The obvious first question about last Thursday’s first extended debate of Democratic County Mayor candidatesat the Professional Building on Airways is: Who won? And the answer is clear: The sponsoring Shelby County Democratic Party, still trying to regain its health after the electoral wipe-out of 2010, did.
All three Democratic candidates — Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, former Commissioner Deidre Malone, and former School Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. — gave good accounts of themselves, managing to suggest their differences, some in fairly bold shades. But they did so without the kind of unpleasant in-fighting that could foster alienation later on among party factions.
Indeed, there was a moment toward the end of the debate when the three competed to see who could intone variations on the phrase, “We are all nice people,” with the greatest enthusiasm. And all made the obligatory promise that they would support whichever of the three should get the party’s nomination.
But each, as indicated, had their moments of clear self-definition.
Mulroy, who has championed anti-discrimination and living wage proposals, among numerous other such issues, defined himself, no doubt correctly, as having been the County Commission’s “most progressive activist” — able thereby, in a phrase that thrust in both an ethical and an electoral direction, to “heal the racial divide.”
The way for a Democrat to defeat the Republican incumbent County Mayor, Mulroy said, was not to parrot the other party’s rhetoric but to “be consistent” and present an “aggressive contrast.” Two cases in point were the Commissioner’s advocacy for universal pre-K and for a stepped-up blight-reduction program.
The Rev. Whalum, pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church in Orange Mound, was equally determined to differentiate himself from the other two, but his way of doing so was to declare himself unabashedly as a partisan of Memphis concerns, rather than as some bridge-building exponent of Shelby County as a whole. He made much of the fact that he, uniquely of the three, had opposed the December 2010 surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter.
Two of his chief issues are basically intramural ones — an insistence that city government make good on its delinquent $57 million maintenance-of-effort debt to Shelby County Schools, soon to be a de facto city system; and that SCS keep open the nine inner-city schools it has marked for closing.
Answering a question about hypothetical city-county consolidation — a prospect, twice rejected at the ballot box, that all three recognize as moot — Whalum was the only one of the three to reject it philosophically out of hand. “We must strengthen Memphis as a city before dreaming of consolidation,” said Whalum, insisting that the primary task would be “to strengthen neighborhoods.”
Whalum’s emphasis on city concerns was so clear as to land himself in a paradox. In one sense, he can be said to have gained more from the debate than the other two — which is not to declare him a winner, however. He appeared articulate and reasonable, not the wild man that his public persona has sometimes suggested, and he may indeed have made inroads among voters in the inner city.
More problematic, however, is Whalum’s potential as a general-election candidate against Luttrell, who has famously occupied political middle ground in his prior campaigns, all winning ones, for Sheriff and County Mayor.
If crossover is Luttrell’s game, so is it to some degree for Malone, a P.R. executive with a mixed business/governmental résumé. In her favor is a longtime identification with the Democratic Party itself, name recognition from two terms as County Commissioner and a previous mayoral race, and a history of involvement with a variety of civic causes.
One of the latter is her membership on the EDGE board, the cross-governmental public/private body that establishes local industrial recruitment policy. Opponent Mulroy made an effort to turn that credential into a two-edged sword in Thursday night’s debate by suggesting that that the “people who sit on the Board right now” had been lax in providing construction opportunities for women and minorities and guilty of promising results “that have just not happened.”
Malone countered that by expressing pride in her membership, noting that the deals struck to attract new Electrolux and Mitsubishi plants, widely suspect as giveaways, had preceded her involvement, and insisting that she had been “adamant” about bringing labor to the table.
Mulroy’s somewhat veiled challenge to Malone on the EDGE issue was one of several thrusts by one candidate against another that might have led to serious controversy but didn’t. In Thursday’s debate these tentative efforts came out of periodic candidate-asking-candidate segments devised by debate host Greg Coy of Fox Channel 13 to conform with the model of the Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial debates of 1858.
Malone launched two sallies of that sort that she deigned not to exploit to any real conclusion. She asked Mulroy a direct but vaguely stated question about the Title X credentials offered by Planned Parenthood in 2011 when the Commission majority opted instead to shift federal funds for women’s services to Christ Community Health Services.
All that did was give Mulroy — who had joined with the majority back then, as he has said, so as to impose strict monitoring conditions — a springboard for his consistent demand, backed by Planned Parenthood advocates, that the Title X contract be rebid now in light of a weak statistical performance by CCHS.
That was as nothing, however, to Malone’s surprising neglect of Whalum’s potential bombshell answer when she asked if the former School Board member, who has made a major campaign issue of the $57 million owned by the City of Memphis to SCS, had not at one point argued that the City should not make such a payment at all.
Whalum, clearly more than a little abashed, admitted that he had, later contending somewhat lamely that at that early point in School Board litigation versus the City there had not yet been a court ruling fin the Board’s favor.
But, again, there was a general disinclination on all three candidates’ parts to avoid making too much of divisive issues — perhaps due to the fact of the Party’s sponsorship of the debate. What they seemed to do instead was leave small trail markers on paths they might pursue closer to the May 6 primary vote, when the competition will presumably have become more heated.
As it was, the three self-proclaimed “nice people” agreed on much as they could, often acknowledging the fact with verbal courtesies to each other.
Among the points of agreement were that the Luttrell administration should not have relinquished Head Start; that Shelby Farms should be sheltered from commercial exploitation; that the rape-kit scandal should serve as an incentive to focusing more on women’s rights; and that the property tax should be reduced whenever there was feasible opportunity.
Future joint appearances by the three candidates may well see them picking up on the aforementioned trail markers and leaving behind some of the comity on display Thursday night.