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In Tennesee, potential rivals team up

Published Oct. 16, 2005

A half-dozen commemorative shovels stand outside the office of Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris. Some are gold or silver-plated, engraved with the names of building projects. Morris, a combination of old-style Southern charm and new-age business savvy, breaks a lot of ground.

A highly visible and persuasive politician, Morris has carved his role as county leader into the equal of a traditional big-city mayor. It's something that many in the county of 800,000 people count as a plus.

"I think in all honesty, neither one of us likes for our governments to appear to be or to actually be in the back seat," said Richard Hackett, mayor of the city of Memphis, where 80 percent of Shelby's residents live. "(One) keeps the other from getting lazy."

It also means something Morris says is rare in communities with a set-up such as Shelby's: two potential political rivals working hand in hand.

"In the case of Memphis and Shelby County, there's enough responsibility and challenge and glory to go around for a lot of people," said Morris, 57.

Despite the rosy appearance, some observers say there is more than a little competition between the two men. The mayors acknowledge it, but say they keep any disagreements private.

If they didn't get along, it would be bad for business. After five minutes with either of them, it's easy to see they don't want that.

"It would be a problem if you had a division of the ranks, and (the business community) had to make a choice," Morris said. "We have simply concluded they're not going to have to make that choice."

These days, both men are heralding their latest economic development project, a 20,000-seat sports arena called the Great American Pyramid. The arena _ shaped like its name _ will soon rise near the paddleboats that meander the Mississippi River. The project, which will take $50-million in public money plus another $50-million from the private sector, will be owned jointly by the city and county.

Hackett and Morris worked hard to push the deal, which wasn't the most popular idea with the county's legislative branch, the 11-member County Commission.

"I adamantly challenged him on it down to the wire," said Shelby Commission Chairman Walter Bailey, who thought the project too costly.

But while Morris lacked the six-vote majority he needed to get the project passed in the beginning, he had it in the end.

"He's a super salesman," Bailey said. Other commissioners say building a consensus is Morris' strongest talent.

City Mayor Hackett said the project probably wouldn't have happened without a single leader to spearhead the county effort.

It would be easy to be dominated by a presence such as the three-term county mayor, some commissioners say, which makes their role critical.

"The mayor will absorb as much independence as allowed, and the only thing that will limit his independence, his power," Bailey said, "is an aggressive commission."