Opinion » Viewpoint

Let's Have Runoffs

The special conditions of the pre-Herenton era no longer apply.

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Already there are calls for a return to the kind of runoff provision that was abolished in 1991 on the eve of that year's epochal city election — proscribed by edict of the late federal judge Jerry Turner in response to litigants who contended that such a provision was manifestly prejudicial to the interests of Memphis' African-American population.

Blacks in Memphis were on the verge of achieving a majority but still lacked experience in getting voters to the polls. That condition seemed about to hold even into the stretch run of that campaign, which pitted not just Willie Herenton against incumbent mayor Dick Hackett but a plethora of worthy black council candidates against seasoned white council members.

But the traditional gap was being closed by Herenton's hard-working voter-registration teams and by the galvanic late involvement in Herenton's campaign of his foremost rival, 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr., the inner city's established political eminence.

For the first and only time, a continuing public nuisance, one Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, actually had a decisive effect on the city's politics. The few hundred votes the self-described extraterrestrial citizen was able to tease out of the Memphis electorate would almost certainly have gone to Hackett otherwise; Herenton's 142-vote margin was all it took to shift the tectonic plates of local history.

The era of white numerical dominance ended for good that year, and almost immediately the ban against runoffs in municipal elections seemed to have lost its raison d'être.

The fact is, the absence of a runoff in this year's special mayoral election could skew the results in ways prejudicial not only to voters at large but to the self-same black citizens who sought the ban in 1991.

None of us needs a pollster or a political consultant to tell us who the leader of the current mayoral field is. For a multitude of reasons — his experience, his visibility, his declared support base, his early start on a race (financial and otherwise), and, perhaps most important, the perceived benignity of his placid public persona in a time of turmoil — the ticket-leader is clearly Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.

Because the sea change of 1991 ushered in an age of black dominance among city officeholders and that same tide has now swept into Shelby County proper, the current mayoral field is replete with African-American officials and skimpy on whites who are credentialed in the usual political sense.

Consider the nine hopefuls who qualified for last week's crucial first mayoral debate on WMC-TV: Six of them were African Americans with certifiable governmental experience: Wharton; longtime city councilman and current mayor pro tem Myron Lowery; Councilwoman Wanda Halbert; city school board members Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Sharon Webb; and lawyer Charles Carpenter, a longtime confidante of former mayor Willie Herenton and veteran of several projects related to city government.

Of the three white candidates, only one — former state representative and Councilwoman Carol Chumney — could boast governmental experience, and hers, as she freely acknowledged in the debate, was that of the political maverick, the outsider on the inside. Candidate Jerry Lawler's experience is that of a celebrated professional wrestler and commentator. And it would be flattering to describe the aforementioned Mongo as anything but a street clown.

No wonder Wharton, before the early polls offered reassurance that his lead appeared unassailable, fretted that the superfluity of candidates, many of them dividing up the pie by drawing votes from their own established constituencies (mostly in the inner city), could cause a "fluke" result and an unanticipated winner. It is reasonable to believe that Wharton's uncertainties focused somewhat on both Chumney and Lawler, the two strongest whites.

Most observers believe the county mayor's lead over the others is secure, but in a month's time, after more debates and the vicissitudes of campaigning, that may not be so clearly the case. It is unimaginable that a highly qualified candidate like Wharton would finish lower than second, but in a winner-take-all election, the fluke outcome he once feared is not impossible.

Now that the arithmetic of race is a nonfactor or one that works in a wholly different direction than it did in 1991, the issue of runoff elections is in clear need of reexamination. And last fall we even approved an instant runoff mechanism, just in case.

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