Stormy Mayoral Debate Shakes Sensibilities, But Did It Alter the Standings?



Before the Storm: Debaters Lowery, Chumney, Carpenter, and Wharton
  • JB
  • Before the Storm: Debaters Lowery, Chumney, Carpenter, and Wharton

For much of the way in Saturday night’s second televised mayoral debate, it was a legitimate question as to which participant was most prosecutorial:

Was it WREG anchor Richard Ransom, who consistently hounded the four candidates for their lack of candor, charging them with making “political” answers? Or attorney Charles Carpenter, who pressed a relentless attack against front-runner A C Wharton? Or Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, who sternly marshaled evidence against both Carpenter and Wharton, interrupting their replies to one inquisition before whipping immediately to the next?

Even genial A C himself, the Shelby County mayor who seems headed to inevitable victory, largely on his capacity for being laid back and wearing well, got cranky and ad hominem once or twice.

The big surprise was the subdued final posture of Carol Chumney, the former damn-the-torpedoes councilwoman who had arguably got the mischief started by asserting that Wharton wanted to pile on new layers of bureaucracy and reactivating an old accusation that the county mayor had committed some hanky-panky in getting his car registered.

Declining, unlike the others, to take advantage of the opportunity, in the two-hour debate’s last half hour, to address direct questions to whomever she might choose for up to four minutes, Chumney explained that as mayor she might in the future have to “work with” one of her three opponents. So why would she want to rile things up now?

Her concerns would seem to be moot if the various polls conducted on the race so far are to be believed — notably the most recent one, done by Mason-Dixon for debate co-sponsors WREG and The Commercial Appeal (the activist organization MPact was the third sponsor).

That Mason-Dixon poll, on the basis of which the four contestants Saturday night were winnowed down from the 25 people on the ballot, showed Wharton with a 30-point lead on the three runners-up, with a serious chance of winning an absolute majority when the polls close on October 15.

No matter then that Wharton struck some as over-cautious, even a bit of a waffler, having made a somewhat generalized case for the success of his seven years as county mayor (though his claim to moving ahead on a Shelby Farms plan was acknowledged by critic Chumney). Or that his finest moment — one that earned him “courage” points from opponent Lowery — came when he acknowledged being “dead wrong” in allowing blogger/talk show host Thaddeus Matthews to use the N-word in his presence.

The fact is, as his intimates will confide, A C is no controversialist. He hates being cross with people or excluding anybody or anything from his good-natured consensus.

That’s both a blessing and a curse. It sometimes prevents him from making explicit cut-bait choices, but it’s what underlies his campaign exhortation to “come together as one Memphis,” a theme stated in his opening remarks Saturday night. And, beyond the money he’s raised or his ever-burgeoning list of endorsers or his long experience in and around local government, it’s what gives him his seemingly impervious 30-point lead.

They all hoisted their campaign personas in their opening remarks: Self-described man-of-action Lowery depicted himself through the slogan “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” Carpenter, insisting he was “not a politician” (shades of his longtime mentor Willie Herenton), promised to substitute a “business culture” for a “political culture.” Chumney assumed the role of civic crusader, vowing to “fight for you” (a note that many, even some longtime supporters, consider more appropriate to a legislator — Chumney served both in the legislature and on the council — than an executive).

Memes and themes: Neither Wharton nor Lowery missed an opportunity to remind listeners of their current stations in life, responding that they had “already” done something or other that was asked about. Chumney, co-opting Wharton’s “come-together” motif, alluded more than once to the “40 years in the wilderness” since the catastrophic events of 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and it had to be an inattentive person indeed who missed Carpenter’s frequently stated resolve to prepare and act on a “comprehensive plan” for the city.

Astonishingly, given that everybody but Carpenter had previously gone on the line for city/county consolidation, that chestnut was never really warmed up — except indirectly in the direct-questioning portion of the forum — Carpenter demanding that Wharton cite something he’d done to facilitate unified services (“You must not have been paying attention,” the county mayor responded, citing his efforts to standardize and coordinate ambulance service); and Lowery chiding Wharton for allegedly letting seven years go by before getting serious about “one Shelby County.”

For obvious reasons, clear front-runner Wharton bore the brunt of most of the direct attacks. Sometimes things got ultra-personal. Carpenter was particularly slashing, at one point demanding to know how it was that the county mayor could utilize as campaign aides Bobby Lanier, Susan Adler Thorp, and Tom Jones, three longtime Wharton associates who, Carpenter insisted, had run afoul of ethical or legal guidelines. And both Carpenter and Wharton would be taxed by Lowery for using former Herenton intimate Reginald French in their campaigns.

Lowery also got Carpenter to own up to having earned some $5 million in work for the city over the 17 years of his mentor Herenton’s mayoralty.

Indeed, in the judgment of several observers (including this one), the acting mayor probably rose and shone more consistently than the others, though his final statement, (which was also the final statement of the night) was a somewhat risky defense of his “Hello Dalai” fist-bump moment, which Lowery seemed to be trying to escalate into a transcending piece of good P.R. for the city. (He might have been coaxed into that hubristic reprise by the playful way he had been introduced in the beginning by Ransom: "Myron 'I fist-bumped the Dalai Lama' Lowery.")

One concession to the vanished old order: A question asking the panelists to assign a letter grade to Mayor Herenton got mixed results. Lowery, the most specific grader, gave Herenton A through F, with the letter declining a step for each of the ex-mayor's five successive terms). All four candidates gave Herenton high marks for his accomplishments in upgrading the city's public housing.

And 9th district congressman Steve Cohen got some endorsements, too, when the candidates were asked to choose between him and his forthcoming reelection opponent Herenton. Lowery endorsed Cohen right away, and Chumney did, too, ultimately, after some prodding to choose from Ransom.

It remains to be seen if the mayoral-race standings got shifted to any appreciable degree, or how their exclusion from this debate might affect such other hopefuls as Jerry Lawler and Wanda Halbert and Kennth Whalum Jr..(As things got ready to go Saturday in the WREG studio, Ransom, who co-hosted with Claudia Barr, jested, “Everybody here but Prince Mongo?”) In any case, more debates or forums are to be held, including one on Tuesday night of this week sponsored by the Cordova Leadership Council at the Homebuilders headquarters on Germantown Parkway.

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