What Have We Wrought (Installment #1)? A C Wharton Worries About the Large Mayoral Field

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f330/1247699305-ackiwanis2.jpgSome two weeks ago, when I was being interviewed by a TV reporter about the field of candidates in Memphis’ special-election mayor race — a field that was, then, as now, continuing to fill up — I put forth a theory based on the developing numbers, and I was immodest enough to call it the Baker Theory (though I am quite sure that it can’t be all that original).

In three parts, it went this way:

(1) The smaller the field of serious opponents, the more fraught with danger for a presumed front-runner like Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, whose support base, based essentially on name recognition, is large but generalized. The good news is that it crosses racial and political lines; the bad news is that it may be of the mile-wide, inch-deep variety.

If confronted by a single white challenger, then, someone regarded as serious and possessing the same kind of all-encompassing base as Wharton’s, the county mayor could be in for a real fight — especially if he had in addition a major black candidate, who could pull from Wharton’s black constituency. And variations on that logic could apply to any combination involving a very few candidates out to carve up the same piece of pie.

(2) At a certain point, though, a proliferation of candidates — all competing with each other for pieces of the pie — would help someone like Wharton, who has a commanding lead in money raised as well as network in place. They would, in effect, be competing with each other for the role of runner-up and dividing the opposition vote — much as Herenton challengers Carol Chumney and Herman Morris did in 2007, allowing the mayor to win reelection with a plurality of 42 percent. But:

(3) If the field continues to grow and includes a variety of plausible niche candidates, each with a legitimate claim to some portion of Wharton’s generalized, all-purpose kind of voter base, there is trouble once again for the front-runner, as this, that, and the other part of his coalition are in danger of fragmenting and falling away to someone in the field.

Whoever could make a late surge and, particularly if well-financed, lay claim to being the most formidable alternative to the original favorite could capitalize on such a balkanization of the electorate merely by holding on to his or her original support base.

The theory was tentative, as proposed, but the reaction to circumstances this week of the real A C Wharton seemed to provide something close to confirmation of it. The county mayor and acknowledged early favorite in the city mayor’s race was quoted as worrying out loud about the size of the mayoral field, contending that it made arriving at a community “mandate” more difficult and could allow “flukes” to determine the outcome of an election.

Subsequently, Wharton seems actually to have met with announced candidates (e.g., county commissioner James Harvey) in an effort to talk them out of the race. (!!)

Wharton’s statement, which was promptly attacked by members of that teeming mass of challengers, certainly provides good reason to take the theory seriously -- not to mention his subsequent efforts at winnowing down the field.

An early response to Wharton’s remarks about the field came from Carol Chumney, the former city council member who is making her second bid for the job of mayor. In a press release, Chumney said, “the crowded field shows that no one candidate has a lock on this election.”

An interesting late take on the controversy comes from not-quite-yet candidate Jim Strickland. The lawyer and first-term city councilman, who at this stage is still seriously considering a race, told the Flyer, “I disagree with Mayor Wharton’s concern. Anybody who wants to run should do so.” But Strickland also took issue with those mayoral candidates who have taken shots at Wharton for expressing his doubts about the large field.

“That’s the old politics,” Strickland said, “when candidates react to everything their opponents say and have to attack it, no matter how off-the-cuff it might be. We’ve got more serious concerns to be worried about, real issues we ought to be talking about.”

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