Thursday night's forum/interview session for mayoral candidates, conducted by the Coalition for a Better Memphis at the Bridgebuilders site downtown, wasn't a debate - as moderators Roby Williams and Bobbi Gillis stressed - but it was the next best thing.
Standing in front of a climbing wall in a cavernous, well-filled room, the four major hopefuls all appeared -- in sequence -- before the same audience and answered the same series of across-the-board questions from Williams and Gillis, while members of the Coalition set about grading the answers according to a four-level scale.
Besides the specific questions asked (having to do with policy and biographical matters), there were larger, unspoken questions the electorate has presumably been pondering, concerning each of the candidates, and these, too, ended up being addressed.
Based on what the candidates said, how they said it, and what others said about it later on, these are some broad conclusions:
* John Willingham, who was first up, clearly meant to demonstrate that he was no crank but a serious man with serious proposals. The former Shelby County commissioner was a beneficiary, as he always is from time-restrictive formats, of the two-minute-per-answer limits on the nine questions asked.
Kept thereby from waxing prolix, Willingham was still able to offer a host of specific proposals. Some of them -- e.g., drastically curtailing a mayor's contractual authority and the number of his patronage positions -- seemed good fits for the current debate on charter changes. Others, like his concept of turning The Fairgrounds into an Olympic training village that could generate 2,000 jobs and $2 billion in annual revenues, were of the sort that Willingham fans would consider visionary and non-fans might regard as fanciful.
Willingham's call for the values of a better time had a public reach -- as when he lamented the loss of Memphis' erstwhile reputation as the nation's cleanest city and deplored what he saw as governmental gutting of private child-care services, and a personal one, as when he pointedly noted, "I've been married 50 years to the same woman. I have no illegitimate children."
Even under the time and format constraints, Willingham put forth too many proposals and statistics to be easily summarized. All that was consistent with the suggestion that the mayor's job was to be both an executive and an idea man. Conversation among attendees afterward indicated that those who tend to see him as a crank will continue to do so; those who regard him as farsighted and misunderstood, likewise.
A point of general agreement concerned his limited base and the small likelihood of his being elected.
* Herman Morris was the second candidate to appear. (And, for what it's worth, the first to have a copy of the questions in front of him; Willingham alone was not so favored.) Morris spoke briskly and without hesitation, letting general statements substitute for extended elaboration.
Contrasting his up-from-poverty background with his quality education (Rhodes College, Vanderbilt law school), Morris characterized himself as an able executive with a proven track record, especially at MLGW, which he headed for seven years. He also noted such involvements as his former chairmanship of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, experience on industry-seeking missions, and twenty years' membership on a state lawyers' ethics panel, two years as chairman.
As Willingham had, he saw the city's racial divide as a major problem and term limits as a component of governmental re-structuring. In answer to a question about achieving diversity in government, Morris, an African American who emphasizes his potential appeal to both races, gave an answer that might resonate better with whites than with blacks.
The standard for city employment, he said, should be "not just diversity, but ...merit, experience, talent, skills, history, track record of success" As at MLGW under his administration, he said. That was a head-scratcher, unless, as a Republican well-wisher opined, it was one means of distancing himself from recent publicity regarding his well-received remarks at gay/lesbian forums.
It seems fairly obvious that Morris sees himself in the same way that his campaign presents him - as a seasoned executive above all. But he has an occasional vernacular touch, as with his rationale for neighborhood policing: "We need to get beyond the drive-by police officers chasing drive-by crooks."
Verdict: Morris, markedly less stiff than when he first announced, held his place in line; he's viable if he can somehow generate better across-the-board traction than he's managed so far. Among other things, Thursday, he repeated his challenge for other candidates to follow his lead in taking a drug test. For all the trying, that one has not yet so much as blipped on the public radar screen.
He still has a ways to go before convincing a majority that he is something "new and different and better."
* Willie Herenton was the third candidate to appear. Unsurprisingly, the mayor wanted to talk specifics - or at least those stats and achievements that suggested his first four terms had been a success. (A drawback of Thursday's format was that it did not allow for follow-ups or queries of individual candidates concerning particular issues.)
Those who had been there for the mayor's remarks to a jam-packed meeting of the Whitehaven Kiwanis Club on Tuesday morning would have heard much that was familiar. In essence, it was the same confident repetition of his resume -- minus the "hating on me" rhetoric that is clearly designed as an appeal to the grass-roots black voters who were his original political base back in 1991.
Appearing stately and dignified, Herenton warned against "novices," boasted of his "40 years in public service," recapped his career as a principal, school superintendent, and mayor, and repeated his series of rhetorical challenges to the Chamber of Commerce concerning which mayor had presided over the city's best economic growth, per capital income, etc. "Of course, I already know the answer to that," he said.
As before, Herenton also talked about the radical overhauls (or outright demolishments) of the LeMoyne Gardens, Lamar Terrace, and Hurt Village projects under his administration, as well as about the creation of innovative substitutes like Uptown Square. "We have virtually eliminated decayed public housing as we have known it in the past," he declared.
He also boasted a blameless personal record on ethics matters and claimed to have achieved the most diverse city workforce in Memphis history. Other professed achievements were more familiar -- like downtown redevelopment in general and, in particular, the FedEx Forum and the NBA franchise that came with it.
So far, so good -- except that such accomplishments are no longer regarded as unalloyed benefits and are the subject these days of a critical second sight.
If there was a weakness in the mayor's presentation, it was a general lack of freshness (he even made one more earnest appeal for "metropolitan government," a balloon that has not yet managed to float). All in all, he did not provide a convincing rebuttal to his opponents' insistence that it's Time for a Change.
* Carol Chumney was the final speaker, and her reception by those present was every bit as revealing as anything explicit she said at the event. That's a way of saying that her persona as a persistent critic not only of the administration, per se, but of government and politics as usual, has struck a chord.
Hence, perhaps, her consistently respectable poll results to this point. In her persistent appeal to the city's discontented, consistent city-council maverick Chumney ("independent" and "courageous" would be the descriptors favored by her admirers) would seem to be both medium and message.
Unlike the other candidates Thursday, the former state legislator made few concrete proposals, couching her statements almost solely in terms of the shortcomings she perceives in the current city administration. Or in terms of general goals. Her very first sentence said it: "I'm running to bring about safe streets, safe schools, and safe neighborhoods, and to clean this city up once and for all."
Rarely, if ever, did Chumney state her intentions in terms of: This is what we should do, this is why we should do it, and this is how we can do it. Her remedies were more broadly stated: e.g., "more accountability...a mayor more capable of inspiring the city...stronger on children and youth....neighborhood watch programs...stronger code enforcement...partnerships with all kinds of people..." And so forth.
This is not to say there weren't nuggets of specificity. As on example, her recommendation for regular performance audits, city division by city division, sounded businesslike and intriguing, and, along with her proposal of "synergy" for such declining or dormant structures as The Pyramid, the Coliseum, and the Liberty Bowl, she included a suggestion for changing the name of "Mud Island."
But on Thursday, as during the nearly four years of her service on the council, Chumney proved most compelling when she presented herself as the avenger, as the dedicated scourge of everything that is wrong with city government. "You know, we have a lot of moonlighting going on at City Hall. People don't talk about that," she said at one point. And ears perked up.
* Overall, to judge by word-of-mouth afterward, Willingham's presentation was discounted more than it might have been if his prospects were deemed brighter; Morris held his own; Herenton came off well (if out of answers on the freshness front); and Chumney, questions about her financial wherewithal notwithstanding, is still getting the benefit of the doubt.
In due time, the Coalition will publish its own evaluations, online and elsewhere.