These are the most obvious lessons from Thursday’s first encounter of rival mayoral candidates at a forum sponsored by the Associated Builders and Contractors.
(1) Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, the odds-on favorite going into what is still expected to be a fall special election, will play hard-to-get. He declined an invitation to the ABC’s luncheon affair, held at the University of Memphis are Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, averring frankly that it was “inconsistent” with his election strategy to appear.
That was a reasonably up-front way of saying what lead horses in such races usually say more circumspectly — that Wharton had no intention of conferring a semblance of equality on his opponents or giving them so direct a chance to score points on him and catch up.
(2) By contrast, the status and strategy of city council chairman Myron Lowery, another name candidate absent from the forum, were more puzzling, unless one accepted at face value Lowery’s contention that he had a prior commitment to attend a National League of Cities event in Denver on Thursday.
And, after all, Lowery, who has been palpably looking forward to holding the reins of office — if only as “mayor pro tem,” a title urged into general acceptance by Mayor Willie Herenton (who presumably will follow through on his commitment to leave office on July 30). Herenton has made it clear he is no Lowery fan, and Lowery’s presence in Denver could be interpreted quite simply as a demonstration that the soon-to-be acting mayor has his nose to the grindstone.
(3) Charles Carpenter, the municipal-finance lawyer and five-time director of Herenton’s mayoral campaigns, used the forum — which followed close upon Carpenter’s official announcement event Thursday morning — to stress that he was (a) a serious, forward-looking candidate; and (b) independent of Herenton, despite their long professional and personal association.
He did the former by citing his extensive involvement with civic projects, notably in helping prepare the way — and the financial underpinning — for the FedEx Forum. He did the latter by telling the ABC attendees and the gathered media: “My role was that of an advisor. He [Herenton] was CEO, and he made the decision. I could tell him ‘go right,’ and he’d say, ‘Thank you. I’m going left.’ It will be different with a Carpenter administration. I’ll be making the decisions.
Carpenter had been even blunter at his announcement ceremony at Church Park on Beale, not far from the neighborhood he grew up in. He told the press there that the “the poor results we’re achieving for the citizens of Memphis” compelled him “to come forward at this time” to provide “alternative leadership.” Asked if he had intended to except Herenton from his negative evaluation, Carpenter answered, “I don’t think I qualified my remarks by excepting anyone.”
And, to drive that point home, he would go on to say, “The community is looking for new leadership. The leadership we have has signaled that they cannot get the job done.”
(4) Carol Chumney, the former council member and state representative who ran second to Herenton in 2007, signaled at Thursday’s forum that she would attempt a reprise of her strategy of two years ago — emphasizing her 17 years of experience in public office and her commitment to general “change” as an overriding goal.
Eschewing specifics, Chumney said, “Trust me. I’m going to get it done as your mayor.” She would “work to keep taxes low,” would be “fair,” and “have an open door policy.” She promised, “I won’t give lip service to ethics. I’ll apply it to myself,” and asserted she had the “brains, heart, and guts” to do the job for the city of Memphis.
Chumney let it be known Thursday that she has engaged as campaign manager Jerry Austin, who occupied the same position last year in 9th District congressman Steve Cohen’s successful reelection campaign.
(5) Kemp Conrad, the entrepreneur and first-term councilman who served a term as chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, made sure his presumably conservative audience was aware of his credentials, speaking a lingo (condemning the city’s “bureaucracy” and proclaiming “God bless the free market”) that he might have assumed would resound with builders and contractors.”
Conrad had, after all, received the group’s endorsement in his last council campaign, a fact for which he made a point of thanking the attendees. He proposed shoring up Memphis’ dominance as an air cargo center and assisting its developing bio-medical industry.
Noting the high incidence of crime (as had Chumney), Conrad named public safety as a major concern.
(6) Next up was Jim Strickland, the council first-termer who became the (conspicuously willing) subject of a mayoral draft movement two months ago after issuing his own budget proposal, with cuts in administrative salaries and a modest tax decrease,
Having heard Conrad emphasize his role in voting for a temporary relaxation of residency requirements for Memphis police hires, Strickland made a point of emphasizing that it had been he who proposed the idea in the first place. He promised special attention to “the basics,” crime and schools.
Strickland sounded what he clearly intends to be a major theme in an energized but uphill campaign against presumed leader Wharton and the long-established Lowery. “We cannot change Memphis for the next generation with leaders from the last generation.”
(7) Last but not least, as they say, was the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., pastor of\ Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and a firebrand member of the city school board. Definitely not least.
It might be a stretch to imagine candidate Whalum getting the votes of the predominantly conservative audience members on Thursday, but there was no doubt that he had them enraptured with his performer’s brio and uninhibited observations. And he reminded the audience early and often that he had polled 83,939 votes “citywide” in getting elected to the school board. “They usually call me crazy,” Whalum said about critics of his no-holds-barred pulpit-influenced style. “They [his voters] must be crazy, too."
Referring to himself as “the other citywide elected official that the Commercial Appeal loves to hate,” Whalum boasted his advocacy on the school board of a return to corporal punishment and “butt-smacking.” In an implied rebuke of Chumney, Conrad, and Strickland, Whalum said, “Crime is not going to be the primary issue. We’ll always have crime.” Instead, consolidation (which he apparently opposes) and “personal character” would be the issues.
Whalum got his most animated reaction from the crowd when he did an impression of Lowery as an intense, nervous, arm-waving “mayor pro tem” who was “excited, almost uncontrollably” at the prospect of becoming mayor. He also got a healthy response to his observation that “I’m not convinced we’ll have a mayor’s race, and if you are you know something that the cosmos don’t know.”
(8) Jerry Lawler, the wrestler-commentator who announced his second race for mayor during the week, was absent and had apparently not been on the guest list— his status in host-moderator Mike Carpenter’s eyes indicated by Carpenter’s assertion to the audience that only “serious” candidates had been invited.
If Lawler, who describes his profession as that of “sports entertainment,” should make future all-candidate forums, as no doubt he will, he might find himself ill-matched in that regard against Whalum.