He was elected to public office only once but during his one term as a Shelby County commissioner the late John Willingham established himself as a strong advocate of taxpayers.
While he failed to become neither city or county mayor, Mr. Willingham didn't let his political failures dictate how he went about his job as an elected official. He sought truth in government.
When he became a county commissioner Mr. Willingham brought with him the same determination and work ethic that had made him one the Bluff City's most successful businessmen. Unfortunately, Willingham would find applying those skills to make a difference in local government was more difficult than he probably expected.
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In a world of political phonies, Willingham, stood out as a genuinely motivated elected representative of the people and of the city he came to love.
"I'm passionate about Memphis," he said in 2002. "I'm passionate about what I want to see Memphis be."
The outspoken Willingham was among five new Shelby County commissioners who swept into office in 2002. He stayed true to his campaign theme of fighting against government waste, voicing the concerns of the taxpayer, while at the same time finding creative ways to generate revenue streams for a debt-laden county.
"I care what the people think and the average people out here," Willingham said in 2009. "'Joe Six-Pack' has been getting the shaft and the good ole boys have been getting the gold."
The Republican businessman's fertile mind soon latched onto a controversial idea. With a downtown arena under construction, Willingham proposed turning the soon to be abandoned Pyramid into an Indian casino, thereby reducing taxes and establishing a savings plan to be used for future city and county projects. The skepticism from the faith-based community, false intimations he would somehow financially benefit from any deal and the suspicions of his own commission colleagues didn't deter Willingham's belief it could work.
"This is not a twist your arm," he said, in 2002. "This is not a backroom, smoke-filled room kind of a deal."
Just how much of a political maverick Willingham was became clear when he challenged Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton in 2003. Recognizing him as a decided underdog, Shelby County GOP leaders rightfully felt Willingham's challenge would only prove futile and potentially hurt the chances of other party candidates in other races. An indignant Willingham vowed to go it alone. He lost by 46,000 votes.
"I'm the underdog in this race,' he said in 2003. "But, I don't need to be put under the sidewalk by my own party."
But, Willingham never found himself more set adrift than when he dived headlong into what was sarcastically labeled "garage-gate." In full conspiratorial mode, Willingham went about documenting what he alleged were millions of dollars in missing federal grant money that was suppose to be earmarked for a bus facility and free public parking as part of the $250 million downtown arena project.
His accusations led to an FBI investigation that eventually turned up no criminal wrongdoing. Yet, even on the last day of his lone term as commissioner, Willingham characteristically vowed to keep working to find proof he was right all along.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," he said, in 2006. "Someone ask about a smoking gun. I think the smoking gun is there. It's just going to be up to who has the courage to continue to find out."
As a politician, just like the rest of his life, Willingham strived to do what his vibrant spirit guided him to. See a problem and do everything you can to make it right.
"If you never ever try, you will forever wonder why," he said in 2001. "What might have been, but never was because you didn't try."
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