Politics » Politics Feature

POLITICS: Who's on First?

All the mayoral candidates have won, and all must have prizes. That’s the status report on the top contenders.

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It may take some time to evaluate the enduring effects, but the fact is that the three main contenders in the Memphis mayor's race all have found something to brag about in the several days since the candidate field became complete:

  • Mayor Willie Herenton finished first in a straw poll held by the Shelby County Democrats at the Rendezvous Restaurant last Thursday night. And he did so by typically Herentonian means, without bothering to attend the event.

    A few score Democrats showed up at the event to pay $50 a head for the privilege of voting in a mayoral straw poll while raising money for the party. The only mayoral candidate who was there from start to finish was Herman Morris. Carol Chumney came late and addressed the crowd, as had Morris early. John Willingham had a spokesperson on hand who talked him up before the attendees.

    Only the mayor was absent and went unspoken for. But his was the name called out by party chairman Keith Norman when it came time to announce the winner. Norman declined to give out any numbers or declare who finished second or third.

    What was proved by the event and by its outcome? That Herenton has a hard core and a network that serve him well, for all the fact that he's not campaigning this year in the conventional sense -- no fundraisers, no polls, no inclination to participate in forums.

    The mayor's still very much a power, though, among inner-city Democratic cadres and among the Teamsters, both of which groups turned up in force.

    A scientific poll? Of course not. What it did prove, however, was that the mayor - who presided over a couple of weekend headquarters openings - is not lacking where G.O.T.V. (Get-out-the-vote) is the game. And that's what the game will be during early voting and on October 4th.

  • For her part, councilwoman Chumney turned up the leader in a fresh trial heat by pollster Berje Yacoubian showing her to be leading a second-place Herenton and a third-place Herman Morris. The numbers were, respectively, 33 percent for Chumney to Herenton's 29 percent to 14 percent for Morris.

    Underlining the surprising showing for Chumney, whom many observers had thought to have declined from her peak as a leader in early spring polls, was the fact that Yacoubian had made public statements only a week earlier, telling Fox 13 News, which also broke the news of his poll, that Herenton was a "good bet" to be leading the field.

    Au contraire, when Yacoubian got around to toting things up. His sampling of some 300 presumably representative voters showed Chumney to be considered a better bet than Herenton on issues like crime and education, with Herenton having a lead only on the matter of economic development.

    Among other things, what that meant was that Chumney's standing had apparently survived her widely publicized refusal to vote, back in April, for a council resolution asking for the resignation of Joseph Lee, then still at the helm of MLGW. The fact that the resolution, offered by colleague Jack Sammons, then failed by a single vote was thought to have been an embarrassment for Chumney. So was the fact that her own previously offered resolution, directing Herenton to accept a much earlier resignation offer from Lee, had failed to draw a second.

    Both circumstances underscored Chumney's reputation as a go-it-alone maverick with few if any allies in city government. Yacoubian's poll results suggest that voters may find Chumney's non-observance of the maxim "go along to get along" more attractive than not - especially in a time of multiple indictments and other evidence of corruption among local officials.

  • Though Morris had reason to be discouraged by all of this, his demeanor, on a stepped-up round of activity, didn't show it. He seemed unfeignedly confident as recently as Monday night, when the former head of both MLGW and the local NAACP (an alphabet spread that in theory encompassed a good deal of potentially centrist turf) addressed a meeting of the Germantown Democrats.

    Parenthesis: one of the peculiarities of the current political season - as noticed both by ourselves and by Mediaverse blogger Richard Thompson - is the number of forums, fundraisers, speaking appearances, and other events involving candidates in the Memphis city election that have taken place in the bordering municipality of Germantown.

    That has to do both with the fact of overlapping populations (many members of the Germantown Democratic Club are residents of Cordova and Memphis voters) and with the circumstance that, with governmental consolidations of various kinds in the air, people in the near suburbs are taking an unusual interest in how things go in the Memphis voting.

    Consolidation was, in fact, one of the matters that Morris dealt with forthrightly during Monday night's meeting. He endorsed it, categorically, and went so far as to express impatience with half-measures like the current inter-governmental talks involving an enhanced liaison of Memphis police with the Sheriff's Department.

    "Consolidate everything!" Morris pronounced, and to that end, he recommended following the example of Louisville, where city and county voters voted consolidation in after an extensive period of public discussions. Similarly, he said, Memphis and Shelby County voters should be paid the "respect" of having the issue "put in front of us."

    When a club member said she was "tired of" questions about impropriety surrounding various officials now in office, citing as examples city councilman Edmund Ford and state Senator Ophelia Ford, Morris barely hesitated before responding, "I am, too. And I'm tired of people reelecting them." Contrasting his own tenure at MLGW to that of the now deposed Lee, Morris said, "I'm not indicted, and I'm not going to jail."

    In general, Morris cast himself as Mr. Candor, attributing the financial problems of Memphis Networx, which he championed while leading MLGW, to the short-sightedness of the profit-focused private investors involved in the public/private initiative. He freely acknowledged hatching thoughts of a mayoral run in December 2003, immediately after being forced out of his utility perch by Herenton. And he flatly declared, "I don't trust those numbers," concerning Herenton's current economic forecasts.

    He suggested that his major opponents drew their strength from white or black enclaves, respectively, "while I'm 50-50, right in the middle."

    One note being struck resoundingly in private by Morris' campaign people is the prospect, in fact, that he will shortly inherit some of the racially balanced support that was evidenced in the short-lived "Draft A C" campaign to induce a mayoral candidacy by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.

    With only two months to go, Morris needs such a boost, and he needs it now.

    UPDATE: Various media were reporting late Tuesday that three members of the "Draft A C" committee were indeed ready to give Morris public support: the Revs. La Simba Gray and Bill Adkins, and former county Mayor Bill Morris.

  • The fourth name candidate in the Memphis mayor's race, John Willingham, meanwhile, resolved to soldier on, despite the fact that few observers (and no polls do date) have given him much chance. "Look what happened in 2002," he said, a reminder of his runaway upset win that year over the late Morris Fair, then an incumbent Shelby County Commissioner.

    Last week's print version of this column, by the way, erred in suggesting that Willingham had plans to convert Shelby Farms, now administered by the non-profit Shelby Farms Conservancy, into an Olympic Village. As was reported correctly online, it is the Fairgrounds that Willingham has in min
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