by JACKSON BAKER
To nobody's great surprise, John Willingham, former Shelby
County commissioner and all-purpose watchdog of the public weal, announced again
Saturday for Memphis mayor - an office he sought once before, in 2003. (He also
ran for county mayor, as recently as last year.)
Eschewing fanfare, Willingham made his announcement at the regular monthly meeting of the Dutch Treat Luncheon. He noted the participation in his several past campaigns of many of those present - longtime conservatives, for the most part (though some of them, like Willingham himself, have a quirky populist streak that wanders over traditional dividing lines).
He spoke to the question that many no doubt want to ask him: "Why are you getting into this race and Carol Chumney's already in it, and that just goes to split the vote, and Willie's going to win anyway?"
After acknowledging that, indeed, "Willie may win it," Willingham basically called rank on council member Chumney. He reminded his listeners not only of his race against Herenton four years ago but of the fact that, unfazed by a fairly distant second-place finish, "I began this race last year, so I got a jump."
Willingham's platform was also familiar: term limits; limits on the city mayor's contract authority, opposition to the sale of Memphis Light Gas & Water, to start with.
He said he had former MLGW head Bill Crawford's personal pledge to return to work - for free - if he, Willingham, somehow got himself elected.
That note of nostalgia was sustained through Willingham's recollection of a time, decades ago, when Memphis won awards for being the cleanest city in the nation and the quietest, a time "when you didn't have to lock your doors."
Now the city was riddled with crime, and its educational system had gone "to hell in a handbasket" thanks to - why, former schools superintendent Willie Herenton, of course.
As Chumney had on Thursday, Willingham cited the $6 million parking garage scandal at FedEx Forum (an issue he could legitimately claim to have been an early bird on) and the boondoggle aspects of Networkz, a fiber-optic plan ("in the age of, what, wireless") that MLGW had sunk $25 million into.
A propos the garage deal, wherein some $6 million in federal funds had been misdirected into the construction of a for-profit parking garage "which you can't even park in unless you have a season pass," Willingham was emphatic: Doing that deal was a fraud and a felony and "Somebody's going to go to jail!"
Finally (and considering Willingham's well-earned reputation for, er, expounding at length, the wait was not overlong): "There won't be any more carpetbagger deals for the benefit of the rich at the expense of you and I when I'm mayor!"
Even Willingham must know the odds of such a thing happening are long, long indeed (most of his intimates certainly do), but there was a fine, resounding ring to it all anyhow. The old warrior's presence in the race will give it a grace note or two.
Just don't expect candidates named Chumney and Morris, doing the math for an ever more crowded mayor's race, to be all that enamored of it.