Memphis, Tennessee — aside from Elvis, the blues, barbeque and FedEx — is one of those cities where people get elected to office — usually on the weight of their successor’s fourth DUI or some Machiavellian racial calculus — and then they stay put. The elections aren’t rigged, understand, upsets do happen, but when the electorate is more tribal than engaged any real debate takes a back seat to simple math. Over the last century, the city and county political machinery has perfected the art of doing all the chewing before the buffet is served. All the average voter has to do is open up and swallow. Although, sometimes you have to swallow hard.
Theoretically, being a government of and by the people, this would be an easy problem to fix with each election cycle. But the Memphis voter has come to see the whole process as more of a hustle than an argument over how the city ought to be managed. The QED being that local elected leaders are both arrogant and paranoid. Most politicos live in a bubble but don’t advertise it. Here they want to voters to know it: They are the elect, and they are not to be sassed.
It’s an old political wheeze that still works on some nascent level if said official can keep things within traditional parameters of awful. Occasionally, however, city and county commissions will step it to right a glaring problem before it gets so large that it makes everyone in the bubble look simple minded. That causes voters to ask sassy questions. So, it was just a couple of weeks before the 4 August election day that the Shelby County Commission took the unusual steps to ask the state government in Nashville to take over the administrative duties of the county clerk, one Wanda Halbert. She runs the office that issues car tags and business licenses. At least that’s what she was elected to do. What she was actually doing seems to have been between Wanda and her maker. Which explains the other unusual step — a vote of No Confidence.
To give her credit, Wanda Halbert has managed to transform her fiefdom into a reflection of herself: a sort of shimmering, breathing monument to incompetence. Which was forgivable, more or less, to an electorate used to swallowing that sort of thing. The complaints really started to gain critical mass with the redesigned of the Tennessee license plates which, in some unexplained way, triggered backlogs and delays. Officials in Nashville for their part, pointed out that Shelby county was the only one having these processing problems.
The office quit renewing car tags by mail, forcing otherwise employed people to take half a day off work to stand outside in the summer heat — Covid era social distance rules still apply, you see — for several hours to get inside only to be told that they don’t have any of the new plates to issue, and you’ll just have to take some more time next week and try again thank you very much.
The county clerk’s office does not operate like the private sector. It is not a service with a smile operations but formless patronage blob where a job is not a task performed in exchange for some remuneration, but a patch of turf to be guarded. Unaware of this, drivers get frustrated with the faces behind the plexiglass, who start to squeeze to maintain control of the rabble. The plexiglass partitions extend from the countertop to ceiling, forcing you to speak through a microphone operated by a kill switch that you can see, beyond the partition and under a boldly shellacked nail roughly the length of a lawn dart, but you can’t get to it. Sure, you can bitch about the service, it’s a free country, but the second that nail comes off the switch and you get that static phisst sound, you know that all the face can hear is mumbles. The line behind you will be watching what punishment is meted out for getting uppity.
Most likely, the face will look on the computer screen and come back with some bureaucratic technicality that will require you to stand in that line over there. It’s not so much exile as being sent to time-out for sass. And when you get to the front of that line, you are slavishly polite because you’ve learned your lesson and you don’t want to go through it again. You may even get some sympathy if you are hang-dog enough, but you will be told that you should have been in the other line all along. Mind your passions this time and when you get back to the front of the line, the face with the shellacked lawn dart nails, the one who can square your car tags with the state, will look at you like she’s never seen you before.
It’s one thing to go through and ordeal like that to get your license plate, quite another to be told that office had run out of them and you have to come back to this municipal theater of cruelty in a few days. So, what happens is that all these people are illegally driving around with expired tags hoping the police cruiser doesn’t pull behind them in traffic. The cop mayhave heard about the issue or he may not have, he may believe that you are trying in good faith to get your tags renewed or he may not. Either way, whether or not you get a ticket is largely dependent on whether or not he had a fight with the wife over the breakfast table.
Obviously, taxpayer satisfaction with Wanda Halbert was sub-optimal. Although that’s probably not what caused the county commission to act, the a backlog of new car tags requested by dealerships was in the thousands so she was costing the county real money. The local news piled in and the commission requested that the state take over the clerk’s office and scheduled that No Confidence vote.
Understand that this business of asking the state to take over is a prickly maneuver in Memphis and the county, which suffers an inferiority complex with Nashville from the two cities traditional rivalry, that Memphis lost. Badly. The last time Nashville pulled rank, no one was even given a choice: the county had botched the rollout of the Covid vaccine so badly that County Mayor Lee Harris was relieved of responsibility and it was handed and over to the City Mayor Jim Strickland. He had the good sense to see that he wasn’t any more qualified than Harris and asked the Tennessee National Guard to step in. The program ran like a clock after that.
As it was, Nashville demurred on the Wanda question because it had no authority to take over. Although state officials went on to say that this foolishness coming from the states most populous county was a bit disturbing and tactfully suggested to remove the woman from office. With elections two weeks away, the commission hoped the problem would fix itself.
Wanda Halbert got herself re-elected. Somehow. Well, it was now real mystery, that fine Memphis Hustle thing happened. You can feel it rising like the grey-green sky before a bad storm: You know the hustle is going to skin you alive, but its circular logic is coming so fast that you can’t figure out how, exactly. Which, of course, is when the hand slips into your back pocket and you, the voter, are left with the vague feeling that you are at least partly to blame for the fleecing you just got for listening to the hustle in the first place. Then she announced that the clerk’s offices would close for two separate weeks to address the backlog of “critically outstanding services” and went to Jamaica.
Wanda Halbert does not like to be sassed. She didn’t want to be found either. Like a high-concept version of the microphone kill-switch, she spent about a week where she made a few calls but no one in government or the press knew quite where in the Western Hemisphere “Wandering Wanda” was. The county commission wanted to call her to the carpet, but to do that you have to find her first.
Eventually, she showed back up and held a press conference to explain that she didn’t have to explain herself. She didn’t have a job, she was an elected official. She had no boss, and had to clear her vacation with no one. The office to which she’d been recently re-elected, was her turf and if you sassed, she’d cut the mic. Just ask the faces behind the plexiglass. And since you did ask, the Shelby County Clerk’s Office will close to the public again for a week in late September.
A friend of mine in government talked to Wanda last week, but couldn’t say for certain from where she was calling. She claimed it wasn’t Jamaica, but wasn’t any more specific. “Could you hear surf?” I asked.
“No, but that doesn’t tell us much.”
“No. It doesn’t. What did she say?”
He told me that he’d always heard Wanda was paranoid, but had never heard it — picked up the nasty vibrations — until on the phone with her. “She talks in circles, and the circles contradict each other. For example, she blames the backlog on not enough funding to be able to mail out the auto tags, then circles back around to point out that the city handles the mailing, so the backlog is the city’s fault, not hers… well, which is it?” He shook his head, “It’s nonsense.”
But that’s how the whole game is played. It isn’t nonsense, it’s that Memphis Hustle.
Photo Credit Bruce Emmerlin, GPA Photo Archive
Story originally ran in the 4717.