What really was on display before a full house at Pancho’s Restaurant at Summer and White Station was a contrast in styles. During the summing up an hour after the luncheon session got going, Sheriff Luttrell acknowledged as much, suggesting that the forum had been a good opportunity for attendees to observe the candidates’ “leadership styles and visions for the future.”
Danielle Schonbaum of the League of Women Voters and I co-moderated the event at the invitation of Nita Black of NAWBO, taking turns asking questions.
An indication of the difference between the two candidates’ styles came about midway when I asked Ford and Luttrell what was “the most serious misconception people have about you.” This is a famous trick question used by executive headhunters to elicit private truths from the applicants they interview. The idea is that there are no misconceptions, that whatever the interviewee says is a misconception is instead simple fact.
Luttrell seemed honestly baffled by the question, apparently viewing himself as not only an open book but one printed in large reader-friendly type. His was “a pretty simple life,” he said. He’d been married “a long time,” had “beautiful children and lovely grandchildren,” and had “never had financial difficulties.” (That last reference may have been a subtle jab at his opponent.)
Ford took something of the same tack, but in a considerably more introverted and defensive manner. “A lot of people look to my last name and come to a conclusion, but I’m ‘what you see is what you get.’…I’ve ran a calm citizen-involved open-door government. I’ve been honest, people like me, A couple of newspeople that I don’t know and never met wrote some bad articles about me. …[There was an] article that was terrible about my family…I’ve done a great job. Regardless of what you see in the paper and what you read in the paper and what you see on TV, here I am.”
That sensitivity to media attention on Ford’s part, which had materialized repeatedly in previous public appearances by the interim mayor, surfaced several times more during the hour-long forum — when he insisted that he had “saved” the Med, for example, but that “the media” in general and “the Commercial Appeal,” in particular, declined to acknowledge the fact.
But he gave some indication that he was learning how to spin his resentment. Asked point-blank why he has complained about media examination of his personal financial problems when management of fiscal resources is a basic component of county government, Ford contended that “the only thing I complained about was when the Commercial Appeal put a map in the paper showing how to get to my house.”
He said he didn’t believe anyone had so publicized Luttrell’s domicile or would do so. “I do have some rights.” As for his problems with personal debts, yes, he had them, but so did AIG, the giant insurance company, and so did the City of Memphis. “I’m just in debt like most of y’all in here.”
A savvy answer, all things considered — though disingenuous, in that his former complaints about press attention had been much broader.
Both candidates were asked about their decisions to run for the office of county mayor after previously indicating they wouldn’t.
In Ford’s case, this meant renouncing a pledge not to seek the position that he had given when awarded the interim appointment by his commission mates. “That question has been asked about 59 times since November,” Ford responded when asked. “I changed my mind. My opponent, Sheriff Luttrell, changed his mind. This is America. Citizens of this county in large numbers came to me and said ‘you need to run no matter what you said. ‘This question needs to go away.”
Luttrell denied that his own last-minute decision to run had been based on a poll (though he had received highly positive results from one conducted by John Bakke just before switching out of a reelection race for sheriff).
The sheriff said his decision to run for mayor was based on the fact that he had not seen other candidates able to offer “alternatives,” and h felt his experience as sheriff enabled him to take both management skills and “fresh approaches” to the “larger stage” of the mayor’s office. “
The answer seemed to imply that the absent “alternatives” had been Republican ones, but, when asked about the fact that he apparently had been cast as spokesman for his party’s candidates at a post-election rally at his Eastgate headquarters, Luttrell took issue with such an interpretation — which Democrats will be insisting on.
The Sheriff said, “What we need in the forthcoming election is candidates that can reach out and appeal to all sections.” That meant, Democrats and Republicans, blacks, whites, both genders. It meant “being inclusive at all levels.” That's his story, and, clearly, one he intends to stick to.
(In Part Two, next, how Luttrell and Ford differed on the issues.)