One Vote at a Time

NAACP pushes turnout, shuns partisanship, and comes up short.

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There is always a grain if not a rock of truth in everything Mayor Willie Herenton says, no matter how unpopular. He's right about this: If you are going to stay in Memphis for a while — and not everyone is — then you will have to look at things differently.

Last week, I became a big fan of the Memphis NAACP. They lost but they looked good doing it, and they showed class. No organization or individual had more reasons to be partisan in last week's election. The NAACP was co-plaintiff in the 1991 lawsuit that abolished mayoral runoffs. Not one but two favorite sons were in the race for mayor: Herenton, a trailblazer since he was a school principal in the 1970s, and Herman Morris, NAACP chairman from 1992 to 2000. Both are black. Carol Chumney isn't.

But the NAACP's election-day efforts were all about turnout, not any particular candidate. They lost only in the sense that turnout in the 54 precincts they targeted was not as good as they hoped it would be. In fact, it was dismal — 38 percent overall and in the teens in some target precincts.

Spartan simplicity is not always the rule at local nonprofits, but it is at the NAACP. Their little office on Vance is right across from the Cleaborn Homes housing project. On a day of excess, partisanship, and pack journalism, what better place for a reporter to view the election than a place with no cameras, no candidate signs or leaflets allowed, no bar, and no buffet? And no big screen. The only television was a 12-inch model with an antenna. Lean too close to read the numbers, and it stuck you in the eye. Move it, and you messed up the picture.

Beneath portraits of local NAACP heroes Maxine Smith, Vasco Smith, Benjamin Hooks, and Jesse Turner, volunteers worked on three clunky Compaq computers that were probably rejected by E-Cycle Management. Others worked the phones, reading from a printed script ("We're calling on behalf of the Memphis branch NAACP to encourage you to vote today for the candidate of your choice") and offering a ride to the polls. Forget public-service announcements and editorials; in the trenches, turnout means one vote at a time.

By mid-afternoon, the numbers coming in were not good. Wearing a yellow T-shirt that said "Lift Every Voice and Vote," NAACP executive secretary Johnnie Turner looked worried. With five hours to go until the polls closed, nearly every precinct was hundreds of votes short of its turnout goal.

"Last year, we made almost all of our goals, but the way this is looking, people are not turning out," said Turner, who has run the Voter Empowerment Project since 2000.

She was writing down numbers and doing the arithmetic, which was considerable. The goal was a 5 percent increase in each precinct. The 1999 election was chosen as the benchmark because the 2003 election was a Herenton blowout with a 23.7 percent turnout. That bar was too low. Or so Turner thought. Now, Asbury, Alcy, Glenview, Gaston — site after site — wasn't coming close to the 1999 turnout, much less the hoped-for increase.

"We'll have to regroup," Turner said. "This election has been strange. I started to say divisive, but maybe it's kind of polarized. Anytime the community sees discord, they take the attitude 'I don't want to be part of this mess.'"

When I went out to eat, I got to watch my first live shooting in a while. At Cleaborn Homes, a young man in a white T-shirt was running between the buildings. Another man with a pistol was chasing him and firing several shots from about 30 feet away, all of which missed. A minute later, the guy who'd been shot at walked past my car with the nonchalance of someone who had just missed getting sprayed with a water hose.

When I came back, Turner had made an executive decision. The original goal had been "overly ambitious." The new goal would be the 2003 turnout plus 7 percent. In effect, the former teacher was lowering the grading curve.

"Now this is more like it," Turner said as the polls closed and new numbers came in. "We're going to make it." As it turned out, however, the 1999 standard may have been unattainable, but it was not unrealistic. The overall turnout for the election was higher — more than 165,000 voters last week compared to 163,259 in 1999.

At 9 o'clock, when the first returns showed Herenton far ahead and Morris in third place, there was no cheering at the NAACP. And no booing. Soon after that, everyone left, except Turner and a few others.

Nice effort, I said on the way out. "Yes," she said. "Honest." And it was.

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