steve Cohen, Dr. Flinn amassed only a third of the 33,000 votes Charlotte Bergmann won in 2010 on a $250,000 budget.

The word plucky was invented to describe people like Charlotte Bergmann, attempting now for the third time to replace Steve Cohen as congressman for  the 9th District. Charlotte has known hard times and what it takes to beat them.

The contrasts between the two contenders could hardly be more stark. One is a white, male, Jewish child of privilege; son of a Memphis pediatric psychologist; a career politician; never married; loyal to liberal causes. The other is  black, female, unabashedly Christian; daughter of a pastor/postal worker; previously married with time also as a single mother of three, now a grandmother to 14; and a committed conservative. He graduated from high school in Coral Gables, Florida while his father completed a medical fellowship;  earned an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and a law degree from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis). She graduated from Northside High School in Memphis, worked her way through both State Technical Institute (now Southwest Tennessee Community College) and Christian Brothers University (CBU awarded her a partial scholarship).

jfk rfk mlk croppedThough brought up in a typical black Memphis family, with pictures of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King on the living room mantle, Charlotte Bergmann found her way to the Republican Party through her commitment to ensuring a good education for her children in the Memphis City Schools. One day in the 1980’s, Charlotte boarded a bus for Nashville with fellow PTA members to lobby for Gov. Lamar Alexander’s Better Schools Program. It was her first experience with politics, a seed that grew and blossomed. Along the way she realized that the Republican Party aligned more with her traditional values than the Democratic Party she grew up with. She worked on several Republican campaigns, including 7th District Congressman Ed Bryant’s 2002 senatorial bid against Lamar Alexander.

Like many black Memphians, Charlotte Bergmann owes allegiance to FedEx for giving her entree to the workplace and an opportunity to grow and thrive in the corporate world. Sorting packages in the hub helped pay her way through community college. Her CBU degree, IT skills and organizational know-how eventually landed her a respected and responsible position in FedEx’s IT project management. Financially secure at last, Charlotte moved into her dream house in an East Memphis subdivision, complete with a pink Jacuzzi. Then calamity struck. After ten years at FedEx, her position was eliminated in a 2000 corporate cutback.Her journey back to financial stability has been bumpy but resolute. The Memphis job market was tight. A marketing firm she launched with several partners failed to thrive in a depressed economy.  Charlotte fought with all she had, but eventually lost her home to foreclosure. She was homeless for awhile, living with family and friends and eventually out of her car.

Today she is managing partner of an elder care business started by her sister, in addition to co-hosting a weekly talk show on KWAM 990 with fellow black conservative Charles Johnson. Charlotte also spends a great deal of  time in community service. She is a board member of Sober House Homeless Mission, program chairman for the Golden K Kiwanis, member of the Memphis Gavel Club, and a volunteer for the American Cancer Society.

The  years of trial were pivotal to the growth of Charlotte Bergmann’s interest in politics. Frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities in Memphis, Charlotte began to lobby elected officials in Washington, DC to bring more jobs to Memphis. She financed multiple trips to DC from her FedEx severance package. Gradually, Charlotte learned how to gain access to the halls of power and the people who occupy them. She developed contacts and friendships with political luminaries who appreciated her integrity, intelligence, charm, authenticity, tenacity, and growing political astuteness.

While in Washington, she was introduced to the burgeoning black conservatism movement and Frederick Douglass Republicanism. It was then that Charlottte Bergmann knew she had found her political soul. Frederick Douglass Republicans (FDRs) are people of all races, creeds, and economic classes with a passion for liberty. They believe in four principles that defined the remarkable life’s journey of former slave and venerated human rights activist Frederick Douglass:

  1. Respect for the Constitution.Frederick Douglas
  2. Respect for life.
  3. Belief in limited government.
  4. Belief in personal responsibility.

Frederick Douglass Republicans are not a branch or official subset of the Republican Party. They represent what the Republican Party was at its founding, and what it could be again under the leadership of statesman-patriots who are unafraid of paying allegiance to founding American principles.

Most people who are FDRs don’t know it yet because they haven’t heard of Frederick Douglass Republicanism. (That group used to include me. Now, because of Charlotte Bergmann, I proudly proclaim my only political alliance: not Democrat, not Republican, no longer Independent, but a Frederick Douglass Republican.)

[email subscribers click here for video]

The local news media, solidly behind Steve Cohen, have ignored Charlotte Bergmann as much as possible. Former diplomat, UN Ambassador, and presidential candidate Dr. Alan Keyes,  one of this era’s most gifted speakers, visited Memphis twice to support Charlotte’s campaign. Local news outlets (including the Tri-State Defender) were generally oblivious, as they are to any prominent black conservative,  up to and including Dr. Ben Carson. It is too embarrassingly  clear that most local and national black opinion leaders are determined to keep African Americans manacled to the Democratic Party, even though it no longer  represents the values of those who are socially conservative and Christian; takes their votes for granted; and has left most African Americans no better off after fifty years of liberal entitlement policies.

But black conservatism has established a foothold in Memphis. In addition to Straight Down the Line with Charlotte and Charles, KWAM AM 990 also airs the Herman Cain show. News-talk radio WKIM  FM 98.9 airs the popular Andrew Clarksenior six days a week. Nineteen months after we first wrote about Dr. Ben Carson on Back in River City, that post drives more traffic every week to this blog than anything we have ever written.


black republicans

In the end, it will be black Memphians who decide whether Charlotte Bergmann will replace Steve Cohen in Washington to represent the 9th District.  While the district was redrawn in 2010 to encompass parts of Whitehaven and Millington with a higher proportion of people who consider themselves to be Republicans or moderate-to-conservative Independents, it is still the 39th strongest Democrat stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives.

polling booth --body

Charlotte Bergmann has been part of the black community in Memphis all her life. Everywhere she goes, she has told us, African Americans whisper to her that they support her, but fear reprisals from their friends and neighbors if they do so openly.

What a voter does “behind polling booth curtains” no one else need know.

It will be interesting to see what happens when all the ballots are counted on November 4th.  Whether she wins this race or not, Charlotte Bergmann has won hearts and minds in every neighborhood in this city.  She has broken new political ground that bodes a better future for a community struggling to find prosperity, peace, and racial harmony.

We are proudly voting for our friend Charlotte Bergmann.

marquee charlotte

 This post has been updated from its original version.

Shelby Co. Voters Guide: City of Memphis Proposed Ordinance 5512

October 25, 2014

This is the sixth of seven posts Back in River City is publishing about  key races and issues on the November 4 ballot, including proposed Tennessee Constitutional amendments One, Two, Three and Four;  Tennessee Senate District 29 and District 30 races, and today’s explanation of proposed Memphis City ordinance 5512 governing civil service appeals. Our next and final post will cover the 9th District Congressional race between incumbent Steve Cohen and Republican challenger Charlotte Bergmann.  Early voting is underway at these locations.  Click here  for a sample ballot.

 City of Memphis Charter Amendment (Ordinance 5512)


Charter ordinance 5512 proposes changes to the Memphis city charter in the way civil servant appeals and promotions are handled by the City of Memphis. The ballot wording is inexplicit:

Improve effectiveness of Civil Service hearings

Shall the Home Rule Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to update the Charter provisions relating to the Civil Service Commission to: 1) increase the number of Civil Service Commission members,  2) make administrative updates to civil service hearing process and procedures and 3) allow the Director of Personnel to consider performance as a measure for personnel evaluations?

 Yes  No

This is the kind of proposal that many would consider ballot filler. It is obscure, arcane, and arguably irrelevant to the average Memphis voter.  

So just check any box or skip it completely and move on, right?


Please don’t. Ordinance 5512 requires a change to the city charter  (which is why its passage is subject to a referendum by the people), so be a good citizen and take a closer look.

Kemp conrad

Councilman Kemp Conrad

The Civil Service Commission (CSC) is a board appointed by the mayor to  “conduct hearings to review disciplinary actions, limited to suspensions, dismissals or demotions.” According to Memphis City Councilman Kemp Conrad, problems with the current process include a large backlog of appeals  that may take up to two or three years to be heard. The city charter provides for appeals to be heard within 60 days of filing.

Councilman Conrad  helped to craft the amendment and sponsored it before the Council. He wrote the following summary as an explanation to voters. Councilman Jim Strickland recently shared the summary with Eddie Settles of Back in River City.


In November the citizens will vote to change the Charter (e.g. Constitution) of the City of Memphis, Tennessee. If approved by a majority of voters the civil service commission would change as follows:

1. Increase the number of civil service commission members,

2. Give the ability to make Administrative updates to civil service hearing process and procedures, and

3. Allow the Director of Personnel to consider performance as a measure for personnel evaluations.  [It is breathtaking to discover that promotions and pay increases are being granted to civil service employees, including fire and police, without consideration to actual job performance.]


1. Better People means Better Service. This amendment allows us to take care of the good employees.

· We have some really good employees in the government. The problem is it’s hard to retain them. Right now if you want to give a raise to a government worker, everyone gets the same amount. No matter how well they do their job. With these changes we can do more to take care of the people that work harder.

· These changes allow us to take care of the good employees that take their job seriously and truly do a good job.

2. Stop rewarding bad behavior.

· Currently if an employee faces criminal charges, they can place their civil service matter in abeyance and receive back wages. This leads to lengthy and expensive continuances. This amendment puts an end to that. Employees would still be able place a matter in abeyance during criminal proceedings, but would no longer receive back wages during this time.

3. We need to make faster better decisions when dealing with employees.

· It could take months for the current board to make decisions or hold employee hearings. A simple fix of changing the civil service board structure will make a big difference.

· There are currently no procedural rules are in place for conducting evidentiary hearings. The Commission should be allowed to adopt procedural rules which would govern the proceedings and get more cases resolved faster, creating better outcomes for both the city and the employees. This amendment allows for those procedures to be established.

In addition to those named above,  specific changes authorized by passage of 5512 would include:

  1. Increasing membership of the Civil Service Commission from seven to 14. [The CSC’s webpage only shows two existing members, both of whose terms expire November 30, 2014.]
  2. Requires that seven members be lawyers, judges, or administrative hearing officers.
  3. Provides for one of the judicially trained members  to serve as a hearing officer, but an employee may appeal the decision of the hearing officer to  the full commission. [Hearing officers would be selected “at random.”] 

For the policy geeks among you, the full, seven-page ordinance can be found here. To read the existing ordinance, click here, select Article 34 Civil Service, and click again.

why vote no

What Are the Arguments Against 5512?

According to an October 21, 2014 Commercial Appeal article and Memphis Police Association (MPA) Facebook posts, MPA objects to 5512’s inclusion of language allowing job performance to be considered in promotions and pay raises.  MPA President Michael Williams alleges that  provision was inserted by city officials after MPA agreed to the body of the ordinance, and is urging  MPA’s members to vote against it.

[This is evidence to us at Back in River City that Michael Williams and the MPA live in an alternate universe where merit should not affect salary increases and promotions. If  Mr. Williams runs for mayor of Memphis in  2015 as expected, it could be an entertaining campaign.]

Back in River City’s Take on 5512

There are many unanswered questions about 5512, including,  What is the fiscal impact?

money ?

The Commercial Appeal’s article on the proposed ordinance quoted Councilman Conrad as saying that,

” . . . members [of the CSC] are paid $400 for a full day hearing, $200 for a half day hearing, and $100 for writing a formal opinion…”

Prior to October 1, 2013 (5512 was passed on its third reading by the Memphis City Council  August 20, 2013), CSC members were paid  $200 per day for a full hearing. Trusted sources have told Back in River City that the pay hike is intended in part to improve CSC attendance (some meetings have apparently been cancelled for lack of a quorum) and to attract the seven new attorney members provided for in 5512.

No one has informed the public how much it will cost taxpayers to double the size of the CSC and to  double their pay.  How many meetings will be called? How many hearing days will be necessary to hear the backlog of cases and ensure that appeals filed in the future will be heard within the 60 day period required by law?

By comparison, Shelby County’s  civil service commission has six members, each of whom receives $50 per diem for their service. On average, they hear 30 cases per year.

thinkerWe don’t know how many cases are waiting in the purgatory of the Memphis CSC’s backlog. We don’t know why doubling the size of the membership will facilitate the work of the CSC (especially when they are already having problems getting a quorum. Coordinating seven practicing attorneys’ schedules plus seven other Commission members?). We don’t know the average number of cases heard by the CSC each year. We don’t know all we would like to know as taxpayers about the annual number of appeals resulting from criminal charges against Memphis civil service employees; or the frequency and amount of back wages awarded when such appeals have been held in abeyance.

We don’t know why the labor unions reportedly wanted all 14 members of the CSC to have legal training (the final version of 5512 calls for seven). More importantly, what would prevent those lawyers (or other hearing officers) from benefitting, either directly or indirectly, from their service on the CSC (aside from the direct meeting fees paid)? Are provisions in place to prevent direct conflicts of interest?

Here’s an idea: why couldn’t the two existing Memphis City Court judges be used as civil service hearing officers?

Since Memphis voters are asked to approve this new mechanism, is it too much to ask for more explanation about what’s broken about the current system, and why 5512 is the best way to fix it?

We at Back in River City understand that changes need to be made to improve existing civil service procedures.  We’re all for treating good employees well and allowing the city to rid its ranks of poor performers. We respect and appreciate the efforts made by Councilman Conrad and others who worked hard to seek solutions and to write an ordinance acceptable to all parties involved. We are not convinced that 5512 is the best solution, however, because we haven’t been given enough information.

Our friend and favorite government watchdog Joe Saino, who covered 5512 on his blog, searching dog with magnifying glassshares some of our misgivings. Joe says he will vote Yes on 5512, but “reluctantly.” If 5512 is voted down, it will be back to the drawing board for a different, hopefully better, version.  That version would likely not come before the voters until November 2016.  In the interim, Memphis will elect a new mayor and city council. Will the new team be more fiscally conscientious? Work as effectively with unions? Have better ideas? Share more information with the voters when asking us to approve a change in the city charter?

As we’ve said before in this series,

i dunno muppets


Back in River City is all about  making government accountable for good public policy. Because of the questions outlined above, we are voting No on 5512.

Message to City Council and local news media:  

Most of us want to be smart voters. We care about Memphis and want it to be a better place to live for everyone. To do our jobs as good citizens, we need facts and background about the issues. Don’t expect us to vote Yes on everything you put before us, or depend on editorials to forge our opinions on issues. Educate us, engage us, and respect us. We are all on the same team.


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